Tag Archives: morality

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

Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring. 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

Hume’s subjective morality: Making value judgements about value judgements

One theme of this blog has been my arguments — as a disciple of Hume — that morality is subjective, thus rejecting that idea that moral claims can be assigned truth values and that they are independent of human judgement on the matter. (For example, see my posts: Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense and Science can answer morality questions.)

This idea, though, often meets strong intuitive resistance. A common complaint is that, if moral claims are “merely” people’s opinions, then one cannot say that the morals of a virtuous man, living a blameless life and esteemed by his fellows, are any better than those of a delinquent mass murderer.

The suggestion is that, if morals are human sentiments, rather than being objective statements of fact, then we must value everyone’s sentiments and morals equally.

This, however, is a non-sequitur. There is nothing to stop us making value judgements about value judgements. Indeed we commonly do so. There is nothing at all preventing us from respecting and lauding someone we regard as a moral paragon, or from deprecating someone we regard as a delinquent.

Stated like this the point is perhaps obvious, yet many objections to the idea that morality is subjective amount to the idea that one needs permission to make value judgements, permission that can only come from a reference to an objective standard, and that in the absence of such a standard one must regard everyone’s opinion as “equally valid”. Continue reading

There is nothing wrong with morality being subjective!

Whenever I argue that morality is subjective I encounter people who regard that idea as so unpalatable that they are determined that we must find a scheme — somehow, anyhow — in which morality can be regarded as objective. The term “subjective” has such negative connotations. I argue here that such connotations are not justified.

If we ask what morality actually is, the only plausible answer is that morality is about the feelings that humans have about how we act, particularly about how we treat each other. This was proposed by the greatest ever scientist, Charles Darwin, who in Chapter 3 of his Descent of Man stated that that “moral faculties of man have been gradually evolved” and added that “the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts”.

He explains that in social animals such instincts would take the form that in each individual:

… an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other.

The world’s greatest philosopher, David Hume, had earlier arrived at the same conclusion. In his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Hume explained that “morality is determined by sentiment”, saying that “in moral deliberations” the “approbation or blame … cannot be the work of the judgement”, but is instead “an active feeling or sentiment”.

Hume continues:

In these sentiments then, not in a discovery of relations of any kind, do all moral determinations consist. . . .

… we must at last acknowledge, that the crime or immorality is no particular fact or relation, which can be the object of the understanding, but arises entirely from the sentiment of disapprobation, which, by the structure of human nature, we unavoidably feel on the apprehension of barbarity or treachery.

No-one has ever suggested any alternative account of morals that makes the slightest sense. The main alternative suggestion is that morality is about the values and feelings of gods, rather than of humans, but we have neither hide nor hair of any gods, whereas we know that humans exist and have evolved.

Given our evolutionary past, in a highly social and cooperative ecological niche, we will inevitably have been programmed with moral feelings, feelings about how we act towards each other. Thus morals are rooted in human values and in what we like and dislike. That makes morals, at root, subjective, since the term “subjective” means “based on or influenced by personal feelings, values and opinions”.

Whether an act is regarded as “morally good” or “morally bad” must, in the end, be a statement about how humans feel about the matter. No viable alternative has ever been proposed. Continue reading

Debate with Anthony Freeland on Objective Morality: Second Post

This post continues my debate with the Christian blogger Anthony Freeland over whether moral values and duties are objective (independent of human opinion) or subjective (being reports of human opinion). See Anthony’s first post, my first reply, and then Anthony’s second post.

Was the Holocaust evil?

Anthony feels that I hadn’t properly answered his question: Was the Holocaust an act of evil? He also complains that “with subjective morality … nothing can be considered evil”.

It’s clear that Anthony and I interpret the word “evil” differently. I had considered that my statement: “most humans regard the Holocaust as among the vilest and most abhorrent crimes ever” answered the question. Yes, subjectively, most people feel the Holocaust to be evil. But Anthony is presumably asking something different. Continue reading