Tom Jump’s moral theory

0. Introduction

Tom Jump is an atheist YouTuber with a prolific output, making videos several times a week, mostly debating Christian philosophers. Recently, he did a debate with Ask Yourself in which they discussed whether there are moral facts or not, with Jump arguing that there are. Jump’s position is that there is something like a ‘moral law’, which has similarities to physical laws. Their debate descended into a squabble over whether a specific statement of Jump’s expressed a proposition or not. I don’t want to follow that part of the discussion, but I do want to look at Jump’s theory as (I think) he intends it, and to point out some of the problems it has.

  1. What is the theory?

As I said above, Jump thinks that morality is objective, in a similar way to physical laws. Objective in this context means that it exists independently of any minds. We take physical laws, like the law of gravitation, to obtain in the universe just as much whether there are any minds present or not. If a moral law is objective, then it too would obtain just as well without any minds in existence.

Jump’s idea is that objective morality is defined in relation to the notion of involuntary impositions. I think we can have a go at reconstructing his idea as follows:

Action x is a morally wrong iff x is an involuntary imposition on A, for some agent A.

Part of the problem here is that we need to get clearer on what it means for something to be involuntary. This is because on various ways of understanding this term we run into trouble.

2. First go.

On one way of thinking about it, involuntary means something like ‘not actively consented to’. When things happen to someone but they have not specifically chosen that they happen, these are immoral. And sometimes that is right; sometimes things we haven’t actively consented to are immoral.

But this definition of ‘involuntary’ cannot be  what it means to be immoral, because if it were then it would classify things as immoral that are obviously not. For example, surprise birthday parties are not immoral, yet the recipient has ‘not actively consented to’ them happening. So it isn’t the case that the definition immoral is an involuntary imposition on someone, if involuntary means ‘not actively consented to’.

3. Second go

One might think that the problem with the surprise birthday case is that it isn’t involuntary unless you have actively stated that you do not want a surprise party. So maybe we could improve things by changing the definition of ‘involuntary’ from ‘not actively consented to’ to something like ‘against stated preference’. So before, the surprise party was immoral just because you didn’t say anything about the party, but now it would only be immoral if it went against your actively stated preferences. Assuming you have never actively expressed a preference for not having any surprise parties, it would not be an involuntary imposition on you for your friends to throw one for you, and so not immoral. This is an improvement, because it doesn’t misclassify surprise birthday parties.

And there is something fairly intuitive about this idea. Certainly sometimes things that go against our actively stated preferences are immoral. If someone tells you they do not want to have sex with you, but you continue to try to have sex with them then this would be a case of sexual assault, and clearly immoral.

But again, despite this partial alignment, this definition of involuntary cannot be the what it means to be immoral. That’s because there are obvious cases where things go against our stated preference, and are thus ‘involuntary’ in that sense, but that are not immoral. Imagine I go into a bar and order a beer. After I have finished it I state that my preference is for it to be on the house. If the bartender insisted that I have to pay for it, this would make it an ‘involuntary imposition’, because it is against my stated preference. But it is not an immoral thing for the bartender to do; he is quite within his moral rights to charge me for the beer, regardless of whether I stated that I would prefer not to pay for it. So there are obvious cases of things that are against my stated preferences which are not immoral.

4. Third go

As another try, we might say that something is involuntary if it is ‘against my desires’. We might think that the problem is that our previous two tries to define ‘involuntary’ were about whether we do, or no not, say something in particular. In contrast, we might think that it is about whether we have a desire or not, and not about what we say at all. So let’s define ‘involuntary’ as ‘against our desires’.

This would help with the surprise party example, as follows. Assuming I am the sort of person who enjoys surprise parties, then even though I haven’t actively stated that I consent to it, it wouldn’t be involuntary as such, because it wouldn’t be against my desires. It is the sort of thing I would have consented to had I known about it, because I desire that sort of thing to happen. So it is not involuntary, and so not immoral. So far, so good.

However, this is no help in the bartender case. I might just order a drink and desire for it to be on the house, but not say anything out loud. Is the bartender doing something immoral by charging me for the beer? No, clearly he is not. So this has the same problem here. Sometimes things happen that we don’t want to happen which are not immoral. Too bad.

This version also has problems from the other direction too. The problem is that sometimes people have immoral desires. Take a heroin addict who asks for his doctor to prescribe him some heroin. Clearly, the addict desires the heroin. Prescribing it to the addict wouldn’t be an involuntary imposition on him. But it is at least of dubious moral value for the doctor to do, if not outright immoral, even if the doctor wants the money being offered. Take another example: maybe some unstable (North Korean?) dictator asks an advanced country (the UK?) if he can buy some tanks from them. Clearly, it wouldn’t be an involuntary imposition on him to sell him the weapons, and maybe the other country wants the money. Still, just because both parties desire it doesn’t mean it is not immoral. We can easily iterate these examples.

5. Fourth go

One standard way to respond to these sorts of objections is to retreat from what people actually desire, to what they would desire if they were in some idealised state; if they were perfectly rational, etc. We might think that the heroin addict happens to desire another hit, but that he is just suffering from a lack of rationality. If he were being perfectly rational, then he would not desire to have more heroin; he would desire to get clean instead. And there is something intuitive about this particular example.

However, I think it is not so straightforward. The connection between rationality and desires is surprisingly complicated, and something debated at length by philosophers. One simple view, known as ‘Humeanism’ in the literature, is that someone is rational when their actions efficiently realise their desires. If I desire not to get wet, then knowingly walking into the rain without an umbrella is irrational. But, change the desire and the very same action becomes rational – if I want to get wet, then leaving my umbrella behind is rational.

The problem with this simple theory is that if you change the desire to, say, wanting to do something immoral, then the rational thing becomes whatever efficiently realises that desire, which would be to do something immoral. So if you want to kill someone, it might be rational to hit them over the head with a spade. Clearly, there is no guarantee that a perfectly rational person would have no immoral desires on this theory.

We could avoid this problem by abandoning the simple Humean theory. Instead of saying that only desires can motivate us, we could include beliefs too. Being rational might mean something like doing whatever realises your desires but is not believed to be immoral. So take someone who believes that it is wrong to murder people, but desires to kill you. He would be irrational if he hits you on the head with a spade because, although his actions realised his desires, they contradicted his beliefs about what is immoral.

But if someone had Jump’s starting point, then this option would collapse the whole project into circularity. We would have been led down the following path: the definition of immorality involves voluntariness, which in turn involves rationality, which itself involves the notion of beliefs about immorality, and the whole thing becomes a circle. We were offered a definition of immorality which in turn used the notion of immorality.

Thus, Jump is left with a dilemma: either tacitly include the notion of immorality in the definition of rationality, leading to circularity, or stick with Humeanism, and the problem of immoral desires.

6. Final thought

Even if this huge problem were somehow avoided, there is another one that is perhaps even more pressing. The whole point of this theory was supposed to be that it was a theory of objective morality. That means that the moral law that Jump was trying to express (which was supposed to be a bit like a physical law), doesn’t depend on minds to be true. But that is not the case here. If something is immoral when it is involuntary, then it depends on the person having some kind of intentional state, some desire or ‘will’, for it to be in contrast to. In a world where there were no people, there would be no wills for any action to be in contrast with, and so nothing would be immoral. There would be no true proposition, such as ‘x is immoral’, just because there would be no person on whom x would be an involuntary imposition. Thus, this theory is blatantly a variety of subjectivism and not a version of objectivism at all.


9 thoughts on “Tom Jump’s moral theory”

  1. Another great post. Enjoyed reading this.

    However, I think your last point — about subjectivity — fails. Consider the statement S: ‘if action phi is F then phi is immoral’. Suppose that F is filled out by some mental characteristic, eg, contrary to desires, and that S is considered an ordinary conditional statement, eg, S is not a counterfactual. In that case, S might be true even if there are no minds. At worlds where there are no minds, S is trivially true. At worlds where there are minds, S is true if actions contrary to desires are immoral.

    Suppose that S is a counterfactual. In this case, S could be necessarily true if in every world where someone phis and phi has feature F, their action is immoral.

    So I think S can be a mind independent truth even though S talks about minds.

    As far as your other objections go, Jump’s theory reminds me of preference utilitarianism. But preference utilitarianism can handle objections that Jump’s theory cannot handle. For example, your bartender example seems to involve a tension between the patron’s preference for the bar to pay the tab and the bar tender’s preference for the patron to pay. The preference utilitarian could argue that the patron should pay because, in this case, the bar tender’s preference overrides the patron’s. Do you think Jump could fix some of the problems with his view by making his view into preference utilitarianism?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Dan! Glad you enjoyed this.

      On your first point, take some classic subjective theory, according to which x is good iff I desire x. If I don’t exist, that is trivially true. So doesn’t that mean that even this theory isn’t subjective? Is it possible for a theory to be subjective??

      I agree that “S can be a mind independent truth even though S talks about minds”. For instance, “It is wrong to cause any mind to feel pain”, for example. That could be true even if there is no mind.

      I guess I was thinking of (especially the last version of) Jump’s theory to be dependent in a more significant way. Eating a chocolate morally wrong? Only if doing so is an involuntary imposition on someone. But if it isn’t, then it isn’t. While you can say that involuntary impositions are wrong even if there are no minds, you can’t say that any given action is wrong without any minds existing. Does that address your point?

      And yeah, he could rescue his theory quite a lot by adopting something like preference utilitarianism.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Alex — Glad to hear from you. I’m usually inclined to say that a statement is subjectively true if (roughly) the truth of the statement covaries with the subject who utters the claim. For example, indexical statements are subjective. Plausibly, for any given subjective statement of that sort, we can always give a truth functionally equivalent statement that is not subjective, e.g., “I have a headache” is truth functionally equivalent to “Dan has a headache”. Someone who wants to endorse a full blooded subjectivism would need presumably need to deny that all indexicals statements are truth functionally equivalent to non-subjective statements. In any case, maybe I’m being idiosyncratic here and no one else shares my intuition.

        Perhaps the thought is that a statement is subjective just in case the truth of the statement varies across possible worlds according to whether a given world contains minds. In that case, a statement like “if I harm any mind then I have done wrong” would fail to be subjective because that statement does not vary in the right way across possible worlds.

        Here are two more ways to drive home the intuition that Jump does not appear to be a subjectivist.

        1. Given that Jump’s view seems fairly close to preference utilitarianism and I wouldn’t ordinarily be inclined to call preference utilitarianism a subjectivist theory, I’m inlined to say that Jump’s theory is not subjectivist.

        2. Jump’s theory is close to moral claims that might be made by other moral theories that are not considered subjectivist. For example, let’s imagine a Kantian who argues as follows. We could not consistently will for everyone to live by a maxim in which agents place involuntary impositions on other agents. Therefore, we have a categorical imperative not to place involuntary impositions on other agents. Set aside whether an argument like that really works and let’s suppose that a Kantian really can muster an argument like that. In that case, would we say that the Kantian has a subjectivist view? If not, notice that, like Jump, they have a universal law according to which we ought not place involuntary impositions on other agents. If Jump’s view is subjectivist, then why isn’t the Kantian’s?


      2. I take it that subjectivism in meta-ethics means something like that moral claims, “x is wrong” etc, are reducible to claims about someone’s attitudes, like “Dan dislikes x”. In this sense, you need people with the right sort of attitudes to exist for there to be any (non-trivial) moral truths. So Jump’s theory seems to be subjective in that sense; “x is wrong” means something like “x goes against Dan’s will” or something. If there were no agents, there would be no true (non-trivial) propositions like “x is wrong”.

        Another way to think about it is that what is wrong or not depends on the choice of agent. So if something can be wrong for me, but good for you, then it is subjective. This seems closer to your intuition. Then Jump’s theory looks like it meets this too, as x might be against my will, but not yours. Maybe you enjoy being punched in the face, but I don’t, etc.

        I wouldn’t call preference utilitarianism subjective as such, but then I would see it as a theory in normative ethics, not meta-ethics. So it helps us decide *which* actions are the most good (the ones that maximise preferences), but it doesn’t tell us *what it means* for an action to be good. Jump’s theory seemed to an attempt at meta-ethics, as he put it forwards as a *definition* of morality.

        Same thing with the Kantian. I think you can have objective and subjective versions of Kantianism too.


      3. Thanks for your reply!

        Your response was clear and insightful. I think you correctly diagnosed much of what was wrong with what I was saying.

        I’ve never listened to Jump, so I don’t know what he says. But your description of what he says makes him sound like someone who is trying to do both metaethics and normative ethics. (And this might make for good symmetry with his theistic interlocutor who is also trying to offer both.) On the metaethical side, Jump thinks that there is a law of nature, that this law has the same metaphysical status as the laws of physics, and that the content of this law is that it’s wrong to place involuntary impositions on others. Because this law is supposed to have the same metaphysical status as the laws of physics, and the laws of physics are ordinarily taken to be objective, I think Jump should be understood as trying to offer an objectivist theory.


  2. I don’t think that it is TJump’s theory at all. As far as I have seen when he is using it it is just counter to theists objective morality claim. It is as made up as gods objective morality. If they can claim objective morality from god then he can claim objective morality from some unknown natural law.


  3. I was your big fan until I witnessed the Jump debate. I don’t know maybe you were primed by some vegan brat against him before the debate or something else. It’s really strange to me how you can be charitable and friendly with people like Slick, Darth or that jittery Craig’s minion from your other debate while seem to be intentionally thick with Jump. It’s strange for a philosopher like you to not be willing to analyze your own hypothetical deeper than “colloquial” intuition and then got offended by colloquial usage of the word itself. Maybe ethics just isn’t your thing.


    1. I’m sorry you feel that way. I wasn’t primed by anything other than watching Tom’s previous debates. I’ve seen plenty of them, not just the one referred to above.

      Also, I don’t think it is fair to say that I wasn’t willing to analyse my folk concept of morality (or “colloquial intuition”). I think it is reasonable to ask whether the output of applying his algorithm is actually tracking the concept of morality, or if it is just a nearby concept. And if the latter, then he is just using the word ‘morality’ to rebadge something else. It’s not a straightforward question of whether my concept is incorrect, or if he is changing the subject. That seems to be a question full of philosophical interest.

      I quite concede that I didn’t explore that as well as I would have liked to have done. But I feel like your account of the exchange doesn’t do my position justice.


  4. In everyday English, objectivity is often conflated with facts/statements that have a truth value, and subjectivity with opinions/statements with no truth value. I haven’t watched Tom Jump’s content but I suspect he would say that people’s preferences are themselves subjective (and lacking in truth value) but that whether someone has or doesn’t have a given preference is an objective fact/truth.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s