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Time to Abandon Ethics?

How should we do ethics if we cannot rely on not-justified-inferentially premises? Greene (2014) and Singer (2005) propose some kind of consequentialism. But there is insufficient reason to accept that problems of cooperative living are best solved by computing a singe attribute. And cutting up healthy people to distribute their organs will not end well.

A better approach may be to accept that we do not know anything much about ethics and adopt the attitude of a successful gambler. In making moral decisions, having a consistent set of principles is not the goal. Identifying and exploiting favourable risk-reward ratios is.

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How should we do ethics if we cannot rely on not-justified-inferentially premises?

Greene (2014) and Singer (2005) propose some kind of consequentialism. Such theories have many implications covering every decision you and I make, large or small. But the arguments for them are not compelling. Given what we learned about moral pluralism (see Moral Pluralism: Beyond Harm), they views appear revisionary insofar as they are committed to moral monism. Although this is not necessarily a problem, some explanation for the revision is needed. A further difficulty is that philosophers have defended a wide range of incompatible theories. As an outsider, it is not possible to know which, if any, of these theories is the true one.

Meanwhile we face practical problems with ethical aspects. Choosing careers, giving money and time, staying here or moving there. Some people even experience buying a coffee, shopping for food and disposing of their waste as actions with an ethical dimension. Here I think it is helpful to know that we do not know what is right. The complexity of even the most mundane decisions contrasts with the slender justification we might have for any general ethical principle or theory. This is just the kind of situation that calls for gambling.

We can make bets. To illustrate, consider Pogge’s question:

Do ‘the global poor have a much stronger moral claim to that 1 percent of the global product they need to meet their basic needs than we affluent have to take 81 rather than 80 percent for ourselves’? (Pogge, 2005, p. 2)

Confidently making a bet on the answer to this question does not require knowing ethical truths. Nor does it entail commitment to any ethical principles. Gambling is about identifying and exploiting favourable risk-reward ratios, not about having a consistent set of principles.

Pogge’s approach also illustrates one way in which philosophy is useful independently of yielding knowledge of ethical truths. Much of Pogge’s argument is an attempt to show that opposing ethical theories generate the same answer to the above question. And, in particular, that libertarianism, which is usually thought of as strong on property rights and so opposed to redistribution, does nevertheless support a positive answer to his question about the global poor. As ethical gamblers, the existence of multiple routes to the same answer, especially multiple routes with inconsistent starting points, is exactly the kind of thing that can increase our confidence in a bet.

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moral pluralism : Descriptive moral pluralism is the view that humans’ ethical abilities involve distinct moral concerns (such as harm, equality and purity) which are not reducible to just one moral concern.
not-justified-inferentially : A claim (or premise, or principle) is not-justified-inferentially if it is not justified in virtue of being inferred from some other claim (or premise, or principle).
Claims made on the basis of perception (That jumper is red, say) are typically not-justified-inferentially.
Why not just say ‘noninferentially justified’? Because that can be read as implying that the claim is justified, noninferentially. Whereas ‘not-justified-inferentially’ does not imply this. Any claim which is not justified at all is thereby not-justified-inferentially.
reflective equilibrium : A method that is supposed to provide justification for claims. The idea is to gather considered judgements about particular situations and attempt to identify principles which from which those judgements could be inferred, and then to adjust the judgements and principles so that they cohere. The canonical statement is Rawls (1999) (but Rawls, 1951 is a useful earlier statement). Authoritative secondary sources are Knight (2023) and Scanlon (2002).


Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.
Knight, C. (2023). Reflective Equilibrium. In E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman (Eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2023). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from
Pogge, T. W. M. (2005). World Poverty and Human Rights. Ethics & International Affairs, 19(1), 1–7.
Rawls, J. (1951). Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics. The Philosophical Review, 60(2), 177–197.
Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice (Revised edition). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Scanlon, T. M. (2002). Rawls on justification. In S. Freeman (Ed.), The cambridge companion to rawls (pp. 139–167). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Singer, P. (2005). Ethics and Intuitions. The Journal of Ethics, 9(3), 331–352.