An Argument Against Moral Facts

In a seminar on Metaethics (h/t John Brunero) , I encountered an argument against moral facts that I hadn’t heard before. Here is a brief sketch:

(1) We’re justified in believing in some fact only if it plays a role in the explanation of our observations and other non-moral facts.
(2) Moral facts don’t play this role.

(3) We are not justified in believing moral facts.

In order to motivate (1), we can appeal to some flavors of naturalism. Many will argue that a completed science will account for (or give an explanatory account of) everything that exists. That is, a completed science will explain all physical phenomena. We’re justified in believing in electrons, in neurons, and in germs, insofar as they explain our observations of the natural world.

As for (2), it seems that we can explain the world around us without resorting to explanations that involve moral facts. We can explain the behavior of human beings with reference to psychology, biology, and neuroscience without using moral terms. We can explain political, social, and cultural actions without requiring moral facts to be a part of that explanation. It’s hard to see what explanatory work moral facts do.

Thoughts?

About Matt DeStefano

Matt is pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Arizona.

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

    I think Gilbert Harman came up with this argument.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      Yes, you’re right. I should have noted that.

  • Keith Parsons

    I think that the first premise, at least, is highly dubious. First, there are many other ways of justifying factual beliefs than inference to the best explanation. Indeed, it is hard to see how explanations could even begin unless we had some factual explananda that were simply taken as given. If I want to explain why the pipes burst last night, I would have to take the burst pipes as just a factual given. If I first had to justify my belief that the pipes had burst by inferring that fact as the best explanation of some other, and that one in turn from some other fact…obviously we would be on the road to infinite regress. Further, we know many facts by inferring them from facts that explain them, not by inferring them as the best explanations. For instance, we know that on August 21, 2017 there will be a total eclipse of the sun visible from the continental United States. We know this by inferring its occurrence from our knowledge of celestial mechanics, the principles of which explain why we will be having the eclipse on that date.

    What about moral facts, in particular? since no examples were given in the above, I will offer what I take to be a moral fact: It is good (morally good) to be in control of one’s temper. Why? Well, from my neo-Aristotelian perspective I would say that self-control (Aristotle’s “sophrosyne”) is a virtue. What makes a character trait a virtue? A virtue is a fixed trait of character, a disposition to act consistently in certain ways. What makes this disposition virtuous is that consistently acting in this way is conducive to the realization of eudaimonia, well-being. That certain states and activities constitute human well-being is itself a factual matter, one that is determined by the nature of the human organism. Biology makes certain states objectively valuable.

    So, that certain states and activities constitute human well-being is a fact. That certain behavioral dispositions are conducive to the realization of such well-being is a fact. That self-control is one of those behavioral dispositions that are conducive to well-being is a fact. Thus, if, as seems reasonable, we designate as morally good those human traits that are consistently conducive to the realization of objective value (and concomitantly condemn those that consistently lead to bad things) it is a fact that controlling one’s temper is morally good.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      Hi Keith:

      If I want to explain why the pipes burst last night, I would have to take the burst pipes as just a factual given. If I first had to justify my belief that the pipes had burst by inferring that fact as the best explanation of some other, and that one in turn from some other fact…obviously we would be on the road to infinite regress.

      I don’t see why you’d take the burst pipes as a ‘factual given’. Presumably, you’ve either observed the pipes bursting directly, or you infer it because you have a large wet spot on the floor or wall, and can hear a leak if you press your ear to the wall.

      So, that certain states and activities constitute human well-being is a fact. That certain behavioral dispositions are conducive to the realization of such well-being is a fact.

      This could be true (although I think this is vastly overstating the case, especially in light of available evidence), but it doesn’t mean that moral facts are necessary for an explanation of well-being. We can explain these without talking about what is “morally good”.

    • staircaseghost

      It is GOOD to be in control of one’s temper. Why? Well,
      from my neo-Aristotelian perspective I would say that self-control
      (Aristotle’s “sophrosyne”) is a GOOD THING. What makes a character trait a GOOD THING? A GOOD THING is a fixed trait of character, a disposition to act
      consistently in certain ways. What makes this disposition GOOD is
      that consistently acting in this way is conducive to the realization of
      eudaimonia, BEING GOOD. That certain states and activities constitute
      human BEING GOOD is itself a factual matter, one that is determined by
      the nature of the human organism. Biology makes certain states
      objectively valuable.

      I’ve made the tongue-in-cheek amendments to your response, not just for the purpose of showing how a scientistic take on moral realism tends to keep kicking the can of normativity down the road, but more importantly to show how it doesn’t really connect with Harman-type objections from the OP in any kind of head-on way.

      Volume of Gasoline Facts play a vital role explaining (certain instances of) Car Won’t Start Facts. But where in this story is the specific fact that I as an antirealist will be at a loss to understand or explain if I deny there are any moral facts?

      It can’t simply be, “biology makes certain states objectively valuable”, since that is not a fact to be explained, but merely a tautological restatement of your conclusion. And everything else is just an alternate normative vocabulary, not any kind of non-moral fact that stands in need of explanation.

  • Pingback: Considering an argument against moral facts | Third Millennial Templar

  • Keith Parsons

    Matt,

    Thanks much for your comments. Allow me to expand on them a bit (obviously, like everything we discuss, this could go on forever).

    Whether the burst pipes themselves are taken as the basic explanandum or the stains on the wall is really irrelevant to my point. The point is simply that inference to the best explanation has to start with something to explain. If all facts are inferred as best explanations, then we have an endless task ahead of us. Every would-be explanandum must first be established by inference, and the fact explained there in turn by another inference…and so on.

    As for the second point. Yeah, in a brief post it is impossible not to sound dogmatic. However, to suggest that these claims are dubious in the light of the evidence sounds equally dogmatic, and, indeed, question-begging. I think that there is a very great deal of evidence that there is a condition (Aristotle’s “eudaimonia”), comprising physical, mental, and emotional well-being that is biologically based and species-wide. Also, my claim is not that moral facts are necessary to explain well-being. No, human well-being can be described in terms of biology and psychology. My argument is that certain human character traits are conducive to well-being. This is a fact. For instance, other things being very roughly equal, a person who has learned self-control will interact with other humans more successfully than one who has not. I therefore think that self-control should be designated as a virtue, and, as such, a moral good. “Self-control is a moral good” can therefore be regarded as a fact.

  • Tyler Journeaux

    I responded to the argument on my blog, and I was wondering if anyone would like to take a look. I think I came up with a pretty good objection. The objection I posted there can be summarized as follows:

    “suppose I believe that the argument is sound – does my belief that the argument is sound play any role in the explanation of our observations and other non-moral facts? It seems to me that it cannot. Therefore, if the argument is sound one cannot accept it. If the argument is sound, then I ought not to believe that the argument is sound. Or, more weakly, if the argument is sound then I can never be justified in believing that the argument is sound. In other words, if one is not justified in believing in moral facts for this reason (Premise 1), then for this same reason (Premise 1) one cannot be justified in believing this argument sound.”

    Thoughts?

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      Hi Tyler,

      This is a good point – there is a worry that this argument suffers from the same kind of self-defeating argument that made Logical Positivism go out of style. I think perhaps this could be re-developed to encourage non-circularity (perhaps with a longer defense of (1), but in my brief defense it does appear self-undermining.

  • Bored Nihilist

    Brian Leiter offers basically this argument in his paper “Moral Facts and Best Explanations”. It’s an excellent paper, and I highly recommend reading it, if you can get your hands on it.

  • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

    Hi Angra,

    Sorry for the delayed response, these are great comments. I think that (1) is perhaps the best line of response against this argument. However, I worry that the case you mention (the ocean being explained by smaller portions of water, etc.) is not quite comparable to cases in which we generally take moral facts to exist. While I agree that we could explain the ocean in terms of smaller units, it is explanatorily expedient to talk about oceans under certain conditions. Therefore (one might argue – not sure yet if I agree, just testing the waters so to speak ;)) we are justified in talking about oceans in those cases.

    It seems that moral facts are always non-essential and impractical in any given observation. Usually, we can explain the behavior in non-moral terms with the same ease and utility that we can by appealing to moral facts.

    I don’t want it to seem that I am unconditionally advocating this argument, but I did find it interesting.

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      Thanks for the reply, Matt.

      With regard to 1., I’d say it’s not only that we can talk about smaller amounts of water instead of oceans. Rather, one refrain from using the word ‘water’ at all, and instead talk about subatomic particles (none of which is made of water) instead (I’m assuming enough knowledge and computing power whenever needed).

      In the OP, you said: “We can explain political, social, and cultural actions without requiring moral facts to be a part of that explanation. It’s hard to see what explanatory work moral facts do.”

      So, the point I was trying to make is that we can explain all our observations (except for watery facts, but we can explain our observations without appealing to them) without using the word ‘water’ at all, and without appealing to watery facts (i.e., facts about water).

      In particular, watery facts are usually practical but always non-essential to the explanation of other, non-watery facts. Yet, we are justified in believing in watery facts.

      For instance, I’m justified in believing that there is in fact a bottle containing over 400 cubic centimeters of water within a radius of 3 meters from where
      I am now, since I can see the bottle and the liquid in it, I actually put
      the bottle there a few minutes ago, after filling it with water, and no one else approached the bottle since.

      Given that, even if moral facts are always non-essential to explaining non-moral facts, that would be similar (with regard to the issue of essentiality in explanations) to the fact that watery facts are always non-essential to explaining non-watery facts, and I would say that there is no good reason based on that (i.e., on their being non-essential) to suspect that there are no such facts – whether moral or watery.

      Your second point is different. It’s that moral facts are always impractical in any explanation of any given observation.

      So, two questions here are:

      a. Is that true?

      b. If the answer to 1. is ‘yes’, then would that suggest or entail that we shouldn’t believe that there are moral facts?

      I will focus on a.
      The hypothesis that moral facts are always impractical in any explanation of any given observation can be tested. For instance, let’s consider the following scenario:

      F1: (i.e., Fact 1) Humans often demand that the perpetrators of certain
      actions (say, rapists, brutal dictators, etc.) be brought to justice, claiming that the people in question behaved in a morally wrong way, deserve to be punished, etc.

      Note that that F1 is not a moral fact. It’s a fact about human behavior.

      One explanation for F1 would include moral facts – namely, that humans often feel motivated to punish bad people, people who behave immorally, etc. -, maybe for reasons having to do with the evolution of humans.

      An explanation of F1 not involving moral facts would have to explain why
      humans make moral judgments even if there are no moral facts. What would be a simpler explanation of F1 that does not involve moral facts, in your view?

      In general, a key question would be how you can explain the fact that humans make moral judgments in a way that is more practical than appealing to moral facts. Unless you can show that moral judgments like ‘X is immoral’ do not (even if true) entail that there are moral facts (like the fact that X is immoral; but that alone would be at least a very complicated task), then it seems to me that you would have to explain F1 by appealing to some kind of moral error theory, in a way that is more practical than appealing to moral facts. It seems difficult, but I’d like to know if you have a more practical explanation.

  • Keith Parsons

    Staircaseghost,

    If your “tongue-in-cheek” comments were meant as satire, I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to explain the joke. Sorry, but I don’t get it. On the view of ethical naturalism (EN), norms are quite unproblematic and straightforward, and don’t have to be “kicked down the road” at all. For EN norms tell us how to act if we want to actualize or maximize value, e.g., I should learn to control my temper because self-control, as a fixed state of character is conducive to the realization of social comity, which is an objective good. I think that one possible reason why people think that ethical naturalists have a problem with norms is that, for EN, norms, even ethical norms, are hypothetical not categorical imperatives: IF you wish to actualize value V, THEN you should cultivate character trait C. The reason why ethical naturalists eschew categorical imperatives is that, as far as we can tell, there are no such things, or at least none at all adequate to serve as a basis for substantive moral norms.

    Matt originally suggested that the way to establish moral facts was to show that they play a role in explaining non-moral facts. That is, the reason for thinking that there are moral facts is that we infer them as the best explanations of non-moral facts. As far as I can tell,you seem to be repeating and reinforcing that claim. My argument rejected such reasoning. I suggested that another way to establish moral facts is to show that certain behaviors or traits are in fact conducive to the actualization or maximization of objective value while other ways of acting are not. Again, circumstances being even very roughly equal, persons who practice self-control will live in greater harmony with others than one who is an intemperate lout.

    What is objective valuable? The valuable is the desirable. What is desirable? What is desirable comprises certain states, experiences, and activities that organisms with the biological constitution of human beings find intrinsically satisfying, fulfilling, and enriching. These desiderata comprise, e.g. physical goods such as health and fitness, emotional goods such as friendship and intimacy, intellectual goods, such as satisfying one’s curiosity, and aesthetic goods, such as the enjoyment of music and art. I guess the challenge to the ethical anti-realist is to explain how such states, experiences, and activities can be intrinsically fulfilling, satisfying, enriching, etc.without, ipso facto, constituting objective value for human beings.


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