How Can Morals Be Both Invented and True?

After my post on Timothy Keller’s bewilderment at how atheists can have and justify morals and civil rights, many Christians struggled to understand the point, that morals and rights are totally made up, just like language and wheels and eyeglasses and laws, and at the very same time also capable of being objectively, factually, better or worse. Even after walking Keller through it step by step. They still are confused and bewildered.

Here is a representative Q&A, derived from ensuing conversations on Facebook, that hopefully will handhold the poor souls all the way to finally comprehending how the world actually works. Demonstrations of nearly every point can be found in my book Sense and Goodness without God and my peer reviewed chapter on moral theory in The End of Christianity. And of course, I have written numerous articles on moral theory, on this blog and my old one. Peruse them all, to answer your every question.


How can something be both made up and objectively good?

An analogy might help.

Screwdrivers are made up. They don’t exist in nature. They weren’t commanded by God. Perfect screwdrivers weren’t discovered already floating around in the Realm of Platonic Ideas for billions of years. The idea of them did not even occur to humans for over a hundred thousand years; so we weren’t evolved or created to know about or use them, either. They were completely made up, by an enterprising human inventor. Yet they are objectively, factually, a better tool to drive screws with, than a hammer or a pencil or an automobile. And for that reason, humans widely adopted the tool, recognizing its utility.

It would make no sense to say “Screw drivers are made up, they’re just human-made objects, so why should I believe they are better at driving screws than my sailboat?” If you don’t understand why that makes no sense, stop now. Think about it until you do. Even if that takes years or decades.

The rest of you, let’s continue.

Once you decide on a goal, which is a subjective decision about what matters (what you want to accomplish), then what will best accomplish that goal becomes an objective true fact of the universe. Likewise what does so merely better than something else; since rarely do we discover the best way to do something right out of the gate. Progress objectively exists, as we come up with better and better tools for achieving our chosen goals. But the tools we are inventing to achieve our goals, are still just stuff we are making up. They didn’t actually exist until we invented them.

But then the goal is just arbitrary, isn’t it? Why should we adopt one goal rather than another?

Goals are rarely arbitrary. Usually we need them. For example, the goal to efficiently and reliably procure food, is hardly arbitrary. It’s necessary for our continued existence. There may be arbitrary goals, like the victory conditions in a chess game, or some new dance style you invented. But most goals are non-arbitrary. They are necessary for your happiness or your welfare. And since humans are all more the same than different (we all need oxygen and food; we are all social animals who need love and affection; we all live on the same planet in communities that causally interact with each other; and so on), we share a great many goals in common.

Morals and rights are tools for achieving a subset of those common goals. Since what we mean by them, are things we all would be better off enacting and respecting. Rights, being laws we respect and enforce, make the difference between a flourishing society that we have more guarantee of being satisfied in, and an oppressive society in which our satisfaction will be harder, rarer, or riskier to procure. Morals, being codes of conduct we agree to abide by but not enforce with state violence, accomplish the same thing, only for the individual living by them.

The goal of morality is the optimum satisfaction of the agent, in the context of a social system and a psychology of self-awareness. What all people want is to be satisfied with themselves and their lives. No sane person wants to do anything that would disturb that goal, anything that would destroy it, or reduce their chances of achieving it. Act badly, and life is more likely to become less satisfying; act well, and life is more likely to become more satisfying.

Once you decide upon the goal, you can then invent tools (such as behaviors, habits, attitudes), and then see if they do better or worse. Objectively, there will always be better and worse tools for accomplishing that goal; and likewise, as a matter of objective fact, there will always be a best tool. In all possible worlds. Gods are irrelevant. For it is impossible to construct a world, in which it is not the case that there is some moral system that is best for an agent in that world to live by.

But no! The goal of morality isn’t our own personal satisfaction. It can’t be! That’s impossible! Surely it’s to not harm people. Or something.

Not really.

Factually, you can never get a true statement of the form “this is moral because it does not harm people.” Not even in theism. Not even in Divine Command Theory. Because always the only way to get that statement to be true, is to justify it by a completely different statement, which always ends up being a reference to the agent’s own personal satisfaction.

“You must be good or go to hell.” Agent’s personal satisfaction. “You must be good if you want to live forever in heaven.” Agent’s personal satisfaction. “You must be good in order to feel right with God and the Nature he imbued you with.” Agent’s personal satisfaction. “You must be good or else your conscience will haunt you.” Agent’s personal satisfaction. “You must be good or you will be separated from God.” “Why care about that?” “Because you wouldn’t like it.” Agent’s personal satisfaction. “You must be good or you will be angering God.” “Why care about that?” “Because you wouldn’t like it.” Agent’s personal satisfaction. “You must be good or else you are just a savage animal.” “Why care about that?” “Because you would think better of yourself if you knew you were better than mere savage animals.” Agent’s personal satisfaction.

Try it.

You can never come up with any reason to be moral, that doesn’t boil down to an appeal to the agent’s own personal satisfaction (whether satisfaction with themselves, or their lives, or both). Anything you come up with that doesn’t do that, won’t be true in any relevant sense…meaning, no one will have any reason to care about what you just made up as the reason to be moral.

The goal of morality is thus always, actually, the personal satisfaction of the individual moral agent.

But why then are morals all about being nice to people and honest and stuff? Why is morality about sacrificing your happiness to accommodate others?

It isn’t.

Being nice and honest is personally and socially rewarding, and actually leads you to a better life and more self-respect. That’s not sacrifice. It’s investment. And enjoying being honest and nice is not just “accommodating others,” it’s pursuing a better life for yourself.

If you think your morals get in the way of your happiness, you either have bad morals, or you are mistaken, or you are a sociopath (and thus insane, and therefore not anyone we can appeal to with facts or reason…which pretty much knocks you entirely out of this conversation).

Usually it’s one of the first two. Christian sexual morals are bad. They ruin human happiness. They have nothing factually true to commend them. More common than bad morals, though, are mistaken beliefs about the consequences of moral action. Just as we have mistaken beliefs about vaccines, political policies, immigrants, pseudomedicine, and everything else. Correct the beliefs, and you realize what’s actually better or worse. Instead of what you thought was better or worse.

If you have only true beliefs (and you can’t have true beliefs about morality, if those beliefs rest on any false belief), you will recognize that being kind and honest and reasonable (a basic triad of moral virtues from which I suspect every other derives) is always the decision that carries the best odds of improving your self-satisfaction (how you feel about yourself and the person you have become) or your life-satisfaction (like a better world you can now enjoy living in, or a better reciprocity with a community you depend on).

But sometimes people get punished for being moral, and immoral people suffer no ill consequences at all, but even benefit! So what about that!?

Remember what I said.

Best odds.

Meaning, never guaranteed.

Sometimes moral action has bad consequences, and (all else being equal) immoral action would have had better ones; but the odds do not favor that spread. Like a choice between an action that has a 10% of killing you and an action that has a 20% chance of killing you: always the better choice is action one, even though you still have an 80% chance of surviving action two; because you are still assuming an unnecessary risk; and continuing to do that, results in cumulative odds against you that only get worse, and worse, and worse.

Being a bad gambler, still makes you a bad gambler.

And that means objectively, factually, bad. Simply by reference to your own goals. “I might not hurt myself or anyone else if I drive drunk” is literally true but never a rational reason to drive drunk. The odds are not in your favor. The risk is irrational to assume.

This further means habituating moral virtues is better for you.

Since the consequences result from the accumulated risks and returns, habitual moral action will be even more likely to end well for you than habitual immoral action or even mixed action. The more times you drive drunk, the higher the odds get of a bad outcome. The more times you are nice to people, the higher the odds get of a good outcome. Thus, if you build your sense of identity around being a reasonably kind and honest person, you will act well even when you don’t know someone will know of it; and in result, you will never be observed doing wrong, by someone you didn’t know was looking. The risk is thus reduced. And conversely, the odds of a good return increased, if you are continually nice and honest.

And those returns you’re aiming for (good vs. bad, better vs. worse) include how you feel about yourself; not just in how others treat you back, or the world you get to enjoy living in, that your actions help create.

But lots of people think they are the best persons ever. And yet they are awful. So pursuing their own satisfaction would justify their continuing to be awful! What about that?

Remember what I said.

Only true beliefs about oneself.

Thus, if you falsely believe you are a good person even by your own standards, what you believe is moral will likewise be false. Whereas if you only have true beliefs, you cannot actually act against what you believe to be good, and still think well of yourself.

Thus, if you make decisions that make you the sort of person you hate, you will hate yourself. And you cannot be satisfied with who you are, if you hate yourself. The only way to be satisfied with who you are, is to think well of yourself. And the only way to think well of yourself, without relying on false beliefs, is to be the sort of person in your every act that you actually like and respect. As only then will you like and respect yourself.

And only when you like and respect yourself, will you ever be satisfied with yourself and your life. Unless you build your satisfaction on false beliefs; but then, you will be objectively wrong, for the simple reason that you can then only believe you are a good person, by believing things that are factually untrue. Which makes your own belief about being a good person factually untrue.

But why then is morality always about not hurting people, rather than making your own happiness central?

This is an odd question coming from a Christian, given that you worship a God who once said eating shrimp and bacon and picking up sticks on Saturday were so immoral they warranted the death penalty. Biblical morality actually wasn’t so very concerned with not hurting people. Indeed, just count the number of Ten Commandments actually concerned with that.

But I realize you lost that argument centuries ago and thus forgot it was a thing. You now acquiesce to atheists, by agreeing that morality is about consequences, and thus things that bear no ill consequences (like eating shrimp and bacon and picking up sticks on Saturday) cannot be immoral. So I see where you are coming from. You’ve actually “whittled down” God’s morals to just those things that relate to hurting or helping others. Like we did.

Part of the problem here is that you are used to using “moral” language more as a way to condemn people, rather than as an actual guide to your own life. And most people have. We are most concerned about deeds that affect others, because those are the deeds that will affect us: since to everyone else, we are the others. Thus, the modern moral language of praise and blame has become focused on assessing other people’s likely treatment of us and those we care about, so we can decide whether we are safe to be around them or not, whether they are safe to entrust with things important to us, and things like that.

That makes it useful.

We don’t consider anymore things that only hurt yourself, like irrational suicide or smoking, as “immoral.” (Unless, you do. And some Christians actually in fact do.) But we do still deem them wrong. You ought not smoke or irrationally commit suicide. That is objectively true. Because both, as a matter of objective fact, increase the odds of bad outcomes to your life satisfaction. We just don’t usually call those things immoral anymore, because they don’t affect us, so we care less about them. But the individuals doing them, should care about them. Every bit as much as every other imperative in their life.

I still don’t get why morals aren’t then all about centering one’s own happiness, and why instead are they still about not hurting others or about sacrificing something you have (time or money or dignity) to help them?

Centering personal happiness at the expense of others is actually, factually, counter-productive to the pursuit of any self-satisfaction based on true beliefs. Whereas investing time or money or “dignity” (or anything else) in others increases your life satisfaction by helping you feel good about yourself (without having to rely on false beliefs to do so), and helping you maintain a better world, which you then will enjoy the benefits of living in.

Again, it’s not a sacrifice. It’s an investment. The benefits come from enjoying being the sort of person you respect and like, and from helping create a world that you benefit from living in. This is why we consider it immoral to expect too much from someone: we are still basing the goal of morality on what’s best for the individual, given that they have to live in a social system that includes everyone else.

Thus, helping, and not hurting, others aids your pursuit of personal satisfaction in a number of different ways. It helps you feel better about yourself, and it helps you enjoy a better world. And that’s why morals often reduce to how you treat people. The world you want to live in, must be the world you endeavor to create.

For instance, there are many points to learn about how living by a good social contract is necessary for building a good community and relations with others, and your satisfaction depends in part on having a good community and relations with others. And when false beliefs in that community make that difficult, it’s the false beliefs that are at fault; and then what the moral thing to do is, might then differ, owing to the circumstances being different.

For example, one may have to lie about being an atheist, when the community surrounding you has false beliefs about what that entails and what they should do about that. Like, say, someone in Iran…or Arkansas. But when in a community that embraces true beliefs, it would no longer be moral to lie about your atheism. Like, for example, Christian preachers who really are atheists, and wouldn’t be punished for being one either, yet still lie about their being a believer in order to manipulate people or make money.

Since what is moral is a function of the consequences of what you do, and consequences change with the circumstances, moral facts always change with the circumstances.

And so on.

One can get into a thousand little details of moral reasoning. But the point is simply that when you dig all the way down to the bottom of every discussion of what is moral to do in a given situation, it always ends up a discussion about why you should do what is moral to do in that situation, and when you dig all the way down to the bottom of that discussion, you always end up arguing for how doing “the moral thing” aids the agent’s odds of being satisfied with themselves and their lives. That always happens. Even in Christianity.

Okay. We’ve gotten distracted. Let me try again. How can rights and morals be both made-up and objectively true? If they are made-up, what’s the truth claim?

The truth claim is what I stated in my article about Keller: a right is factually what a community must defend for every individual, in order for that community to be what every (non-insane) member of that community would agree is the best community to live in (when they are all reasoning without fallacy from only true beliefs). Just as the best medicine is factually what a community must practice, in order for that community to experience the least possible suffering from illness and injury.

Generically, always, the best tool is factually what a community must employ, in order for that community to maximize what that tool achieves. Communities that choose suffering over alleviating it, suffer. Fact. Communities that choose tools that alleviate that suffering, alleviate it. Fact. All non-insane people want to suffer less. Fact. Those three facts entail a set of objectively best inventions, in all domains, including politics and social relations. What is best at accomplishing that end, is not a subjective opinion, but an objective fact.

Whether one wants to live in a community that reduces their risk or degree of suffering is subjective. You simply have to want that, and if you don’t, there is no true argument that you should. But that then sets the battle lines between those of us (like, say, the American rebels of 1776) who want to alleviate that suffering and those of us (like, say, the leader of the Church of England in 1776) who don’t. And only force resolves the matter. As it did then. Or persuasion, as Canada experienced. Because correcting people’s false beliefs and fallacious reasoning about the world causes them to agree with each other on which social contract is best for everyone, including themselves. While those who don’t agree even then, by definition cannot be persuaded to agree, by any true fact. All that then remains, is force. Which wouldn’t be the case if there were a god around. Which is how we know there isn’t a god around.

But if morals are just made up ways to get people what they want, what are people objectively right or wrong about? Isn’t it all just what anyone wants?

What people are objectively right or wrong about, is whether a rule or law they invent, like any other tool they invent, makes their community one they’d rather live in, rather than the one they’d be living in without it. When, that is, they are deciding what kind of community they’d rather live in (and what kind of person they’d like to be), without fallacy or false belief about any facts.

Thus, persuading someone they are wrong, always involves showing they are operating from a premise about themselves or the world that’s false (like “more money will make you happier and more satisfied” or “suppressing women’s rights is necessary for their welfare”) or that their conclusion is being drawn fallaciously from whatever premises they are operating from (like “freedom of religion is good, therefore human sacrifice should be legal”).

Once you have someone only reasoning without fallacy from true facts, what disagreements remain, are the subjective province of the individual (like, “some people want gay love, some people don’t”; “some people enjoy sex, some people don’t”; etc.), and when that creates conflicts, there will be some objectively true fact as to what resolution of that conflict (what moral or law etc.) will optimize the satisfaction of both parties involved in the conflict. And since recognizing the different and conflicting needs of other persons in a society, and the need to reciprocate accommodating them so they will repay you in kind, is a true fact belief, any reasoning without fallacy from that, will result in admitting what moral or law is indeed objectively the best.

If people just did “whatever they wanted,” without any deep reflection on whether that’s really what they’d want if they were acting more informedly and rationally, then they will act contrary to their interests and actually substantially worsen their life satisfaction. Like Trump voters do.

True beliefs, even about what you really want out of life, only follow by logically valid reasoning from other true beliefs. Everything else is false. Or at best, only accidentally, and thus rarely, true.

Okay. Whatever. But you still said some stupid things. Like that mathematics is also made up.

Mathematics is made up.

What is factually true are facts about quantities. Mathematics is an invented tool for computing what those facts are, from available data. Hence there are, for example, at least two different systems of trigonometry (the Greek and the Indian; we now use the Indian, because medieval Christians forgot the Greek one). Both are “true” in the sense that they correctly calculate the properties of angled space; but both are made up by humans to do that (hence why there are two different ones).

Language likewise is invented to achieve the goal of communication. Once you pick the goal, it is an objective fact which languages are better than others for a given purpose. And many are equally good. But we are still inventing the tool (language) that achieves the goal. Hence there are many languages.

So, also, for laws (and thus rights, which are just laws) and morals (which are just customs we develop to improve the ability of societies and people to get along better and be happier). There are objective facts about which moral systems or legal systems (and thus rights) accomplish those goals better in practice. But we are still just inventing the tools we are using to do that. Morals and rights, are just the hammers and screwdrivers of social relations and personal satisfaction.

But numbers can’t be made up!

You apparently need to read up on the ontology of mathematics to understand the difference between numbers and quantities. Numbers are invented words that signify quantities. Quantities exist to be discovered. Numbers are invented to talk about them and run computations concerning them. One is an objective fact of the world independent of human invention. The other is a human invention.

Numbers are always made up. The quantities they signify are not. And some made-up systems of numbers work better at signifying quantities. But only because we are trying to figure out the best way to understand quantities, through inventing computational codes and procedures for it. Just as we are trying to figure out the best way to govern our lives and societies, through inventing behavioral codes and procedures for it.

And that’s why gods never have anything to do with morals or rights. Some system of morals and rights will be the best way to live in and govern a society in every possible universe. Whether it has gods in it or not. Like agriculture and medicine—and indeed mathematics—even if there are no gods, there will always be a “best” way to live and govern. And there will always be a better and worse way, when you haven’t invented the best way. Because the goal is inevitable. We want to live satisfying lives; we want to suffer less; and both require amenably organized societies, and our own more judicious behavior.

Come on, though. Mathematics can’t be made up. Leibniz and Newton both independently discovered calculus! How could they have accidentally both invented the same thing!?

Both their systems of calculus were different. They each “discovered” what is essentially a different analog computer program for solving a computation problem about summing infinitesimals, one that uses human hands, brains, and language as the processor. The objective fact is that such an algorithm works. The algorithm? Still invented. And the proof is in that very fact: the calculus of Leibniz, was not the same as the calculus of Newton. It just achieved the same ends, reasonably well.

But really, even simultaneous invention is not unexpected. For some things, there is only one good way to do them. So two independent inventors looking for how to accomplish the same thing, will of course discover the same way of doing it. Because there is no other. Hence agriculture was probably discovered independently multiple times. Because the same goal, always requires the same basic tasks. So anyone looking to invent a way to achieve that goal, will end up discovering the same way to do it.

It’s still invented.

It wasn’t born into us. It wasn’t evolved into us. God didn’t decree it. It wasn’t written anywhere. We made it up.

Okay. Whatever. But you can’t claim language is invented. Because, Chomsky!

Um. Actually, Chomsky agrees with me. You seem not to know the difference between the evolved tools of universal grammar (still invented, albeit by natural selection, because it better achieved a useful goal), and an actual language. Read up.

But, look, if it’s all made up, then we can make up anything, like a rule that says true things are false!

Can you invent a rule that true things are false? Yes. Would that rule work in navigating reality? No.

That’s all there is to it.

How is this any different from saying Kepler’s heliocentric model of the planetary system is just as invented as Ptolemy’s geocentric model? If one is factually true and the other isn’t, then they aren’t invented. So how can you say morals are invented, but also true?

You are confusing facts about what is the case (like heliocentrism or the age of the earth), with facts about what an individual or group wants (human desires and goals). Yes, there are objective facts about what people want. But those facts can change. Some people want different things. And when there are no wanters, there is no wanting. And of course, you are the ones who keep saying the objective facts about what people want, are thereby subjective facts, because they only exist inside individual people’s minds. So maybe you are confused about what an objective fact is.

It can be a fact that everyone wants the same thing, but it can also be a fact that different people in the same society want different things. Then the question is, what fact will help them best get along? They can invent rules to follow by which they interfere with each other’s goals the least. And whether a set of rules does well or poorly at that, is a fact independent of their opinions or inventions. Some systems will work better than others. And hence they are all invented. Tools, like any other. Some better, some worse, some best. Because they are methods of achieving goals (like “if we all do this, we will get along better”). Not statements about what is the case regardless of what anyone wants (like “the earth revolves around the sun”).

Whether everyone wants the goal to be achieved (like “all of us getting along better”), has to come from them. It is not cosmically “true” in the sense that heliocentrism is. It is simply a contingent fact of what people desire. No people, no desires. No desires, no goals. No goals, no moral facts.

If you want to argue that everyone ought to want a thing, then you can only get a true statement to that effect by appealing to values the individual already has. Otherwise, if there is literally nothing they want, that will be facilitated by wanting what you say they should want, there is literally factually no true sense in which they should want what you say. And this is true even if God exists and gives commands about what people should want. I demonstrate this under formal peer review in my chapter on the subject in Loftus, The End of Christianity. You must read that before pursuing this line of reasoning further.


For further reading, start with Moral Ontology and Goal Theory. Then, everything else on my blogs about the subject, both old and new.



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