Morality is simply a useful fiction

[Back to Morality: An Introduction]


This article seeks to explore the idea that morality is a useful fiction.  This, of course, one idea from a much wider range of possibilities - for the other options, please refer back to the main article - Morality: An Introduction.

Some people believe that morality is not real, but simply a myth – a useful fiction.  According to this perspective, people invented morality as a tool to help society function, in much the same way that we invented money.  But perhaps 'invented' gives the wrong impression: they are not talking about somebody having a bright idea and convincing the people around to believe it, as imagined in the film, The Invention of Lying; 'developed' might be a better term.  In the field of moral philosophy, this position is sometimes called ‘Moral Error Theory’ – the theory that believing in morality is an error, which is basically the same as believing that morality is not real, or that it is 'just a fiction' (see Moral Error Theories and Fictionalism).

It is sometimes suggested that the worldview of strict atheism or pure materialism requires a belief that morality is a fiction; in practice, many people who consider themselves to be strict atheists or pure materialists reject the idea and are very keen to affirm their belief that morality is real.  Their opponents often claim that this belief in the reality of something non-material is a contradiction of strict atheism: this generally results in some explanation of why belief in morality is consistent with strict materialism, which satisfies the materialists but fails to convince their opponents.  (If anyone would like to describe this claim and objection, please say!)

While works of historic fiction sometimes include accounts of people saying that morality is a fiction, this is generally an anachronism: the idea is a fairly modern invention. And while there are several stories told (and, sometimes, claims made in reputable journals) about the invention of morality, none of them can point to any historic evidence or support - human morality clearly predates any records we have.  People disagree about the implications of evidence of morality in the animal kingdom.

The Three Main Ideas

Calling morality a 'useful fiction' begs the question: useful to whom?  People who believe that morality was invented - or developed - have different ideas about who benefits.  The different stories about the invention of morality point to different ideas about the fundamental purpose or function of morality in society. There seems to be three main ideas.

  • Morality is a lie, but a useful lie: it is not real, but we all benefit from behaving as though it was real.
  • Morality is a lie, and a harmful lie: it is imposed by the elite to keep the masses in their place.
  • Morality is a lie, and a harmful lie: it is imposed by the masses to restrain the powerful.

Clearly, these three accounts of the origin and purpose of  morality are incompatible.  But, since any account of the origin of morality is (until we have actual evidence) purely speculative, there is no way to choose between them.

People find it very difficult to operate without morality, even when they deny that morality is real.  To take just one example, in Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre argued that we are morally obliged to recognize the value of both our own freedom and the freedom of others.  He claims we have a real moral obligation while denying the reality of morality, and describes how to create morality out of thin air.  The argument seems to be that we cannot avoid making choices, and many choices imply that this (the chosen option) is better than that (the rejected option), so a morality is created by our choices.  But if morality does not exist, then I cannot be morally obliged to do anything; and if I choose to do something because I believe it is the right thing to do, then I am simply in error - or fooling myself.  The fact that I make choices does not have to mean that my choice is better than the alternative, only that I want it more: no morality is required, and no morality is created by any choice in his universe.

Similarly, you can (quite reasonably) believe that morality has often been misused by the powerful (or by people who wish to be powerful) for their own purposes, but you can only talk with integrity about a ‘misuse of power’ if you believe that morality is real and there is a morally correct use of power.

If You Believe Morality is a Lie

If morality is not real, there can be no such thing as a misuse of power, since ‘might is right’, and if you have power then you have the ability to use that power however you choose.

We see this belief described quite clearly in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that 'God is dead' and therefore the higher human beings (the 'supermen' he talked about) could free themselves from their false belief in morality.  At around the same time, Dostoevsky was writing his classic, The Brothers Karamazov, in which an atheist points out, “If God is dead, everything is permitted.”  The phrase is famous, and misleading: what he means is, "Because there is no God, everything is permitted."

People can talk about the belief that morality is a fiction in various ways: Nietzsche sometimes talked about ‘master morality’, and contrasted it with ‘slave morality’ which was his description of the ordinary ‘be kind and honest’ morality we are familiar with.  His ‘Master morality’, on the other hand, is only interested in gaining power and in using it to benefit myself - which is pretty close to the opposite of morality as we generally understand it.

People who believe that morality is a fiction will sometimes object to this description of their position as a ‘belief’: they may instead describe themselves as ‘recognizing’ that morality does not exist.  But, while there seems to be no way to establish that morality is an objective reality, there is also no way to establish that it is not an objective reality: both options are reasonably described as beliefs.

It is hard to tell how many people actually believe that morality is a fiction, as this is not an acceptable belief in mainstream society. Someone who has this belief, and who lives accordingly, is considered to be mentally ill – the technical term for such a person is ‘psychopath’ – so intelligent people with this belief tend to be very adept at hiding it.  But while actually meeting someone who does not believe in morality can be deeply disturbing, academic discussion of this position is entirely acceptable, as is the depiction of it in fiction. So while their likely reluctance to admit it in public may lead us to under-estimate the number of people who disbelieve in morality, fiction may lead us to over-estimate their number.  On the other hand, some studies suggest many business leaders are functioning (that is, hiding in plain sight) psychopaths, so maybe their number is quite high after all.


[See also Morality: An Introduction, the PhilPapers article Moral Error Theories and Fictionalism and the Philosophy Now article Is an Existentialist Ethics Possible?]


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