A question of ethics – part two

[Read part one]

We need to begin by addressing in more detail the philosophical objection we alluded to in the preceding discussion before we proceed too far into a discussion of meta-ethics. As we saw, some people fundamentally object to this type of philosophical analysis on the grounds that they know perfectly well what they mean by terms, that there is a `common-sense’ view that they are happy with, and that no amount of philosophical speculation is going to change their minds. We can see parallels in the study of metaphysics, where amongst other things, the physical reality of the universe is questioned and sometimes even denied. It is argued that since the only information we have about the universe comes through our senses, we have no `direct contact’ with it, and thus may be fundamentally mistaken as to its nature. The most extreme cases are those when we could imagine ourselves to be `brains in a vat’, where some (presumably malevolent) scientist is merely pumping sensory data into our brains which are entirely convincing, and causing us to believe in a physical universe which is entirely imaginary. Others suggest that although our reality is `real’, it is not physical, and that the idea of a universe which consisted of pure consciousness and nothing else would be equally consistent with the observed evidence.

It is argued that this kind of speculation is useless and futile, that there `seems’ to be a physical universe, that regardless of what its nature might be it acts just like a physical universe would act, and that this type of speculation actually has no effect at all on how we live our lives, so that at best it’s an academic point. There is certainly more than a small amount of validity in this type of position, but it does not cover all philosophical inquiry altogether. In particular it does not extend to ethics and morality.

People may claim, for instance, that they know perfectly well what they mean by statements such as `murder is wrong’, and that no amount of philosophical speculation is going to change that. They may argue that, even if it is accepted that a study into the nature of what we mean by `morality’ is not entirely devoid of merit, such a study has little practical application, since we appear to have a well-developed `moral sense’ which functions perfectly well regardless of what the underlying `reality’ of morality might appear to be.

One of the key questions within meta-ethics is whether `morality’ has any objective existence outside of the minds of people, in other words whether `right’ and `wrong’ are independently existing qualities in the same way that mass or velocity are. The `argument from queerness’ presented by Mackie argues that such qualities would be exceedingly strange, and of a completely different order to other qualities which we believe to exist in the universe. Therefore, it is argued, morality is not `real’ because it is essentially impossible to imagine what kind of `stuff’ it could possibly be made from. However, to argue for the non-existence of morality on this basis alone would be premature, as there are plenty of other concepts — such as politeness, courage, beauty, and honour — which are equally devoid of physical `reality’, and which arise purely as a result of consciousness and the interaction between people, but which nevertheless are perfectly sensible and meaningful qualities. It is perfectly widely recognised that beauty, for instance, is not something inherent in an object, but a reaction of an observer to it. The phrase `beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ states this explicitly. Yet there is nobody who would argue that beauty `does not exist’ for this reason, despite the universally accepted fact that one person might find something beautiful, and another may find it hideous.

We must similarly be careful not to fall into the trap of existential nihilism as the result of this confusion. Existential nihilism, it is argued, arises necessarily from the conclusion that life arose merely from purposeless and aimless physical laws, and therefore life is without meaning or value since the entire human race is of no significance to the universe, the universe not being an entity to which anything can be said to have `significance’. Yet some examination will show this to be a naïve view. We could imagine a universe which was indeed created by a divine being who has a plan for us, yet how would this make values any more `real’, or provide us with any more `meaning’? Just because a divine being has a plan for us, it does not follow that there is some intrinsic and fundamental reason why we ought to adhere to it. Although the matter of divine punishment may incline us to do so, the fact that such a plan comes from an intelligent creator being does not by default require us to value it, or to find `meaning’ in it, any more than the fact that our parents deliberately created us does. There are breeds of farm animal that have been specifically created by humans to provide for better food or skins, yet we may not unreasonably assume that if beef cows were ever to acquire the ability to both inquire into and discover the `plan’ we have for them, they would not be particularly consoled by their discovery. Ludwig Wittgenstein tried to argue that:

If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in; the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

but there is no reason to suppose that `a value which of of value’ is any less `accidental’ as a result of it lying `outside the world.’ It is not sensible to assume that something which is without value becomes something which is of value merely as a result of it coming from somewhere else. Further, even if the entire universe is `accidental’, it does not follow that everything that happens within it is equally `accidental’; the fact that the universe may be a `cosmic accident’ does not change the fact that when we put bread into a toaster we do so in order to very deliberately make toast.

More fundamentally, `value’ is just not something an object possesses in the same way that it possesses mass, or velocity, or shape. It arises, in essence, from an interaction between a valuer and a thing being valued, and is transient and `subjective’ in that way. The fact that it is transient and subjective does not preclude it from having value. As we noted a while ago, it is fundamentally misguided to argue that the absence of intrinsic objective `values’ which exist independently of consciousness must mean that `real values’ do not exist at all, because values simply do not have to exist intrinsically and externally in order to be `real’. If one personally values something, no amount of philosophising is going to convince one that one doesn’t, and existential woe arising from a belief in nihilism is actually a reflection of philosophical naïveté and the creation of an imaginary moral problem where one does not in fact exist. Thus, even if we were to conclude that morality has no objective existence outside of the minds of people, it does not necessarily follow that it has no existence at all, or even no objective existence. But it does mean that we have to be very careful about describing exactly what we do mean by the term.

However, describing morality in terms of personal value judgments as they pertain to human conduct raises problems, because in their daily lives people certainly do act as if morality were objective; it is rare for somebody to be imprisoned for 20 years because they produced an ugly piece of work, but it’s not at all uncommon for somebody to be imprisoned for 20 years because they performed an act which was considered to be `immoral’ — provided we accept that a legal system is a codification of a moral system. Yet, as with beauty, it is an undeniable fact that people frequently and significantly disagree as to what is or is not `moral’, so even if we can accept that morality can be `real’ despite existing purely in the mind, this observation casts serious doubt on the idea that it can be objective. Debates constantly rage as to the morality of things such as abortion, gay marriage, prostitution, the use of certain types of drugs, and so on, so the question of morality — and what `moral’ really means — certainly does have significant practical importance, meaning that it is at least not purely academic to investigate what we might mean by it. We can begin by examining the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Intrinsic value

An examination of moral judgments is confused by the fact that a lot of factors other than morality seem to factor into such judgments. In the case of drugs, for instance, it might be argued that they should be restricted not because of their immorality, but because of their harmful effects. Similarly, a case could be made against legalising prostituion not as a result of its immorality, but in order to protect women from such a life, to discourage people from sexual objectifying women, and so on. The distinction between morality and these other factors is often blurred, but we can usually find a moral question at their root. We may argue for the restriction of certain types of drug because of the harm that they might cause, for instance, but such an argument usually has its root in the idea that we should stop people from harming themselves. This is not always the case. We could argue, for instance, that certain types of drug result in states of consciousness which lead to a tendency to cause harm to others, and that the restriction is therefore not to protect the drug users, but to protect everyone else. Alternatively, we might argue that a drug addict is unable to make a significant cultural and economic contribution to society, and may — as a result of healthcare and policing, for instance — be a significant financial drain to the economy, and that restriction is therefore a result of non drug users simply not wanting to finance the habits of others, regardless of the morality of the issue. So there are certainly ways of reducing many issues down to what we may call `practical’ or simply `preferential’ matters, rather than moral matters per se.

In fact, it can be questioned whether `morality’ is even intended to mean anything separate from these practical matters. A common philosophical line of criticism of morality arises from the so called `open question’ problem. We may say, for instance, that murder is `wrong’ because it, amongst other things, causes pain and difficulty to the victim’s family. The `open question’ problem states what we can take any such statement and expand it as follows: `yes, murder may cause pain and difficulty to the victim’s family, but why is causing pain and difficulty to the victim’s family wrong?’ In other words, the open question problem accepts that murder may cause pain, for instance, but argues that to call the causing of pain `wrong’ is a claim that needs justification, that we cannot simply assume as a matter of policy that causing pain is `wrong’. We may list any number of things that we consider to be `wrong’, such as causing pain, restricting liberty, stealing personal property, telling lies, or whatever else, but the relevant question here is what is it that those things have in common that make them `wrong’? What it is that determines `wrongness’?

It can and has been argued that this is a meaningless question, that it is simply pointless to try to see `rightness’ or `wrongness’ as a quality in itself separate from these other considerations. Indeed, it can be argued that the entire open question problem is self-fulfilling, and therefore not a real dilemma after all. If you can attach the words `but why is that wrong?’ to the end of every moral statement, it’s detractors argue, then quite obviously you’re never going to find an answer that satisfies you, because whenever you do, you’ll just tag `but why is that wrong?’ to the end of it. In other words, phrasing the problem in those terms requires that, by definition, there will never be a solution.

A counter-criticism would be that this is not the case with other qualities. We could ask, for instance, what makes something beautiful, and a simple answer might be `the fact that it seems beautiful to me’, and this would be internally consistent. People are able to distinguish their perceptions of something as beautiful from their perceptions of something as ugly, and even if they are not able to describe any quantum physical processes which cause those perceptions, they are sufficiently identifiable as to give those terms meaning in everyday language. We may term this intrinsic value. We may value a particular hammer, and call it `good’, because it does a particularly effective and efficient job of hammering nails. It has value to us because of the way in which it serves a purpose; it has extrinsic value. But a beautiful painting serves no useful purpose (provided it is not held for investment); it has value to us for no other reason than the fact that we like it. We could even confusingly say that we value it because it has value to us. Thus, we could say the painting has intrinsic value, because we value it for what it is in and of itself rather than because it helps us to achieve some end.

Thus, could we answer `because my moral sense makes it seem wrong to me’ to the open question, and have done with it? Well, clearly we could, and the vagueness of this response is not sufficient to make it meaningless. There is no reason why we need to look for rational explanations as to why something should be considered `wrong’; the fact that we just don’t like a particular type of human conduct may be enough in itself. There is no a priori reason why we cannot sensibly talk about morality from a perspective of simple and intangible approval or disgust for particular types of conduct. Indeed, the philosophical emotivists contend that this is exactly what moral statements amount to; the statement `murder is wrong’, for instance, they claim semantically equates to `boo to murder!’ while the statement `giving to charity is good’ equates to `yay for giving to charity!’ Prescriptivists, on the other hand, would translate those statements into commands: `Don’t murder!’ and `do give to charity!’ Both of these groups fall into the `noncognitivist’ school which denies that moral sentences express propositions, but if we define `wrong’ in terms of consistency with emotional distaste then there is no reason why moral sentences should not express propositions, and there is no a priori reason why we should not define it in this way — `the act of murder is something that is emotionally distasteful to me’ is a perfectly good proposition, for instance.

But, as we have stated, the difference is that nobody who considers a piece of art to be beautiful is really concerned with compelling anyone else to see it as beautiful. In the case of morality, however, the very essence of the judgment is that it is concerned with rules which should be imposed on others. If morality were just an internal sense of response to the world as beauty is, the philosophical problem would seem to be easily soluble, but that is simply not how it works in practice. When people say that something is morally wrong, there is at least an implicit sense that other people should not be doing that something. In many cases, punitive sanctions are in place when people actually do. Now, we certainly could say that `my moral sense makes it seem wrong to me, and that is good enough reason to me to attempt to physical compel people to behave in a manner consistent with my moral sense’, but this is not how most people actually use the concept; in everyday usage, people argue that others should be punished for immoral acts because they are immoral, and not simply because the moral judge would prefer a world where they did not commit such acts for purely selfish or practical reasons. It is inconsistent to answer the open question problem in a way that suggests morality is purely a personal response to the world, and then to claim that other people ought to follow that purely personal response. People clearly do act and use the terms `right’ and `wrong’, therefore, as if morality really were something objective and `out there’ that people ought to conform to. Thus, although as we’ve seen it is perfectly possible to define morality in terms of intrinsic values and thus to argue that moral judgments do indeed represent something `real’, if we do that we end up with a type of `morality’ which is nothing like the type of morality that most people do actually believe in and nothing like the type of morality that people do indeed act upon.

It seems not meaningless, therefore, to insist that `right’ and `wrong’, if they are to mean anything at all, should mean something distinct from the actual things that are considered to be `right’ and `wrong’, something other than a convenient label to express emotional distaste for particular types of conduct. If we list all the things that we consider `wrong’, but we cannot explain what we mean by `wrong’ other than by reference to that list, then we have circular reasoning, i.e. items only appear on that list because they are considered `wrong’, but they are only considered `wrong’ because they appear on that list. There is also the problem of defining terms. We may say, for instance, that we understand perfectly well what we mean by something like `murder is wrong’, but since we may also agree that killing in some wars, execution of some criminals, killing of animals for food, killing in self-defence, and assisting suicide are all `moral’, we are left with the question of specifying precisely what we mean by `murder’. If we simply define `murder’ as something along the lines of `unjustified killing of humans’ then we are still left with the problem of defining what type of killing is `justified’. It is likely, if we keep going down such a road, that we will end up revealing that what we actually mean is that `murder’ is `that type of killing that we consider to be wrong’, meaning that we don’t know perfectly well what we mean by `murder is wrong’ at all, since the act that we are claiming to be `wrong’ is defined in those very terms, translating the phrase into `wrongful killing is wrong’ which is at best a tautology and at worst completely devoid of any meaning whatsoever.

Moral realism

It is, of course, not necessary for practical purposes to understand what we mean by morality. It may well be, as we discussed in an earlier section, that there is no logical or coherent basis in the moral judgments that we make, and that in practice we really do just use `right’ and `wrong’ to refer to long internalised lists of actions which, for whatever reason, we are programmed to think of as praiseworthy or objectionable, and that there is no other basis to the systematic punishments that society exerts on others than this non-rational programming. After all, society has functioned perfectly well for thousands of years with various types of legal and religious moral systems, and if we do end up concluding that moral terms are in themselves meaningless we can reflect that that doesn’t seem to have stopped them being used in meaningful and practical contexts. However, as students of the human condition we at least have an interest in investigating these questions, because we at least are interesting in understanding what we mean by those terms, and in what others mean by them when they apply them.

But it does mean, however, that we have to be careful what we are really talking about. It is very easy to confuse oneself with philosophy. We must be continually are our guard when discussing philosophy to avoid two fundamental errors which philosophers very often fall into. The first is that we must avoid drawing conclusions and insisting that the world acts in accordance with those conclusions without investigating whether or not it really does. We have seen examples of this when discussing normative ethics. It may seem reasonable, for instance, to take a utilitarian position and define `moral’ acts as those which increase pleasure. But as we also saw, a cursory look at the moral judgments people actually make show that that is not how people actually think of morality, because there are some acts that are considered to be wrong regardless of their consequences, and other acts that are considered to be wrong even if they do result in increased benefits to society as a whole. Thus, if we arrive at such a definition and start philosophising on the assumption that people really do behave as if that definition were the right one — or, even worse, on the assumption that they would behave as if that definition were the right one, if only they would give it a little thought — then we are going to make a significant error.

Secondly, we must avoid believing ourselves to be having substantial disagreements when we are in fact only disagreeing over terms, or our discussions will be nothing but word games. If we follow the argument from queerness and conclude that there are no objective moral facts, and that therefore `morality is false’, we must not use this conclusion to argue against someone who would say `morality clearly is not false, because we see people making moral judgments every day!’ The two interlocutors in such an argument would be merely using the word `morality’ to refer to two completely different things; one to describe actual physical facts, the other to describe behaviours described as `moral’ but with no assertions being made as to actual moral facts. We must be clear, when making our arguments, precisely what it is that we are really talking about, and to avoid assuming that others must be talking about that same things that we are, particularly when they disagree.

With the preceding discussion in mind, we can proceed with our look at meta-ethics. We can divide meta-ethical theories into two broad categories: those that assert the objective reality of moral facts, and those that do not. As stated, it is a simple and observable fact there are frequently very significant disagreements as to what is or is not `moral’. Not only are there disagreements between people, and from one historical period to another, but the same people change their moral views over time. Thus it seems that people’s perception of what is moral is at least variable. This does not by itself mean that there are no moral facts, because we can argue that people can simply be ignorant of moral facts, or mistaken about them. A vegetarian, for instance, who previously saw no moral issue with eating meat but now does, may argue that until they really thought about the issue, they simply hadn’t detected the moral fact that eating meat was wrong. Or, they may argue that until they found out about the suffering that factory-raised animals undergo, they simply did not have sufficient information to make an informed moral judgment. Thus it is arguable that if everyone held all the information, they would agree as to moral facts. Alternatively, it is possible to argue that even if everyone held all the information, it would still be possible to fail to agree as to moral facts because some people are simply unable to draw the correct moral judgments from that information, in much the same way as many people are unable to solve quadratic equations. The practical problems of determining what exactly `all the information’ is, or what exactly the `correct’ way of making moral judgments is would appear to be insurmountable, but the underlying theory may still be true.

When talking about moral realism, we face a further issue related to the defining of terms. In recent times, the term `moral relativism’ has become a perjorative in certain circles, particularly in the U.S., a place where we have to be unusually sensitive to the spectre of belief. It is often argued by such people that even if moral realism is not `true’, we would be better off by believing it to be true. A `slippery slope’ argument is often presented, particularly in cases like gay marriage, or even gay sex. If, they argue, we claim that gay sex should be decriminalised because it happens in the privacy of one’s own home, between consenting adults, and with no harm to others, it opens the door for other such private acts to be permitted. `Where will it end?’ they ask, `are we to allow polygamy, sexual torture, domestic servitude of women, and the like, just because it occurs “in the privacy of the home” between “consenting adults”?’ It is argued that there are serious consequences to society of allowing morality to be `relative’ when it harms nobody other than those consenting a private arrangement, and that therefore acting as if certain things are moral absolutes would be better.

It is not the place of this essay to pass judgment on such a view, other than to point out that there doesn’t seem to be much consistency or logic in the moral and legal systems in place today which would suggest such a `slippery slope’. It is considered immoral, for instance, to steal twenty pounds from your neighbours wallet, but positively moral for governments to routinely steal 30% of everyone’s annual income at the point of generation. It is considered immoral to murder, for instance, but in many places not immoral to execute criminals. There is really no reason why allowing one type of act in the privacy of the home must necessarily result in allowing every other such private act to take place. It is perfectly possible for a legislature to permit certain types of sexual activity within the privacy of the home but to deny others, regardless of what logic might have been behind the former decision.

However, we can observe that a peculiar brand of doublethink is necessary to promote such a view. To admit that moral absolutism would be preferable to moral relativism is tantamounting to admitting that morals really are relative. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t have to revert to a `slippery slope’ argument, because you could just say `it’s wrong, and that’s that’. To argue for moral absolutism in practical terms like this is to accept that morals are not absolute at all, and if you accept that morals are not absolute then you cannot act as if they were. Thus, a conscious decision has to be made to believe that they are. As a popular saying in the Christian `Bible Belt’ of the U.S. goes, `the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.’ Doublethink is necessary to both accept this rationale for a belief in moral absolutism, and simultaneously to actually believe it, because the belief contradicts the rationale.

Of course, this not necessarily so. There are people who believe the Bible describes the moral absolutism in the universe and believe it simply because that’s what it says, but those are not the people we’re talking about here. The problem is with this group of people is that we can begin to suspect that when they say `morals are absolute’ they don’t really mean it, but rather it is a position in which they have voluntarily chosen to believe. In such a case, it would be fruitless to attempt any kind of rational argument, because the position being advanced is not a rational one, and deliberately so.

The idea that objective moral facts exist can be further subdivided into two categories; firstly, the idea that objective moral facts exist independently of opinion, and are integral qualities of the world; and secondly, the idea that objective moral facts do not. The former position we shall term moral realism, and the second moral relativism, but these terms are not neutral, and do not have agreed upon meaning amongst moral philosophers. Ayn Rand’s `objectivism’, for instance, is often included within the moral realism camp, and based her ethics on the principle of rational self-interest, the idea that it is an individual’s moral obligation to maximise his own well-being. From that, she reasons that there are unambiguous acts which contribute to that well-being — such as surviving, eating and avoiding suicide at the most fundamental level, up to applying reason to develop new life-assisting technologies at the higher end — and which therefore statements such as `it is good to always be rational’ can be termed moral facts if they contribute towards self-interest. Rand argued that man’s goal was to survive and thrive, and since `to remain alive he must act and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action…To remain alive, he must think’ she argued that the application of reason was a necessity of that goal and therefore morally virtuous in a factual way.

However, this use of the term `moral realism’ is at odds with how other moral philosophers would use it. As we discussed previously, it can be easily argued that even if we accept that man’s goan is to survive and thrive, and even if we accept the existence of these actions which unambiguously contribute towards that goal, it in no way means that such actions must be `moral’. As we did, they may ask what the term `moral’ actually contributes to the position, and whether this is merely an attempt to define morality in terms of survival and prosperity, rather than to explain it. For instance, Rand rejected the theory of `ethical altruism’, the idea that one should live one’s life for the benefit of others. Yet, it seems clear from an evolutionary perspective that social creatures are indeed pre-programmed to value altruistic behaviour, since a species containing individuals inclined to act in the interests of other members of that species is more likely to successfully reproduce and survive, since such behaviour will encourage the genes of that species to spread (and therefore the altrustic behaviour) even if such behaviour is detrimental to specific individual organisms within that species. Thus, Rand’s ideas of morality appear to be an attempt to derive what she thinks morality ought to be on first principles, rather than an attempt to explain what moral values people actually do hold.

On the one hand, then, it seems absurd to argue that Rand’s system presents moral facts when those supposed `facts’ contradict moral behaviour we actually do observe. In other words, even though her system presents what she believes ought to be moral facts, it doesn’t necessarily even intend to describe moral facts which actually exist. When many people think of the term `moral realism’, they tend to think about moral facts which are actually `out there’ and which do indeed contribute to our sense of morality, rather than other non-moral facts which are simply included under the heading of `morality’ because that’s where the author thought they should be placed. In other words, we may accept that Rand’s theory presents facts of some kind, but whether they should properly be termed moral facts is open to debate. Most people would resist accepting these things as moral facts simply because one person chose to label them as `moral’ from a belief that rational self-interest must necessarily be the only thing that can result in moral values, as opposed to evolved inclinations, for instance.

Secondly, as we have suggested already, even if we accept that such acts are beneficial to rational self-interest, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that they are deserving of the term `moral’. As noted previously, such a usage is nothing more than an attempt to define `moral’ in terms of some quite distinct notion, since it is not self-evident that one can proceed to a `should’ from an `is’. In this particular case, indeed, many people would argue to the contrary; as we saw in the section on deontologism, many people consider that morality is something which precisely must conflict with self-interest or at least be distinct from it, since a moral sense is precisely what would motivate some to forego their own interests and perform, say, an altruistic act. From our discussion of the `open question problem’, it seems unsatisfactory to conclude that simply because something is in one’s self-interest, or because it increases overall benefit, that it is necessarily moral. It would seem first necessary to explain why acting altruistically, for instance, should be done; morality certainly seems as if it should be something that has `intrinsic value’ of it’s own, and not something that merely contributes to another arbitrarily defined end. It may well make more people happy, and there may be evolved tendencies to incline us to it, but none of these require that we should do it. There may be other evolved tendencies — such as the tendency to be aggressive towards out-groups — that we may consider it necessary to suppress in the interests of morality, for instance, or it may be considered moral for a few generations to undergo a drop in standard of living — and the implication of a drop in happiness — in order to prevent significant and irreversible damage to the environment. If there are any `is’ statements that automatically and consistently lead to `should’ statements, none of them would appear to have been identified yet.

Thus, when we talk of `moral realism’ and the idea that moral facts exist independently of opinion, it seems sensible for us to insist that any such moral facts provide the motivation for these `should’ statements, and represent something other than an arbitrary declaration that such-and-such a motivation is `moral’ because that’s how we are defining it. For a claim of `moral facts’ to be convincing, it seems reasonable for us to insist that the `should’ factor must flow necessarily from such facts. In other words, it is easy for people to argue that following self-interest is not `moral’, or that following evolved tendencies is not `moral’, or that following the `will of god’ is not `moral’, but just as there should be little room for disagreement over physical facts — one should not disagree on the mass of an electron, for instance — it is reasonable to suspect that the discovery of a moral fact should equally leave little room for argument. When there is argument, the implication should be that there is simply disagreement as to what those facts are, which results from deficiencies in the detection or interpretation processes. To the extent convincing moral facts of this nature cannot be or have not been discovered, and fundamental disagreement over the nature of those facts remains, it would seem that what people consider to be `moral facts’ are actually `moral opinions’, casting doubt upon the defining idea behind moral realism.

In other words, we would require a valid theory of moral realism to assert that moral properties have what we might term a `robust metaphysical status’. That is, those properties are of a similar order to other objective properties — such as mass, or velocity — but that they do possess a uniquely moral quality, and are not simply new names for other properties or aggregates of properties. And, as we have seen, defining realism in terms of personal values is unsatisfactory, since it provides no explanation for why preferences in conduct should be extended to others.

The `argument from queerness’ is directly precisely against such moral properties, arguing that nothing of their kind has ever been detected in the universe, and that it is practically impossible to conceive of any form which they even could take. Independently from any consciousness whatsoever, it is hard to see, for instance, how a particular pattern of movement in a particular group of particles could be sensibly termed `good’, whereas a different pattern in that same group of particles could be considered `bad’.

When we look at moral realism in the strict sense in which we have been discussing, therefore, we are faced with the fact that no such moral facts have been observed. Indeed, the argument from queerness almost requires such `facts’ to be nonobservable by definition, which would seem to render moral realism at best only a theoretical possibility; that is, there may be moral facts, but they can never be reliably observed. The argument from queerness goes further and casts doubt on the possibility that such moral facts could exist. Thus we are brought almost inevitably to the conclusion that such metaphysical moral facts do not exist, or that if they do exist, the fact that they are not reliably observable means that they do not in fact contribute to the moral sense that we have, nor to the moral judgments that we make. Either way, moral realism seems to be conclusively an inadequate type of theory of morality, both in practice and in principle.

Yet not all hope is lost as a result of this conclusion. As we mentioned previously, other concepts exist which have sensible meaning but which also have no concrete metaphysical existence outside of opinion. The possibility remains open that `moral facts’ could exist in a non-physical or non-objective way. We agreed earlier to call this type of theory moral relativism, denoting that the facts in question are not objective in an `existing independently of opinion’ sense. This does not necessarily preclude them from being `facts’; at the very least we may be able to argue that a particular individual very definitely does have the sense that a given act is wrong, for instance, and there is no a priori reason why we could not consider this the basis of a fact.

It is important to understand, contrary to the opinions of many conservative television commentators, that moral relativism does not imply flexible morals; moral relativism states that moral facts do exist, and that at any given point in time and space it is possible to identify acts which are objectively morally right or wrong. The difference is that that `rightness’ or `wrongness’ arises not from an external metaphysical truth, but from actual practice. For instance, if moral relativism were to argue that taking certain types of drugs was immoral in a particular society because more than 50% of the people in that society thought it was immoral, it would be claiming that that immorality was an actual objective fact, that it was objectively wrong. And it would be objectively wrong regardless of that fact that a different society, or the same society at a different point in time, may reach a different conclusion. As an analogy, `the horse is in the barn’ can be an objective fact, regardless of the fact that there is nothing that metaphysically requires the horse to be in the barn. The horse may not have been in the barn yesterday, and it may never be in the barn again, and in a few years from now it will be a dead horse, but the fact remains that, right now, it is in the barn, and that is a fact. Similarly, by defining morality as a product of practice and consensus, moral relativism holds that the objective truth of a moral claim is dependent on that practice and consensus being achieved. If the requisite number of people accept a given moral truth, then that moral truth passes into factual status, regardless of how temporary and ephemeral that status might be. Moral relativism argues that moral facts are objective and real, and this argument is unaffected by the observation that they are the product of subjective opinion. If, it is argued, it can be established as an objective fact that a certain percentage of people hold a certain opinion, then it can be established as an objective fact that a moral claim is true or false, at least within the boundaries of a particular time and place.

Moral relativism is, however, relatively easy to push to breaking point. If morality is defined in terms of the consensus view of a given society, then the weak point comes in the complete lack of precision with which `society’ can be defined. For instance, most Western societies contain a `drug subculture’ of not insignificant size, who consider taking illegal drugs to be perfectly moral. The conundrum for moral relativity is where does it draw the social boundary? If the majority of people in a country, for instance, consider taking illegal drugs to be wrong, then moral relativism would conclude that `taking illegal drugs is wrong’ in that country at that time to be a factual truth. If, on the other hand, the social boundary is drawn around the drug subculture, then the opposite conclusion would be drawn. If there is no reason for one social boundary to be drawn over another, then we seem to be in a position where moral relativism holds that taking illegal drugs is both morally right and morally wrong in the same time and the same place, which clearly invalidates its conclusions.

It is tempting to insist that the social boundary be drawn in a manner consistent with the legislative boundary; i.e. if laws are passed for a country as a whole, then that’s where the social boundary should be drawn. The first objection is that there is no reason why they should coincide at all; it may make things easier for the theory, but it doesn’t make it any more valid. Indeed, the quantity of corrupt politicians who insist that they’ve done nothing wrong because they’ve broken no law should make us highly suspicious of the degree to which legality and morality converge, as indeed should the fact that laws are often believed to reflect the morals of the people, rather than to define it. The second objection is that legislative boundaries are also variable. In the U.S., for instance, you may have laws at the town, county, state and federal levels, with `international law’ above that. There are many states, for instance, who would consider abortion to be immoral, and would legislate against it if federal law did not prevent them from doing so. So in the morality question, which boundary should be used — the state boundary, or the federal boundary? In the case of the death penalty, since most other countries have abolished it, should we use a global boundary and declare capital punishment to be immoral in the U.S. even though it’s perfectly legal there? There is no reason why the `boundary’ should even be a physical one; particularly with the advent of the internet there is no reason why we cannot talk of a `society’ of people geographically dispersed, who may never even have met each other.

With the boundary question so open to manipulation, it would seem possible to identify a `society’ for almost any moral position whatsoever, meaning that moral relativism could be used to simultaneously prove both the truth and falsity of any chosen moral claim, which would fatally undermine its claim to be able to deduce objective moral facts. At the most extreme, we could go down to a `society of one’, and consider moral truth to lie in individual moral values. This would certainly help with the `factual’ claims — on the grounds that a rational person will only hold one moral position on a particular issue at any given time — but it would render the theory almost meaningless, since morality is by definition something that governs interaction between people (or, in some cases, between people and animals, and even between people and inanimate objects, although the latter may really be interpreted as being ultimately between people, such as in the cases of criminal damage to property or destruction of culturally important works of art which deprive others of their use and enjoyment, respectively); a `moral code’ which enables each individual to follow their own moral promptings is in reality no moral code at all. As we have already seen, personal value is no basis for an objective theory of morality. It could be if there was universal or even almost universal agreement on moral judgments, but as we have already seen, there simply is not. Even a statement like `murder is wrong’ does not qualify, since we are left with the problem of defining `murder’. Many people consider abortion to be murder, for instance, and others consider capital punishment to be murder; if we try to argue that `everybody considers murder to be wrong’, but fail to address the fact that many people have widely diverging views of what constitutes `murder’ then we are building a position on sand. Even if there were some acts that could conceivably qualify as universal — `torturing babies for the sole purpose of sexual pleasure’ is an example common in the philosophy books — we could still make no argument for moral relativism, since these acts are so uncommon that we would be excluding almost the entire content of moral discourse; we cannot argue that a universal condemnation of torturing babies for sexual pleasure is support for moral relativism while leaving out the other 99.9999% of human behaviour which does contradicts it.

The case for moral realism seems very weak, therefore. We’ve seen that attempts to merely define morality in terms of non-moral behaviour such as rational self-interest fails, because such a redefinition amounts to a complete failure to address the moral question at all. We’ve further seen that attempts to locate any `robust metaphysical status’ for moral properties falls to both the argument from queerness and to the abject failure on the part of humanity to ever detect such properties, the latter at least demonstrating that if such properties do exist, our moral opinions do not in fact result from them. The boundary question is fatal to moral relativism, and the reduction of morality to personal intrinsic values cannot provide a sensible basis for a reason why those values should be extended to others. We are thus driven to conclude that moral propositions do not refer to objective facts, and to turn our analysis towards another direction.

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