A Question For My Readers About “Moral Facts”

In metaethics debates, there are disputes between various forms of cognitivists and non-cognitivists.  Cognitivists claim that when we make a claim that “x is wrong” or “x is right” we mean to say that “it is a fact that x is wrong” or that “it is a fact that x is right.”

Whether it turns out that we are correct that there are such “facts,” according to Cognitivists we intend to refer to facts when we say “x is right” or “x is wrong.”

Non-cognitivists on the other hand think that all we mean, all we intend to say, when we say “x is wrong” or “x is right” is something along the lines of “I do not like x” or “I like x” and that we do not even mean to refer to anything like a fact.

J.L. Mackie’s “error theory” claims that the Cognitivists are correct and that we intend to refer to facts when we say “x is wrong” or “x is right” but that we are in error because there are no such facts in reality.  So, every time we speak of right and wrong, we commit an error whereby we think we are referring to facts but really are not.

Now, here’s my question.  For those of you who believe that you speak the truth when you say that “x is right” or “x is wrong,” do you think that that kind of truth is a fact?

I am wondering aloud here whether there can be a kind of a truth which is distinguishable from a fact. Genocide is wrong.  I think that is true, but I think it is confusing to call it a fact since the fact that there is a glass on the table seems to me to be a very different kind of a true statement.

Maybe the difference can be accounted for simply by distinguishing a “moral fact” from a “physical fact.”  But still the idea of a “moral fact” sounds bizarre to me, even if I believe that it is true that something is morally wrong or right.

Maybe the problems with claims about “moral facts” would also apply to claims of “moral truths” such that the difference in terms would not make a philosophically important difference.  But, I wonder if part of the problem with “moral fact” language is that it mixes up types of truths in its terms such that it sounds counterintuitive.

Since facts are different than normative prescriptions, referring to “moral facts” sounds completely wrong.  It might be that it’s a fact that “genocide is a bad idea for reasons x, y, and z” where reasons x, y, and z show relate facts about genocide and about relevant facts about what makes something a good idea for human beings or cultures to do.  But when reformulated as “genocide is wrong” we have entered into a prescriptive mode that does not strictly make a fact statement anymore.

Part of the problem is that talk of “moral facts” leads to metaphors like “a realm of moral facts” and the positing of “entities” called “moral facts” that exist in this “realm of moral facts.”  All of which sounds strange to me.  I think this is because fact language is borrowed from the world of objects about which fact claims can be made.  And objects have a temporal-spatial dimension.  The glass was on the table at 3:13 am.  I felt tired for the entire hour before I went to bed.  These facts are about feelings, spatial locations, temporal sequences.

But is it a fact that 1+1=2 or is that a different kind of truth, an a priori truth about relationships between numbers, addition, equality, etc.?  This kind of “eternally” and “intuitively” true relationship of mathematical entailment seems distinct from a “fact.”

Why do we even have a word “fact” if to say something is “fact” means the exact same thing as to say it is “true.”

Relationships can be true ones even if they are not spatio-temporal in nature and I think value relationships are true relationships that depend on spatio-temporal facts but are not themselves facts.  Values are rooted in the existential relationships between things and their preconditions.  Facts are indifferent to what is but insofar as essences develop over time in nature, those essences give beings a true value relationship with their conditions.

I think to talk about good or bad for a particular thing requires facts about its spatio-temporal conditions.  Whether ingesting something in particular is good or bad for me depends on what kind of creature I am, what kind of digestive tract I have, what else I have consumed that day, my body weight, etc., etc.  These are all facts that play a role in the value judgment, it is good to eat this or that.  But for the value judgment we need something true that is not exactly a fact.

The value judgment might be derived from facts through inferences like this:  in order to stay alive, creature x must somehow incorporate into herself proteins, water, carbohydrates, etc.  on a daily or near-daily basis.  So far these are all facts.  An existential condition of attaining creature x is the presence of proteins, water, carbohydrates, etc.  From this fact, we can infer that according to its nature it is rational for creature x to want proteins and carbohydrates.   Not to have them at all would be the death of creature x since creature x is composed of them.

There seems to be something irrational or contradictory for a being to reject the conditions of its own constitution.  This seems like an irrational relationship to be in.  Maybe this assumes a dubious principle like the Augustinian one that all being wishes to persist in being.

Without anthropomorphizing all orders of being that way by ascribing to it wishes, we can say that the essential functions of what it is, require that it do certain things (like require the nutrients to persist in its being as it is) and not do other things (like avoid the nutrients which would allow it to persist in its being as it is).  This existential relationship seems rational to me and it seems to me to be the source of a true statement that the nutrients by which something lives are valuable to it.  And it seems like a true statement to say that for such beings it is right that they eat.  Or wrong that they do not.

These sound like true statements about the relationship of what their needs demand they should want.  But “facts” seem indifferent to the perspectives of creatures and what they “should” do.  The bare facts are with these things they will live and without them they will die and the facts are impartial as to whether they should live or die.  And further, facts are indifferent to whether they should want to live or want to die. There is no fact that they should want to live or that they should want to die.  Facts are just about what is and what is not.

But from the perspective of all beings, their being what they are entails prioritizing certain complex arrangements over others just to be what they are.  To be what they are, therefore entails that things should be aligned one way and not another.

This is, from a fact standpoint, only a hypothetical imperative that “if you are this kind of thing you should be constructed this way to fulfill your essence as this kind of thing.”  But from the perspective of that kind of thing, (speaking either literally or metaphorically in the cases of non-perspective having beings) it is not merely hypothetically of interest, but existentially essential and, therefore, urgent.  Not constructing in the appropriate way means its very annihilation.  This to me seems like the fundamental relationship of value.

It is connected to brute facts, which are indifferent to whether anything exists or not.  But existentially each thing can be rationally said to be in a value relationship with its constituent components (or for an organism its sustaining environment, its characteristic functions, its food sources, etc.)

But it sounds wrong to me to say that it’s a fact that they should eat.  It’s a fact that they must eat in order to live.  It seems to me a true relationship to say that it is valuable to them to eat based on the facts of their dependence on eating.  But the value statement and the prescription based on it are not strictly speaking fact statements but ones of rational relationships between a thing’s essence and its conditions such that the thing gets existential imperatives from the conditions of its being.

Therefore, I think it would be helpful to distinguish the following:  I cannot say it is a fact that it is wrong for me to do x.  But I can say that it is true, just in a non-factual way, that it is wrong for me to do x if doing x can be discerned to in some fundamental way constitute my failure to value my own existential conditions properly and “be what I am” in some essential way.

One might say that this last formulation still derives the “true but non-factual claim” from a fact claims earlier on.  But the value judgment about existential necessity is derived from a complex set of facts that create a relationship, which while also a fact, incorporates a value relationship among the various facts within it and that value relationship is what is referred to by words like “good” and “bad” and that value relationship is the justification for normative principles about what it is therefore right or wrong for me to do.

And while one might inclined to call it a “fact” that such a value relationship exists, it seems better simply to say it is true that such a value relationship exists but that the value relationship is distinct from factual circumstances.  It is a fact that the value relationship constitutes a thing’s existential conditions but it is not a fact that a thing should care about its existence.  But from the perspective of a particular being (whether this perspective is actual or metaphorical) it is true to say that it should by the definition of its essence seek to fulfill the hypothetical imperatives that sustain it in being as though they were more than hypothetical since for this being, they are more than hypothetical, they are existentially urgent.

I’m not sure, however, whether only existentially necessary value relationships are grounded as valuable in this way or whether less fundamental value relationships are as well.  This much gets me the imperative to eat protein and drink water.  Does it get me the imperative to be a rational being or exercise my other human abilities?  Does my arm’s very being give it a relationship to strength and arm functions that make it “existentially necessary” for my arm that I strengthen and train it or fail to attain its constitutive value relationships adequately?

So, simply put to my readers who believe they speak truly when they say “genocide is wrong”—do you think of yourself as uttering a fact or a truth of a different kind?

Of course, even those who do not believe those things may have insights too and also are welcome to conjecture about what others mean.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • shane

    This is just a thought, but maybe part of the difficulty here is that the word ‘fact’ has two different connotations, one ontological and the other epistemological.

    The ontological connotation says that if something is a fact then it’s the case, whether anybody knows about it or not. So there is a fact about how many grains of sand there are on the beach.

    In the epistemological connotation though, something is a fact just in case it can be proven by some reliable method to be the case. So when we say, ” . . . and that’s a fact” we seem to have this kind of a meaning in mind.

    Maybe some of the difficulty in saying whether moral claims are fact claims comes from conflating these two senses together. Maybe we want to say that moral claims are facts in the ontological sense. It really is wrong to kill in such-and-such cirumstances regardless whether anybody thinks so or not. But we get confused because we also have these epistemological connotation in mind. And facts there are supposed to be easy to know and observable by everybody and knowable by some reliable method, etc. and moral claims don’t seem to be ‘facts’ in that sense.

    What do you think about that?


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