Is Moral Philosophy Dead? (Sorry, Sam Harris)

The Death of Moral Philosophy

Moral philosophy is similar to a living being; that is, in the same that living beings experience golden years, so too can moral philosophy. In the same way that living beings can be liked and disliked, so too can moral philosophy. And, in the same way that living beings can die, so too can moral philosophy. So is moral philosophy dead or alive?

To determine whether a being is alive or dead, we inquire about the features of the being: i.e., pulse, brain function, etc. We have astute medical doctors analyze the vessel so to precisely determine the status of the being: dead or alive. By the same token, to determine whether moral philosophy is dead or alive, we ought to inquire about the features surrounding moral philosophy: I.e., moral arguments, public discourse, etc. We need to delegate the attention of astute philosophical minds to these features so that we may determine whether moral philosophy is dead or alive.

As such, I, being not quite astute enough in my ability, will present you, my dear reader, with evidence which I think supports the hypothesis that moral philosophy has died in the west.

We shall consider four primary viruses that, I believe, have killed moral philosophy. The first is evolution, the second is categorization research, the third is cultural relativism, and the fourth is bias.

But before we move on, I would like to clarify the claim I am making. The claim which I am not making is that society has gotten worse; rather, I am claiming that moral philosophy, within public discourse, has deteriorated because of a few specific forms of reasoning. Indeed, the most public discourse on moral philosophy is often associated with veganism, and half of the time it is to poke fun at the absurd moral arguments presented by vegans. Even more so, most of the general public only knows of Sam Harris, and sometimes Peter Singer, when it comes to moral philosophers. Very few people have been exposed to Bentham, Hume, or Sidgwick. But at any rate, let us now stop our digression and proceed to the main topic: the death of moral philosophy.

♣Evolution: the egoistic gene and determinism

Evolutionary biology has conquered traditional moral philosophy in the west, and the reasons why stem from the nature-versus-nurture debate. Rather than supporting the notion that humans are blank slates, evolution not only posits an innate nature but also provides a goal for human nature: namely, pass off as many copies of your offspring as possible. In doing so, evolution tells us two things about moral philosophy.

The Egoistic Gene

The first is that humans are innately selfish; only because the goal of life is to pass off your genes. All our behaviors and actions ought to be oriented towards successful propagation of your genome, and so all behavior is self-interested. Even the notion of altruism would be based purely on self-interest; meaning, even the altruist gains some evolutionary benefit from being altruistic. No behavior is done purely for the sake of another person, as all behaviors are designed to benefit one’s own genome.

Now, I think selfishness is entirely compatible with moral philosophy, and that inherent selfishness need not necessarily negate any strong moral arguments; however, precisely the opposite has happened. A specific form of moral nihilism has grown, wrongly so, from the inherent selfishness of evolution.

The selfish-gene type of reasoning has led people to negate moral philosophy altogether, even though it fails to logically do so, something which Richard Dawkins mentions himself.  The moral nihilism from evolution goes something like the following:

Moral philosophy has no consequence because we are all, by default, egoists. And so to debate moral philosophy would amount to nothing more than a game wherein which we are deceitfully tricking one another with words; that is, skillfully making someone agree with one given worldview rather than another for our own benefit. Thus, moral philosophy amounts to arguments that are motivated not by any notion of good but instead by a notion of selfishness, making moral philosophy precisely the opposite of what it should be. And so, because moral philosophy has been dethroned from the position of unselfish behavior, it shall also fall from its position in philosophy as well.

As we can see, the fact that we are inherently selfish has lead people away from moral philosophy because they see no purpose in it anymore. Moral philosophy was once a tool to make others feel better, to help others. But now, it has become a beast of hedonism, a means to reward only ourselves; we have no concern for the others around us. Therefore, we may simply reject moral philosophy altogether.

The Deterministic Change

The second way in which evolution has brought about the death of moral philosophy in the west is the deterministic nature argument. The argument goes something like the following:

Evolution can be characterized as physiological changes in response to environmental pressures. For example, suppose there are three species: species A, species B, and species C. Now suppose that there is one environment which all three of these species must share. In this scenario, species A, B, and C will be competing for resources within the environment, which means they will each require strategies for resource gathering. As a result, each species will develop their own unique set of physiological structures, which were determined by selective pressures, to gather resources. When this happens, each species will have their own unique set of possible responses to the environment at hand. The bird can reach resources high in the tree, the ant can reach resources deep in the ground, and the cheetah can chase down resources that aren’t nearly as fast as the cheetah.The cheetah will never outcompete the bird for tree-based resources, and the bird will never be able to outcompete the cheetah on land; the evolved physiological structures determine their possible options of behavior. Thus, in the same way that species’ A, B, and C had been given predetermined possibilities, so too are humans given predetermined possibilities; which means, all our possible moral philosophies are simply a matter of arbitrary evolutionary pressures, so we should not pay attention to them.

This line of reasoning gives us another form of moral nihilism. Why waste time on morality when it has been predetermined by evolution or will be subject to change because of evolution? All morality is subjective to the instincts of each species! In that line of thought, there is a lack of moral responsibility. No one genuinely feels responsible for their moral actions, as they have been predetermined by evolution.

The Labels We Live By

The second virus that contributed to the death of moral philosophy relates to categories of the mind. Natural Kinds philosophers once thought that categories like “book” were natural categories; meaning, they occurred in nature independent of the mind. However, since the advent of cognitive science, we now know that natural categories are a fiction. There are no natural categories because all categories are products of the human mind.

The mind learns to categorize the environment by assessing certain properties, and those properties can be visual, functional, or even auditory; for example, gunshots and car accidents can very well fit into the category of “loud noises,” or universities and books can fit into the category of “educational devices”. In either or, we have taken two physically distinct objects and placed them into the same category. And this has been done mentally. So, there are categories of the mind that influence how we perceive the environment.

Now, just as we categorize objects we can also categorize actions and ideas. For instance, all too frequently we categorize certain ideas as taboo, to be avoided like the plague. And we do so by considering the social features associated with the ideas, like whether people will negatively or positively react to the idea. From this understanding, we can then see that the categories we use to characterize the environment are subjective: mind-dependent. And because they are so, people have begun to use this as a talking point against all forms of moral arguments; that is, they will argue that moral arguments are subjective and therefore logically weak. Since moral philosophy is subjective, it is a matter of opinion, not fact. There cannot be any objective morality, so we need not consider any morality.

♣Cultural Relativism

The notion of cultural relativism, I fear, has become common amongst the majority of people that fall below age 50. In recent times, we have begun to apply the philosophy of relativism to morality and culture. And we have done so in ways that are not necessarily warranted by the philosophy its self. For us to see this, let us first explain relativism.

Relativism argues that all things are relative to one another, that there are seldom if any absolutes. For example, when someone proclaims to be tall, they do so relative to another person. The other person provides them a standard to compare height. However, if we compare the tall person, say, to a skyscraper, then the tall person becomes short, relative to the skyscraper. That style of thinking is the essence of relativism: its core features.

Now what is meant by culture, at least in our use of the word, is a given set of beliefs that are linked to a specific group of people. When we speak about the ideas associated with soccer, like who the best player is, we are speaking about soccer culture. And so by the same token, when we speak about the moral ideas in Chinese culture, for instance, we are speaking about the moral ideas of another culture. And here is where cultural relativism takes place.

In the same way that height can be relative, so too can good and evil, according to relativism. When relativism is applied to the morals of culture, we are told that what we call evil in the west may not necessarily be evil elsewhere. So, for example, forcing women to wear specific types of clothing, while not working, is considered immoral in the west; however, other cultures may view forced wardrobe decisions as morally acceptable. Indeed, some cultures even think the failure to abide by dictated dress codes is in fact immoral in its own right. So, we can see that the same behavior or idea can be viewed markedly different with respect to how immoral or moral it is, across cultures.

People then use this difference of opinion to say that no opinion is better than the other and that no behavior is more or less good than another; all ideas and opinions are equal. As a result of such thinking, moral arguments have been utterly negated.

The reason moral arguments have been utterly negated is because they fundamentally depend on the notion that some ideas are eviler than others, that there is some more correct way of going about something. If we do not accept that some ideas are better than others, that some ideas are filled with far more treacherous consequences than others, then we have no moral philosophy.

So, cultural relativism, the idea that no idea is inherently evil or good, has laid waste to genuine moral philosophy. And the bastardization that sits on the throne once held by moral philosophy is virtue signaling. Rather than developing complex moral arguments that have well-thought-out premises and conclusions, we instead have people tweeting out emotionally charged comments that amount to nothing more than hyperbolic rhetoric. Drop cultural relativism and bring back moral philosophy.

♣Political Bias

This is obvious. When you agree with your own view for the sake of agreeing with your own view you ruin all forms of argumentation, including moral arguments. Please stop, thank you.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

One thought on “Is Moral Philosophy Dead? (Sorry, Sam Harris)

  1. It’s just capitalism. It has to destroy, divide and conquer the people, by making them immoral.

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