Soft drinks and ethical nihilism

In which the author builds a case for the choice of drinks with your fast food as an instructive microcosm of normativity in decision-making.

There are two well-known facts about soft drinks, a.k.a. soda pop etc.:

These are mundane examples of “good” and “bad”, two words you find in ethics. In fact, the purpose of ethics as a philosophical discipline is to distinguish between the two. This purpose cannot be met, for reasons I will now examine.

For the purposes of this article, morality is the evaluation of social behaviour and ethics is normative morality. If you make a decision that affects someone else, your decision is moral in nature and you must have found it good. If you think I should decide as you did, you have a normative conviction as to what future behaviour is right for me: An ethical conviction. If you tell me about it, what you say is ethical in nature. If I do not honour your request, my behaviour is still morally good to me, but you will find it morally bad.2

Scratch the surface and you find morality in the question “Would you like a Coke with that?” That is the question that inspired this article.


Logic in ethics

Ethics can be conducted through philosophy. For instance, you are free to use propositional logic. In this arena, you can entertain any argument you want. You can argue that a good taste is conducive to ripples of increased happiness and wellbeing throughout society, and is therefore morally good. You can argue that negative health outcomes are similarly conducive to ripples of unhappiness. You can argue for or against soft drinks from pity, disgust, hedonism, economic efficiency, character-building, purportedly universal principles, the desires of your gods, the aesthetics of carbonation, the sugar-beet supply chain, body-shaming, and so on.

On the most naïve level, you can use any basis to reach any conclusion. For example, you can say that potential health outcomes from a soft-drink habit, such as diabetes, are only possible outcomes for the drinker, and therefore a soft drink is not a social choice, and therefore, the ethical value of a soft drink is always zero.

If you were to construct such a philosophical argument for or against the consumption of soft drinks, this argument would itself be subject to analysis. For example, if you assert that soft drinks are morally good because penguins can only be found on Svalbard, your assertion would be flawed. I would reject it as irrelevant—a non sequitur—and contradicted by the empirical falsehood of its premise: Penguins are not observed on Svalbard but elsewhere.

In the epistemology of science, since Karl Popper, there is a special class of hypothesis scientists reject because it is unfalsifiable. If you were to assert that soft drinks are good because, in a dream, you saw the bodhisattva Vajrapani smile beatifically after downing a Pepsi, I would reject your assertion because I would have no way of knowing whether Vajrapani communicates absolute truths about the universe through the timing of his facial expressions in your dreams. He just might, with a probability very near zero, but the point is I could not check.

Thus ethics contains some arguments that are provably bad, in the limited sense that they are illogical or otherwise useless as arguments go.

Ethics contains no arguments that are provably good.

Hume’s guillotine goes “shduk”

You may present a 60,000-page tome accurately laying out the history of utilitarianism, arguing brilliantly for it over other schools of thought on ethics, presenting the salient effects of soft drinks upon the human organism, adapting this presentation to my specific body, similarly laying out the history of the Coca-Cola company and its contractors, accounting for capitalism and comparing it to possible future economic systems where the purchase of a soft drink might be more or less harmful, comparing and contrasting other possible drink options—including the option of no drink—throughout, going into the exact probabilities of habit formation and a hypothalamus backstop, describing in detail how to produce an abstract amortized calculation of Jeremy Bentham’s utility from this complex reality, carrying out a complete multifactorial moral cost-benefit analysis, and ultimately concluding unambiguously for my accepting a Coke with my burrito in one instance.

I would not read your 60,000-page thesis, but I might leaf through it in bewilderment, compliment you on the extensive bibliography and avant-garde typesetting, and accept your advice. You could thereby convince me to take one Coke, fulfilling the practical purpose of your thesis. To that extent, carefully considered ethical argumentation is both possible and useful in philosophy.

Alexander Stoddart’s statue of David Hume (1711–1776) at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Students wishing for luck rub his toes, keeping them shiny, while a bagpiper lurks just off screen to the right.

“[T]he distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

In a stricter sense, your thesis could not be logically conclusive, and therefore not provably correct. That is because, in moving from a testable description of objective reality (what is) to a value judgment (what should be), you would be making an unfalsifiable claim. In short, your thesis would violate Hume’s law. It is a category mistake to think that philosophy could prove the correctness of opinion even with the facts in hand.

All of this appears to be quite well understood, as far as soft drinks go. When I am offered a soft drink, I am at liberty to accept or decline, without risking moral indignation or rebuke from anyone around me. Even my dentist would only sigh if I told her I took it.


If you consider serving a lethal poison instead of a soft drink, there is a perceptible rise in moral indignation. The stakes rise to euthanasia, suicide or murder, depending on who knows what. People’s feelings get stronger and some passionate intervention is to be expected.

Some people overlook or deny the morality of soft drinks because, it seems, the stakes are low. They are low in each single instance of one person draining one 33 cl can. In a larger context—the social context that defines morality—the stakes are high.3 If serving a lethal poison is attempted murder, serving a soft drink is roughly equivalent to a slap in the face, purely in terms of statistical outcomes for human suffering. In aggregate, soft drinks kill more often than poisons, because there are more soft drinks.

There is a wealth of intermediate cases, and they breed contradictions. Consider coffee: Less bad for you than a soft drink, but addictive. Consider alcohol: Worse for you than a soft drink, and addictive. Technically, alcohol (ethanol) is a poison, hence the term “intoxicated”. Alcohol seems to introduce a secondary social risk if, under judgment impaired by alcohol, you drive drunk and injure others. In actuality, even soft drinks have smaller secondary risks of the same basic type. Obesity is a risk factor for many diseases, which can bring hospitals to their knees in an epidemic. If you become obese and sick as a result, you occupy finite healthcare resources, potentially denying care to others, thus unintentionally burdening and harming others as if you were driving drunk.

If moral feelings stood in proportion to consequences, as utilitarians assert they should and I wish they would, then a drink of tap water would be met with praise; weak tea or fruit juice with a blank expression; coffee or a soft drink with reluctance; beer or an energy drink with scorn; vodka with shock. Indeed, that is how my society treats children. Responses are largely reversed for older adults. At a dinner party or a dance party, if someone offers you an alcoholic drink and you decline, the moral disapproval is palpable. If you’re not driving, pregnant, a recovering alcoholic, or bloated with cirrhosis, you drink alcohol or else you are a moral outsider.


Here’s an unsourced Wikipedia definition for your entertainment:

Conscience is a cognitive process that elicits emotion and rational associations based on an individual's moral philosophy or value system. Conscience stands in contrast to elicited emotion or thought due to associations based on immediate sensory perceptions and reflexive responses, as in sympathetic central nervous system responses. In common terms, conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a person commits an act that conflicts with their moral values.4

There is a causal relationship built into this definition. A moral philosophy or a whole system of values is assumed to cause the feeling of remorse, with cognition as an intermediate step. There’s some hedging for “reflexive” responses, but the basic idea in this passage is that theory causes moral feelings. This is a “top down” or rationalist view of morality, moving from abstract thinking to concrete emotion and not the other way around.

A majority of educated people apparently agree with the Wikipedia definition. They believe that principles had to come first and their moral feelings second. That rationalist view—in fact a rationalization—is deeply embedded in Western popular culture. It is prominent even in sitcoms like The Good Place (2016), where evil people study only moral philosophy to improve.

A still from The Good Place (2016) featuring William Jackson Harper as Chidi Anagonye, the most prominent professional moral philosopher in global English-language popular culture at the time: Highly educated, intelligent and constantly paralyzed by useless theories.

“The fun continues, nay, increases!”

In my view, moral feelings are not caused by philosophical arguments, nor are they explainable by pre-Darwinian moral philosophy as a discipline. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have shown that moral decisions come first. If prompted, we try to justify them later.

In a typical introductory course on ethics, you are expected to identify the flaws of each school of thought on the subject, not pick one and live as if it controlled the basic building blocks of your mind. Most people seem to get this, insofar as they do not actually pick one theory or live by it, even when they think they should.

Since we apparently rely on feelings, it is a paradox that we assume our feelings are formed “from the top”, by some high-minded god or scholar. I suppose that is partly because feelings as such have low cultural status in Western religion and philosophy. Feelings cannot be sorted by their formal validity in the same way as philosophical or legal arguments. Another reason why we grant higher status to arguments is that we want to dismiss the will of those who cannot speak. Even babies have moral feelings,5 and so do many non-human animals, whom we kill and put in burritos. If you can convince yourself that your behaviour is ultimately governed by philosophy, then you will feel more comfortable eating things that cannot philosophize.

Nothing prevents the serious study of ethics from the bottom up, using the common ground of biology to improve social interplay. Moral feelings are indeed explainable from biology. In short, remorse is innate because it is fitting. More specifically, it perpetuates the genes that give us remorse, by enhancing the reproductive success of the animals that carry said genes. Ultimately, the relevant cognitive and emotional capacity derives from a series of random mutations, the same way we came to detect and appreciate the taste of sugar in a soft drink.

In our prehistory, feelings and conscience came before even the capacity for theories, and long before value systems or ethics as a philosophical discipline. Then we invented the idea that some ethical prescriptions are objectively correct. Because this invention has long been dominant, people who encounter my competing view tend to leap to poor conclusions about it. For example, they may assume that a natural origin implies that we or nature are basically blank, good, bad, or somehow centrist. We’re not.

A natural origin does not imply that we are all the same. Your genetics have a significant multifactorial impact on how you value the taste of a soft drink at various ages and how likely you are to gain weight by drinking one. Congenital psychopathy can weaken your conscience through no fault of your own, but our innate moral faculties can generally be exercised and developed or left to atrophy. Peace, justice, abundance and education are helpful in building empathy and trust, as well as the intellectual capacity for logic.

A natural origin does not imply a natural order or harmony. Growing up, some teenagers voluntarily graduate to more harmful drinks as a rite of passage. In this context, obvious harm to one’s own health is a kind of sacrifice: It is the cost of belonging, and the cost of demonstrating one’s own toughness. These social drivers are deeply rooted, but they are not the only ones in play. Drunkenness among Swedish youth is at a historic low.6


Most people have opinions on politics. We argue over how to distribute and use power in a discourse adjacent to ethics. Some people feel that their political opinions are central to their identity or intrinsically right. Certainly, political opinions can have deep psychological roots7 and the stakes are high. However, most people agree that a favourite candidate for the local council is like a favourite flavour of soft drink. More consequential, certainly, but basically an opinion where the individual passes their judgment on the real world.

Ethics may seem different. Lots of sane adults insist that good and evil are not opinion, but something higher. They might say that taking a soft drink is bad as a special kind of truth that applies to everybody. Pressed for details, these people don’t agree on how it’s special or how to reach such truths. They’re not all ethical rationalists—many are just religious—but they are ethical realists. The term “realism” here is not an appeal to lower one’s expectations, keeping them “realistic”. It is a technical term in philosophy. It refers to the assertion that something, here some norms of social behaviour, are objectively real and must be obeyed.

Peter Stormare, Torsten Voges and Flea as the three nihilists of The Big Lebowski (1998).

“There's nothing to be afraid of.”

I subscribe to the abstruse philosophical position that value judgements on the social behaviour of others are subjective, not a special kind of truth. This position is called “ethical nihilism” because it denies the thesis of ethical realism.

The reason for my nihilism is parsimony, also known as Occam’s razor. A special ontological status for ethics is an unnecessary assumption and therefore bad philosophy in a basic sense. The formal statement of this “argument from strangeness” for nihilism in the philosophy of ethics is attributed to J. L. Mackie. It has pre-Darwinian roots with Max Stirner, Democritus and others. I consider it a logical conclusion from natural philosophy.

Technically, ethical nihilism is not a position in ethics but in “meta-ethics”, the branch of philosophy studying ethics proper. Like “realism”, the term is misleading and often misunderstood. Nihilism does not deny the existence of moral feelings. Your sense that I should share my food with you is as real as your hunger. Because such feelings are not philosophical statements, they cannot be invalidated in the manner of an argument for one course of action or another, even by nihilism.


Though it is a somewhat common minority position in developed economies, ethical nihilism is apparently not intuitive. We all want to be right. We don’t want to be questioned, or be open to being questioned. We want for our feelings not only to describe but to control the universe. We want harmony and consistency between our emotions, our thoughts, and our observations of the world. We want others to do as we tell them. We want to think that people we hate are hopelessly evil, but they’re not. We want orthodoxy and we can’t have it.

In the case of soft drinks, we usually get close enough. For most people, including myself, the choice of what to drink with fast food is easy, not emotionally or intellectually charged. These people have generally come to a conclusion long ago and have since opted for orthodoxy.

You may feel that you are “the sort of person” who takes bottled water, or a soft drink, or whatever. That notion of a “sort of person” is a cognitive shunt. It conceals the complexity and ambiguity of the world. This takes a load off your mind and is therefore pleasant.

Intolerance of ambiguity is a labour-saving device even beyond the personal level. If you’re hosting a dinner party, you’ll wonder whether any of your guests are allergic to nuts, or avoid alchohol, or have gone vegetarian or vegan. You can handle a limited set of such categories that are easy to define, but you don’t want to make three dishes unique to each guest and their individual tastes. That would be inconvenient for everybody and detrimental to the purpose of the party.

There is no reason to believe that people who take a soft drink have very much else in common, nor should you count on their consistency, but with our limited cognitive resources we must eventually generalize about the world and our moral feelings. Thousands of years of such generalizations have produced the social mores of whole societies.


Ethical nihilism is intellectually sound but not immediately useful. Even when morality is correctly understood as mundane and open to question, you still have to make the effort of coming to decisions you can live with, without the comforting bed of epistemic dogma. It’s a philosophical position for people with a high need for cognition: People who aren’t necessarily smart, but enjoy thinking, rather than acting on intuition.

Let’s return to the example of food and drink. We have established that soft drinks are indeed bad for you and taste good, with reasonable probabilistic assumptions about your biology. Looking at the facts, soft drinks are also harmful to everyone around you, in ways that can be compared to the good they do.

By paying for a soft drink, you may be helping others in some way you find good. This dimension does not disappear completely when the drink is free, because if you reject a free drink, the vendor has more drinks to offer others, and is probably saving money. Since ethical nihilism is no better than any other moral philosophy at weighing very different emotions against one another in a dilemma, let’s go with the free-drink version of the example and ignore any benefits to the vendor.

A still from a 1993 episode of The Simpsons (1989), featuring Bart Simpson imagining a future career as a taste tester, evaluating a batch of “Nature’s Goodness” in a lab.

“Pleasing taste; some monsterism.”

The good that comes out of a soft drink, for me, is a mildly pleasing treat that I’ve forgotten five minutes later. It’s too small to impact my mood or satisfaction with life. Other sources of calories are abundant and superior even on a strictly selfish emotional level without regard for nutrition.8 I’m not making an argument for asceticism here. I’m saying soft drinks are a bad option even for hedonists because they produce relatively little joy.

As noted above, obesity and diabetes—part of the stakes of a soft-drink habit—have consequences outside the individual, in healthcare as a national concern. Other hazards, such as climate change, are global. Bottling water and hauling it to a fast-food joint involves carbon dioxide emissions roughly 1000 times greater than those required for the same amount of water of the same quality, poured from a tap.9 A soft drink, with or without sugar, has strictly worse environmental effects than water.

Despite some mechanization, the sugarcane industry relies on low-wage labourers in frost-free climates to make about two billion tons of sugar each year. The growing season must be wet, which causes the industry to take up prime soils. There aren’t enough such soils with adequate rainfall, so about 100 litres of irrigation water are needed to make the 40 grams of sugar in a single can of Coke. There’s also fertilizer (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) leaching into the water table, pesticides killing more than their targets, and so forth. However, before all of that, the mere taking of land for pasture and agriculture is the main form of habitat loss10 driving an ongoing mass extinction,11 12 13 which is making human life bleak.

Where sugarcane grows now, there used to be biodiverse tropical forests, and I would like to have those back. As a matter of feeling, I love the natural world. I’m not a fan of its decline. This is the main reason why, when I am offered a free drink with my burrito, I don’t take one.

For very similar reasons, my burrito typically doesn’t have meat in it. The domestication and consumption of non-human animals appears to be the main historical source of new infectious diseases in humans. In the case of ruminant livestock, there is also a methane problem contributing to climate change, above and beyond the need to take up yet more land to feed the animals, and burn more fuel transporting it all. Meat is not worthless to me, but nature is worth more.


When people see me ordering a lunch without meat in it, even once, they typically assume I am a vegetarian or vegan. I’m neither. I also haven’t given up soft drinks or other sources of sugar. I’ve only cut down from a level representative of my country to a level that is theoretically sustainable and equitable in the long term, on the basis of my emotional reaction to the relevant science.14 When I do eat meat, it’s usually from the bargain bin (about to expire), locally sourced and organic, or effectively a waste product like Swedish black pudding, which is mainly pigs’ blood.

When it comes to dinner-party categories, it may seem as though a vegan diet is harmless and therefore morally pure. In actuality, a vegan diet causes about half the greenhouse gas emissions of the typical average food consumption.15 That’s a significant reduction, but it is not purity. If you need morally pristine food and you care about the natural world, you lie to yourself so you can eat.

Idealism and rationalization

One of the reasons why people who eat more meat assume I’m a vegetarian is because the assumption sets up a barrier they don’t want to cross. If you do eat meat, it is convenient to pretend that you must either have some every day or have none at all. Suddenly going 100% vegetarian would indeed be difficult, and as I myself just argued, it wouldn’t exonerate you for contributing to environmental problems.

Not eating meat, like not drinking alcohol, is received as a provocation regardless of the eater’s intent and attitude. People getting drunk don’t want to be reminded of what they are doing by the presence of a “non-drinker” with a soft drink, no matter how polite. The assumption of vegetarianism draws this type of imagined provocation to a point. It is apparently more pleasant to dismiss a moral outsider than to deal with a member of one’s own group whose behaviour is less destructive than one’s own. The incorrect assumption that I am a vegetarian thus serves a psychological function.

Even some vegans assert that not eating animal products is in itself an ideology, not a diet. Without invoking the fallacy of the golden mean, let me I say am skeptical of such gatekeeping. The unfalsifiable, therefore incorrect moralistic assertion that veganism aligns with a higher ethical truth ultimately legitimizes meat-eating as pragmatic. Drawing a hard line leads to camps of orthodoxy and extremism like “the carnivore diet”, with few benefits to anyone involved.

In this way, the notion of moral purity is itself harmful. Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE) is full of terrible ideas developed from just such an unexamined sense of purity. I am similarly skeptical of the term “flexitarian”, apparently invented to describe people like me as a group, as if legitimacy came with a name. Scientific papers on the effects of a flexitarian diet are contradictory because the term covers the vast territory outside of orthodoxy.

Futility and propaganda

On The Good Place, the most visible ethicist in English-language culture is a stereotypical nerd and goes to Hell because he can’t make decisions. The philosophy of ethics is widely viewed as stale and inapplicable to everyday life. Current research in ethics deals mostly with medical experiments. There’s been little academic progress on the crucial soft-drink question over the past 40 years.

The philosophy of ethics seems to have stranded on the assumption that philosophical inquiry can reveal proper behaviour in some objective sense. Despite widespread lip service to this idea in education, large sections of the public have given up on the enterprise. Any overt ethical prescription is met with reactance. However, pragmatists everywhere are actively influencing the behaviour of strangers with enormous success.

Deliberately dumb official ad copy for Trocadero, a Swedish caffeinated beverage.


In advertising, professionals spend their time figuring out how to control what other people perceive to be proper behaviour. By the stipulative definition used in this article, advertising is not an applied form of ethics, because the advertisers themselves generally don’t believe in their own prescriptions. Instead, they get paid. Global spending on advertising grew to $560 billion (USD) in 2019. The Coca-Cola Company alone spent $4 billion. The money flows because this business does in fact influence human behaviour, including yours and mine.

Back in the 1980s, oil companies used advertising to popularize the idea that all plastics would be recycled, while knowing that it wasn’t feasible.16 In 2018, the consortium behind this propaganda reported $432 billion in revenue.17 The oil industry has similarly undermined public trust in science to prevent action on climate change, while knowing that climate change posed a serious threat.18 The sugar industry has likewise muddied the waters to prevent public knowledge of the harm it causes, while advertising its products.19 These are proven conspiracies against the public interest. All of them are embodied in a bottle of cola from half the world away.

In economic terms, these successful campaigns don’t just build market demand, they also prevent certain market externalities from being reflected in the price of goods. Without such propaganda, a soft drink with your burrito would probably come in a reused glass bottle washed on site, or a paper juice box without a straw. It would still cost three times as much due to disincentivizing taxes and charges for evident harm under the “polluter pays” principle. Today, the consequences of your choice of a soft drink are actively hidden from you wherever you shop.

The advertising industry’s bad faith is enabled in part by conventional ethical realism. Industry spokespeople are able to claim that your choice of a soft drink with your burrito is your choice alone. If you don’t feel remorseful about it, that must mean it’s consistent with your own enlightened philosophy, since it is ostensibly the higher truths of your philosophy that control your remorse, and not the ignorance designed for you at the cost of billions.


And now, some questions I get when I lay this stuff out on unsuspecting fellow diners.

Is it difficult?

Two steps on the way to my current behaviour were difficult: Studying to gain an understanding of the consequences of what I had been taught as a child, and then realizing that not only I but almost everyone around me were bringing misery upon ourselves by hiding and ignoring these consequences.

In my experience, most people who believe in ethical realism also believe that bad stuff results mainly from personal malevolence, and that good stuff results mainly from benevolent personal hardship. More generally, they believe that consequences are controlled mainly by conscious intent. That belief was adaptive in East Africa a million years ago, but not anymore. Indifference is arguably a bigger driver of misery, and ignorance breeds indifference. Soft drinks are an example of how indifference to effects beyond the most immediate and the most personal can do great harm, without malevolence. Because there is no malevolence, preventing the harm does not have to be difficult.

I noted how little selfish pleasure I get from soft drinks. Meat adds variety to my diet, but does not taste strictly better than other foods, especially not the kind of meat you get in fast food. Meat is easy to prepare and high in protein, hence good for building muscle, but so are many other foods. Red meat is also high in iron, but not otherwise healthy. Fresh meat, the least unhealthy kind, is annoyingly perishable and unhygienic. My change in diet would therefore not have been selfless even if it were total and it wasn’t difficult.

Why bother with individual actions?

In the global-biosphere view I’ve outlined, a single choice of a drink is not very important. Then again there’s no substitute for it. Success must consist of individual actions.

I think of it this way: There are no benevolent dictatorships. Therefore, the only way to produce large-scale effects is for lots of people to act. It matters how they act on a strategic level,20 but all the most promising strategies aim to reduce economic demand for harmful products as a necessary step toward the restoration of the living world. Demand is a continuous quantity. There is no threshold you have to reach before your individual actions start to affect it. In the same way that recycling your empty can instead of littering prevents one piece of litter, cutting down your own consumption reduces demand for new cans directly, on the tactical level. Agitation is also needed, but is less direct and provokes backlash, including reactance.

Not long ago, the sugarcane industry openly ran on slave labour. That problem was solved with legislation, formal diplomacy and warfare, in reaction to slave revolts, refusal to work, and sympathetic protests by anti-slavery societies of free people. It was not done by consumer spending alone and it took generations. It took until opinion in each slave-holding nation and empire turned perceptibly against slavery. Opinion had to turn in each individual’s mind, and it had to be revealed by individual action.

Aren’t there bigger problems?

In human health, no, there don’t seem to be bigger problems. Obesity is not a direct killer, but many experts argue it is the biggest cause of preventable illness and death in developed economies, with the possible exception of tobacco. Losing weight, and keeping it off, is harder than not gaining it in the first place. If you have a soft-drink habit, and you are biologically normal, then reducing the consumption of sugary drinks is arguably the most efficient, least complex, least boring single change you can make to reduce your personal risk of becoming obese or diabetic. That said, cutting down on soft drinks is only a low-hanging fruit, not a complete solution to anything.

For the other material problems I’ve brought up, such as climate change and habitat destruction, other industries do contribute more than soft drinks in absolute terms and represent lower-hanging fruit. However, greenhouse gas emissions and human land use are effectively continuous quantities, like market demand. Here, too, every contribution is reliably helpful, barring secondary effects like climate feedback mechanisms.

How can you tell others what to do?

Like this. This entire article is me telling you to find facts, mind your feelings and break away from received wisdom. Political realism does not prevent me from voting on election day, and a mundane view of engineering does not prevent me from reviewing other people’s computer code in detail. Ethical nihilism does not prevent me from supporting you, judging you, trying to understand you, or trying to persuade you that drinking tap water would be good for you. Ethical nihilism does not lead to a postmodern stalemate or vain popularity contest, any more than engineering does.

My philosophy keeps me conscious of the nature of persuasion. Persuasion happens between different people with access to facts, whether in politics, engineering or ethics. Polite argumentation, exchanged by equals, cannot slip past Hume’s guillotine into a celestial realm of pure good and evil. Even with that knowledge, it seems to work better than slapping the bottle out of your hand or pretending there are angels in the cistern.


When something tastes “good” or is “bad for you”, those judgements are not necessarily divorced from moral good and bad.

Open-ended study, critical thinking and compromise have all led me to a diet I can answer for. In my choices at the fast-food counter, I am acting to feel good. I do not feel anxious, nor am I there to set an example or to please others. Principles like altruism don’t come into my thinking. I don’t consciously prioritize the long term over the short or quantify the needs of some arbitrary collective. I am thinking of material things that are true regardless of anyone’s feelings. Nonetheless, my limited understanding of the consequences of my actions does kindle various feelings in me, and I don’t fight them. The result is quick decisions and easy habits. This is the best way I have found to account for the way I try to help and hurt others to a Pareto-optimal degree. This is a nihilist morality.

  1. Nutrition and personal health outcomes of soft-drink consumption are bad, in that consumption has a clear causal relationship with obesity, diabetes and other concrete problems that are not in the typical consumer’s interest. See e.g. Lenny R. Vartanian et al., “Effects of Soft Drink Consumption on Nutrition and Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”, American Journal of Public Health, volume 97, issue 4, 2007. Available here

  2. These are stipulative definitions. If you include thoughts as well as behaviour, or all behaviour instead of social behaviour etc., “morality” becomes more synonymous with “decision-making”. If you include only some arbitrary prosocial factors going into a decision, then one’s own behaviour can be morally wrong in one’s own opinion, even as you decide on it, which would similarly dilute the term. Notice I am trying to avoid the confusing secondary meanings of “moral” and “ethical” as synonymous with “good”. 

  3. A 1% rise in national soft-drink consumption is associated with an additional 2.3 obese adults and 0.3 adults with diabetes per 100 population. Sanjay Basu et al., “Relationship of Soft Drink Consumption to Global Overweight, Obesity, and Diabetes: A Cross-National Analysis of 75 Countries”, American Journal of Public Health, volume 103, issue 11, 2013. Available here

  4. Text retrieved here on 2020-09-13. 

  5. See for instance Karen Wynn’s research on the morality of babies. In her lab, children too young to have absorbed philosophical principles still show a preference for kindness, as well as a preference for those who punish the unkind. 

  6. Jonas Raninen, Ung i en tid med minskat drickande (focus report 08), The Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs, 2020. Available here

  7. For an overview on reasons for conservatism, including some hypothesized connections to ethical convictions, see John T. Jost et al., “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition”, Psychological Bulletin, volume 129, issue 3, 2003. Available here

  8. “Fluid calories do not hold strong satiety properties, don’t suppress hunger and don’t elicit compensatory dietary responses”. Richard Mattes, professor of foods and nutrition, quoted by Katherine Tallmadge, “Stealth Assault on Health: Beverages Pack Calorie Punch” (op-ed), Live Science, 2013-08-06. Available here

  9. Based on a life cycle analysis for Sweden. Thomas Angervall et al., “Jämförelse av dricksvatten – översiktlig livscykelanalys (LCA)”, 2004. Available here

  10. As of 2013, 25% of terrestrial non-Antarctic Earth was still wild. 58.4% was under moderate or intense human pressure, with pressure having increased on 18.9%, and decreased on 5.96%, since the year 2000. Prominent habitat loss in tropical countries in this period can be attributed to the availability of arable land, increases in human population and per-capita consumption, and international demands for product. Brooke A. Williams et al., “Change in Terrestrial Human Footprint Drives Continued Loss of Intact Ecosystems”, One Earth, volume 3, issue 3, 2020. Available here

  11. Under an estimate of natural rates, 9 vertebrate extinctions would have been expected between 1900 and 2014. Going by IUCN listings for monitored species, including “extinct in the wild” and “possibly extinct”, the actual number was 468 species higher, justifying the assessment that a mass extinction is occurring. Gerardo Ceballos et al., “Accelerated Modern Human-induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction”, Science Advances, volume 1, issue 5, 2015. Available here

  12. Human land occupation predicts past extinctions over the last 126,000 years with 97% accuracy in a simplified single-variable analysis. Tobias Andermann et al., “The Past and Future Human Impact on Mammalian Diversity”, Science Advances, volume 6, issue 36, 2002. Available here

  13. Between 1970 and 2016, 20,811 monitored populations declined by 68% on average. These populations included 4,392 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. R.E.A. Almond, M. Grooten and T. Petersen (editors), Living Planet Report 2020 – Bending the curve of biodiversity loss, WWF, 2020. The latest report is available here

  14. For recommendations based on a synthesis of health and environmental factors, consider the EAT-Lancet “planetary health diet”, which includes meat. A 2019 summary report on it is linked through here

  15. Andrew Joyce et al., “The Impact of Nutritional Choices on Global Warming and Policy Implications: Examining the Link Between Dietary Choices and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, Energy and Emission Control Technologies, issue 2, 2014. Available here

  16. Laura Sullivan, “How Big Oil Misled the Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled”, NPR, 2020-09-11. Available here

  17. Plastics Industry Assocation, “Size & Impact: Summary” (2018). Available here

  18. Center for International Environmental Law, Smoke & Fumes document repository. Available here

  19. Dean Schillinger et al., “Do Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Cause Obesity and Diabetes? Industry and the Manufacture of Scientific Controversy”, Annals of Internal Medicine, volume 165, issue 12, 2017. Available here

  20. By the strategic level I mean whether people act to reduce the harm of soft drinks in a coordinated fashion, in a highly visible and photogenic fashion, in a counterproductively violent fashion, mainly against the worst and biggest actors like Coca-Cola, in radical systemic change (e.g. realizing Parecon: Life After Capitalism), in anti-advertising legislation to deflate demand, in science journalism, in research to find less harmful new technologies like GMO cultivars, in starting their own organic sugar-beet farms, and so on.