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.


18 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. If TJumps position is that, “the will of a person is the most important factor in determining the morality of something” what does his view have to say about suicide?

      If it is your will to kill yourself it would be immoral for anyone to stop you.

      If you do kill yourself you are eliminating your ability to will moving forward.

      What would be more important under his moral system? Letting them kill themselves if it is their will? Or stopping them so the can continue to exercise their will going forward? This example could even be expanded to, “what if the person wanting to commit suicide had kids who weren’t capable of caring for themselves.”

      Good post!


  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.


  5. All of these seem to be easy to answer:

    Bartender: Yes it is immoral to force someone to pay if they don’t consent to/punish them if they don’t. Just like any form of imprisonment is always immoral for any crime, its pragmatic for the function of the world but it is always immoral.

    Taking/desiring heroin isn’t immoral

    final thoughts: gravity is objective even if there are no particles with mass for it to affect, same applies to morality… how is that a problem?

    None of these seem to be issues for my model at all.


    1. You didn’t understand the doctor/addict example. I said that it would be of at least dubious moral value to sell the addict heroin, even if the addict actively wants it.

      But all you do is bite the bullet every time. The bartender is immoral for charging the guy for a drink, but the heroin dealer is not immoral for dealing heroin. The problem is that these consequences are not what we would expect for an account of what morality is.

      You are like the guy who says “my definition of morality is: x is immoral iff x is a teapot”. When someone points out that the Nazi Holocaust isn’t a teapot, he just bites the bullet and says “ok then, I guess it’s not immoral”.

      You can apply an algorithm that spits out the result that charging someone for a beer is immoral but dealing heroin isn’t. But you are just as wrong as the teapot man if you think that’s a theory of morality.


      1. Im not just biting the bullet, i’m claiming my answers are better. “charging someone under the threat of prison” is not moral/amoral… its obviously immoral

        Just the act of creating a tab is amoral, sending them to prison if they refuse is immoral.

        you argument is:
        “2000 years ago we thought slavery (or
        women rights, lgbt right, w/e) was morally ok, your moral theory says its not… these consequences are not what we would expect for an account of what morality is.”

        clearly this isnt a problem with a moral theory that says “slavery is wrong”, for the same reason its also not a problem with mine.

        And i ‘bite the bullet’ and say, ya you are wrong its immoral… and in the future based on the pattern of how moral progress works everyone will see it as wrong in future.
        like in startrek, where drinks are all free for this same reason.

        How is this a problem?

        Im answering the question what is the core of morality so we can understand what moral progress will be at any time, rejecting some beliefs today is not a bug its a feature.


      2. You bring up the issue of sending people to prison, or “under threat of prison”. This is totally irrelevant, and honestly is a good example of how you aren’t following the nuance of the issues here.

        First thing: I didn’t mention prison. You brought it into this conversation. That should be a hint that you are sliding from the issue at hand towards something else.

        Second thing: I agree that sending someone to prison for refusing to pay for a beer would be immoral (because it is disproportionate). But so what? Another thing that would be immoral as a response to someone not paying for a beer: killing their whole family as revenge. Again, what is the significance of this? Is this supposed to be a rebuttal to what I was saying? We aren’t talking about what sort of violence the bartender can do to someone who doesn’t pay for a beer. I certainly didn’t say the bartender can enforce this with violence or prison. We are talking about whether charging for a beer is morally wrong when someone states that they don’t want to pay for it. It’s a different thing completely. You missed the nuance and went charging off down the garden path.

        What I actually said was that the bartender “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”. This has *nothing* to do with any threats he might or might not be using. You totally superimposed into this that we were talking about something which involved the threat of prison. If I had said “the bartender is quite within his moral rights to send me to prison for not paying for the beer the beer, regardless of whether I stated that I would prefer not to pay for it”, then you would be saying something relevant.

        The point of the dialectic, because your response makes it clear you are not following it, is that I’m trying to get clear on what you mean by involuntary. Does it mean ‘not actively consented to’? Does it mean ‘against stated preference’? Does it mean ‘against what I would have consented to had I known about it’? Each of these has difference consequences.

        The bartender example came in when I was talking about the middle option – ‘against stated preference’. I walk into a bar, order a beer, drink it, and then say out loud ‘I don’t want to pay for that’. Does that mean that it would be immoral for the bartender to ask me to pay for it? Doing so imposes on my will to some extent, because by asking me to pay for it anyway he is mildly socially pressurising me (without violence or the threat of prison) to pay for the beer because I expressed my preference to not pay for it. If involuntary did mean ‘against stated preference’, then he is asking me to do something that is involuntary. Yet, clearly I’m the one being a dick here. I just ordered a beer and drank it. I don’t get to just stamp my feet like a little crybaby and say ‘but I don’t wanna’ when it comes time to pay the tab. To paint the bartender as the moral villain here would be nuts. It’s another example of where your theory would misfire if that is the implication it had.

        But you didn’t grasp the dialectic here. You didn’t engage with the nuance of the idea in any way. You just pointed out that it would be wrong to send me to prison for not paying for a beer. Ok, but that is irrelevant. The relevant question is: would it be morally wrong for the bartender to say something like “I don’t care that you don’t want to pay for the beer. You came in and drank it, so you should pay me”? It’s not a moral conundrum. Nobody is confused about what the answer here is. It isn’t morally wrong for the bartender to do that. Not only that, I morally ought to pay for the beer, regardless of whatever I say about whether I want to. But your theory seems to say that the bartender is being immoral merely because I state my preference out loud.

        This isn’t a lethal blow to your theory. But it’s one of a thousand silly counterintuitive consequences it has. It’s death from a thousand cuts. In the end, the sheer weight of counterintuitive consequences just makes it a bad candidate for being an account of morality.

        You characterise ‘my argument’ as:

        “2000 years ago we thought slavery (or women rights, lgbt right, w/e) was morally ok, your moral theory says its not… these consequences are not what we would expect for an account of what morality is.”

        Then you say:

        “clearly this isnt a problem with a moral theory that says “slavery is wrong”, for the same reason its also not a problem with mine.”

        So you are trying to say that the consequences I’m highlighting for your theory are just like if we were in (say) ancient Rome people and I am defending owning slaves against you arguing that it isn’t ok even if our culture seems to think that it is. As if I’m just clinging unreflectively to the prejudices of the day and you are a far sighted moral theorist ahead of his age.

        But look, the consequences of applying a moral theory *are* used as a way of showing difficulties for that theory. You don’t get to just brush them under the carpet by pretending you are ahead of your time. Consider Phillipa Foot’s famous problem for utilitarianism, where there is a hospital that could save five people’s lives but only if they take the organs out of the body of an otherwise perfectly healthy person. According to some versions of utilitarianism, that action maximises utility, and so that is what they should do. But that is extremely counterintuitive. The problem is that we know enough about morality, even if we don’t have a formal theory in mind, to know that we shouldn’t kill the guy in that situation, even if the utilitarian algorithm says we should. The utility ratio is too crude an instrument to characterise all morality, even if it has something important to say about morality. Sure, a utilitarian could say “but in the future we will routinely kill people in that situation to maximise utility”. That guy might be a moral profit foretelling the future, but he might just be a dick who refuses to see that his algorithm is flawed.

        That’s what I’m saying about your theory. You aren’t dispelling great miscarriages of moral justice with your diagnosis, like how we routinely mistreat animals, or people in far away countries, or whatever. Your theory is saying that dealing heroin is not morally wrong, that surprise birthday parties are morally wrong, and that if I drink a beer and refuse to pay for it I’m not in the wrong but the bartender who asks me to pay for it is. You are not the guy who is ahead of his time, calling out slavery when everyone else was being horrible to each other. You are the guy who says that the holocaust isn’t immoral because it’s not a teapot. Like Foot, I’m showing that the crude application of a simple algorithm misfires, and we can tell by looking at cases where we have a clear idea about what the answer is and the theory gives the opposite result.

        It’s as if you assume that if you say it then it must be right, and so the best way to explain why nobody else thinks the same thing as you is that you are tuned in to how philosophers of the future will think about things. I doubt I will puncture your ego enough for this to sink in, but that’s delusional man. Snap out of it.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You are right i wasn’t following at all what your point was because you were conflating involuntary with immoral… You should have asked, “Forget whether or not its moral, is this involuntary: [bartender example]”

        moral and voluntary are not the same.

        involuntary means all of those:
        ‘not actively consented to’
        ‘against stated preference’
        ‘against what I would have consented to had I known about it’

        Involuntary is NOT immoral

        Immoral = involuntary impositions

        If it doesn’t restrict your freedoms or force you to do something, its not immoral because its not an imposition… even if its involuntary

        Surprise parties are NOT immoral because there is no restriction of your freedoms or forcing you to do something (no imposition)

        Surprise parties are NOT immoral… as i said in the convo so that would not be a counterintuitive result of my model at all

        you are bad at explaining your points in a way that is easy to understand where you’re going

        Yes charging for drinks will be seen as immoral in future, just like in star trek

        I understand your argument is that my model is like the utilitarian one, “too crude” but you haven’t provided any examples of it being too crude.

        bartender is conflating involuntary with immoral, yes its involuntary no its not immoral

        surprise parties are not immoral on my model.

        Dealing heroin isn’t immoral, libertarianism agrees with that so its no too counterintuitive and we will not see it as immoral in future


  6. I really enjoyed this debate, Dr. Malpass. One thing I was thinking was interesting about Tom’s “Best Of All Possible World’s” was what if two people have opposing wills? Let’s say person A wants to move a rock but person B wants the rock to stay still. Either A’s will is involuntarily imposed upon or B’s is.


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