Moral language is used in many ways, including descriptively (e.g. ‘he literally said I was immoral!’), and practically (e.g. ‘Ferrari is a good company, buy one!’), but in philosophical, political, and religious speech, moral language is often used literally. A literal use of moral language must refer to real, matter-of-fact, actual things. If such moral things do not exist, there would be great implications for any literal use of moral language. Morality would become a metaphorical tool of language, nothing more.
“[Morality’s] chief characteristic is that it is required of us, regardless of our desires.” – Joel Marks, 2013
Defining Moral realism
Many people use the terms ethics and morality interchangeably. I find it more helpful to understand ethics as an all-encompassing term, a study which asks the abstract, broad question: ‘What should I do?’ Morality then, is but a school of thought, just one possible answer. Morality answers the question of ethics this way: “We ought to be moral.”
Within morality, we can find the study of: ‘what is moral?’, ‘how do we know what is moral?’, ‘how do we apply morality?’, etc. Separating “morality” from “ethics” is useful for the purpose of providing a meta-ethical analysis and critique. For more explanation of this point, read my post here.
Morality, then, is the set of moral statements which relate to moral facts. Moral facts are any mind-independent (1), objective features of the world (2) that oblige human behaviour (3). Moral realism is the philosophical theory that there are moral facts and as a result of their existence, moral statements can be true or false.
For example, according to a moral realist, moral statements (for example ‘all homosexuals are evil’) are truth-apt. They can be can be true (or false) because they are propositions that refer to objective features of the world. The moral realist states that, in some way, irrespective of human thought, there are features of this universe that relate to moral propositions (e.g. homosexuality and evil relate in some way). (Putting aside for the moment a definition of evil). These features objectively make moral propositions true (or false) and create objective obligations to abide by (or not abide by) said moral fact.
Criteria of acceptable theories
According to Garner and Rosen (1967), three criteria which are used to determine whether a theory is acceptable are:
- Serious objections to the theory can be answered adequately.
- There are good reasons (independent of the statement of the theory itself) in favour of the theory.
- e.g. you can’t just assert the theory without giving good reasons, and the theory itself cannot be used as a good reason for its own acceptance.
- The theory either fits or explains the range of phenomena better than other competing theories.
Garner and Rosen also offer two characteristics of a theory that is more acceptable than another:
- Simplicity: fewer statements and suppositions are required.
- Fruitfulness: the theory leads to the discovery of further truths or theories that bear fruit (reveal truth).
According to the criteria above, moral realism is not an acceptable theory. It cannot:
- adequately answer serious objections,
- offer good reasons for its acceptance,
- nor explain the behaviour of individuals or societies.
Furthermore, it is not simpler than other theories of behaviour, nor does it bear fruitful observations or theories.
Morality, say moral realists, is characterised by being 1) mind-independent, 2) objective, 3) obligatory. But for each of these core characteristics, serious objections can be raised. I’ll go through them one section at a time.
If moral facts are independent of human thought, then how could we (or can we) come to know them? Obvious answers that might satisfy this objection are divine command theory, ethical intuitionism, or ethical naturalism. In short, my rebuttal to each with one is:
- Unless you believe in god, then divine command theory will not explain how we know moral facts. (I am an atheist, for the same reasons I am a moral anti-realist: supernatural theories do not pass the criteria for accepting a theory.)
- Unless you erroneously equate strong subjective preferences as moral truths, ethical intuitionism will not explain how we know moral facts. Equating your values with objective, universal values is highly anthropocentric. And finally,
- Ethical naturalism, despite being a common criticism to my view, does not deal with morality (and the theory of moral realism) as I defined it. It merely describes a theoretically discoverable set of objective features that would somehow bridge David Hume’s is/ought gap (more on that shortly). Even if such a set of human or worldly features existed, norms could not be derived from them.
If moral facts exist objectively, where are they? Assuming for a moment, moral facts somehow are within the scope of scientific enquiry, why haven’t we been able to identify them? It seems silly to ask this question. In what way would they be inscribed in the fabric of the universe? If we found them, would we know it when we saw them? What if we can see morality already, what if a sub-atomic quark is a moral fact? How then do we know it as a moral fact when we see the quark? And this opens the question of how does a quark create the truth of a specific moral statement?
What if, however, moral facts existed objectively, but were not within the scope of scientific discovery? What if their existence fell somewhere outside our ability to find them.
- we wouldn’t know they are objective,
- we wouldn’t know they exist,
- we wouldn’t have reason to believe they exist, and
- our intuitions that they exist, no matter how convincing, would not establish that fact.
It seems far more reasonable to assume that moral facts are not objective features of the universe.
Obligatory moral imperatives
If morals are obligatory, then what happens if we don’t do what is moral? Take some time to think about that. If the answer is ‘nothing’, then there are no moral imperatives for what does it meant to say that certain moral actions are required? Would it be fair to say that they are not required of us –except by ourselves internally?– but then this is not the morality I have defined. I am rejecting the theory of moral realism, which characterises moral imperatives as being obligatory.
As David Hume pointed out, an ‘is does not imply an ought‘. Take a simple example of a building collapsing in on you. The fact is that if you do not leave immediately, you will be crushed to death. This is Hume’s ‘is’. There is no implication contained in this ‘is‘ to flee the building, without a personal subjective goal to live, no desire to survive the collapsing building, there is no motivation to evacuate immediately. All motivations require a subjective goal/desire/agreement. No fact in itself contains the motivation towards any particular action; even if moral realism is correct, a true moral statement does not contain the imperative to abide by it.
Assume for a moment, that there are objective moral facts, for example, the statement, “it is immoral to murder” is objectively true. This is Hume’s ‘is’. We cannot assume that we are obliged to obey this moral fact. Even if God exists, and he created objective right and wrong, and even if he told us to obey his commandments to be moral, these facts are simply that: facts. Unless God forces us, and removes our ability to resist, there is no objective imperative to obey a true moral fact. At this point, a murderer simply can be truly described as immoral. But such moral facts do not imply a moral force exists in the universe that compels our obedience to true moral statements.
What else does it mean, then, to say that morals are obligatory? If there is a punishment for not acting morally, then where can this be shown to physically occur? (This goes back to our problem of identifying morality as an objective feature; keep in mind, it must be a mental punishment, not a physical one, because morality is mind-independent). If God exists and is able to punish immoral acts then now you must provide an acceptable theory of the existence of God/supernatural forces.
All actions and consequences are tangible, causal, and observable. They are non-moral, which is to say amoral. There is no obligation to act morally, and there cannot be if there cannot be a meaningful way to establish a reactive force against immoral behaviour.
If a moral-realist asserts that any of these consequences are actually also of a moral nature, they are thereby asserting the existence of moral facts. This is not necessary if we already have empirical explanations, so it goes against the simplicity principle.
Reasons for accepting moral realism
Most people might accept moral realism, even if not by name. Though the reasons given for it are not compelling. In my estimation, it is accepted for the following reasons:
- It is believed to follow from a belief in God,
- it seems intuitive, and
- it provides existential relief.
However each of these reasons are not compelling arguments for moral realism:
- Even if God exists, and even if God had prescriptions for human behaviour, morality would not be obligatory in itself. At best, morality would be reduced to a set of hypothetical imperatives (as opposed to categorical imperatives). The threat of Hell is quantitatively worse that the threat of other forces that motivate our concession, but it is not a qualitative difference. “If I want to avoid Hell, I ought to be moral”, is intrinsically no different than “if I want to avoid the hospital, I ought wear a seatbelt”. Since moral realism is not a theory of conditional oughts, but rather categorical oughts), this is not a compelling argument.
- It begs the question how –simultaneously– morality can be mind-independent and humans can know what is moral/immoral intuitively. No matter how we feel about something, even if it is most grotesque scenario imaginable, no thought/feeling/preference/desire establishes the existence of a moral fact. “I feel X is moral” is not a compelling argument.
- As Ernest Becker laid out in his Pulitzer prize winning Denial of Death (1973), people embark on a personal project to deny their mortality. The raw animal survival mechanism has manifested a uniquely human existential threat. Morality is another way that people denial their mortality: by accepting moral realism they gain the belief that their preferences, opinions, and values are not just personal, but immortal, true, and objective. This is obviously emotionally satisfying, but this is not a compelling argument.
The third of Garner and Rosens criteria was: ‘The theory either fits or explains the range of phenomena better than other competing theories.’ What is moral realism trying to explain? Possibly it is attempting to explain human behaviour. Humans act ‘morally’ — according to moral realism. But is this true?
As a descriptive statement it is circular at best: define morality as ‘good’, define certain behaviour as ‘good’, when people act ‘good’ call them moral. (You can imagine the inverse example with immoral/’bad’). On the other hand, if moral realism is a theory that claims humans are motivated to be moral, then I need only point out the actions of a variety of individuals or groups that acted in very extreme ways precisely because of their morality. Hitler comes to mind, and his actions (killing millions in concentration camps) were made easier because he believed in the morality of what he was doing. If the moral realist would reply that Hitler was not acting morally, but was acting immorally, and his actions do not negate the explanatory power of moral realism, then I have to ask: how do you know what is moral or immoral? This gets back to earlier points about mind-independence and objectivity. If this does not deter them, I could merely point out a different example, pick either side of the abortion debate: both cases regard their actions moral, the other immoral.
On the contrary, I think that evolution of humanity as social primates explains our (perceived) morality better than any meta-ethical theory. In short, my view is that we evolved in groups up to about 150, and have in-group and out-group preferences, and a reverence for authority, among other things. Variations in values are naturally selected, human behaviour can be completely explained from this perspective. The addition of a strange objective, mind-independent, spooky obligation to this scientific explanation is adding unlikeliness to the case. In other words, we not need to accept moral realism in order to explain human behaviour. The default position is always the lack of a belief in something, so moral realism has the burden of proof upon itself to accept its explanation of human behaviour over the existing scientific one. In doing so, you must also embrace the baggage it comes with: its oddities and spooky characteristics.
A good theory is fruitful because it reveals truth and is therefore useful. A good theory either facilitates the development of further acceptable theories or predicts events or true facts about the world. Moral realism is not predictive.
For example, if a moral realist assumed that ‘killing infants is immoral’, he might make the prediction that people won’t kill babies. But if we go back in time, we can find cultures that practised infanticide. We could also find individuals today in all cultures that have killed babies.
The moral realist might point out despite past cultures and ‘immoral’ individuals today, killing infants is immoral because most people across all time, places, and cultures agree that killing babies is wrong and that explains why it does not occur very often at all.
- Are you begging the question? Maybe you assumed killing infants is immoral because most people think so. If so, how is this hypothesis predictive or explanatory?
- Agreement in opinion does not establish truth (e.g. many people once thought that the Earth was flat, but the Earth did not become roughly spherical once everyone rejected that idea; it was that way to begin with).
I am an moral-antirealist because it is the default position.
Imagine a time before morality… Here I am, not claiming things are moral or immoral, when a moral realist comes along and tells me there exists an objective, mind-independent, set of obligations. I reply by asking how he knows they exist, what and where they are? He then delves into his preferred normative ethical theory. I stop him and say, this is all unnecessary. ‘You can live all the same without the need to invoke a phantom called “moral facts” ‘. Just because objective values do not exist, it doesn’t mean subjective ones don’t. It doesn’t mean subjective values aren’t sufficient. It doesn’t mean actions can’t be justified. It doesn’t mean one must be fatalistic, depressive, passive, destructive. Unfortunately, he called me an animal and went his way.
The theory that moral facts exist, that there are true moral statements, that the truth and existence of these statements exist independent of human minds and is universal across time and space, in short: morality exists, is not an acceptable theory. There are
- serious objections to the theory,
- it does not give good reasons for its acceptance, and
- it does not explain the phenomena of human or societal behaviour better than other theories.
- We can describe human behaviour amorally and
- This amoral description of human behaviour is simpler than the invoking of moral facts.
Garner, R. T, & Rosen, B. (1967). Moral philosophy: A systematic introduction to normative ethics and meta-ethics. The Macmillan Company, NY: New York.
Marks, J. [Joel Marks]. (2013, July 1). Joel Marks talks about a world without morality [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snSCgvG3fbc
Thanks to James Stillwell III for comments that led to the improvement of this post. Thanks for Joel Marks' input which has pointed out issues with this post.