Existentialist Ethics and Value Realism
By “existentialist ethics” I mean ethical theories according to which ethical precepts or principles are determined by the moral agent’s acts of choice and have no basis in objective reality. They are imposed not encountered, invented not discovered, projected not detected, endogenous not exogenous, subjective not objective, human not extra-human, internal not external. Existentialist ethicists include Sartre, Ayer, Hare, Mackie, and anyone who thinks that values spring from us and not the world outside of us—anyone who thinks values spring from our attitudes. By “value realism” I mean the view that values exist independently of our acts and attitudes; they are in the world as it is prior to any choices, decisions, or posturing on our part. They are the basis of our moral beliefs not the product of them. They are objective facts of nature, as real as anything. Awareness of them is what grounds our moral attitudes and practices. I will argue (a) that value realism (VR) is the only alternative to existentialist ethics (EE), and (b) that EE is demonstrably inadequate as an ethical theory (or type of ethical theory). So, it is either moral nihilism or moral realism, with nothing in between.
Philosophers and others have certainly felt that those two alternatives are unacceptable and that it is possible to contrive less rebarbative moral theories. Thus, we have emotivism, prescriptivism, divine command theory, utilitarianism, deontology (Kantian and other), virtue ethics, and contractualism–in opposition to full-blown Sartrean existentialism. I think all these are the product of wishful thinking: their flaws are easy to discern and are really doomed attempts to avoid the dilemma I sketched above (nihilism or realism). The common problem is that all these theories introduce deep arbitrariness into moral thought (unless they are taken to presuppose VR): since there is nothing (allegedly) objective to ground moral thought, it is left as a free-floating enterprise subject to no rational constraint. This has been a constant refrain in reaction to such theories, but I don’t think the depth of the problem has been properly appreciated: it is pervasive and principled.
Let’s go over the theories in question, beginning with classic Sartrean existentialism (I will try to be brief). This theory maintains that we live in a value-free world, so that we must fall back on our own free decisions, which reflect the nothingness of human nature (“existence precedes essence”). We freely choose in an ethical void; we commit ourselves to values that have no objective validity. Authenticity is facing up to the inescapable absence of objective value and simply choosing what values we shall live by. The problem is that such a choice must be inherently arbitrary: you can choose any value system and not be accused of error. Since you choose in a vacuum, anything will be as defensible as anything else: there is nothing to stop you simply reversing ordinary bourgeois morality and replacing it with such precepts as “murder is right”, “stealing is good”, “genocide is meritorious”. We cannot say that anything is wrong in itself, only that we choose to describe certain things as wrong on no other basis than that we so decide. Anything else is deemed “bad faith”.
It is easy to see that the same problem afflicts emotivism and prescriptivism. Since nothing objective (“factual”) grounds our emotional reactions, there can be no reason to prefer one kind of evaluative emotional reaction to another, except such considerations as convenience, popularity, and prejudice. If a person reacts emotionally to murder with a kind of cold thrill, then there can be no objection to him: that’s just the way he feels. If you feel an emotional solidarity with the Nazis, who is to gainsay your emotion? There is nothing out there to show that you are wrong. Prescriptivism has the same difficulty: you can universally prescribe anything so long as your prescriptions are consistent; there can be no such thing as a false prescription. You can choose your prescriptions according to whim, which means the choice is arbitrary. There is no objective criterion of correctness for moral prescriptions. We cannot say that only certain prescriptions follow from what objective values require, these being the morally right prescriptions to make.
You might think divine command theory avoids the problem of arbitrariness, since we can appeal to God’s commands to ground our moral beliefs: we prescribe what God prescribes, and feel what he feels. The problem here is not that God doesn’t exist; it’s that the same objection applies to God. He could choose otherwise and then that would become the moral law (the Euthyphro problem). God’s ethics is essentially an existentialist ethics. If God is a prescriptivist about moral language, then his moral prescriptions are as arbitrary as ours, there being nothing that grounds them except free choice. He too is shooting in the moral dark.
Surely utilitarianism is not subject to the same problem, since it identifies goodness with pleasure and badness with pain (or something similar)—and these are clearly facts about the world beyond the judging subject. Indeed, but that is to be a value realist; it doesn’t suppose that value is a freely given human projection onto the world. On the other hand, if you insist that value is so projected, and is not intrinsic to pleasure and pain, then you are back with the arbitrariness problem. For again, the projection may not follow the standard distribution: we could project goodness onto pain and badness onto pleasure without violating any objective facts. Absurd, no doubt, but not contrary to the EE playbook. Either pleasure and pain are intrinsically, objectively, good or bad, respectively, or they are so only by means of free decision—so it’s either VR or EE with nothing in between.
What about deontological ethics? Again, we have the same problem: are our duties and obligations inherently good or is it a matter of free decision? If the former, then we have VR; if the latter, then we have EE and arbitrariness. Is promise-keeping good in itself or is it only good because we deem it so? Does it have intrinsic value or only imposed value? If the latter, then there is no basis for erroneous deeming; any deeming is as good, or bad, as any other (subject to consistency requirements).
Virtue ethics is the same: either the virtues are inherently good (virtuous) or they are good because we decide they are, projecting goodness onto them; and the same for the vices. The former is a type of VR, the latter a type of EE. Clearly, we can’t just stipulate what is to be a virtue—as if we could decide that it’s virtuous to protect rocks but not children. But why not if being virtuous is something freely conferred by suitable mental or verbal acts? Virtue ethics is not an alternative to VR or EE, but presupposes one or the other of these positions.
Contracts are freely entered into by consenting parties and may contain all sorts of agreements; so contractualism will be open to the arbitrariness objection. You and I may both agree that I can whip your children if they trespass onto my property so long as I feed them afterwards, but that would hardly be a sound moral rule. Only if we build correct values into our contracts can they be expected to produce sound moral conduct; the contract by itself cannot do this. Contracts can’t confer values by themselves, so they can’t be the basis of morality. Contractualism is really a kind of social EE: not the solitary subject legislating value, but the social group willing value into existence by mutual consent.
It seems, then, that all the standard theories fall into one camp or the other: they either tacitly assume value realism or they endorse some form of existentialist ethics. There is no middle ground—no non-realist account of morality, as we have it. Morality implodes under existentialist principles. But we cannot infer from this that realist ethics is victorious, attractive as that may seem; for it may be that there are fatal objections to VR. In that case, moral nihilism would be the indicated conclusion: there is just no such thing as right and wrong. It can’t be a matter of objective mind-independent values because there are none such, and it can’t be a matter of humanly imposed values because that would be to make morality arbitrary; so, it can’t be anything. Obviously, then, we must enquire into the viability or otherwise of value realism, which I leave to a separate paper (“Value Realism and Metaphysical Mystery”).
 Obviously too, there is a substantial historical background to what I say here; I make no claim to originality. It was Iris Murdoch who first pointed out the similarities between Sartre and various Oxford philosophers (Ayer, Hare).