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Irrefutable Ethics

Richard Taylor on the intractable beliefs people hold about how we should behave.

Given the certitude with which people proclaim a certain class of beliefs one would think that these must rest upon incontestable fact and evidence. In truth, they rest upon no evidence at all and are usually incompatible with fact. I shall call such beliefs ‘intractables.’

The clearest examples are religious beliefs, which, the more far-fetched they are, the more tenaciously they are held. Indeed, it is worse than this, for the very evidence that would seem to discredit them is thought instead to authenticate them. Thus, in the face of catastrophe, such as an earthquake, people rush to their temples and churches, reaffirming their trust in a divine Providence.

This observation is of course not new. It is as old as philosophy. What is not sufficiently appreciated is that such intractables occur in other realms too, and indeed, in every area in which there is deep human interest.

Ethical judgements, for example, are of the same character, and it is no accident that ethical and religious beliefs are intertwined. Non-believers, it is thought, cannot be truly moral. They have nothing to rest morality on. Believers, on the other hand, are presumed to be good and honorable, even, alas! in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. If a man clothes himself in religion then it is assumed that he is well motivated, no matter what he does. Nor is it necessary to be a believer in fact. It is enough to appear as such – something every successful politician quickly learns.

Intractables are by no means limited to these spheres, however. They are found even in the sciences, and among the most sophisticated thinkers, and in the systems of able philosophers who think they owe nothing to religion.

Among biologists, for example, can be found those who simply will not entertain the possibility that the Darwinian explanation of evolution is open to question. Even if someone well trained in science questions the adequacy of natural selection as an explanation of the evolutionary process then he is accused of ignorance or, worse, of pushing a creationist agenda. The defender of the Darwinian account thus imagines that he is excused from considering the troublesome evidence.

Even among liberals who describe themselves as ‘free thinkers’ it is common to find, as an item of creed, the declaration that all persons are endowed with an inherent worth and dignity. No evidence for this is offered, and it is in fact easy to find examples of persons totally bereft of those qualities. Such examples do nothing to shake the belief. Instead, the defender of it resorts to the metaphor of the ‘spark’ of goodness somehow buried even in the hearts of the stupid and the depraved. The belief is intractable.

For the remainder of this discussion, however, I want to concentrate on ethical beliefs. These are usually intractables, resting on no facts and no evidence and often put forth in the face of evidence that discredits them. You find this any time you get into a serious discussion of an important ethical issue. For example, I once gave the adult students in my ethics class the question: How do you know what is right and what is wrong? Anyone with philosophical training can see that this is an extremely difficult question. Indeed, it would be hard to find in the whole of philosophy a harder nut to crack. I gave the students a week to think about it, expecting they would give up and we could then get started on the subject, beginning from scratch.

I was naïve. Every student came back in a week with the same answer, effortlessly arrived at. They all said they had learned this from their parents! I should have expected that.

But of course they had not answered the question at all. I had not asked where they had picked up their ideas of right and wrong, but rather, how they knew that their ethical judgements were true. This amounts to asking how they would go about testing them, and there is simply no way to do this. No assemblage of facts and evidence can yield an ought. The students were right, that they had derived their ethics from their parents, at an early and uncritical age. And now they were confusing their settled, unquestioning conviction with knowledge. Their basic notions were, in short, intractables.

This was driven home to me again when a distinguished professor of medicine invited me to speak to some of his students on ethics as it applies to medical practice. I went, expecting to offer some of the fruits of my years of training in this subject, only to have the professor take over and hold forth while I listened, my role apparently being to give my support to his views. This physician had never had a course in philosophy or studied any treatises on ethics, and quite literally, did not know what he was talking about, notwithstanding his utter confidence in what he was saying. It was as if I, appearing before the same students, had undertaken to instruct them in orthopedic medicine, about which I know nothing whatsoever.

It is everywhere assumed that we all know the difference between right and wrong. It is a presumption of law that anyone who does not know this is basically ignorant and incompetent.

What actually happens, of course, is that we all absorb our notions of right and wrong at an early age from our culture, typically from parents, priests, teachers and so on. These always take the form of rules or commandments, and are usually represented as coming from no human source, but from a god. Even those who in time come to reject the idea of their religious origin nevertheless cling to at least some of these rules, as we shall see shortly.

The actual basis of such rules is not hard to discern. They are fabricated for the essential purpose of enabling people to live together in peace and to safeguard common interests, such as the orderly exchange of goods, stability in marriage and so on. We need no god to see the need to condemn theft, homicide and other destructive practices, but it is nevertheless useful to attribute the prohibition of these to a divine source in order to encourage compliance.

How, then, do people defend their ethical judgements? Sometimes by saying, straightforwardly, that they are divine commands and thus beyond question. But those who have no belief in any gods defend their moral judgments in ways that are hardly better. That is, they defend them by expressions of horror, or sheer feeling, and then, if pressed, by appealing to the dire consequences of breaking them, appeals that invariably take the form of the ‘slippery slope.’

Disputes about abortion and euthanasia provide clear examples. The opponent of abortion represents it as murder, and by choice of words expresses horror. Abortion is, to be sure, the willful taking of human life, forbidden by rule, and that is supposed to silence further discussion. The same thinking – or rather, ingrained feelings – apply to euthanasia. “Thou shalt not kill.” Disputes about such issues can never be rationally resolved because they rest on intractables: the sanctity of human life vs. the autonomy of the individual or the right to choose.

Such intractables often give rise to absurdities. For example, in some jurisdictions it is allowable for a physician to provide assistance in dying, or ‘assisted suicide,’ as opponents prefer to call it. The physician is thus allowed to prepare a lethal beverage and offer it to the dying, but he may not raise it to that person’s lips, even though the result is the same. That would be murder.

What is even stranger is that such mindless adherence to rules is usually deemed admirable. Someone who gives them no thought whatever but simply grinds them out and applies them to every situation that arises is considered to be a person “of principle,” and to adhere to them always, come what may, is to lead a “blameless life.” Such unthinking inflexibility often has dreadful consequences, but is nevertheless deemed not only innocent, but admirable.

It matters not, for example, that a patient’s dying may be long and painful; it must not be terminated. It matters not that an infant may be born so defective that it will never be able to walk, sit up, or have significant control of anything; it may not be destroyed. Worse than this, a parent who, at enormous cost and suffering, nourishes and sustains such a child is considered admirable.

I have noted that people typically defend their ethical judgements by pointing with horror at any suggested alternatives. The notoriety that Peter Singer, holder of a distinguished professorship in Princeton University, has produced, perfectly illustrates this. It is doubtful whether any philosopher has ever drawn such denunciation in such volume and with such vehemence, from the editorial pages in the established media plus, of course, from pulpits everywhere. He has dared to suggest circumstances in which both euthanasia and infanticide would be better than blind adherence to rules. The denunciations are without exception expressions of horror with seldom any consideration of Singer’s reasoning.

One might expect that academic philosophers, trained in critical thinking and sound reasoning, would escape the snare of intractables, but for the most part they do not. Participating in a formally-arranged discussion with a group of these, I raised the question of what, for example, should be done with an infant born with no limbs but otherwise normal, my own view being that it should be destroyed. This was met with considerable resistance, most insisting on at least the possibility that such an infant might find some sort of fulfilling life. This was considered conclusive, notwithstanding the fact that no parent would ever want such a birth. Here again it was feeling, not reasoning, that produced this reaction, and the feeling was based on a presumed uniqueness and sanctity of human life. And that, of course, is an intractable, the cultural inheritance from the Book of Genesis, where man is declared to be the very image of God. No one would talk that way about a similarly defective puppy. Once again we see how inherited religious prohibitions retain their hold even on those who deny the relevance of religion to ethics. An intractable is hard to overcome.

The same is found in virtually every philosophical disquisition on justice, where equality is the unexamined presupposition. No person can be deemed to be of more inherent worth or to have greater rights than another, the gifted being on a perfect par with the most stupid, cozening, greedy or whatever. There is, of course, not the slightest evidence for such equality, and indeed, it appears plainly false. But intractables are not subject to evidence, and nothing serves to discredit them even in the minds of those whose reputations rest upon their philosophical acumen.

It was noted earlier that when the sheer expression of horror does not seem sufficient then the defender of some moral judgement usually falls back on what is appropriately called the ‘slippery slope’ argument where the rejection of that position is claimed to lead to disaster. The clearest example is provided by the current debate over stem cell research. Even granting that such research might some day yield enormous medical benefits, we are told that it must be eschewed; first, because it involves the willful taking of human life, and also, it would lead to practices too dreadful to contemplate. If we can destroy embryos to harvest stem cells then “the next thing you know” we’ll be harvesting the organs of defective fetuses, then of handicapped infants, and then, who knows. But by that kind of reasoning we should not allow even the occasional use of alcohol, or divorce, or homosexual unions, or indeed, anything to which someone has an aversion.

One highly significant philosophical implication of all this is that the argument from the slippery slope is, after all, an appeal to consequences, real or imaginary. But if that is what, in the end, ethical disputes reduce to, then utilitarianism, which is so often the target of moralists, appears vindicated after all. If it is the good or bad consequences of a given course of action that count, then the task becomes that of discovering, empirically, what good or bad consequences are most likely to ensue. And that is not a philosophical question at all. It is one to which fact and evidence are relevant, and ethics, as it is generally understood, is irrelevant.


Richard Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York. His latest book, Virtue Ethics, was published recently by Prometheus.

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