ESSAY: 'Debunking Hippy-Dippy moral philosophy'

From: Marc Geddes (
Date: Wed Jun 02 2004 - 22:24:49 MDT

‘Debunking Hippy-Dippy moral philosophy’

Marc Geddes, 2nd June, 2004

It's fashionable in this post-modern age to say that
morality is just a matter of opinion, just something
'made up'. People just don't think that morality is
something with objective answers. A lot of it
probably dates back to the philosopher David Hume, a
fairly radical skeptic who seriously questioned the
power of reason. It was Hume who famously said: 'You
can't derive an ought from an is'. And of course all
the modern pop-philosophers and moral relativists will
trot out Hume's tired old dogma to bolster their
(opinion!) that morality is all just a matter of

But have the moral subjectivists seriously stopped to
consider what their philosophy actually implies?
Consider this question: Whose morality was better:
Mahatma Gandhi’s or Adolph Hitler’s? If you believe
that morality is just personal opinion what you are
saying is that they are objectively both equivalent.
It's just a matter of opinion and there is actually no
real objective moral difference between them. Hitler
was no better or worse than Gandhi. You may object
that this is a ridiculous caricature. No it isn't.
It is exactly what is implied by the idea that
morality is just something made up. If you believe
that morality is just something made up, you are
saying that there is no objective sense in which
Hitler was worse than Gandhi. But who in their right
mind seriously believes this?

The Humean claim that 'You can't derive an ought from
an is’, and therefore you can't reason to objective
answers about morality is a piece of pop-philosophy
which has obtained the status of a modern
superstition. Hume's claim has about as much
credibility as the idea that the Earth is flat. Hume
had an extremely limited conception of reason. His
conception was strictly axiomatic: he thought that
reasoning consisted of deriving conclusions from
axioms. Of course modern methods of reasoning (like
Popperian epistemology or Bayesian reasoning) are not
confined to axiomatic methods at all. Instead of
regarding reasoning as a hierarchy, reasoning can be
considered to be a network, with competing
probabilistic conjectures which draw on support from
each other. These powerful modern reasoning methods
are not subject to Hume's critiques of reason, and
therefore his claim: 'You can't derive ought from is'
is a non sequitur. Of course using axiomatic
reasoning you can't derive ought from is, but
non-axiomatic methods of reasoning don't need to rely
on deriving moral ought's from is's. You can
formulate conjectures about morality, and then weigh
up competing explanations to see which conjectures
best fit with other knowledge about world. Objective
conclusions can be drawn. So the Humean
pop-philosophers are wrong.

Another major objection to the idea that morality
could be objective is the fact that human morality
varies greatly from culture to culture. If human
morality could be so varied, argue the
pop-philosophers, how could it possibly be objective?
The mistake here is elementary. If morality is
objective, then morality and knowledge about morality
are two different things. There is the objective
referent 'morality' and then there are the subjective
human 'theories about morality'. Take gravity as an
analogy. Gravity is something which objectively
exists. Prior to understanding gravity, there were
many different competing ideas about it. Even after
Isaac Newton understood it, scientists continued to
refine the theory and argue about different competing
ideas. Eventually Einstein's General Relatively
superceded Newton, and to this day competing theories
of gravity continue to be formulated and improved
upon. Our knowledge of gravity is what is changing,
gravity itself does not. And so it can be with
morality. There might be wide variation in our
opinions about morality, but the nature of the
objective referent 'morality' is independent of what
our opinions about it may be. Thus there is no basis
for the claim that the variation in human morals
disproves objective morality.

Modern subjectivists have another scheme: they might
concede that morality is not just a matter of
individual opinion, but then they'll say it's a
'Social Construct'. They rightly repudiate moral
relativism, but then they try to define the referent
'morality' as a sort of aggregate feature emerging
from all the sentient minds on the planet. No longer
is morality just a matter of personal opinion. The
scheme superficially looks like it gives some measure
of objectivity to the 'morality' concept. They can
now talk about a 'Universal Morality' (the social
construct of humanity), a referent external to
individual minds.

But it's pseudo-objectivity. It's the hippy-dippy
mistake writ large. If we try to take the opinions of
humanity as a whole as making up some sort of
'Universal Morality', morality is still just a matter
of opinion, only now it's the aggregate or summation
of individual opinions. If the Nazis had won World
War II and say 80% of the world's population was
eventually indoctrinated into believing Nazi dogma,
would it be reasonable to regard Nazism as moral?
Surely not. It's moral philosophy by opinion poll.
Perhaps subjectivists might counter that by morality
they mean the best in people, or what people would
believe if they thought longer or faster, were wiser
etc. But by what standard would they define 'best'?
Why would it be good if people thought 'longer or
faster’? What is 'wisdom'? It would seem that an
objective morality is still implied.

We have seen that the hippy-dippy ideas that morality
is just a matter of opinion or perhaps some kind of
'social construct' are incoherent. Reasonable people
must conclude that morality is something objectively
real, something that we can use reason to discover.
The first thing we should objectively declare is: No
more hippy-dippy moral philosophy please!

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