Under materialism (the notion that origins of the world and human society are unguided natural processes), it may be difficult to ground ethics in reality but nevertheless, materialists can be confident that an ethical theory is attainable, someday.

However, people frequently and insistently demand action against injustice.

Absent a materialistic ethical theory with consensus, how are people who subscribe to materialism supposed to respond to the demand for action against injustice?

Is this a compelling ad absurdum argument against materialism, since materialism today implies the awful thought that no-one could be obligated to respond to demands for justice?

  • Derrida’s turn towards ethics seems relevant here?
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 15, 2018 at 17:07
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    @JosephWeissman it sounds like Derrida was very concerned about other people, literature, politics, and words... it would be hard to pin him down as a materialist, I think. May 15, 2018 at 18:10
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    @kbelder that is a good thought. But under materialism, is there any knowledge about "benefit"? May 15, 2018 at 22:00
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    two points. First, animals are pure materialists. Even ants take care of their sick and wounded. The more highly evolved even more so. second, read "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive" by Bruce Schneier. Demands for justice are needed for society to thrive in the long run even for materialists... May 16, 2018 at 5:13
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    I do not see how a relationship can be a premise either. If you want to say "not believing in X has bad consequences" that is arguable but it has no bearing on the reality of X one way or the other. And it is agreement on what to do that matters in practice, not ideological rationalizations of it in terms of "injustice" or some other abstraction.
    – Conifold
    May 17, 2018 at 20:53

4 Answers 4


I find this a poor argument against Materialism. If Materialism is true then ethics is a matter of taste and social convenience and we can each have our own views on how we should act and behave.

The Achilles Heel of Materialism is not that it causes social problems or explains nothing since it may yet be true. The real problem is that it doesn't survive analysis. If it is true despite this then how we respond to injustice and what we class as injustice are pragmatic and personal judgements having no long-term consequence. We may not like this idea but it's not an argument against Materialism. However, it may be an argument against assuming the truth of Materialism.

It might be turned into a stronger counter-argument if it were expanded to say that Materialism is useless using your example as a case in point. Uselessness is usually considered a telling objection to theories. Because it is useless it makes no difference to science whether Materialism is true or false, but while it may be suggestive its uselessness is not a final argument against it.

A solid counter-argument would require that we show that Materialism gives rise to fatal contradictions. This is usually enough to dispose of a metaphysical theory, albeit that Materialism seems to be an exception to this rule due to its role as a safe refuge from religion and mysticism.

If nobody is obligated to respond to demands for justice this is not an argument against Materialism but just a simple fact. A successful reductio argument could only be made in metaphysics using formal terms and logical processes in the manner of Aristotle.


It may be clearer to restrict the concern to Plantinga’s “naturalism” which implies a belief that there is nothing “God-like”, that is, there are no agents and everything is the result of event causation. See Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) in Where the Conflict Really Lies.

The problem of evil may challenge not just a certain group of theists who believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God, but it also challenges this naturalism.

The problem of evil has four premises assuming the concurrent existence of both a particular type of God and evil:

  1. God is omniscient (all-knowing)
  2. God is omnipotent (all-powerful)
  3. God is omnibenevolent (morally perfect)
  4. There is evil in the world

The conclusion is that these four premises lead to a logical contradiction. If one agrees with that, one would have to reject some of the premises. Perhaps an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God does not exist? This removes God, but it keeps evil. One might also claim there is no evil and keep God.

Plantinga’s free will defense defuses this argument. He shows how one can keep all four premises by showing that they do not result in a contradiction given the existence of agents with free will.

A naturalist, as described in Plantinga’s EAAN, should not accept any of the four premises as true. In particular the naturalist should not accept the fourth premise about the existence of evil any more than the first three premises about the existence of God. Evil requires an agent to cause the evil, but naturalists, as Plantinga describes them, do not admit anything “God-like”: They do not admit the existence of any agents that might bring about evil.

Evil might be watered down to “natural evil” so that evil is reduced to some event causation that some might not be happy about but conceivably others might. Regardless how one feels, since that is nothing more than determined neural brain processes, there is nothing one can do about it since this “one” who wants to do something about it is not an agent.

This naturalism would be challenged if one could show the existence of an agent, that is, if it could be shown that at least one of the four premises of the problem of evil argument are true. That agent might be God perhaps like the one described in the first three premises. That agent may also be the one causing any evil that might exist in the world.

It is easy to dismiss God who can be viewed as transcending empirical evidence, but perhaps it is not so easy to dismiss evil that some find more evident. One would have to convert anything evil into an event causation that neutralizes it and claim that those who see evil in the world are deluded just as they are deluded about their free will.

The existence of injustice or evil is more specifically a challenge to views such as naturalism, which as Plantinga describes it is an extreme form of atheism, that do not admit the existence of any agent to cause injustice.


That's a really weak argument.

There's nothing really absurd with having no objective value of ‘justice’. Even moral anti-realism in total isn't an obviously absurd position. Not even remotely. We may not like it, but it certainly is supported by some convincing arguments and even has intuitive appeal (for example, see Don Loeb's mock-analogy between moral realism and “gastronomic realism”).

If materialism, by entailing irrealism of some value of ‘justice’, would cause social problems, that also in no way can be considered a reductio ad absurdum. As if any thesis becomes refuted, or even only less plausible, just because we humans have a problem of pragmatically dealing with it…

The Achilles heel of materialism seems rather to be found in the problem of meaning (intentionality) which strikes at the heart of science itself – and science was the supposed motivation for materialism in the first place.

To quote Alex Rosenberg in The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions:

But there is no such physical stuff. Physics has ruled out the existence of clumps of matter of the required sort. There are just fermions and bosons and combinations of them. None of that stuff is just, all by itself, about any other stuff. There is nothing in the whole universe—including, of course, all the neurons in your brain—that just by its nature or composition can do this job of being about some other clump of matter. So, when consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong. The brain nonconsciously stores information in thoughts. But the thoughts are not about stuff. Therefore, consciousness cannot retrieve thoughts about stuff. There are none to retrieve. So it can’t have thoughts about stuff either.

There's a similar problem with rationality in general (reasoning with abstract concepts), but this is more complex. And, of course, qualia (which is also very threatening for materialism, but even a denial of qualia – that is qualitative, subjective experience – isn't that extremely costly as a denial of intentionality, which dissolves the meaning of truth itself).


I would offer that the fact you find the thought horrifying,"[that] no one could be obligated to respond to demands for justice", implies that the formal, logical imperative is unnecessary, for you and people like you, to hold and act upon the opposite assertion, "one is obligated to fulfill demands for justice."

One could very well admit there is an disjunction between a thought, true or not, and man's operative and personal psyche without thereby having to take a stance about the validity of the thought. This argument that the moral implications of materialism exclude any who wish to be moral from agreeing with it is only valid if one holds that one must operate continuously with what one has agreed is objectively true.

I know almost no one who does so-especially those with a modern education-, nor is anyone, under any theory, forced to operate in a continuous manner with regards to its implications.

  • It's a hard pill to swallow, that a person could be required to operate continually apart from what one has agreed to be objectively true... or that a person is required not to operate with what he or she regards as true... or that one would desire to operate apart from what he or she regards as objectively true. It reminds me of evil, to be honest. May 17, 2018 at 15:59
  • @elliotsvensson In such a world view as materialism, where there is no metaphysical basis for morality, it isn't discontinuous to choose to operate within the frame of a morality; only, it isn't an imperative from without. A person, in the absence of any coercion from any external agent--such as god--, must choose what you call "good" for its own sake on his/her/their own imperatives. It allows one to choose evil, but is it itself evil?
    – Ethan NOPE
    May 17, 2018 at 20:10
  • It may have been a mistake from the start to have sought to root the humanities in something suprahuman when in reality they might arise from something subhuman--materialism would say the natural consequences of our physiology..
    – Ethan NOPE
    May 17, 2018 at 20:20
  • RE: Comment beginning with "in such a world view..." ...what I thought seemed like evil was the discontinuity between a self's idea of truth and the self's course of action. I think that your last two sentences are a little hard to scan... what allows one to choose evil? How is evil defined? Why must a person choose "good"? Also, I disagree that acknowledging an external judge is the same as acknowledging coercion. May 17, 2018 at 20:21
  • @elliotsvensson In any definition of "good" or "evil" one could give, the goodness and evilness of actual courses of action arise from those definitions, not from the actions themselves. One is free, in not having an external root for definitions of a moral order, to still choose those definitions. One mustn't do ANYTHING, but one is very well able to do anything. Necessity follows from material circumstance or a premise imposed upon the self. You're free to pick your premises. Why do you need them to be universal and enforced on all?
    – Ethan NOPE
    May 17, 2018 at 20:29

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