The Hardest Thing in the World

Secular morality is a false concept, giving the impression that this is somehow THE secular morality – the only morality a secular person can and should have. It is perhaps self-consistent as a moral system, and even beneficial if we can properly understand “well-being” and “harm” on all levels, not just the surface, but the basis of it is still just chosen, and it is not clear that one cannot choose something else. It is an artificial creation, just like a mathematical definition (which are usually made because “it embodies some property we want”), and it is based just on something “we want”. Sure, it does not claim to be absolute, but its name does: claiming to be the definite secular morality.

Unlike theistic morality, secular morality does not base itself on any absolute idea of morality that exists on its own, like the platonic idea of good, and it is only a system for achieving some set goal, that we have chosen (well-being). The impossibility of following an existing, abstract idea of good would not in any way refute its existence. But since the only purpose of inventing secular morality would be some usefulness of the concept (like in mathematics, one can make any definition one wants, and a definition cannot be “incorrect”, but it can be completely useless, and then there is no point of it), it has to take into account at least the practical reality. Such a morality should be contingent on our nature.

It is then a most worthy goal to understand our nature, and especially the nature of our convictions and moral choices, and of true well-being, which we know there is more to than having freedom, health and wealth. Our knowledge of these are polluted by old convictions and habits, and indeed even our reason is “polluted”, or generally not as free as we like to think. A system that requires rational deduction of consequences must take this into consideration.

The classical example would be when one “feels” something is right/wrong to do. In general, no amount of rationalization about the harm/well-being caused by the action will change this feeling. (This is clear from experience just by discussing with people, but if anecdotal evidence is not enough to convince you, it has been shown by experiments – see for instance the section “Inventing victims” in “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt). The feeling is experienced as a tension, as a subrational appeal to this or that action.

In a situation of choice it is usually the appeal that works, and the essence of this appeal is straightly connected to the essence of individual. The connection is so deep that it will, actually, cause harm to a person to do the act, which goes against the appeal, for such an act is usually felt as intuitively wrong. On a personal level, an intuitive feeling that something is wrong will make the act wrong, and a feeling that something is right will make it right.

“Why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world — to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want.” ― Ayn Rand

The pleasant state of being one derives from good deeds do not come from the well-being caused to others (or the knowledge of it), but from the conviction of the goodness of the deed – deeds that cause well-being to others are generally labelled as good, but the converse do not hold. Adhering to any abstract principle will cause some state of satisfaction if one is convinced enough in the rightness of the principle.

The source of the appeal or conviction is irrelevant to the necessity of following for personal well-being, however, we know that forming and holding principles that are detrimental on several levels both to oneself and others is all too human (consider e.g. fanaticism and terrorism – usually rooted in strong convictions). As such, an investigation into how such principles are formed – and thereby discovering how one can strangle the spreading and forming of particular kinds of conviction – will not at all be wasted time.

Only the utter conviction in that deduction of harm/well-being of actions is the right morality will lead to true well-being for the person following this system. This conviction must be on a different plane – if not additional plane – than reason: In short, one must feel it – the conclusion must resonate in one’s core. The question whether such a moral conviction is at all natural and may be achieved in general can justifiably be raised. It may be the case that setting well-being/harm as the basis of a morality will take off in quite an opposite direction than this dry rationalism.

A discussion of whether or not the particular appeals or principles are “correct” or in accordance with this harm/well-being foundation is irrelevant to the persons holding them. The question is what should have precedence of individual or society – but for the individual this is not a real dilemma, as the answer for the individual is again given by an appeal.

So, then, should we just do what we want? The answer is a resounding Yes! But – what do we want? To achieve true well-being, this is the question one should ask oneself – and the answer is at not at all easy to find. There are different levels of want, and our mind and desires are affected by informational pollution and wants and wishes that are not ours’ – especially in the culture of consumption we live in.

See also:

Morality and Reason

MLK (and moral progress, knowledge, biases and cultural diversity)

Observations on “Secular Morality”


8 thoughts on “The Hardest Thing in the World

  1. Very interesting, and I might add that I enjoy your writing style. Thanks for the link too.

    My main question is what metaethical form of normative ethics are your remarks critiquing? I ask this because you write that, “Unlike theistic morality, secular morality does not base itself on any absolute idea of morality that exists on its own, like the platonic idea of good, and it is only a system for achieving some set goal, that we have chosen (well-being).” I wholeheartedly disagree; that there is a Platonic idea of the Good is precisely what modern non-natural moral realists posit — Plato is considered the first non-natural moral realist. I agree with you that secular moral theories that deny the necessity of positing a metaphysical conceptualization of the good do not have a good epistemological basis, but non-natural moral realism is an attractive and plausible account of secular morality precisely because it maintains that there is a higher-order property of goodness that we perceive with our intellectual faculties because of necessary supervenience relations between moral and non-moral properties.

    All of this goes to say that I think your remarks are spot on in regards to secular moral theories that do not posit the existence of irreducible normative properties of goodness and rightness. But there are secular moral theories that posit the existence of such entities, so you cannot dismiss secular morality quite so easily. You are right, however, that secular moral theories based on constructivist foundations are too arbitrary to be taken seriously.


    • Thank you for the comment. I must admit, I had to do some googling to understand your post, because I have never formally studied any form of philosophy and barely read any books on the subject of morality, so “modern non-natural moral realism” therefore sounds very non-natural to me.

      I was supposed to add another link in “see also”, for there is a particular brand of secular morality I am writing about, that I have commented before (and linked to a source for), and I am sorry this was not at all clear in the post. However, I think you misunderstood the reason behind my critique. It is not the foundation I am criticizing, but the common conclusions drawn from it. They may have the right map, but the wrong compass to guide them in the terrain.

      Reason is impotent in moral matters. This is just our nature (I suggest you read Morality and Reason) – and our morality is determined, in total, by our nature (of course – our nature is dynamic).

      One can posit whatever one wants, but, the fact is, whatever one posits will usually not come from one’s “intellectual faculties” (unless you count intuition among them – if you do, I salute you), but from one’s “inner morality”, the subconscious, intuitive appeal. It is biased. And if what is posited does not correspond to our nature (sure it may be dynamic, but it has a range and potential that are limited), then it may do more harm than good . Plato’s ideal society can never exists because we are not controlled and cannot be controlled by reason in the way he assumed.

      Working towards it then would be to try to reach the moon by bicycle – the goal we have set cannot be reached by the tools we are given.


      • Very interesting, but I must note that it still seems that you are making claims about the foundations about morality — not the conclusions, which, I think, tend to be our normative judgments and moral principles (the ‘ought’ statements, rather than the ‘is’ statements of metaethics).

        Why is reason impotent in moral matters? Non-naturalists posit a intuitionist epistemology, meaning that we can see through reasoning that certain moral propositions are self-evident, in that they are synthetic a priori. The idea is that you have the intellectual intuition that ‘if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C’ that ‘A is bigger than C’, and likewise you may have the ethical intuition that ‘scenario A is morally better than scenario B if more people are treated as autonomous agents in scenario A than in scenario B’. So it certainly seems quite plain, to me, that we can reason about morality, just as we can reason about other abstract concepts such as size and color.

        Now, I certainly won’t deny that we harbor bias, that certainly seems true, but I see no reason why this undermines an objectivity morality. People exhibit biases in all areas of life, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an objectively true answer to the question at hand. I may be biased as to which football team is the best (my own of course) but this doesn’t mean that if all facts were known that there wouldn’t be an objectively true answer. Of course there is a fact of the matter of which team is the best of the league, it’s just that we can’t come to agree on it due to biases. So why should biases in moral judgement undermine the objectivity of morality? There is no valid reason to posit such a claim.

        So, in summary, the non-naturalist denies your claims due to holding that we can know some moral propositions are true synthetically a priori (that is, through careful reflection on the facts), such that they are facts about a domain of study with objective truths. Stated in this way, I think it should be evident how difficult it is to dismiss non-natural moral realism; you must reject the possibility of a priori knowledge and/or objectivity. Such things seem to be possible to you if you are engaging in these metaphysical conjectures, after all, metaphysics is only through a priori knowledge as it is about processes and entities beyond experience, and I should only take your claims as true if objectivity is possible. Given that you tacitly accept these, another way will be necessary to reject non-natural moral realism.

        Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment, I really appreciate it; I look forward to conversing with you further and reading more of your work.


        • “Damasio had noticed an unusual pattern of symptoms in patients who had suffered brain damage to a specific part of the brain — the ventromedial (i.e., bottom-middle) prefrontal cortex (abbreviated vmPFC; it’s the region just behind and above the bridge of the nose). Their emotionality dropped nearly to zero. They could look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing. They retained full knowledge of what was right and wrong, and they showed no deficits in IQ. They even scored well on Kohlberg’s tests of moral reasoning. Yet when it came to making decisions in their personal lives and at work, they made foolish decisions or no decisions at all. They alienated their families and their employers, and their
          lives fell apart.” – ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt

          I am afraid there might be a small gap between you and me in how we understand morality – but what is dialogue if not a bridge.

          What exactly makes an action morally good? That it treats the greatest amount of people with the greatest amount of autonomy? – Is this good in itself, or for some consequence of it or our experience of it?

          In your first example, we can create an abstract definition of what “big” means, and into this definition put the fact that allows an ordering. This is a useful concept to have, and the logic above is just consequences of what we mean by the word – as we defined it. Not to mention that this is a concept that corresponds to something we perceive in reality, and how we perceive it. We perceive size, and if A is bigger than B which is bigger than C, we really experience A as bigger than C in real life.

          In the second case however, you have some underlying definition of what “moral” is, but where did this definition come from? And does it correspond to something ‘real’? Surely, we can make an abstract definition of what morality is, and then use our reason to say, a priori, what is good according to this definition and what is bad according to this definition. What we are not able to do a priori, is to say which definition is ‘correct’, which is the most suitable. It is a definition that we make, and we cannot say a priori what we really are describing with it, without referring to our own definition.

          It is like in mathematics (I am a mathematician, by the way): one can make a definition and develop the properties of elements satisfying certain definitions and so on, but you can define whatever you want, as long as it does not contradict other definitions one has made. You can label elements by saying it satisfies “A” and “B”, but one cannot, a priori, give any meaning to what it means to satisfy A and B. One could have made definition C and say that it does not satisfy C instead – would it be a better description?

          In short: definition A does not say anything about whether or not we want things to satisfy definition A, and we cannot determine this a priori.

          To build further on the mathematics analogy: one usually categorizes elements with certain properties into spaces of elements, and I am afraid that the normative philosophy of morality develops properties for space ‘X’, while humanity belongs to space ‘Y’.


          • You raise fantastic questions and I will do my best to address all of them.

            I am not sure what makes an action morally good, but that is mainly because I think that ethics is concerned with morally right actions (I am more of a Kantian than a utilitarian). There are self-evident (a priori) prima facie duties, and if an act would be an instantiation of a duty then it is a reason for that action to be performed, as it is a right-making reason. When there are competing actions instantiating different prima facie duties we must use practical wisdom to judge which prima facie duty is weightier, and thus, which action is the right action. These prima facie duties are self-evident upon reflection, in that, if we think about it, we see that there is always a reason, for example, not to harm others in our actions, and there can be no argument for this proposition, we see through intellectual understanding that it is true. This is where my underlying definition of morality comes from, it is informed by self-evident, or synthetic a priori propositions.

            So in this sense you are correct that we cannot say, a priori, which action is correct in the concrete circumstances of a state of affairs. We only have a priori general principles of logic at work, and so to make judgments about real life situations we can only hope for good judgment from the a priori prima facie duties – realists make no claim to indefeasible certainty.

            Of course, none of this is convincing to you if you reject the possibility of the real existence of abstract concepts, as your response suggests. Which is strange to me, because most mathematicians I have spoken with have subscribed to Platonic, or at least Fregean abstract concepts. Perhaps you do allow the possibility of the real existence of abstract concepts (I hope so, being a nominalist is hard work), if you do, it seems you accept the existence of ‘big’ as regulating the use of our word “big”, but not ‘morally right’ actions as causally regulating the use of the concept “morally right”. I haven’t heard any convincing arguments for why some abstract concepts exist and others do not (i.e. ‘big’ but not ‘morally right’). If we have reason to believe the concept ‘big’ has real existence, and I think we do due to its explanatory power in causally regulating the use of our term “big”, then we have just as good reason to think that ‘morally right’ has real existence, given the explanatory power its existence provides for moral discourse.


        • “The idea is that you have the intellectual intuition that ‘if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C’ that ‘A is bigger than C’, and likewise you may have the ethical intuition that ‘scenario A is morally better than scenario B if more people are treated as autonomous agents in scenario A than in scenario B’”.

          Difficult to argue that we do have these intuitions, but where exactly lies the border between intellectual and non-intellectual intuitions? Both intuition and reasoning are the parts of cognitive process, but when we speak about intuition we step on the territory with choice deficit, where we don’t choose our own opinions. Even “intellectual intuitions” can fool us (like in The Monty Hall problem) and very often “intellectual intuitions” and objective facts are the same merely by coincidence.

          But even if according to our “intellectual intuitions” A is really bigger than C if A is bigger than B and B is bigger that C” or “scenario A is morally better that scenario B” – does it really prove the existence of the abstract concepts such as “big” or moral”? Or is this our intuition which works in such abstracts? For, even if all of the statements are true the only thing we can say about such knowledge: they are intuitive. That is received despite reason – and not because of it.


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