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. Continue reading
The Sam Harris morality challenge is leading to a flurry of blog posts. I recently disagreed with a post by Richard Carrier arguing that morals are objective. In a brief discussion in comments on his blog Carrier suggested that I read his chapter Moral Facts Naturally Exist, from the compilation The End of Christianity, where he presents his argument more fully. Having now read that work, and also noting Carrier’s second post on the topic, I return to the theme and expand on my disagreement with Carrier.
To start, I’ll declare that I do agree with Dr. Carrier on several major issues. For example, I agree with Carrier’s statement:
What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances, as those circumstances would be understood by that human being if they were reasoning non-fallaciously from only true beliefs about themselves and the world, is an empirical fact that science can discover.
Secondly, I agree that any “ought” statement needs to be of the form: “if ones goal is X then one ought to pursue action Y”, where science can tell us that action Y tends to lead to goal X. Carrier gives the example: “If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity”.
Dr. Carrier then asserts: “Therefore the claim “you can’t get an ought from an is” is demonstrably false”. To be clear here, the “is” is the existence of the desire, the “I want my car to run well”, not merely the “I have a car”. Thus one is getting the “ought” from the existence of a goal, the desire.
Subjective versus objective morality
My first objection is over whether Carrier’s system amounts to objective morals (as he claims) or whether it gives subjective morals. Continue reading
Sam Harris, in his book The moral landscape, argued that morals are objective, and he has recently issued a challenge inviting people to refute him. Richard Carrier supports Harris’s claim, though prefers his own formulation of it.
I regard morals as subjective rather than objective so want to address Carrier’s argument. I summarise that argument here, though note that I am re-ordering it and partially paraphrasing. Carrier gives a series of propositions:
1. Humans attempt to achieve satisfaction with their life.
2. What will maximize such satisfaction is an empirical fact that science can discover.
3. Such things are often common across humans.
I agree on all 3 points so far. “Satisfaction” here should be interpreted broadly, as a well-being that gives emotional satisfaction and contentment. It’s also true that humans worldwide are very similar, and that what will lead to contentment overlaps strongly between humans. Note, though, that people also differ in their personality, and can have different preferences.
Carrier’s argument then continues with: Continue reading