From a modern and relatively impersonal perspective, the grounding for intuitive ethics (and much formal ethics) appears to be very shaky indeed, as the Zorblaxian alien explains here (from SMBC by Zack Weiner, full comic here):

Part of SMBC comic 2992

When viewed from an alien perspective, this seems like a rather absurd metric to use to judge the value of things.

But our erstwhile web comic authors also don't see any way out of this quandry (an example from XKCD by Randall Munroe, full comic here):

Part of XKCD comic 1216

Of course I realize that the source of value is not at all a settled issue within philosophy. But I nonetheless would like to be able to recommend to people grappling with issues like this (how can we ultimately base what's important on something so arbitrary/ad-hoc, and isn't this nonetheless the only thing we can possibly do?) some alternate perspectives that are at least somewhat compelling.

The most obvious tack is to try Kant, but Kant is very hard to read directly, and various philosophers have argued (successfully, in my opinion) that there are a variety of errors and unsupported claims. (Schopenhauer for example.) I'm not aware of any other approach of this type that is dramatically more accessible or with dramatically fewer potential problems.

There's also the theistic approach, but that has its own set of issues, the most difficult of which include that you have to accept that there is a deity, that essentially because I say so is a good reason for a deity even though it's not for a person, and because of concerns that deities could be evil so you can't actually abdicate your role as an independent judge of value.

So is there a clear exposition of some moral philosophy that sidesteps the webcomic angst, or a compelling defense of happiness as the source of value?

  • why do you say that the most obvious tack 'is to try Kant'? Jun 2, 2013 at 18:29
  • @MoziburUllah - Kant is the canonical deontological ethicist, no?
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 2, 2013 at 19:15
  • 3
    What's absurd about using the nicest feeling there is as a metric of value? Sure, the only thing in support of it is the intuition that happiness feels really good, but we need axioms somewhere, don't we?
    – commando
    Jun 2, 2013 at 19:31
  • 1
    @commando - Well, it may not be absurd if presented appropriately. Hence "compelling defense of happiness as the source of value". I'd be happy (no pun intended) to accept an answer of that sort also. There are issues (why isn't the highest good to take pills that make everyone really happy all the time no matter what happens, is happiness good if it causes us all to commit suicide, worries about arbitrariness and impossibility of reconciling conflicts on the basis of happiness) that demand an answer. The message from XKCD seems to be "argh, that's all we've got", not "wow, great idea!"
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 2, 2013 at 19:37
  • One thing which irked me when I first read the SMBC comic (though I understand the comic value behind the alien's summary): happiness isn't arbitrary, it had just been defined as a heuristic reaction to beneficial outcomes for oneself and/or others. On that basis, the alien's interlocutor is clearly a utilitarian. Jul 3, 2013 at 15:45

3 Answers 3


Surely ethics if it is mean anything substantial must be grounded in the human situation? Kants categorical imperative is often used as purely rational impersonal characterisation of how to solve ethical dilemmas. But this seems to be wrong-headed seeing that he declared a 'copernican revolution' where objects of the world conform to the human situation. It appears a certain element of his system has been plucked out without due consideration as to the reasons which led him there.

To give an analogy - does anyone claim to understand Newtonian Mechanics by examining solely Newtons First Law? Its full sense is only made apparent by examining together with the rest of his theory.

Given, that we know of no aliens; its an absurd fallacy to declare that aliens will be pure rational beings. Looking around the this world given how the life-sphere (I mean animals as well humans) is dominated by the emotional, passionate & irrational as well as reason. As this is the only grounds from which we can concieve of aliens - its likely that they will have both these drives - reason & emotion.

Far more, the comic strip alludes to a dominating aesthetic for its audience and author - the rational. (And having read the full strip it seems clear the author is poking fun at the 'alien' mindset and arrogance through dramatic irony).

Having said this, a certain theological position identifies God with Logos - reason. This seems as wrong-headed as the purely rational alien. If God exists - then he is far more mysterious than some rule-enacting bureaucract.

Epicurianism is a philosophy attuned to contentment, it can degenerate into hedonism. Interestingly enough Epicurus is a follower of Democritus - a founder of the ancient school of atomism.

Every philosophy can be critiqued, and be dismantled. I don't know of any philosophy that is impervious to all attack. This is why belief & faith is more important than is usually given due credit. They are emotions. Generally these terms are associated with religion - but it seems clear to me that a faith and belief is just as important in valorising and enthroning reason as a value above all other values.

Its also clear, that science, despite its popular conception as a purely democratic venture is actually highly authoritarian and only open to a very few. But this is not due its own nature, but simply because it is a difficult & elite venture - as is theology or athletics.

One should recall that Hume said that 'reason was the slave of the passions'. One can be passionate for the Good, as well as for Vice or for Reason.

The economist Amartya Sen and the moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum have both written on injecting human values into their respective disciplines. Sen arguing that a purely utilitarian idea of economics is impoverishing and Nussbaum critiquing the meaning and understanding of emotions such as 'grief, compassion, and love, and of disgust and shame'. They're both aiming at an understanding and an advocacy of human flourishing in its manifestly many ways.

  • But is it not possible to make reference to the human situation while being grounded in something less arbitrary than accidents of evolution elevated to exalted status?
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 2, 2013 at 19:19
  • You mean how to examine the human situation whilst being grounded in something non-human? Why should this be even possible? I grant you that it may sometimes yield some interesting perspectives (for example behaviouralism or structuralism), but to claim it solely as the one and only true way of looking at the human situation is cruelly impoverishing. Life in some form of another has existed on this planet for a 3 billion years. That makes it pretty tenacious in my book and not as arbitrary as you made out. Given just how large the universe is I suspect that life is extremely probable. Jun 2, 2013 at 22:15
  • Life hasn't existed for three billion years in order to make us like french fries, but that's a part of the human situation now (and leads to a lot of obesity...). If you want to make a case for grounding in the robustness of life that's different than grounding in our sense of "happy". Or you can argue that "happy" distills the wisdom of three billion years of evolution in a reasonably reliable and accessible way. Otherwise it's a non-sequitur or at least lacking detail: what about the human situation do you ground in? That seems to me the key point raised by the comics.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jun 2, 2013 at 22:28
  • I was merely disagreeing with your characterisation of life as accidents of evolution. I read the comic as poking fun through dramatic irony at rationality (embodied as an alien) as the only value worth thinking about. To me that was the key point of the story. Jun 2, 2013 at 23:23

In response to the first alien, I'd say

It is plausible that over evolutionary timescales human happiness is indicative of human fitness in the evolutionary sense. More people being more happy indicates that we are successfully exploiting our ecological niche. Many of the more "base" pleasures, food, sex, physical comfort, are obviously directly related to individual's abilities to successfully rear children. Even more noble pleasures, like the feeling of community, again seem connected to a group's ability to survive. Even some pleasurable cultural constructs, e.g. war dances, are plausibly related to direct survival; Even though other cultural constructs may simply utilize the reward centers and not directly contribute to evolutionary fitness, having the time and resources to engage in these non-adaptive pleasurable activities, is correlated with having the more basal requirements of life satisfied. Thus, yes, happiness is indicative of our value as a species.

In addition, happiness has an instrumental effect in the continuation of humanity in the evolutionary sense, by providing the drive that leads people to behave in ways that allow for the creation of more people. The story is pretty much the same as the previous paragraph but with the emphasis on "the drive towards pleasure X is what motivates people to X, and X is good (or at least not overly bad) for humanity's long term survival".

Thus, not only is it reasonable to think of happiness as (one of the) indicator(s) of "our value as a species", happiness, or something like it, is probably required for any species engaged in evolution: there must be some cognitive/neurological features that provide the organisms with drives.

To justify this, I can think of a few anecdotes, e.g. human happiness in Europe was probably pretty low during the time of the Black Death, and some studies, e.g. in recessions birth rates go down (study 1), and mental health issues go up (study 2), etc. However, I see trying to to establish that in fact happiness is directly related to environmental fitness would require multiple generations of investigators performing multiple targeted studies to disentangle all of the confounding variables, of which only the first are the pitfalls that seem to come up in evolutionary psychology, or at least in it's popularizations.

Thus, at best, this is an idea to consider.

  • Given the alien's usage of the term, I've interpreted happiness in the general sense, i.e. not just the ones that obtain when a person, trying to be specific, says they are happy. Some forms of contented, or at ease, or even "in the flow" are happy mental states under this broad definition.
    – Dave
    Oct 15, 2014 at 14:34
  • TL;DR: if it is maladaptive, it's crap.
    – Dave
    Oct 15, 2014 at 14:50
  • I'm not happy about this type of conclusion, and it seems pretty close to the naturalistic fallacy, but when I probe for a naturalistic answer to the question "what objective fact can be used to motivate our actions", I end up coming to "the long term survival of our culture/species/world". If we don't survive, then what use was it anyway?
    – Dave
    Oct 15, 2014 at 14:58
  • Indeed. At the very least that works as an intuitionistic check of a proposed objective source of motivation: "Could following this lead to the destruction of our culture/species/world?". It is surprising how many systems give an answer of "yes" at least under extreme circumstances.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 15, 2014 at 15:16

Kant is at his most accessible when discussed by Rawls, and Rawls is at his most accessible in discussions about the Original Position.

The Original Position is a simple thought experiment analysis of aspects of the notion of justice. Rawls proposed that the construction of a just society ought to be one in which those responsible for its creation do not know which position in the society they create they will go on to occupy. If we would accept any place in the society constructed, then we could say that the society was just.

The decisions we make have an impact on other people, and a Kantian theory of ethics would have us act in a manner on a personal level that is founded in reasoned theories of the principles of a right and just world. Discussions about the Original Principle help focus our thinking in matters of ethics towards more "structural" considerations for our choices and actions. Unlike Kant, we tend to think that we do not at the end of the day live in a world that is just at its foundations, and there is much that we read and see in our daily lives that reflects this. But encouraging people to think that it needn't be thus, and that justice is in fact possible, seems like it would go a long way to addressing your concerns with the individualist perspective.

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