Ethics without Sin




A decade or two ago, “morality” in public discourse commonly referred to something like conservative sexual morality, and invoked the idea that some acts (e.g. non-procreative sex acts) were just intrinsically immoral, in an interest-independent way. It doesn’t matter if the act harms no-one, it’s against the rules—a moral transgression—and that’s all there is to it.1

I assume that most people reading this today will be very skeptical of that conception of “morality”. We don’t believe in arbitrary moral rules. Normativity doesn’t work like that. To be worth following, a rule must link up in the right way to what’s independently worth caring about—such as individuals’ interests or well-being.

Who threw that?

Real vs Moralized Harms

One interesting way to characterize utilitarianism is as the normative view that combines (i) impartial beneficence, or caring about everyone equally, with (ii) skepticism about any further, wellbeing-independent “morality”.

Conservative sexual morality posits arbitrary rules that we’ve no obvious reason to care about. They might try to add that it is in some sense “for the sake of” the affected individuals: if masturbation is a stain on your soul, then caring about someone might entail caring that they refrain from masturbation, for example. But such claims remain normatively dubious. There’s no independent reason why caring about someone should lead you to care in this way about what they do in private. It’s a made up, “moralized” harm, not an independently recognizable real harm. And we should be skeptics about this sort of made-up morality.

Now, it seems to me that deontology is made-up in just the same way. It posits arbitrary rules and distinctions (e.g. doing/allowing, the doctrine of double effect, the Trolleyologist’s distinction between “redirecting” an existing threat vs “initiating” a new one, etc.) that there’s no independent reason to care about. If someone avoidably dies as a result of your choice, then that’s a real harm to them. But a rights violation, considered separately from the raw effects on their well-being, is a purely moralized additional harm or transgression. And, as before, we should be skeptics about this sort of made-up morality.


Deontologists will disagree, of course. And they’re certainly free to argue that we should believe in some moralized morality after all. Perhaps the problem with the conservative sexual moralist wasn’t their interest-independent moralizing, but just that they got the fine print wrong, whereas the deontologist’s interest-independent moralizing is actually correct.

You could think that. But I’m dubious. It really seems to me that we should be thoroughly skeptical about the whole enterprise of interest-independent moralizing about what simply mustn’t-be-done. The conservative sexual moralists weren’t just off as a matter of fine detail; liberal critics are picking up on a more fundamental problem with their whole way of thinking about ethics. And it’s a problem shared by deontologists of all stripes. They posit (arbitrary-seeming) moralized reasons that a naturally beneficent person has no independent reason to care about.

The point is sometimes made against Divine Command Theory that even if God existed, and issued various arbitrary commands, we would still have no (non-instrumental)2 reason to care about those commands when they diverge from what is independently good or worth caring about. If eating shellfish would save someone’s life, and God says, “Don’t eat shellfish! It’s a transgression against my will,” the correct response is, “Who cares about your will? Others’ lives matter more than that.” And so it goes for deontology. Even if Deontology exists and commands us, “You may only save lives by redirecting existing threats, and never by introducing new ones!” the correct response is, again, “Who cares about your rules, Deontology? Others’ lives matter more than that.”

In slogan form: screw “morality”; just be good.


The above is exclusively concerned with fundamental ethical theory. In practice, of course, there are perfectly good utilitarian (wellbeing-dependent) reasons to endorse rights as a normative practice. It’s crucial not to conflate the theoretical and practical questions here.


A more sophisticated version of the conservative view might take an indirect consequentialist form, and argue that the prohibited acts aren’t intrinsically immoral, but we should nonetheless embrace norms against them because that will help to promote better societal outcomes (flourishing families, etc.). I’ll bracket this more sophisticated view, since it isn’t relevant to the point of my post. Feel free to mentally add a modifier like “crude” in front of my references to “conservative sexual morality”, as I mean to be talking only about the deontological version of the view that posits intrinsic (wellbeing-independent) immorality.


Bracketing risks of punishment, etc., which would just create reasons of self-interest, not truly moral reasons. Also bracket epistemic reasons, e.g. if one thought that God was trying to inform you of what would better promote overall well-being. Stipulate all that away: God tells you he’s commanding this for no other reason than that he feels like commanding it, but he won’t enforce it.

Originally appeared on Good Thoughts Read More