Are there moral facts?

Jimmy asks:

Hey I have some questions regarding ethics. How do you determine what moral properties exist and what the best moral system is? It seems like every property that people refer to is only morally significant for arbitrary reasons. Like why does sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc. matter? It seems like people assume these axioms while just appealing to intuition. How would you be able to assert that sentience is a more valid moral property than say, race? What if someone just has the natural intuition to prefer white people over others? Most people would obviously agree that that’s absurd, as racism is less common than “sentientism”, but how would you subjectively and arbitrarily determine when an intuition is common enough to matter, and for whom does this intuition apply to? Should we only consider the intuitions of humans or men or white people, or even living creatures for that matter?

Also, this would apply to deontology vs consequentialism and utilitarianism. A common objection for the latter two is the utility monster argument. But how would one arbitrarily decide that it is wrong to give all the resources to the utility monster. It is also the case that people seem to be more inclined to give to the utility monster if you switch the situation so that the monster begins at a baseline of massive suffering. More people would support giving resources to the monster if it relieved his suffering greatly at the expense of having slightly less pleasure for the humans. This shows that people arbitrarily determine whether deontology or consequentialism is better. This is why I don’t understand how to prove that one’s moral system is better. It is for these reasons that moral nihilism seems to make more logical sense to me, although personally it obviously sounds absurd to say things like rape, murder, etc. aren’t wrong. I was wondering what your thoughts on all of this is?

Answer from Craig Skinner

One of the longest questions I have answered, but a big one. Actually, you ask nine questions on metaethics and normative ethics. I cant answer them all. I will deal with your overarching concern:

Are there moral facts, or is it all just feeling and opinion?

There is no agreed view. I will sketch the options.

First, we could say there are no moral facts. People continue to speak and act as if there were, praising, blaming, commending, denouncing. If they believe there are moral facts, they are mistaken, and we call this an error theory of morality. If they know there are no moral facts, but just pretend there are, this is moral fictionalism. Or we might think moral utterances just express attitudes (emotivism), or recommendations as to how to act (prescriptivism).

If, on the other hand, we think there are rights and wrongs of matters, that we can make mistakes, and that moral progress can occur, then we must say there are moral facts. Having decided this, we must next decide what kind. The main distinction is between mind-independent and mind-dependent facts.

Mind-independent facts could be transcendental, natural or non-natural.

  1. Transcendental facts are guaranteed by something beyond the everyday world, such as Plato’s Forms (eg of the Good), or God (divine command theory), or  self-evident facts — analogous to mathematical truths (Kant). But, on my view there is no evidence for an “intelligible world” distinct from the “sensible world”, and on the maths analogy, “self-evident” moral facts are axioms not a priori truths.
  2. Natural facts depend on the way the world is. But attempts to bridge the gap from fact to value by appeal to common humanity or evolved adaptive traits still leaves us with with descriptive not normative ethics, explanation not justification, no “ought” from “is”, no moral facts.
  3. Non-natural facts, allegedly, are unanalyzable and have intrinsic value. They are invoked to get over the problems with natural facts. But how they supervene on natural facts, and how we could know about them, are mysteries.

The most plausible view, for me, is that there are mind-dependent moral facts reached by intersubjective agreement. These facts are constructed, typically, not from actual agreement of fickle, real individuals with their personal views, but by postulating “ideal observers” or an agent-neutral “view from nowhere” from whom or from which can emerge a set of principles that no reasonable person could reject or that any fully rational agent could agree. Of course if there is no morality in the input to such an exercise, there is no guarantee of morality in the output — we need contractors/ constructors to be fair, benevolent. But this is no strike against the constructivist approach — all ethical systems are ultimately tested against our moral intuitions, this being equivalent to science’s testing hypotheses against the empirical world.

In conclusion, the case for mind-independent moral facts, whether transcendental, natural or non-natural, is weak. But there is no need to deny that moral facts exist. They can fairly be construed as mind-dependent in terms of constructive intersubjective agreement.

You must make your own choice. By the way, if you find these metaethical debates difficult, join the club, they are difficult. I’ve tried to avoid the technicalities that pervade the literature. And whether you favour a particular metaethical view, or remain open, you still have to deal with normative ethics (which system or combination of systems) and practical ethics (abortion, euthanasia etc.).

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