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.
- 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.