CosmicSkeptic on Objective Morality (2): Pleasure and Morality

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This is the second of a two-part series in which I assess CosmicSkeptic’s (a.k.a. Alex O’Connor) claim that he can make morality objective. A crucial part of O’Connor’s argument is that human behaviour is completely determined, so my first article argued against O’Connor, that we are meaningfully free. This article will address O’Connor’s claim that ultimately the only thing we desire (and which we must desire) is pleasure, before critiquing the way he brings this all together into a theory of an objective morality.


After his argument against freewill, where he argued every action is motivated by desire (and since we don’t choose our desires, our actions are fully determined), the next plank in O’Connor’s strategy is to claim that there is actually only one desire motivating our actions, only one desire we desire for itself; pleasure.

O’Connor suggests adopting Derek Parfit’s definition of pleasure as that which is wanted when experienced. I don’t have a problem with this as long as we bear two things in mind. First, what is wanted in pleasure is wanted because it produces a pleasurable feeling. This isn’t meant to be controversial, nor is it meant to be an argument. We don’t need an argument or a carefully worded definition of pleasure because everyone knows what pleasure is, by virtue of having had pleasurable experiences. Pleasure is a pleasurable feeling. You might object that this definition is circular, and you’d be right. Usually a definition of a thing that includes that thing in the predicate isn’t much of a definition, but when it comes to experiences, a definition that doesn’t include the thing in the predicate will always fail as a definition. How could you describe envy, redness, happiness, or any other experience to someone who has never experienced these things? You couldn’t. Yes, pleasure is that which is wanted when experienced but only if what is experienced is pleasurable. The second thing I caution we need to remember in accepting Parfit’s definition is that pleasure, being a feeling, is, by definition, a short-lived, immediate phenomenon. It is also, for the same reason, inward-directed, focusing on the self and one’s own desires. Again, this isn’t an argument. It’s just what pleasure is.

The question then, is do we always act only for our own pleasure? Consider someone who follows God’s commands even though they insist they don’t really want to and doing so doesn’t give them any pleasure. They do what God orders because it will make their family happy, or they want to get into heaven, or they feel obliged to for some other reason. Someone like O’Connor might argue that even though they may tell us they don’t really want to obey God, in truth, they do. After all, if they really didn’t want to, they wouldn’t; no matter the consequences. The mere fact that this person does follow God’s commands means they want to, therefore, they must derive some kind of pleasure from doing so.

It’s this last slide, from want to pleasure, that is problematic, and why I insisted on refining Parfit’s definition to emphasise that pleasure must be both pleasurable and immediate. If we leave the definition of pleasure as that which is wanted when experienced, the distinction between want and pleasure is completely erased, and this can’t be right. It makes it all too easy to then claim that whatever feeling our nominal believer gets as a result of walking the streets on Sunday (after church, of course) handing out pamphlets to strangers about the Good News (which happens to be one of God’s commands according to the faith our imaginary believer belongs to), is obviously something they want when they experience it (because they’ve deliberately chosen it, even if it’s just to please their family or get into heaven), and therefore, it just as obviously qualifies, according to the definition, as pleasure, even though the ‘believer’ may actually experience displeasure when following through with the action.

The truth is that we can perform, and want to perform, actions for reasons other than pleasure. We can even want to do things that give us no pleasure. This doesn’t seem particularly controversial to me. I agree with my fictional objector above that on a very strict interpretation, the ‘believer’ does in fact want to follow God’s rules (on this interpretation we always do what we want and always want to do what we do in fact do), but I disagree that this necessarily means they get pleasure from doing so. When the ‘believer’ says they don’t want to, what they actually mean is they derive no pleasure from doing so; i.e. they would rather break (some of) God’s rules. They want (as in, ‘choose’) to follow the rules, despite the lack of pleasure (or even, displeasure) involved.

So, wanting to do things and getting pleasure from doing things are different. But if a person gets no pleasure (an immediate, short-lived, pleasurable feeling) from performing an act, why would they do it? This brings us to an important distinction I want to make; one between pleasure (and even happiness) and something more enduring, something that can’t be reduced to a rush of endorphins or a momentary high, something therefore not an emotion, something more like a pleasurable/happy state. Just so we have a word for this, let’s call it contentment. To better see the distinction, imagine buying something you have had your eye on for a while. I’ll use the example of books (nerd alert! – Hey, I like books. Leave me alone). So, the books you ordered a while ago have just arrived. You unpack them and stack them on your desk before leafing through the pages and admiring the cover artwork. That feeling you’re feeling right now is pleasure. If you looked at an fMRI scan of your brain, pleasure centres would be lighting up like crazy (Really? For books? Just go with it…). A week later, the books have migrated from centre stage on your desk to a less privileged spot on your bookshelf with all the other ‘common’ books. You don’t feel that emotional high anymore when you think about them; instead, it has been replaced with a kind of contentment, a more enduring satisfaction that isn’t represented by endorphins flooding pleasure centres in your brain but certainly isn’t nothing either. The difference between pleasure and contentment is the difference between buying and owning something. Expanding the analogy to life in general, contentment is more like a background awareness that you are living, what I have called elsewhere, a well-lived life, however you might define the term ‘well-lived’. In this, it’s more intellectual or reflective than emotional.

My counter-claim is that it is contentment, not pleasure, that, if we look closely enough, ultimately motivates all human action. Consider our religious believer again. They are choosing to do things that, not only don’t give them pleasure, but actually provoke displeasure. This is inexplicable if you treat human beings as non-reflective, pleasure-maximising machines; that is, as basically glorified versions of a bacterium, which mindlessly propels itself towards favourable surroundings and away from unfavourable ones. On the contrary, with my analysis, the believer’s behaviour makes perfect sense because we can see they are motivated by things other than pure sensory gratification. They know their family wants them to believe and since they value family more than they value having their Sunday afternoons free, they grin and bear it. Again, they don’t get pleasure from being a part of a family, in the same way we saw owning the books didn’t result in pleasure; rather, they get a more abiding sense of contentment, that is as much intellectual as it is emotional. Or perhaps they believe that having a faith is part of being a virtuous human being. This doesn’t mean the pleasure centres in the believer’s brain are perpetually lit up though. What it does mean is the believer thinks (not ‘feels’) that part of living a well-lived life is to have faith. They know this will mean doing things that don’t give pleasure (and not doing things that would) but they accept this. This is only possible precisely because they aren’t a glorified bacterium spending their whole life seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

Consider another situation O’Connor supplies; that of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies. Surely there’s no way we can attribute pleasure to this act. Well, the trick, O’Connor claims, is to see that the soldier isn’t getting pleasure as such; rather, he’s minimising future suffering. You see, this heroic soldier knows that if he doesn’t dive on the grenade, he will blame himself for the rest of his life. Compared to this, the grenade is the more ‘pleasurable’ (or less painful) option.

This is really straining the limits of credulity. No reasonable explanation of the soldier’s action can possibly appeal to pleasure… unless, that is, you happen to remove the notions of ‘pleasure’ and ‘feeling’ from the word. The soldier doesn’t get pleasure from their act (full disclosure; I’ve never dived on a grenade, but I have a fairly good idea of what it entails) but does live a well-lived life according to their understanding of ‘well-lived’, which presumably includes non-emotional (i.e. intellectual) reflections on virtue, compassion, concern for others, courage, heroism, sacrifice, etc.

This example highlights another problem for O’Connor; on his account of the world, no human being ever performs any truly selfless act. This means there are no such things as heroic, compassionate, or even kind acts, unless by those terms we mean nothing more than ‘actions in which a person’s self-interest and the welfare of others happen to overlap’. This isn’t special pleading. I’m not saying “it would be terrible to live in a world where heroic acts are impossible, therefore heroism must be possible.” I’m saying heroism is possible, compassion is real, and people do perform genuinely kind acts, irrespective of whether they actually derive pleasure from the act or not. Such acts may be relatively rare (we often do get pleasure from doing nice things for others) but O’Connor is arguing they are impossible and his attempt to square the soldier and grenade circle just doesn’t work. Some ‘believers’ really do adhere to the religious code of their upbringing even though it actually brings them displeasure, and no soldier has ever dived on a grenade out of a selfish concern over their future suffering.

Before we move on, let me try to quickly summarise what I have argued here:

  • Pleasure is a short-lived, immediate, pleasurable feeling
  • Wanting to do something is different from getting pleasure from doing that thing, although the two are often connected
  • Contentment is a more intellectual, background satisfaction that one is fulfilling the requirements of a well-lived life
  • While all human action is not reducible to pleasure, it is ultimately explicable by contentment

Objective Morality – The Full Argument

After having examined O’Connor’s claims regarding freewill and pleasure in some detail, we are now in a position to see exactly how all of this comes together into an argument that will finally bring us to an objective morality. (To bring O’Connor’s plan to fruition, in this section I will assume his freewill and pleasure arguments are valid)

Premise 1: We desire pleasure and that is the only thing we desire in itself (per the pleasure argument)

Premise 2: We must act according to our desires (which are themselves determined) (the freewill argument per article 1)

Conclusion 1: Anything you do is (and must be) done from the belief that it will maximise your pleasure

Premise 3: [Insert traditional immoral act here] does not maximise an individual’s pleasure

Conclusion 2: The individual must stop [insert traditional immoral act here]


Conclusion 1 in the above argument means that every action you perform necessarily indicates a belief you hold about the world (specifically concerning the pleasure you will derive from those actions) that is either correct or incorrect. By pointing out to those people who do things traditional morality would have called ‘wrong’, that their actions are predicated on incorrect beliefs (premise 3), not only will they change, but because they must act to maximise their pleasure they will have no choice in the matter (conclusion 2). Since there are no ‘oughts’ or ‘shoulds’ in any of this, we have succeeded in effecting moral change with purely objective ‘is’ statements, or facts about the world.

Take shoplifting as an example. On O’Connor’s account, the act itself isn’t wrong; rather, as he says, it indicates wrongness. It indicates that the shoplifter holds a belief about the natural world, an ‘is’ statement, which is wrong; in this case, the belief that they will get more pleasure from shoplifting than they would if they didn’t. If we pull the shoplifter aside and successfully impart to them the truth about the world, that in reality they would get more pleasure from not shoplifting, they must (by the freewill argument) change their behaviour. Voila. Objective morality.

Objective Morality – The Critique

First Problem: The moral premise is false

There are three premises in O’Connor’s argument. I’ve already argued the first two are fatally flawed. Let’s turn our attention to the third; what I call the moral premise, which says traditional immoral acts do not maximise an individual’s pleasure. If you’ve read about Socrates at all, this might sound familiar. Socrates believed that one’s true happiness was promoted by virtuous behaviour, and since everyone seeks happiness, everyone seeks virtue; i.e. no one intentionally does the wrong thing. Non-virtuous behaviour then, is merely the result of ignorance and can be remedied through knowledge. The only difference is that Socrates wasn’t averse to calling certain acts virtuous or vicious (O’Connor assiduously avoids such value-laden terms) and used the more complex, holistic term ‘happiness’ which suggests a conscious, experiencing subject (O’Connor prefers ‘pleasure’, which has more reductionist overtures, suggesting more mechanical, chemical/biological processes).

So anyway, now that we have finally reached the ‘morality’ part of O’Connor’s moral system, one might expect a detailed discussion of exactly how our traditional moral injunctions actually turn out to be pleasure maximising strategies for the individual… but in that case, one would be disappointed. Surprisingly, O’Connor makes almost no effort to actually defend this fairly outrageous claim, and in fact, seems to simply assume that it’s true. All things considered though, this is probably the best approach for him to take because I can’t think of a single way to reasonably defend it. In theory, I can imagine countless situations in which doing the ‘wrong’ thing will result in net pleasure for the ‘wrongdoer’ and doing the ‘right’ thing will result in net suffering. In practice as well, everybody reading this can almost certainly recount events in his or her life where doing the ‘wrong’ thing actually yielded a net pleasure gain, or where doing the ‘right’ thing resulted in a net pleasure loss (remember, the pleasure or suffering of other people, as long as it doesn’t affect you, is irrelevant).

Another testament to the implausibility of the moral premise is that if it were true, it would mean that throughout the whole of human history we have been trying to force ourselves and others to follow moral strictures with threats, punishments, arguments, and even appeals to divine mandate… when all we had to do was do whatever brought us the most pleasure. For us to have somehow missed this truth, it would have to follow that we genuinely don’t know what gives us pleasure, or know it but are unable to resist that alluring siren call of pain and suffering. The first option is plainly false (everyone knows what gives them pleasure – even someone deriving short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term pain still knows what gives them pleasure, and more often than not knows the long-term pain is coming but accepts it; e.g. the hangover the day after), and the second contradicts O’Connor’s central premise that we must pursue pleasure.

In the face of this, the only thing I could imagine O’Connor doing here to defend the moral premise is marshalling some ethical arguments in its favour. Something perhaps like this:

  • If everyone shoplifted, the whole system of commerce would break down. This would negatively impact you (our shoplifter) as much as everyone else.
  • If you shoplift, you will continually worry about being caught (increased suffering).
  • Every time you steal something, you risk being caught which will dramatically reduce your pleasure.
  • Shoplifting erodes your sense of self-worth in ways you might not recognise at first but which will gradually cause you a lot of suffering.
  • Working and earning money to buy things legally would give you a sense of pride and enhance your self-worth (increased pleasure).

You can probably quite easily add more reasons to this list, but there’s no point because none of these reasons for being moral are genuine objective facts about the world; i.e. none of them qualify as ‘is’ statements. They are all either counterfactual claims, which are true only if certain things happen, or claims which are completely dependent on the subjectivity of the person under consideration. In fact, the first example I gave is Kant’s categorical imperative and the rest are all standard moral arguments one might encounter in an Ethics 101 class. After all of that build-up, we’ve just come right back to traditional moral arguments which have been around for ages and are no more decisive in O’Connor’s system than they are in Kant’s or Bentham’s or anyone else’s.

Second Problem: The objectivity isn’t fully objective

O’Connor claims his morality here is objective. What he means when he uses this word is that he doesn’t need words like ‘ought’ or ‘should’ to get to his conclusions. A morality that relies on ‘oughts’ will always be contingent and require additional consent on the part of the agent to be effective. This is because ‘oughts’ will always be tied to ‘ifs’; you ought to do X… if you value P. If you don’t really care about P, then there’s no reason for you to bother doing X. Because O’Connor has removed all ‘ifs’ from his theory (this was the point of the pleasure and freewill arguments), he has also been able to remove all ‘oughts’. It’s a theory of ‘is’ statements. This is what O’Connor seems to mean when he says his morality is ‘objective’. I’m not sure what I think about this use of the word, but it is definitely a fairly watered-down version of objectivity.

To be philosophically objective (presumably relevant considering we are talking about a branch of philosophy here) a proposition must be true independent of any subjective experience. The assertion that ‘grass is green’ is not an objective truth because ‘greenness’ depends on the subjective experience (via the visual system) of an observing subject. ‘Grass reflects light with a wavelength of around 510nm’, on the other hand, is objective because it is true whether you subjectively experience this light as green, red, or pink with purple polka dots. An objective truth is something we might call a natural truth, or hard fact, about the world; something that is a particular way, irrespective of any subjective considerations.

With this understanding in place, we can now see that O’Connor’s moral premise, a claim about what maximises pleasure, since pleasure is a phenomenon that is wholly subjective, cannot, on principle, be objective. Why is this important? Am I just nit-picking? Well, in calling his morality ‘objective’, O’Connor does seem to getting a little more bang than his buck is actually worth, in effect, clearing the lower bar of removing ‘oughts’, but claiming the higher bar of having reduced morality to ‘hard facts’ about the world. I’m not suggesting O’Connor is deliberately attempting to mislead here; just pointing out that the objectivity of this moral system isn’t quite as eliminative of the messy element of subjectivity as it might at first appear.

Third Problem: Moral relativism

Recall that the act of shoplifting isn’t wrong for O’Connor; rather it indicates wrongness. Where is this wrongness located? In the beliefs an individual has about the world. This means that O’Connor is tying his morality to an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure, and this makes the whole edifice individualistic in nature; i.e. an extreme instance of moral relativism. He can’t say shoplifting is wrong, because, on his account, it isn’t. Rather, every act must be weighed and measured against the individual performing it. This inability to appeal to any impersonal, universal, truly objective principles has two immediate, and very concerning, consequences. First, it could very well turn out that an abhorrent act might actually, after all the ‘calculations’ are made, bring pleasure to some individual, and thereby be ‘moral’. Second, there is absolutely no way to resolve ‘moral’ disputes where the actions of two or more individuals, acting in accordance with their desire to seek pleasure, clash in some way.

O’Connor acknowledges my first concern but astonishingly dismisses it by saying it’s “unfortunate”. On his account, there’s nothing we can do about it because since the individual has no freewill they are going to do it anyway. What!? So, we run the numbers and discover that individual A (or even worse, society A) actually gets pleasure from raping, or keeping slaves, or slaughtering those barbarian hordes to the north, or burning ‘witches’, etc. This means that, for individual/society A, their preferred heinous act is moral and there’s nothing anyone, not even individual/society A, can do about it. End of story. Hmm, not really the conclusion you might have been hoping for from a moral system.

Regarding my second concern, imagine I get pleasure from stealing my neighbour’s computer. He, however, gets pleasure from using it. Who’s right? Well, obviously, according to O’Connor, both of us are. You might try to squirm out of this impasse by suggesting that property laws trump morality. But that would mean having a legal system out of step with our moral code, and none of this matters anyway because if I get more pleasure out of it, I’m still going to steal my neighbour’s computer. I have no free say in the matter, remember!

Fourth Problem: The morality isn’t moral

O’Connor has explicitly argued for a fully determined world in which there is no freewill and there are no values beyond self-interest. Words like good/bad and ought/should mean nothing in such a world. This is precisely what O’Connor wants though. As we have seen, he wants a world where things are inevitable and certain, where people do what they do according to immutable laws of nature. The irony is that even if this mechanistic world happened to produce perfect harmony for all of its inhabitants, we wouldn’t be able to call anything that happened in it moral. How can you have morality without ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actions, or the ability to choose between them? How can you act morally if you are merely pursuing your own pleasure? The word ‘morality’ is just a word, but, like all words, it means something. You can’t simply redefine it to make it fit in with whatever system suits you.

Think about what the word ‘morality’ means for a moment. For me, three things come to mind. Choice, a good/bad distinction, and an ‘other-focus’. Without the ability to make genuinely free choices, there is no morality. Think about something that we know for certain has no freewill; water. Water flows downhill. It has no choice in this. It truly must obey this stricture. Now, imagine a river merrily meandering its way down to the sea. It comes to a junction from which it can reach the sea by either flowing up over a hill, destroying an entire village in the process, or down through an unpopulated valley. If it goes downhill, as it must, is this moral? Of course not. But why not? Because we know that water isn’t a moral agent – it just obeys the law of gravity. If the village had been built in the valley instead, and the river destroyed it, there would be nothing (im)moral here either, for the same reason. Likewise, if a person does something they had no choice but to do, by definition, the act has nothing to do with morality. It’s just the working out of a law of nature. Move along folks. Nothing moral to see here. This single realisation completely pulls the moral rug out from under O’Connor’s determined feet. He wants a morality without ‘shoulds’. This means a morality that compels obedience. But something that compels obedience can’t be moral. O’Connor snookered himself right from the outset.

Secondly, any moral system must distinguish between good and bad (or equally, right and wrong) acts. I don’t think I’ve used the words ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as moral terms once in this entire article and that’s because O’Connor avoids them like the plague. He steers clear of them because he knows they invoke values, a spectre that puts us squarely on the dreaded ‘ought’ side of the is/ought line. In O’Connor’s system, actions are neither good nor bad. We can’t even say, “Acting in the interests of your own pleasure is good” because it isn’t. It’s just what human beings do. It’s what we have to do thanks to the immutable law of cause and effect. In a system like this where actions either happen according to a certain pleasure-maximising formula or not, and if it is discovered they don’t, the defective action is automatically corrected, morality just doesn’t exist. All you have are machines (albeit biological ones) doing what they have been programmed to do.

Finally, morality requires an ‘other-focus’. What I mean by this is that morality must consider the welfare of other people in some way. Imagine if you were completely alone on Earth. Morality, as a concept, would cease to have any meaning whatsoever. You couldn’t do anything moral (or immoral) because there would be no one else to be (im)moral towards. If you think harming yourself can be immoral, that is only because you consider yourself to be a creature deserving of moral consideration. If there were other beings like you, they would necessarily be equally deserving of such consideration, bringing us back to my requirement of an ‘other-focus’.

I have argued that O’Connor’s objective moral system is an abject failure. There is one silver lining though. He has quite convincingly reminded us that the term objective morality is an oxymoron. Morality, whatever else we might mean by the word, must be at least four things:

  • First, it must use terms like good/bad and right/wrong. This will make it values-based.
  • Second, it must involve beings capable of making genuinely free choices between those good/bad and right/wrong options.
  • Third, being built on values, it can’t be afraid of crossing the is/ought line. If a morality is afraid of using the word ‘ought’, the absolute best we can hope for is a description of how the world is, not a prescription of how it should be. O’Connor’s system has shown, not that you can’t get an ought from an is (we already knew this), but that you can’t get a morality without an ought.
  • Fourth, it must be other-directed in some way. A selfish morality doesn’t work and is quite simply a contradiction in terms.


Alex O’Connor has tried to realise the modern, scientific dream of creating a purely objective morality. I have argued he has not succeeded in this. The two central planks O’Connor sought to use to compel us to act in predictable, guaranteed, ‘moral’ ways, his freewill argument (the position that we don’t have any) and pleasure argument, were both fatally flawed. I argued that freewill is incoherent in a universe where there is nothing going on except physical ball bearings bouncing around (the materialistic view), and determinism is incoherent in a universe where there are interesting non-physical goings on (i.e. subjectivity and mental phenomena). Given that we clearly live in the latter, freewill gets my vote. I also argued that, because pleasure is a short-lived, inward-focused, pleasurable feeling, we don’t only and always perform acts which we think will maximise our pleasure. Instead, I countered that we always seek contentment, a more intellectual sense of satisfaction that we are enjoying ‘well-lived’ lives. This concept better reflects our decision-making process and gives us a more effective mechanism for understanding our motivations in a way that preserves and allows for genuine acts of generosity and compassion.

Once we reached O’Connor’s actual argument for objective morality, particularly what I called ‘the moral premise’, I argued it is neither true nor moral, isn’t completely objective, and inasmuch as it is entirely individualistic in nature, is an extreme example of moral relativism that can (at least sometimes, if not often) end up endorsing morally reprehensible behaviour. The truth of the moral premise (that traditional immoral acts do not maximise pleasure for the individual) turned out to be impossible to defend and ran counter to both hypothetical and real life situations, while O’Connor’s use of the word ‘objective’ was highly problematic. Avoiding ‘ought’ statements turned out to be a fairly low bar to clear objectively-speaking, while genuine philosophical objectivity was nowhere to be found. Finally, I argued that morality requires at least three things; genuine choice, a good/bad distinction, and an ‘other-focus’. Seeing that O’Connor’s system lacks all of these things, it doesn’t even qualify as morality.

In the end what thwarts O’Connor in his quest is the fact that he is chasing a fiction. Perhaps he wanted to automate morality so it would deliver results even in the face of less-than-moral subjects. If so, this is a noble goal but one that is internally self-contradictory. An objective morality is impossible because a moral system, in order to be a moral system, can’t be objective. Objectivity gives us a description of how things are. Morality tells us how things ought to be or how we should act. Removing the ‘should’, by definition, removes the morality. In throwing out the subjective bathwater, you can’t help but throw the moral baby out as well. On the bright side though, if you get pleasure from such an act…

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