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Moral Realism

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ETA: I have deleted the personal stuff, and apologize to the board for dragging in a personal dispute. If anyone wishes to discuss this topic, please do.

Moral Realism

Consider the following proposition: "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason."

Most people (fortunately!) would agree with this. Some would go further. Some would say it is always wrong to kill people for any reason, even self-defense. Others would say that while it's always wrong to kill people for no reason, it's OK to kill people for some reasons, including but not limited to self-defense.

Sadly, some small number of people (sociopaths?) might argue that sometimes it's right to kill people for no reason; an even smaller number of people (I hope never to meet any!) might contend that it's always right to kill people for no reason at all.

Now consider a different sort of proposition: "Saturn is a planet, and it is the eighth planet from the sun."

The statement has two clauses, each making a distinct claim. The first clause claims that Saturn is a planet, and the second asserts that it is the eighth planet from the sun. If the first clause is false, it's not possible for the second clause to be true; but it's possible for the first clause to be true and the second to be false.

It turns out that the latter is the case. The first clause is true, and the second false. Saturn is a planet, but it is the sixth planet from the sun, not the eighth.

We know this because we can check.

But even if it were true that both clauses were false -- imagine some counterfactual world in which Saturn does not exist -- the statement in its entirety remains truth apt. That is, the statement can be shown to have a truth value, to be either true or false by checking.

Can we, in some like manner, check the truth value of a statement like, "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason"?

Granted, these are two different types of statements. The statement about the wrongness of killing is normative, whereas the statement about Saturn is descriptive.

To puzzle this out, we need some theory of truth. One theory of truth is correspondence: truth inheres in propositions that correspond to facts about the world. Not everyone accepts correspondence theory, but we can accept it here for the sake of argument. Certainly, correspondence theory at least seems to be a plausible candidate for truth-bearing.

The normative statement about the wrongness of killing can be recast into a general descriptive statement: There is a moral fact about the world that makes it always wrong to kill people for no reason.

The above statement, if it is truth-apt -- capable of having a truth value in the first place -- must be either true or false. It cannot be both.

The problem, now, is to locate this alleged moral fact about the world, which makes the statement at issue truth-apt.

I can't find it.

I can find Saturn. I can see it with the naked eye. If I want to see it more clearly, I can peer at it through a telescope. To learn more about it, we've sent spacecraft to Saturn. I can consult a book and find out all sorts of properties about Saturn: Its diameter, density, mass, atmospheric composition, the composition of its rings, and so on.

I can't do any of this with a moral fact. I can't peer at a "moral cosmos" with a "moral telescope" and see a "moral fact." Moral facts, then, if they exist at all, cannot be concrete entities. This means such facts must be abstract entities.

Some people think abstract entities don't exist, just as some reject the correspondence theory of truth. But for the sake of argument (and brevity) we can provisionally accept both the existence of abstract entities and the correctness of correspondence.

Perhaps a moral fact is like a mathematical entity; a number, or an equation, or a theorem, or a formula. Maybe it's like twice two makes four.

If it is, no one has shown this. I don't even know how one would begin to go about trying to show it. Alleged "moral facts" seem to bear no relation at all to mathematics.

Perhaps moral facts are truths of logic? One promising line of reasoning might be to assert that the proposition "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason" is self-evidently true.

Is it? Consider the famous line from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…"

But what, exactly, is a self-evident truth? I think it is a statement wherein, if we were to assert its contrary, we would posit an obvious logical contradiction. Hence, it's self-evidently true that a triangle has three sides. To speak of a four-sided triangle would be, obviously, to speak nonsense.

What if we were to assert the contrary of "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason"? Suppose we asserted that sometimes it's OK to do that; or even that it's always OK? In so asserting, are we positing a logical contradiction?


We may be asserting something that most of us would disagree with, or find ghastly, but I detect no logical contradiction in so asserting. In the same way, "all men are created equal" cannot be a self-evident truth, the founders notwithstanding, because to assert its contrary does not describe a logical contradiction.

Perhaps alleged "moral truths" have some other kind of logical standing. We must await (in vain, I predict) for someone to parse out a moral logic -- an endeavor as futile, I think, as discovering a moral mathematics.

The upshot is that alleged "moral facts" about the world are neither concrete nor abstract.

Therefore, they don't exist.

This means that statements like "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason" either lack a truth value (they are neither true nor false), or, straightforwardly, such statements are false. I think there may be some disagreement about whether to designate such statements as lacking a truth value or as always being false, but I don't think that distinction matters much, because both designations are unnerving.

In sum, no one has moral knowledge, or can have moral knowledge, because there is nothing to have such knowledge of. Dire as this may seem, the situation is not beyond repair, though any repair, I think, requires that we jettison moral realism. One way to do this is to recast the statement, "It is always wrong to kill people for no reason" as, "I feel that it is always wrong to kill people for no reason." Now we have a checkable statement, a statement that is truth apt. I can introspect, and decide whether it is true or false that I feel this way about the world. In addition, I can speculate, "Most people feel that it is wrong to kill others for no reason." And others can report whether this feeling is true or false for them. Even if they don't volunteer this information, I can observe that most people in fact don't kill others for no reason (fortunately!), and so I have warrant to conclude that most of them, like me, don't feel it is right to do that.

On this account, statements about morality are not observations or descriptions of the external world, but simply reports of feelings, attitudes, emotions, inclinations, sensibilities and the like.

The worry remains what grounds these feelings, but I do not think this worry is too serious. We can simply be anti-foundationalist in response to this worry, or we can say -- correctly, I think -- that these feelings and intuitions are grounded by the kind of evolved entities that we are. A world in which members of a social species routinely killed their con-specifics does not correspond well with a fitness landscape for that species.

In expressing moral feelings, we can hope to influence others -- dissuading them, if necessary, from killing others for no reason, for a world in which such behavior was common would be even more unfortunate than the world in which we in fact find ourselves.

Edited by davidm
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I'll try to agree-yet-disagree with you in a (hopefully) interesting way. This is from an argument made by Gabriel Abend.

Start with Bernard Williams' distinction between thin and thick moral judgments (or Walzer's separation of thick and thin concepts): a thin moral judgment is one that does not depend on the world to guide its application and is typically a normative claim like the one you discuss above, whereas a thick moral judgment both evaluates and describes. Investigating thin moral judgments typically means trolley problems or examining claims like 'it is better to sacrifice one to save five', but thick moral judgments are about things like what it means to be tolerant or generous, or whether the welfare of citizens should be prioritised over that of immigrants. From a sociological perspective, thick moral judgments are underpinned by cultural, institutional, social and other facts or contexts, and efforts to disentangle the evaluative judgment from the description in these kinds of judgments are generally agreed to have failed: in a claim like 'it is cruel to exploit illegal immigrants', the description just is the evaluation.

So what? Well, I can claim that the interesting moral judgments worth studying are thick, not thin. Even if it is - or becomes - possible to study thin moral judgments in a way that meets your challenge above, what difference would that make? What matters to people are thick moral judgments, and these are descriptive. Therefore, we can look to the world for facts that support propositions involving moral judgments; but of course you can say that these are not the thin moral judgments you are objecting to.

Now maybe thin moral judgments can be studied empirically; in fact, this is already happening, especially with research into neuroethics. Abend's criticism is that it is unclear what - if anything - brain imaging or other empirical studies (such as the voluminous research into the trolley problem) can tell us about thick moral judgments, even if it turned out that we could say something definitive about thin ones, because the thick ones we actually use must depend on the world. So from this perspective, the answer to your complaint about truth values for propositions in moral realism might be, 'who cares?' These propositions mean little, if anything, and the moral judgments we care about are descriptive anyway. Moral realism in the form you discuss is then beside the point.

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