This article is written from a conversation transcript. The interview was conducted in January 2020.
About Alex O’Connor
Alex O’Connor, better known as Cosmic Skeptic, is the founder of the widely popular Cosmic Skeptic YouTube channel, podcast and blog with hundreds of thousands of followers. He is a philosophy student at Oxford University and an international speaker who also engages in public debates. His followers know him as an outspoken atheist, vegan and free speech advocate and he has a big interest in moral philosophy.
Morality is about what is good and bad, right and wrong. But is it even possible to define good?
– The point that G.E. Moore makes in his famous criticism of John Stuart Mill is that what you can do is to identify things that are consistently good. For instance, I can say that anything that is good is pleasurable. But that doesn’t mean that good is defined as pleasurable. It just means that goodness is a property of pleasure. It’s the same as saying that all ravens are black, which doesn’t mean that a raven is defined as black. It’s overlapping, but you still have to define what black actually is. Moore points out that you can’t really define a color, let’s say yellow. You know what it is and you know when you see it, but you can’t define it. It’s the same thing with good. You can give examples of things that are good and you can talk about why they are good, but that’s not the same as saying what good actually is. it’s totally unique, it has no comparison.
Could we just replace good with well-being and bad with suffering?
– You can replace them with anything if you want. But you shouldn’t really have the right to do that, because we all have this intuitive sense that good and bad are these normative functions with prescriptive qualities. If we just decide for practicality’s sake to chose some concept and define it as that, then we’re doing it arbitrarily and not getting into the heart of what it actually is. How can you know that you got it right? How can you know that pleasure is the best explanation for what’s good?
“I think all actions are ultimately self-interested. This means that every action indicates that you think it will maximize your pleasure.”
You don’t agree with the idea of an objective morality, but instead you take a descriptive view on what is right and wrong. Can you unpack that?
– I don’t think that there can be prescriptive truths, or truths in commands. “Go over there” can’t be true or false. To talk about objective truth when applied to those kind of statements doesn’t seem to make much sense. That’s why I traditionally reject the idea of objectivity in ethics. I’m what you might call a descriptivist, which essentially means that I talk about morality in purely descriptive terms. I don’t really use prescription in that I don’t talk about what you should or shouldn’t do. I also don’t think that people have free will, so I believe that they’ll always act in accordance with their desires, which will always be the maximization of their own pleasure. I think all actions are ultimately self-interested. This means that every action indicates that you think it will maximize your pleasure. That cannot be right or wrong, moral or immoral, but only correct or incorrect. It either will maximize your please or it won’t. The action itself is not right or wrong, but your belief in that the action will maximize your pleasure is.
That would mean that a psychopath is right to murdering people if it maximizes his pleasure?
– it might be the case that there are people who genuinely take pleasure in killing, and in that case they will go and do it. But remember, i’m not saying people always do what maximizes their pleasure, I’m saying they’re doing what they think will maximize their pleasure. They might have it wrong. That psychopath might actually be wrong about maximizing pleasure when killing. We can hypothesize a situation in which it’s true that the psychopath exists and is correct. The rest of us can¨t help that our pleasure is maximized by living in a society where people like that are put behind bars. It indicates an incorrect belief within me if I don’t do anything to try to restrain such people. When I put this view forward I call it the good delusion, because I’m trying to say that this is what I think is going on when we make moral decisions and when we generally talk about rightness and wrongness.
What do you think is going on if a person thinks that something is immoral but still carries out the act?
– If you say “I know this is wrong but I’ll do it anyway”, it actually just indicates that you reject the moral system that brought about the moral prohibition. You can also recognize on paper that something is wrong in isolation, but you might think that it will maximize your pleasure nonetheless to do it. I think it is people who convinced themselves that what they’re doing is right, but they’ve got this instinctual feeling that it might be wrong because they’ve been told that for so long. It’s like a gay person who has been closeted for 20 years but finally gets some action and thinks “I know this is wrong but I want to do it anyway”. What that actually means is that they’re beginning to realize that it’s not wrong, but it got this residual feeling inside them that it is. They’re not actually convinced that it’s wrong, they just can’t shake it off. The indoctrinated morality.
“I look to the animals and think, what is it that they have or don’t have, that justify our difference in treatments?”
How do you become a virtuous person? How do you become as moral as possible?
– I would say that one of the most important things is to make sure you’re being consistent. If you have a moral principle and that moral principle doesn’t apply in some situations with you, there are three options: the principle needs to be refined to make exceptions, the principle is wrong or you need to change your behavior. Let me take my personal example with animal rights and veganism. I had a principle that someone’s moral worth is not determined by how many legs they have, or their level of intelligence. I have a principle that if you’re less intelligent than somebody else, it doesn’t mean that you’re worth less morally. So I look to the animals and think, what is it that they have or don’t have, that justify our difference in treatments? Is it intelligence? No, it can’t be. If a human had less intelligence, they’d still have moral worth. Is it that they don’t have much self-awareness? It can’t be that either, because if there was a disabled human who didn’t have much self-awareness, they’d still have moral worth.
– This means that either the principle has to be refined to say intelligence is not a moral metric unless you’re a pig, which seems totally unjustified and arbitrary, or the principle is wrong, which would mean that intelligence actually is a metric for morality. In other words, people who are more intelligent have more moral worth. This doesn’t seem right either. The only other option is that I have to change my behavior and accept that the principle is sound and that it does apply to pigs, so I shouldn’t kill them. If you want to be someone who can stand by your moral principles and be able to say that you’ve really thought this through and that you are living in a way that is maximally beneficial, maximally moral, whatever principles you believe in, be honest with yourself and about where the principles lead.
“We force our views onto our children by indoctrinating them that murder is wrong and that racism is bad, as damn right we should do!”
– I often hear that I’m forcing my views on other people. When I say that I think it’s immoral to eat meat, they say “if you don’t want to eat meat that’s fine, but don’t tell me what to do.” The thing is, we force views on people all the time! We force people not to do all sorts of things, and we actually do it even more. When it comes to murder, not only do we say that it is immoral for you to do it, but we actually stop you from doing it. We force our views onto our children by indoctrinating them that murder is wrong and that racism is bad, as damn right we should do!
– Let’s just be consistent here. Put yourself in a moral universe with some other immorality, say slave trade. Would people then say “I get that you don’t want to own a slave, but don’t tell me what to do”? Another frustrating thing are the silly jokes you tend to get on this topic. If you ask a politician about veganism, they won’t take it seriously. There’s a video of Barack Obama being asked about veganism and the first thing that comes out of his mouth is “Well, you know, I do love me a good steak! ” and the audience laughs. Imagine any other moral issue being treated in such a way. Imagine a President in the 1800s who is asked about slave trade and answered “Well, you know, I do love me a good slave.” It just indicates that they’re not taking it seriously, One reason people aren’t taking it seriously is because they’re not applying their principles consistently.
You seem to read a lot of books?
– It’s not true that I love reading. I actually hate reading but I love having read things. I think the process of reading is extremely laborious. But I started trying to force myself to read books, just as if I was forcing myself to go to the gym, I then saw the benefits, like finding yourself being able to talk about different ideas and about what this and that person said. I’m probably starting a new book a week, but it doesn’t mean I finish the last one. I actually tend to spend a long time on books so it can take me months to finish them. I usually start reading a book and then put it down to start another book. Then I go back to the first one for a while and then pick up a third book. I would say reading a lot is good, even if you’re not reading a lot of books.S
You made a book recommendation video recently, but if you have to pick one favorite book, which one comes to mind?
– If I don’t know who I’m recommending it to I’d probably recommend Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. If you’re asking for the book that’s been most important to me, it would be Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. If you want the book that I enjoy going back to the most, it is Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens.