Tag Archives: moral realism

Moral realism versus hypothetical imperatives

Moral realism is the doctrine that there are “moral facts”. Moral facts are declarations of what is or is not moral (“Stealing is morally wrong”) or what we ought or ought not do (“We ought to abolish the death penalty”). In order to be “facts”, these statement have to describe objective features of the world, and so be independent of subjective human opinion on the matter. In order to be “moral” facts (as opposed to other sorts of facts), they need to declare what, morally, we ought to do or not do.

I’m an anti-realist. As I see it, the only form of “oughtness” that actually exists, is instrumental oughtness. That is, statements of the form “If you want to attain Y, you ought to do X”. Such statements, termed hypothetical imperatives by Kant, can be objectively true descriptions of how things are. The statement “If you want to attain Y, then you ought to do X” can be re-phrased as “Doing X will attain Y”, which can indeed be a true fact about the world.

However, the oughtness, the conclusion “I ought to do X”, rests on wanting Y. And wanting Y is a human value or desire, and so is subjective. Hence, hypothetical imperatives do not amount to objective “ought” prescriptions. Thus hypothetical imperatives are generally not regarded as “moral facts” of the sort needed to establish moral realism. (Indeed, after discussing “hypothetical imperatives”, Kant then went on to try to establish “categorical imperatives” for that reason.)

Everyone who considers this topic accepts the existence of the “instrumental oughts” decreed by hypothetical imperatives, and yet only half of moral philosophers are moral realists. Moral realism is generally held to be the much stronger notion that there are “moral oughts” that hold objectively, regardless of how we feel about them; things that we “ought to do” regardless of our personal desires.

Or so I thought. But I recently read an article by Richard Carrier, the secularist blogger, author and historian best known for his work on the historicity of Jesus, in which he argues that hypothetical imperatives can indeed be objective moral facts, and thus that moral realism is true.

His argument can be summarised from the premises:

(1) There will be some outcome that John most wants.
(2) There will be some action that best attains what John most wants.

… followed by the hypothetical imperative:

(3) In order to attain that outcome, John ought to take that action.

All of the above are objective facts about the world. Carrier then reasons: Given (1), (2) and (3), we have the conclusion:

John ought to take that action. He maintains that this conclusion is also an objective fact about the world, a “moral fact” that establishes moral realism.

That argument depends on treating the English language as a formal logical system, leading to the syllogism:

(1) If A then ought-B;
(2) A;
therefore ought-B.

But common-usage languages are not formal logical systems. What is the actual content of the statement: “In order to attain that outcome, John ought to take that action”? It surely means (re-phrasing without the word “ought”): “Taking that action will attain that outcome”. Does the version including the word “ought” connote anything additional to that re-phrasing? I don’t see that it does. (And if it does, then what?)

But if it doesn’t then the phrase “… John ought to take that action” cannot be separated from the “In order to attain that outcome …”. The phrase “John ought to do X” is then an incomplete thought, inviting the question “else what?”, in the same way that “taking that action will …” is an incomplete thought. Carrier’s attempt to translate a hypothetical imperative into an objective “ought” seems to me to fail.

If a hypothetical imperative could qualify as a “moral fact” then it would have to be the case that the statement “Doing X will attain Y” could also be a moral fact, since that means the same thing. (Again, if anyone wants to argue that there is more to a hypothetical imperative than that then please elucidate.) But I doubt if philosophers generally would accept that factual statements of the form “doing X will attain Y” are “moral facts”.

Indeed, my criticism of moral realism rests on the basic question: What does “John ought to do X” even mean?

I can translate a hypothetical imperative into a different phrasing, and so I understand what an instrumental ought amounts to, but I don’t understand what an “objective ought” is even supposed to mean. And I’ve never heard a moral realist give a proper explanation; they tend to treat it as intuitively obvious and so don’t ask the question. And yet, if we’re examining the very roots of morality, we need an answer.

I read Carrier’s article since, as an anti-realist, I try to look for good arguments for moral realism. But I don’t find his argument convincing. I do think that his account of morality, as containing nothing more than human values coupled with hypothetical imperatives, is actually the correct one, but it seems to me to be better labelled “anti-realist”.

This illustrates an interesting foible of human psychology. People’s intuitive sense of moral realism is so strong that people feel that there is something badly wrong with an anti-realist conclusion, even when reason leads them that way. They really do want there to be some way in which morality can be labelled “objective”, and they are willing to try hard to construct (faulty) arguments to that end. The better conclusion is in realising that there is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!


On Michael Shermer’s defence of moral realism

“Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong?”

Yes, I would (and I don’t think I’m either a slave holder or a Nazi). That quote ends Michael Shermer’s recent defence of moral realism on his Skeptic blog.

My disagreement with Shermer comes down to what we even mean by morality being “objective” rather than “subjective”. Indeed this particular disagreement can account for a lot of people talking past each other. Shermer explains: Continue reading

The CARM rejection of subjective morality

I’ve been pointed by a reader to a critique of the idea that morality is subjective written by the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. CARM is the website of Matt Slick, a conservative Christian who believes in the infallibility and literal intent of the Bible, and thus, for example, in the literal existence of Adam and Eve.


What struck me about Slick’s arguments against morality being subjective is that he doesn’t really address whether it is true that morality is subjective, he discusses whether he wants it to be the case that morality is subjective. He then sort of assumes that what he wants to be the case must then be the case. Continue reading

On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science: Continue reading

The evolutionary argument against moral realism

Having abandoned Divine Command Theory around the age of 12, when I realised that I was an atheist, I then read John Stuart Mill at the impressionable age of 14 and instantly became a utilitarian. I remained so well into adulthood; it seemed obvious that morality was a matter of objective wrong and right, and that utilitarianism — the greatest good of the greatest number — was the way to determine such facts.

Of course I also became aware of the unresolved problems with utilitarianism: there is no way to assess what is “good” except by subjective judgement, and there is no way to aggregate over sentient creatures (should a mouse count equally to a human?) except, again, by subjective judgement. Both of those rather clash with the desired objectivity of the scheme.

Periodically I would try to fix these flaws, but never succeeded. Such mulling led me to the realisation that I didn’t actually know what moral language actually meant. “It is morally right that you do X”, can be re-phrased as “you ought to do X”, but what do those mean? I realised that I didn’t know, and had been proceeding all this time on the basis that what they meant was intuitively obvious and so didn’t need analysis.

But that’s not good enough if we’re trying to solve meta-ethics and understand the very foundations of morality. And so, I eventually arrived at the realisation that the only sensible meaning that can be attached to the moral claim “you ought to do X” is that: at least one human, likely including the speaker, will dislike it if you do not do X. Similarly, “It is morally right that you do X” becomes a declaration that the speaker will approve of you doing X and disapprove of you not doing X. Continue reading