Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 3: Examples

In part 1, I discussed the idea of denying moral conflict and moral responsibility. Morality is about how to make decisions. Moral conflict is where people want to enact moral ideas that are incompatible with one another. Moral responsibility meas that a person can and should exercise his judgement about what he will do and in particular about dumping bad ideas and developing better ideas. Denying moral conflict means denying that there is a moral disagreement in situations where such a disagreement exists. Denying moral responsibility means denying that you can and should change your bad ideas and actions. There are many institutions and ideologies in the West that seem dedicated to helping people to deny moral conflict and moral responsibility, as I shall now explain.

Theism and Atheism

Both theists and atheists often say that the existence of god is required for objective morality. In reality, the existence of god is incompatible with morality being objective and does nothing at all to explain right and wrong.

There are two possibilities, both of which are fatal to theistic explanations of morality. (1) God invented morality on a whim, in which case we might as well just say that shit happens and dispense with god. (2) God invented morality for some reason, e.g. – because acting in some ways is better for us medically than acting in other ways. (I am not advocating this standard, just using it as an illustration.) But then we might as well just say that we should act morally because of that reason, e.g. – we should act morally because doing so will be better for us medically than acting otherwise.

There is another weakness of the typical theistic explanation of morality. Morality has been laid down once and for all by god, so then how can it be the case that some people are getting it wrong? There can’t actually be dispute about what’s and what’s bad because god has told us what’s good and what’s bad. So there can be no moral conflicts since there cannot be any competing moral ideas. Likewise you’re not really responsible for anything bad you do because all your misdeeds are a result of god making some mistake in morality itself or in conveying morality to you.

Many atheists agree with theists that there can’t be objective morality without god and just think that morality isn’t objective. in this case, there are no moral conflicts nor any moral responsibility. You can’t have conflicts about how to harvest all the green cheese on the moon because there is no green cheese on the moon. Likewise, amoral atheists don’t think there can be substantive disagreement about morality. Nor can you be responsible for breaking moral standard when no such standards exist.

Many atheists who like to talk about morality have a moral theory that is identical in substance to the theistic moral theory. Instead of god dictating morality, evolution dictates it, or it is somehow derived from observation of what makes people happy. The important point is that morality is just a set of rules dictated by some authority which you are bound to follow no matter how painful or boring it makes your life. This pain and boredom is not a result of conflicting moral standards, nor could it be resolved by critical discussion. Rather, it is just a result of your pathetic primate brain failing to work properly or something like that. And since your pathetic primate brain is at fault, you are not responsible for the results.


One of the worst and one of the most pervasive ways to evade moral conflict and moral responsibility is psychiatry. Almost everybody seems to regard psychiatry and the idea of mental illness as benevolent. The idea of mental illness is to blame behaviour you don’t like on an illness instead of ideas. This means the person with the ideas isn’t reponsible for them and he doesn’t really disagree with you, he’s just ill. But the idea of mental illness is wrong.

The most straightforward version of the idea is that some behaviours are a result of some subtle injury or physiological problem in the brain. These illnesses are described in terms of behaviour and their diagnostic criteria specifically rule out any known change in the structure or chemistry of the brain as a cause.

The idea that some specific behaviour can be caused by a brain injury or physiological problem makes no sense. An injury just damages or destroys tissue, a physiological problem just makes the tissue function in a substandard way. To say that this causes particular behaviour suggests that brain injuries regularly fiddle about with the details of a person’s brain in such a way as to make it do unwelcome stuff. But no injury and no chemical contains knowledge about what people consider right and wrong or polite or impolite or welcome or unwelcome. So the idea that bad behaviour is caused by a brain injury is like saying your computer must be faulty because you don’t like one of the games installed on it.

Some psychiatrists seem to sense that this is a bit of a reach. So they vague their position up to evade criticism. The brain problem doesn’t cause bad behaviour, it just influences people to behave badly. This idea has the same problem as the idea that the brain problem simply causes unwelcome behaviour. How does the injury know about cultural standards? A brain problem might cause a problem in a person’s life that he interprets and tries to solve in a way other people don’t like. For example, he might lose the ability to speak as a result of a stroke. He might then interpret situations in which people don’t provide him with what he wants as a deliberate attempt to annoy him or harm him and get angry. But his bad behaviour is not caused by the brain injury. He engages in that behaviour because he acts on an idea about what other people are doing and how he should act toward them.

So then why do people believe in mental illness?

The behaviours that result in a person being diagnosed as mentally ill are invariably behaviours that somebody finds unpleasant or distressing or inconvenient in some other way. If a young woman tries to starve herself to death, this may distress her parents who call for psychiatrist who diagnoses her with anorexia nervosa. If a person does not socialise as his parents want him to, they may get him diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. If a person lives on the streets and finds that he no longer likes that lifestyle, he may draw the attention of the authorities by acting crazy, making threats to random people on the street or talking nonsense, say. He might then get diagnosed with schizophrenia. The authorities might hospitalise him for a while, in a building with lighting, heating and free food. This place may also have some bad features like forced drugging, but he might prefer forced drugging to being cold. Or they might give him benefits provided that he agrees to take particular drugs to control his “condition”.

In and of itself bad behaviour doesn’t explain the mental illness idea. If somebody steals a car we may not like his behaviour but few people would say he is mentally ill. We would just lock up a car thief or stop associating with him or something like that. But in the examples above the people who push for a mental illness diagnosis have a moral conflict. The parents of an anorexic teen don’t want her to starve but they also don’t want to end their association with her. They also don’t want to explicitly say that they want to punish her. Rather, they want to stop her behaviour although they don’t understand her reasons and don’t want to understand them. Psychiatrists help them to solve that problem. She’s mentally ill and so there is nothing to understand. The treatment consists of the patient being made to listen to advice and take drugs. This treatment can be imposed without her consent and so if she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge her illness then she will be punished by being forced into treatment.

A homeless person may pose a different problem. Namely, the welfare state is based on the idea that nobody should be allowed to fail, or to live in a way that a middle class person would dislike. So if a person who lives on the streets draws attention to himself then he may be able to get some housing for a while. But this person may have habits the state finds unwelcome in which case he must be made to give up those habits. The government doesn’t want to be seen to punish him and mental illness provides a handy excuse for imprisonment and/or forced drugging without calling it punishment.

The welfare state

The welfare state is another institution that obscures and denigrates moral conflict and moral responsibility.

The welfare state involves the government interfering in the lives of individuals to make sure they get what they supposedly need. Money is taken from taxpayers without asking for their consent and given to others to whom they may not want to give it. Welfare benefits may go to drug addicts, or people have made stupid choices like having five children before they are twenty. A person can get to be an adult without being able to persuade anybody to pay him for anything he is willing to tolerate doing and such a person may end up on welfare. Since tax money goes to any given welfare recipient regardless of whether any taxpayer would choose to pay that person, disagreements about who should be given money are not easily addressed.

The idea behind the welfare state also negates moral responsibility. The idea is that a person should not actually pay the price for any damn fool thing he does. And if you something that harms somebody else then the government may pay for it. So for a wide range of stupid things you do you’re not responsible for harming anybody.

The result of this is that once in a while the government does something it calls welfare reform. The politicians think people are sick of paying for those on welfare and so do something to clear some of them from the welfare rolls. Such people are often on the rolls as a result of a long series of mistakes and have never had any feedback from reality that might have prompted them to decide to change for the better.


What can we do about all of these bad ideas and institutions? Ultimately, all of these ideas or institutions should be discarded. I don’t know how to do this. Nor does anybody else or they wouldn’t exist. The first step towards a solution is to stop denying the problem and try to explain good philosophy to people. The second step is that the people involved have to do something about these problems for themselves. They have to come up with better ways of living that don’t involve sabotaging their ability to solve problems.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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