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The Dangers of Moral Certainty

Peter Lloyd savages the “continental” approach to moral philosophy.

“ I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken” Oliver Cromwell, 1650

One of the threats to world peace is from people who share Professor Innes Crellin’s view of the nature of moral values (“The anachronism of morality”, Philosophy Now No. 14). By this, I do not mean that Professor Crellin’s intentions are wicked. Far from it. His good intentions shine through, but my fear is that those good intentions may pave a road to the wrong destination. What I find alarming in Professor Crellin’s thinking is not the particular set of moral values that he holds, but simply his beliefs that there are objective moral values, and that some people know what they are.

Professor Crellin writes with a seductive rhetoric, illustrated with a photograph of hell, and suffused with pity for mankind. But he gets his central point wrong. Let me strip off the rhetoric and reveal the bare bones of his argument: (i) there are objective moral rules and values in the world, waiting to be discovered; (ii) some people know what these true rules and values are; (iii) these rules and values cannot be deduced by logic but must somehow be intuited. Seen naked, no longer clothed in fine prose, these premises point directly to the chilling conclusion that those individuals who think they know the truth about morality should regard themselves as free to ride roughshod over anyone who lacks that intuition. For, if those ‘wise’ individuals believe that they have intuited the one-andonly real and objective morality; and if they cannot prove it by cold logic, then it makes sense to over-ride anyone else whose intuition leads them to a different morality, because their morality must be seen as wrong.

Let me say at once that Professor Crellin does not draw this conclusion in his article. And, judging from the temper of his writing, I imagine that he would find the conclusion abhorrent. Nevertheless, the conclusion is written into the structure of his beliefs.

The beast that rages through history

History overflows with misery inflicted by well-intentioned people who were convinced that they had seen the only true moral values, and who sought to convert or destroy those who would not agree.

The Inquisition was premised on the moral certainty of the Roman Church. Its officers were wholly convinced that the Christian scriptures as interpreted by the Pope were true, and that they revealed an objective system of morality. On those grounds, any individuals who did not share those values were inescapably found to be a threat to the realization of Christian values in this world. Therefore they were persecuted and ferociously tortured to make them recant their ‘heresies’.

In our own century, we find that countries which succumbed to totalitarian ideologies – Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany – created societies in which those who professed to see the true values deemed themselves entitled to indoctrinate, intimidate, or exterminate those who disagreed.

How could it be that somebody who is as concerned for human well-being as Professor Crellin evidently is, could espouse views that are in any way related to the monstrous deeds that I have just enumerated? Well, what they share is an explicit and definite belief in moral knowledge and, moreover, a moral knowledge that is not accessible to all-comers. In this respect, it differs from, say, scientific knowledge. If a professor of physics is certain that he has discovered a new physical phenomenon (such as cold fusion), then he can write up his experiment so that others can repeat it and convince themselves. It is a public certainty, and is indeed open to allcomers. Anyone with the time and resources can repeat the investigation, and either reach the same certainty or prove the claim wrong. Not so with Professor Crellin’s moral values; nor with the Inquisition’s revelations; nor with the Communist Manifesto. If you find yourself unable to see that they are right, then it’s hard luck: there is no scientific experiment or logico-mathematical deduction with which you can acquire the requisite certitude. The appeals of the true morality “can only be heard by such men”, says Professor Crellin, referring to the elite “authentic man”. Either you find yourself in this elite, or you don’t. And if the elite of “authentic men” get into power, then you’d better keep your head down.

What about tolerance? you might ask. Surely tolerance is a Good Thing, and people who believe in Good Things will therefore welcome tolerance with open arms? No, they won’t. If they are certain that they are right, then they will regard anyone with opposing views as a dangerous threat to the wellbeing of humankind. There is, after all, no reason for them to respect opposing views, if they themselves believe that they possess ‘knowledge’ of the true moral values. When I was a postgraduate student, the British universities were awash with proclamations of ‘no platform for x’, where x was some point of view that the student politicos were certain was a Bad Thing. So there was ‘no platform for fascists’, ‘no platform for racists’, and so on, which meant that if anyone wanted to deliver a speech, which was deemed to be x by the politicos who were certain that x was a Bad Thing, then the speaker could be stopped from speaking, forcibly if necessary. I am against fascism and racism too, but surely denying people freedom of speech is itself a symptom of fascism?

English moral philosophy is not indecent

Professor Crellin does not like the moral philosophy that has been dominant in the Anglo-Saxon world, especially England. He thinks it is a sterile exercise in verbal chicanery that side-steps the issues that really matter: “questions about ‘evil’ were relegated to the metaphysical dustbin and questions about morality were re-phrased and neutralised”. Centrally, he does not like the view that “moral propositions are nothing more than expressions of approval or disapproval”. Chiefly, this is because he thinks this view leads to moral relativism. In fact, it does not. Crellin uses the Holocaust as an example. He says that the Anglo- Saxon conception of ethics entails that “when we say, ‘It is wrong to attempt to annihilate Jewry’, all we are expressing is our disapproval, which implies, of course, that others have an equal right to express their approval or disapproval”. Strictly speaking, this is true. Nazis do indeed have a right to express their opinions (and the rest of us have a duty to refute them). Reading between Professor Crellin’s lines, however, we may discern his fear that English ethics is really a license for moral pusillanimity. His inference is that we would not merely allow Nazis to speak their minds, but would actually stand by while they did their deeds. But this does not follow at all. On the contrary, a genuine moral disapproval of the Holocaust entails that one should do one’s best to stop it. For the very same respect for liberty that allows Nazis to speak would also command us to act to stop the Nazis from depriving others of liberty.

Professor Crellin sees it as a weakness of ethics in the English style that it does not dictate what values we should have. He quotes R.M. Hare’s statement that we have moral rules based on principles that “we have by our own decision accepted and made our own”, but complains that “what [R.M. Hare] failed to do was enlarge on the much more relevant matter of what was involved in doing this”. This is not weakness so much as honesty. For if there are no objective values, then the proper role of philosophy is to place the onus of deciding basic moral principles upon each individual’s conscience.

English ethics does not require the abrogation of our moral obligations, as Professor Crellin fears. For, recognising that one’s moral values are subjective does not diminish their strength. And it is the strength of moral conviction that leads to action, not the philosophical view that one takes of the nature of those convictions.

English moral philosophy saves the day

Not only is English ethics not the source of moral turpitude that Professor Crellin paints it as, but is precisely the antidote to the menace of rampant moral certainty that lurks in Crellin’s system. For, if one accepts that there is no objective moral truth, and that all we have are subjective viewpoints, then the only form of social organization that makes sense is democracy. If nobody can prove that their values are the right ones, then the best we can do is let everyone have their say and put the matter to the vote.

This is really the crux of the difference between English ethics and Professor Crellin’s continental philosophy of moral certitude. English ethics entails respect for the opinions of others and therefore bolsters a peaceable democratic system, whereas the ethics of certainty entails disrespect for the opinions of others and thereby furnishes a rationale for tyranny.

Internal or external?

Professor Crellin attaches some importance to the question of whether one’s moral values are imposed from without or grow from within. This has no impact on the analysis offered above. Whether the values are imposed by a powerful body such as the church, or are found in the heart, it is still dangerous to regard them as knowledge, or to hold them with absolute certainty.

In particular, he claims that the ‘true’ moral values will emerge if we regard ourselves as members of a community of sentient beings, each of whom has a first-person perspective. Following Martin Buber’s terminology, he distinguishes the ‘I-It’ and the ‘I-Thou’ conceptions of the world. I doubt not that we should take cognizance of other people’s sentience. But that does not get us a jot closer to any knowledge of real morality. Each individual still has to determine her own basic values, even if she does so within an I thou conception. Here are two examples. First, abortion is a highly contentious moral issue which, on some constructions, pivots on whether or not the fetus is a ‘thou’ or only an ‘it’. Second, capital punishment is another contentious moral issue, which remains contentious even when we admit that the person to be executed is a ‘thou’.

Professor Crellin quotes Wilhelm Dilthey: “understanding is a rediscovery of the I in the thou”, and implies that this is the basis on which we may acquire moral knowledge. I take this to be a reference to empathy, imagining being in one someone else’s shoes; that is, a recognition that each sentient being shares one’s own experience of having a first-person perspective. Or maybe it is a reference to the mystical notion that all consciousnesses are in some sense one. Either way, it still fails to get us any closer to a resolution of hard moral problems such as the two mentioned above.


Two of the greatest achievements of Western Civilization are science and democracy. They have in common the admission of each person’s own fallibility, which is psychologically a hard thing to do. In science, we must admit that our preconceived ideas about the external world might be mistaken, and that we must carry out scientific experiments to determine the truth. In democracy, we must admit that our cherished values and political convictions might be wrong, and that society should be governed by the majority, albeit with safeguards for the rights of minorities.

The system of ethics associated with English philosophy provides a philosophical underpinning for democracy, as it proposes that there are no objective answers to moral disputes and that, therefore, all parties are entitled to have their say and the dispute be put to a vote. In contrast, the continental system of ethics, as Professor Crellin construes it, says that there are objective values, and that some privileged individuals can have access to them. However good the intentions, this runs the grave risk of justifying unfettered power in the hands of those who claim to know the truth about morality.

© P. Lloyd 1996

Peter Lloyd is a freelance computer programmer, studying philosophy at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.

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