Discover more from David Friedman’s Substack
Moral realism is the view that there are facts of the matter about which actions are right and which wrong, and about which things are good and which bad. (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that almost everyone believes in moral realism and almost everyone, at least in the circles I usually move in, denies believing in it. Everyone, with the possible exception of psychopaths, feels that some things — stealing from a friend who trusts you, for example — are wrong, not just illegal or imprudent but wrong. And yet most people other than the seriously religious, at least in the academic world where I have spent most of my life, would deny the existence of moral facts, interpret them, if pushed, as preferences, like the preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla, or as social rules we have been trained into.
The inconsistency in the usual attitude, sometimes described as moral relativism, is illustrated by the claim that you shouldn’t stop an Eskimo from putting his aged father on an ice flow and shoving him out to sea — because, in the Eskimo moral system, doing that is entirely proper. To which the obvious response is “why shouldn’t I stop him? According to my moral system, killing your father is wrong and should be prevented.”
Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs. (Charles Napier)
I made an exception for the seriously religious but it is not clear that I should have. If there is a god it may be prudent to obey him. But why should we feel any moral obligation to?
The dispute that split Muslim philosophy in the ninth century, between the Ash’arite and Mut’talizite (“rationalist”) schools, was in part about whether humans had any ability to discern moral truth for themselves or were entirely dependent on divine revelation. Reading about it, it struck me that if humans had no ability to discern moral truth for themselves they had no way of knowing whether the powerful supernatural creature who demanded their worship and obedience was good or evil, God, the Devil or some morally ambiguous being like one of the Greek gods.1 Hence the existence of a god was not a solution to the problem of deciding what one ought to do unless you already had a solution to that problem.
Pascal’s Wager Improved
Blaise Pascal famously argued that one ought to believe in the Catholic faith because the enormous payoff if it was true, heaven instead of hell, made it in your interest to believe even if you thought the probability that it was true was low.
There are three problems with the argument. The first is that belief is not entirely a matter of choice — I cannot make myself believe that two plus two equals five however much I am offered for doing so. The second is that belief motivated not by love of God but by love of self, the desire to end up in Heaven instead of Hell, might not qualify you for admission. The third is that the argument applies to many doctrines other than Catholicism and so gives you no way of choosing among Christian sects or between Christianity and alternative religions, short of somehow estimating the probability that each is true and the associated payoff and choosing the one with the highest expected return.
I, however, have an improved version of the argument free from all of those problems, an argument not for Christianity but for moral realism.
One explanation of our moral feelings is that right and wrong are real and our beliefs about right and wrong at least roughly correct. The other is that morality is a mistake; we have been brainwashed by our culture, or perhaps our genes, into feeling the way we do, but there is really no good reason why one ought to feed the hungry or ought not to torture small children.
If morality is real and you act as if it were not, you will do bad things — and if morality is real you ought not to do bad things. If morality is an illusion and you act as if it were not you may miss the opportunity to commit a few pleasurable wrongs but since morality correlates tolerably, although not perfectly, with rational self interest, the cost is unlikely to be large. It follows that if you are uncertain which of the two explanations is correct you ought to act as if the first is.
No god is required for the argument, merely the nature of right and wrong, good and evil, as most human beings intuit them. The fact that you are refraining from evil because of a probabilistic calculation does not negate the value of doing so — you still haven't stolen, lied, or tortured small children. One of the odd features of our intuitions of right and wrong is that they are not entirely, perhaps not chiefly, judgements about people but judgements about acts.
Getting an Ought from an Is
It is widely believed that it is impossible.
Hume's law or Hume's guillotine is the thesis that, if a reasoner only has access to non-moral and non-evaluative factual premises, the reasoner cannot logically infer the truth of moral statements. (Wikipedia)
I do not claim that I can get good evidence about the truth of ought statements from is statements. I do claim that it is logically possible, that it would be possible if a suitable set of is statements turned out to be true.
My argument starts with intuitionism, the philosophical position that holds that just as humans have senses such as sight and hearing that imperfectly sense physical facts so we have a moral sense that imperfectly senses moral facts. For a book length exposition see Ethical Intuitionism by Michael Huemer, for a short sketch Chapter 61 of The Machinery of Freedom.
The argument for intuitionism, beyond the fact that it describes how most people feel about morality — that certain acts really are wicked — is consistency of perceptions. We believe that our physical senses are not lying to us about physical reality because the things they report usually pass all the consistency tests we can subject them to, consistency between sight, hearing, smell and touch and between perceptions reported by different people. It could all be an illusion, since what I know about what other people perceive reaches me through my senses and my senses could be lying to me. But it is the best evidence we have access to. If moral perceptions are similarly consistent that would be evidence that there is a moral reality out there which we are perceiving, just as the fact that multiple people report seeing the same thing is evidence, not proof but evidence, that that thing is really there.
A possible response is that about moral propositions — the moral status of abortion, charging interest for loans, income inequality — there is massive disagreement. But there is also disagreement about factual claims at a similar level of abstraction: The causes and consequences of climate change, the effect of deficit spending, what sort of diet is good or bad for you. There is very little disagreement about the positive question of whether there is a tiger sitting on my dining room table, at least among the people currently in my dining room. The equivalent moral claim is that there is also little disagreement about the moral status of a sufficiently well specified situation. Very few people of whatever political persuasion, reading “A Christmas Carol,” see Ebenezer Scrooge Mark I as the hero. C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man argued that all societies have, at some base level, the same moral code, which he referred to as the tao.
My claim is not that moral perceptions are consistent or that intuitionism is true. It is that whether the moral perceptions reported by different people are consistent is a non-moral fact. If it is true, that would be evidence that they are perceptions of a common moral reality, hence objective evidence for the moral facts perceived. Why would different people all perceive the same thing if it is not there to be perceived?
A possible answer is that it would be very weak evidence because there are other plausible explanations for consistency of moral beliefs. Perhaps our common moral perceptions are the result of evolution hard wiring into us beliefs that caused our ancestors to behave in ways that led to reproductive success. Perhaps we have been indoctrinated by our societies with beliefs that make societies more likely to survive, consistent across societies because societies that didn’t conform didn’t survive.
Those are possible explanations for consistent moral perceptions consistent with moral nihilism but they depend on non-moral facts. Suppose one could show that some widely held moral beliefs did not contribute to either reproductive or societal success. If such evidence existed, and if we observed consistency across humans of moral judgement, that would be evidence for the existence of moral facts that humans can perceive. Hence it would be evidence for those moral facts that humans do perceive.
It follows that it is logically possible to get positive evidence for normative conclusions.
I may have been biased by the fact that al-Ma’mun, one of the chief supporters of the rationalist position, is on other grounds one of my favorite caliphs.