Do Moral Facts Exist?

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Virtually all non-psychopaths think murder is morally wrong. But what makes it so? Is the wrongness an objective fact, one that would exist no matter how people felt about it? Or does the wrongness of murder reside only in people’s minds, with no footing in objective reality?

The question falls in the branch of moral philosophy called metaethics. Instead of pondering topics that come up during everyday moral debate – such as whether a given action is right or wrong – metaethics is more abstract. It is concerned with the nature of morality itself. What do people mean when they say something is right or wrong? Where do moral values come from? When people make moral judgments, are they talking about objective facts or are they merely expressing their preferences?

So, the objectivity of murder’s wrongness depends on whether objective moral facts exist at all. And not all moral philosophers agree that they do.

On one side are the moral realists, who say there are moral facts and that these facts make people’s moral judgments either true or false. If it is a fact that murder is wrong, then a statement that it’s wrong would be true in the same way that saying the earth revolves around the sun would be true.

Moral antirealists hold the opposite. They say there are no moral facts and that moral judgments can’t be true or false like other judgments can.

Some argue that when people express moral judgements, they aren’t even intending to make a true statement about an action. They are simply expressing their disapproval. The philosopher A.J. Ayer popularized this perspective in his 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic. He argued that when someone says, “Stealing money is wrong,” the predicate “is wrong” adds no factual content to the statement. Rather, it’s as if the person said, “Stealing money!!” with a tone of voice expressing disapproval.

Because moral statements are simply expressions of condemnation, Ayer said, there is no way to resolve moral disputes. “For in saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement . . . I am merely expressing moral sentiments. And the man who is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments. So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is right.”

Other antirealists are on the realists’ side in thinking that moral discourse makes sense only if it assumes there actually are moral facts. But these antirealists – called “error theorists – say the assumption is false. People do judge actions to be right or wrong in light of supposed moral facts, but they are mistaken – no moral facts exists. Thinking and acting as if they do is an error.

Moral Realism graphic

“The strongest argument for antirealism,” says Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “is to point out the difficulty of making good sense of what the moral facts would be like and how we would go about learning them.”

Scientists can peer through microscopes to learn facts about amoebas. Journalists can observe press conferences and report what was said. Toddlers can tell you that the animal on the sofa is a brown dog. The job of the moral realist is to show that there are moral facts on par with these readily-accepted types of non-moral facts.

Sayre-McCord, who considers himself a moral realist, says this is done best by thinking about what would have to be true for our moral thoughts to be true. This results in some sophisticated philosophical accounts, he says.

Justin McBrayer, a philosopher at Fort Lewis College, says the truth of moral claims can be evaluated by analogy to the ways non-moral truths are established. The same “epistemic norms” apply whether a moral claim or a non-moral claim is being defended. “Some arguments are good, and some are bad,” he says.

Most philosophers are moral realists, but there is a sizeable minority in the antirealist camp. In a 2009 survey of professional, PhD-level philosophers, 56% said they accepted or leaned toward moral realism, while 28% said they accepted or leaned toward moral anti-realism. Sixteen percent said they held some other position.

McBrayer and Sayre-McCord point out the lack of data on the general population’s views, but they both sense that the default position among non-philosophers is moral realism. People think, act, and speak as if there are objective moral facts. But since most have never considered the alternative, many have trouble when pressed to defend their views. “They have to stop and think about it,” McBrayer says.

Sayre-McCord says most people tend to back away from their commitment to moral realism when they’re challenged. “There is a tendency for people to be antirealists metaethically, but realists in practice.”

There is no doubt that how people think about morality affects their behavior, McBrayer says. Psychological research backs this up. In one study, researchers found that participants “primed” to think in realist terms were twice as likely to donate to a charity than participants primed to think in antirealist terms. In another study, researchers found that participants who read an antirealist argument were more likely to cheat in a raffle than those who read a realist argument.

Given these findings, even if murder’s wrongness is just a fiction, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a useful one.

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