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Mailbag Monday: Ethical Dogmatism

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line. 

Rolf writes,

Bro, i got a problem

So alright, you got this shit with ethics and not murdering for no reason and shit.

But if you keep asking 'why’ long enough you discover that any sort of ethic-based code of living is eventually derived from either

  • intuitive feelings (i FEEL it’s not right to murder)
  • or dogmatism (i can’t murder because the bible says so)

and it eventually leads to some sort of nihilism where every fucking thing is subjective and you got like 2 philosibros arguing against eachother and im like 'yeah theyre both kinda right but whoever to believe doesnt really matter anyway cause its so fucking subjective’

Should i just pick whatever i 'feel’ is right or live in apathy all my life?

Dude, you keep asking “why” long enough, you’re going to have waaaaaay bigger problems than, “I’m not sure what’s right or wrong anymore.” Descartes tried it, and he had to rely on the existence of God and a really fucking suspect notion of how ideas work to get him anywhere other than, “Well, I exist right now at this moment in time insofar as time is maybe a thing.” The external world, other minds, right and wrong, your memories of childhood, pretty much everything is fucked if you ask “why?” long enough. 

In that sense, 'feelings’ and dogmatism are really kind of the same thing - someone just asserting that this is the thing that grounds morality. You have to start somewhere! But people have derived morality from plenty of places - our capacity for pleasure and pain, our ability to reason, some sort of hypothetical contract - it’s all over the place, man. It sure looks dogmatic when someone says, “It’s utility that makes things right and wrong.” Why? “Because. Because if we didn’t get utility from things, we wouldn’t have to bother.” Well c'mon, that’s just saying the same thing over again. But what are you supposed to say? What would an alternative to 'dogmatism’ look like?  

I mean, let’s say we all knew God existed and was the source of morality, because he comes down every couple of years, does a bunch of obvious miracles on national TV, lets some physicists probe him to be sure, gives some high-profile interviews (I’m thinking Andersen Cooper and Jon Stewart) reminds us generally to not be dicks to each other, decides on some real difficult cases for us, and then ascends back into Heaven to trumpets of Glory until the next God-party year rolls around. Let’s say we’ve all got preeeetty good reason to believe this guy is God, and he knows what the fuck is up, and when we do what he says things generally go our way. What could you say to a stubborn asshole who still didn’t want to accept morality? He’s like, “Why shouldn’t I murder?” Uh, well, because The Majestic Lord Obviously God says not to. And he’s obviously God. “So what? Why should I do what he says?” Because. He’s God, and God determines what is right and wrong. “What? Why does he determine that? And how does he know?” Because… you know what, fuck it. 

What’s going on there? Am I just “being dogmatic?” Just because some guy comes down and does some admittedly-awesome party tricks like toying with the fabric of the Universe, he gets to say what is ethical and not? The point is, Brolf, even if we had a 'source’ of ethics that was really, really easy to agree on that gave us really, really comprehensive guidelines, it would still kind of come down to either what you might call dogmatism - he just IS the source of ethics dammit! - or 'feelings’ - even though there’s no empirical test you could do, I get real squeamish at the thought of disobeying that guy. Does that mean the whole project is fucked just because there is always some way to doubt it? Well, not necessarily. Just because something looks 'dogmatic’ doesn’t mean people don’t have reasons for their dogmatism. Kant held pretty dogmatically to the Categorical Imperative - that doesn’t mean he didn’t think that shit out. 

I’m not saying it isn’t a problem - moral philosophy might be indeterminate. Maybe things really are black and white for some reason - God said so, utility works a certain way, 'reason’ dictates, whatever - but at too fine a resolution for us to see - God didn’t leave clear enough instructions, utlity is hard to predict, 'reason’ gets clouded by upbringing, whatever. It’s like an Apple Retina Display for your conscience. Things look grey, but you just can’t get close enough to see the individual pixels. So you’ve got to make some choices. Should you just do whatever 'feels’ right? Here’s an important question - do you have the stones to distinguish what feels right from what you want to be right? Because those go in opposite directions way more often than we’d like. And if you’re not sure, will you look closer? Part of the reason we have so much moral philosophy is sometimes our intuitions and feelings contradict each other, and we want to get that straightened out. It looks subjective because how do you decide between these two? but maybe it’s only subjective in that you, the subject, are going to have to make a decision, brochacho. OH NO MUST THINK FOR SELF. Even the most fervent believers face some pretty tough moral dilemmas. There might be some sense in which you get it wrong, whatever sense that is, but you’re closer than you would have been if you’d just been like, “Ah, fuck it.” Does that mean it’s subjective whether, say, Justice is actually good thing? Not necessarily; it just means we can’t be as sure as we’d like. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter one way or the other. 

Hell, some ethical systems damn near live in the subjective ambiguity of ethics. W.D. Ross’ ethical intuitionism just outright says, “Justice and Charity are pretty cool, right? Okay, good. Here’s how to do those more often.” Virtue ethics wouldn’t dream of making prescriptions in sweeping cases - what you should do is work to become the best person you can be. Fuck bitches, get virtue, as they say. (I’m pretty sure they say that.) But even those systems which depend on the real difficulty in deciding on particular cases wouldn’t say your decision doesn’t matter. 

So I guess at bottom, 'subjective’ gets a bad rap, since people associate it with the sort of nihilism you propose. But they don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. In response to your question about what you should do, I’d say if you’re not sure how to go about doing the right thing, you should at the very least become familiar with those 'dogmas’ before you dismiss them out of hand. Also, it turns out our intuitions are more important than you’d think - not everyone agrees what grounds morality, but pretty much everyone feels the same way about bashing toddlers against rocks, for example - don’t fucking do it you incredible asshole. You might find a system which seems right to you. And even if you don’t find that, you can go about trying to do the best things you can do, and maybe even contribute to the conversation. 

But don’t do the apathy thing. That just sounds shitty. 

W.D. Ross's The Right and the Good is an incredibly thorough text in which he lays out the case for ethical intuitionism.

You can find translations of Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, in which he proposes the Categorical Imperative, online or, if you prefer the feel of paper, here. Of course, a good place to start is with a summary

You can also read J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism, part of which I’ve summarized hereonline or in hard copy

Aristotle first proposed virtue ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is online and in hard copy; I’ve done summaries of Book I and Book II. The modern updating of Virtue Ethics comes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s highly influential After Virtue.

The guys over at Partially Examined Life just did an episode on grounding ethics which included some MacIntyre reading.

Finally, some of these musings are related to musings in my post on the Is-Ought problem.

Leibniz's "Monadology", Para. 1-25: A Summary

Mailbag Monday: Paradoxes