The Blue Folders Story: How Not to Defend Objective Moral Values

I think I first heard this story while listening to a debate between Michael Horner and Henry Morgentaler, but since then I’ve seen it or heard it repeated many other times. The story is supposed to illustrate that even people who claim to be moral relativists really do believe that objective moral values exist. Here is how Victor Reppert puts it.

Lewis’s first argument is the argument from implied practice. People are, at best, inconsistent moral subjectivists. He writes:

[quotation of C.S. Lewis snipped]

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as “wrong” are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

Some examples may help:

1) A student once wrote a paper for a professor defending moral subjectivism. He made extensive use of anthopological and sociological evidence and the paper was well-written. He put the paper in a blue folder and gave it to the professor. The professor returned it with an “F” and said “I do not like blue folders.” The student, of course protested, pointing out all the effort that went into the paper. the teacher replied “Your paper argues that moral values are subjective, that they are a matter of preference?” Yes, replied the student. Well, the grade is an “F” I do not like blue folders. Of course the student could say “But that’s not fair,” but to do so would, of course, compromise his subjectivist principles.

I’ve never underst0od why this story (and others like it) are supposed to defend premise (2). In fact, it seems to me that this story begs the question against subjectivism. To say that a proposition, such as “Murder is morally wrong,” is objective to say that the truth of the proposition is independent of the subjective states (beliefs, attitudes, desires, intentions, goals, etc.) of persons. To say that a proposition is subjective is to say that the truth of the proposition is determined by the subjective states of one or more persons.

Suppose you to go an ice cream store with a friend. You order chocolate and she orders vanilla. Your friend frowns and says, “Oooooh! Chocolate ice cream is gross! Yuk!” You start licking your lips and reply, “Mmmmm.. Chocolate is the best!” I think everyone would agree that the “yumminess” of ice cream is purely subjective. Although it might seem that you and your friend have a disagreement about chocolate, you actually don’t. Since both of you are subjectivists about ice cream, each speaker is simply expressing their preferences about ice cream flavors. When your friend says, “Chocolate ice cream is gross,” she isn’t saying, “There exists a neo-Platonic realm of abstract objects which include the ‘Form of the Best Ice Cream,’ and that Form is vanilla ice cream.” No! She’s simply saying, “I don’t like chocolate ice cream.” The only way the two of you could have a disagreement would for you to argue something like, “No, you like Chocolate,” or for your friend to argue, “No, you hate Chocolate.”

Similarly, in the blue folder story, if the student says, “But that’s not fair,” that doesn’t mean the student is appealing to an objective moral standard. The student, as a moral subjectivist, could simply be saying, “I don’t like unfairness.” Of course, that would simply invite the reply, “So what? I don’t.” A much more charitable interpretation is this: when the student says, “But that’s not fair,” the student is appealing to the professor’s belief in the moral wrongness of unfairness. If the professor believes it is morally wrong to be unfair, then the moral subjectivist student can consistently appeal to the professor’s belief in the wrongness of unfairness without presupposing an objective moral standard. In fact, this would be the case even if both the student and the professor were moral subjectivists!

Religious Experience – Recognizing God
Apologetics Infographic #1: Atheism and Nothingness
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
Great Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics by a Christian
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Jeff Lowder said…

    To say that a proposition, such as “Murder is morally wrong,” is objective to say that the truth of the proposition is independent of the subjective states (beliefs, attitudes, desires, intentions, goals, etc.) of persons. To say that a proposition is subjective is to say that the truth of the proposition is determined by the subjective states of one or more persons.

    This definition won’t work for this context.
    In this context, claims such as “My head aches” and “There is a green patch in the middle of my visual field” and “I like the flavor of chocolate ice cream” are all OBJECTIVE propositions. They are objectively true or false. But the truth of these propositions depends on and is determined by “the subjective states of one or more persons”.

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Please say more. It’s not obvious to me that any of your proposed counter-examples are actual counter-examples. You’ve said that those claims are objective (even capitalizing the word) but that’s about it. It’s not obvious to me that those statements are objective.

      • Bradley Bowen

        Based on your definition, the following would be a subjective criterion of moral wrongness:

        (SC1) X is OBJECTIVELY WRONG if and only if I believe that X is wrong.

        This is ‘subjective’ because it makes moral wrongness dependent upon “the subjective states of one or more persons”. This is a very natural and common ethical viewpoint, because people are naturally and commonly egocentric, and thus fail to distinguish between their own point of view and reality.

        However (SC1) is not actually a criterion, because the word “I” is ambiguous, so words following “if and only if” don’t specify a proposition or statement. One could interpret the word “I” to mean “someone”:

        (SC2) X is OBJECTIVELY WRONG if and only if someone somewhere at some time believes that X is wrong.

        This is an actual subjective criterion of moral wrongness. However, it is problematic since if just one mentally handicapped six year old child in China in 2000 BC believed that “It is wrong to give a starving child some food” for just one hour (and then rejected the belief), and no one else in the history of mankind ever believed this again, it would follow from (SC2) that it was OBJECTIVELY wrong to give a starving child some food, which is absurd.

        Usually, the word “I” is simply a shorthand way for a speaker or writer to refer to himself or herself. So, if I were to utter (SC1) with conviction, I would presumably be asserting the following:

        (SC3) X is OBJECTIVELY WRONG if and only if Brad Bowen believes that X is wrong.

        One obvious objection to this criterion is that it seems completely arbitrary to make me the decider of all moral issues. Why not you? Why not Obama? Why not Assad?

        Another problem is that I might well change my mind. Suppose that on Thursday morning at 9am I do NOT believe that it would be wrong for Obama to launch a limited military strike on Syria. But then that evening I watch the Rachel Maddow show and become convinced that it would be wrong for Obama to launch a limited military strike on Syria. (SC3) appears to imply that at 9am on Thursday it was not objectively wrong for Obama to launch such a military strick on Syria, but that on Thursday night launching such a strike would be objectively wrong. But the only significant change that occured on this issue between Thursday morning and Thursday evening was that I changed my mind; my beliefs on this subject changed. So, we are left with basically the same action NOT being objectively wrong in the morning, and becoming objectively wrong in the evening. This does not make sense.

        Also, (SC3) might be taken to imply that nothing in the history of mankind prior to my birth was objectively wrong (including the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis) and that after my death nothing will ever again be objectively wrong. This is also absurd.

        (I suppose it depends on whether my belief in the wrongness of X must be simultaneous with the wrongness of X. This would have the advantage of avoiding contradictions as my mind changed over time. The wrongness of an action would be tied to my beliefs at the time the action occured. In order to allow for the killing of millions of Jews by the Nazis to be objectively wrong, the wrongness of that action would have to be based on my belief at a later time. But if my belief on this issue changed later in my life, then we have a contradiciton, because the action of killing millions of Jews would be BOTH objectively wrong and NOT objectively wrong, if we allow the wrongness of an action to be tied to my beliefs at different points in time.)

        A somewhat more plausible “subjective’ criterion of moral wrongness would appeal to the beliefs of a group of people:

        (SC4) X is OBJECTIVELY WRONG if and only if most Americans believe that X is wrong.

        This is another natural and commonly held view. It is sociocentric, and thus fails to distinguish between the point of view of a particular group (namely that of “my” group, of “my” nation, a view clearly growing out of egocentrism) and reality.

        Again, it seems completely arbitrary to pick Americans as the deciders of all moral issues. Why not the French? Italians? Japanese?

        Americans can collectively change their minds. Slavery was once widely viewed as morally acceptable, but now most Americans believe that slavery is wrong. So, was slavery not objectively wrong in 1813 but has now become objectively wrong?

        But slavery has not changed. The word “slavery” means basically the same thing now that it meant in 1813. The only thing that has changed is American feelings and beliefs about slavery. Are we to imagine that at some particlular day in the late 1800s a few more Americans began to believe that slavery was wrong, and this tipped the scales so that 51% of Americans believed slavery was wrong (for the first time) and that very day slavery magically transformed into a morally evil practice, when it had never before in the history of mankind been an evil practice prior to that day? This is absurd.

        These are some examples of ‘subjective’ criteria for moral wrongness, given your definition of ‘subjective’.

        An alternative conception of ‘subjective’ ethics would be to reject the whole idea of ‘objective wrongness’. One could assert that “No action is objectively wrong’ (metaphysical verison) or that ‘No action can be known or proven to be objectively wrong’ (epistemological version – moral skepticism) or that “The concept of ‘objective wrongness’ is incoherent or meaningless” (Logical/Linguistic version).

        • Bradley Bowen

          From the point of view of emotivism ethical staements are merely expressions of strong feelings. So, “X is wrong” really means something like “BOO to X!” and “X is right” means something like “Yeah for X!”. Emotivism is a form of noncognitivism, so on this view, the statement “X is wrong” is neither true nor false.

          One can try to save the truth value of ethical statements and maintain the association between ethical statements and emotions by supposing ethical statements to be descriptions of emotional responses or tendencies to have certain emotional responses. “X is wrong” could be interpreted to mean something like “I don’t like X” or “I get angry when people do X”. Such claims about subjective states can be objectively true or false.

          But if ethical statements are interpreted as descriptive claims about people’s feelings or emotional responses (or beliefs), then ethical statements take on the variability that we think of as what is problematic about subjectivity.

          I love chocalate ice cream, but you hate chocolate ice cream. Those can both be facts. Furthermore, I can love chocolate ice cream on Monday, but hate chocolate ice cream on Tuesday (not likely but possible nevertheless).

          If “Chocolate ice cream tastes good” means simply “I enjoy the taste of chocolate ice cream” then the former statement can be an objectively true statement, in that it is a fact that I enjoy the taste of chocolate ice cream.

          But when YOU say “Chocolate ice cream does NOT taste good” that would (on this theory) only mean that YOU do NOT enjoy the taste of chocolate ice cream, and that too might well be an objetively true statement.

          But then the statment “Chocolate ice cream tastes good” asserted by me would NOT logically contradict the statement “Chocolate ice cream does NOT taste good” asserted by you. My statement would be making a claim about ME and what I enjoy, while your statement would be a claim about YOU and what you enjoy. So, contrary to appearances, these statements would be perfectly compatible with each other; they could both be true.

          But if similar logic was applied to ethical statements, then when I assert that “Unfairness is wrong” and you assert that “Unfairness is NOT wrong” we would not be disagreeing with each other. Your statement would not contradict my statement, because my statement would be about my “moral feelings” while your statement would be about your “moral feelings”. So, contrary to appearances we could be in complete agreement about these statements. We could both, on this theory of ethical statements, accept each others statements as being objectively true descriptions of our respective moral feelings.

          [In his book Introductory Ethics, Fred Feldman discusses in Chapter 12 (Naturalism in Metaethics) a view called 'Subjective Naturalism' which is similar to the sort of views that I have been discussing here. Feldman discusses the views of Edward Westermarck, who was an advocate of Subjective Naturalism.]

          I don’t accept such a theory, but it is one possible theory of the meaning of ethical statements that someone could hold.

          Those who want ethical statements to be objective or who think that ethical statements are objective, want or think of the truth of ethical statements being based on the properties or characteristics of the actions in question, because an object can have just one set of properties or characteristics at any given point in time. A chair can be green now or it can be red now, but it cannot be both red all over and green all over at the same time. There is some objective fact of the matter when it comes to the properties of an object or substance.

          Point of veiw does not matter. If a chair is green now, it is not green for me now but red for you now. A chair might appear to be be red all over to you at t1and appear to be green all over to me at t1, but we know that the chair cannot in fact be green all over at t1 AND red all over at t1, so we know that at least one of the appearances must be deceiving.

          • Bradley Bowen

            The divine command theory of ethics can be put into terms similar to the sort of ‘subjective criterion’ form that I have been talking about:

            (SC5) X is OBJECTIVELY WRONG if and only if God believes X is wrong.

            This has the advantage of avoiding conflicting moral viewpoints (my beliefs about what actions are morally wrong might differ from your beliefrs about what is morally wrong), at least conflicting veiwpoints between two or more persons.

            The same advantage is true of (SC4), since the “collective” view of the American people (or of any specified group of people) can be thought of as analogous to the point of view of one person (although a “collective” viewpoint might have many more internal inconsistencies).

            It remains possible for one person to have a belief on Monday that he or she rejects on Tuesday. I might believe on Monday that it would be wrong for Obama to launch a limited military strike against Syria, but on Tuesday I might change my mind and believe that it would NOT be wrong for Obama to launch a limited military strike against Syria. So, even tying moral wrongness to the views of just one person does not guarantee that we will have only one moral point of view that is always consistently applicable.

            So, if God can change her mind, then although (SC5) avoids conflicting points of view between multiple persons, it fails to avoid conflicting points of view held by God at different points in time. Thus, (SC5) is still potentially problematic in the way that we think subjectivity in morals to be problematic. As I previously pointed out, the same problem exists with (SC4), since the viewpoint of the American people can change over time.

            The term “OBJECTIVELY WRONG” seems hollow and misleading, if the moral point of view from which the determination of moral wrongness is made can change over time. Did God believe that slavery was OK in Moses time, but then a few thousand years later God changed her mind and decided that slavery was an evil practice? But if slavery is OBJECTIVELY WRONG, then it was always wrong, even in the time of Moses. So, that means that if God believed that slavery was OK in the time of Moses, then God was mistaken.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Jeff Lowder said:

      To say that a proposition is subjective is to say that the truth of the proposition is determined by the subjective states of one or more persons.

      One problem is that claims or propositions about subjective states can be objectively true. The truth of “I have a headache” may depend on my having certain experiences or sensations or feelings, but even so this assertaion could be objectively true. It could be a fact that my head aches.

      Similarly, it could be a fact that I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream, but this fact depends on my having certain “subjective states” certain desires, feelings, or inclinations.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Jeff Lowder said…

    A much more charitable interpretation is this: when the student says, “But that’s not fair,” the student is appealing to the professor’s belief in the moral wrongness of unfairness. If the professor believes it is morally wrong to be unfair, then the moral subjectivist student can consistently appeal to the professor’s belief in the wrongness of unfairness without presupposing an objective moral standard.

    This is a possible interpretation, but not a plausible one.
    If the student was merely appealing to the moral beliefs of the professor, then there would be no cause for anger or indignation on the part of the student. But I think it is unrealistic to conceive of a student as being cool-headed and feeling no anger or indignation in this circumstance. Rather, the student would be upset and angry, because the student feels he/she is being treated unfairly.

    But if the belief that being unfair in how one grades papers is wrong is a purely subjective matter, like prefering chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream, then the student should not be angry about this any more than about someone prefering a different flavor of ice cream than what the student likes.

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      If I (subjectively) hated chocolate ice cream but were forced to eat it, I would be angry. Along similar lines, it makes perfect sense to me that the the student would be angry about getting an F just because he used a blue folder. (As a side note, I’m not sure what “should” means in your reply. I assume it is not a moral “should,” but then I’m not sure what other sense of “should” you have in mind.)

      • Jason Thibodeau

        I think I agree with Bradley: I don’t think that your interpretation of what the student means by “that’s not fair” is very plausible.

        If you ask the student why it is not fair, suppose he says, “because I didn’t deserve an F.” I think that it is plausible that he would respond in this way. But then, suppose the professor says, “So, what? I don’t like giving grades based on dessert.”

        At this point, if the student is a subjectivist, he should say, “Well, I prefer my professors to give grades based on dessert.” But, it would be inconsistent to express any moral indignation. The student cannot assert (or even feel) that he has been wronged (and by this I mean that the professor has done something wrong to him). All that the student can say is that he doesn’t like what the professor has done (or, perhaps, that what the professor did was wrong, according to the student).

        So, if the professor really is a subjectivist, the student can’t consistently maintain that the prof did something wrong, nor can he maintain that the prof is being inconsistent. However, I suspect that the students would insist that he was wronged. That is why Lewis’ example is suggestive that people who claim to be subjectivists really aren’t.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Either the student believes that unfairness is morally wrong or the student does not believe that unfairness is morally wrong.

      If the student does not believe that unfairness is morally wrong, then the student would not morally object to the professor giving an ‘F’ to the student’s paper on the arbitrary and ‘unfair’ basis of the color of the folder.

      The student might be unhappy about getting an F, and the student might make an effort to get the professor to change the grade. One way the student might try to get the professor to change the grade would be to argue that an ‘F’ is an unfair grade, and that this violates the professor’s moral belief that unfairness is morally wrong. We can oftent motivate people to act a certain way by appealing to their own moral principles, even if we don’t accept those principles ourselves.

      But since (in this scenario) the student does not accept the principle that unfairness is morally wrong, the student (if rational and reasonable) will not feel morally offended or outraged at the professor’s action. The student is not personally invested in fairness, so the student should not have negative moral feelings about being treated unfairly.

      However, the student might accept a higher-level moral principle that is relevant here. The student might accept the following Moral Integrity Principle:

      (MIP) People ought to act in accordance with their own conscience, i.e. in accordance with the moral principles that they believe.

      If the student accepted this principle, and if the student was aware that the professor believed that “Unfairness is morally wrong”, then the student would seem to have a moral objection to the professor giving an ‘F’ to the paper on arbitrary grounds, thus unfairly. The professor would be violating one of the professor’s own moral principles, and that would be morally objectionable to the student, even if the student had no personal investment in fairness itself, even if the studend did not believe that unfairness was a moral issue.

      But, I wonder, what if the professor does not accept (MIP)? Is that even possible? If it is possible, then it seems like the student would be getting upset about the violation of a high-level moral principle by a person who does not accept that moral principle. This seems out of keeping with a subjectivist view of ethics. Wouldn’t the student be forcing his personal subjective morality onto the professor? Wouldn’t the student be treating (MIP) as if it were an objectively true moral principle?

      On the other hand, if someone rejects (MIP) it is hard to view that person as having any sort of moral viewpoint. If I can have moral beliefs and moral convictions and yet set those beliefs and convictions aside at will and feel no guilt or shame or sense of moral failure, then what is the point of having those moral beliefs and moral convictions? The rejections of (MIP) would seem to make ethics into a trivial intellectual game that has no real meaning or significance.

      Suppose that the student did believe that unfairness was morally wrong. It could be the case that the professor does not share this belief. Should the student be angry at the professor in this case? The student believes that unfair actions are morally wrong, and the student believes that the professor giving the paper an ‘F’ was unfair, so the student would rationally and logically conclude that it was morally wrong for the professor to give the paper an ‘F’. But where is the subjectivity in all this? All As are Bs, and All Bs are Cs, thus All As are Cs. This is a standard deductive syllogism that is logically valid. All giving of ‘F’s for arbitrary reasons are unfair actions, and all unfair actions are morally wrong actions, thus All giving of ‘F’s for arbitrary reasons are morally wrong actions.

      The assumption “All unfair actions are morally wrong actions” is a principle believed by the student, but the student also thinks this belief is subjective. It is neither true nor false. It is neither rational nor irrational. It is neither correct nor incorrect. It is just something the student believes and that other people do not believe.

      But if this belief is purely subjective, if there is no truth to the matter, then the student has no reason to expect the professor to accept this belief or principle. If the professor rejects this principle, then the student has no basis for criticizing the professor’s action.

  • Lothar Lorraine

    Hello Jeff, thanks for this post which was as always very insightful for theists and atheists alike.

    Actually this is a pragmatic argument which falls very short of showing the objectivity of ethic. I’m not sure this is what C.S. Lewis himself was aiming at.
    At the very least this would only be one small piece of his complex argumentation striving to show that an objective morality exists.

    By the way what do you think of Dr. Richard Carrier’s moral theory (sometimes called Desirism) according to which a moral “ought” is identical to enlightened self-interest of an agent?
    There are quite a few atheists who agree with many of his points but fail to understand why he calls that “objective” rather than “subjective”.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • Richard_Wein

      Hi Lothar,

      Please see my other comment (posted a few minutes ago). I think that Richard Carrier (like many others) has got the meaning of moral language wrong. In his case he is conflating two different senses of “ought”, only one of which is a moral sense. Consider:

      (1) If you want to catch the train, you ought to leave now.

      This is a perfectly normal use of “ought”. But it’s not a moral “ought”. The speaker is not attributing any moral obligation to the listener to leave now. He is just giving the listener advice on how to achieve his presumed goal (of catching the train). This sought of “ought” can be roughly translated as “would be well-advised”. Now consider:

      (2) You ought to give money to charity, regardless of whether doing so promotes any of your goals or interests.

      This is something someone might plausibly say, but it’s clear in this case that the speaker is not just telling the listener how to promote his own goals or interests. This case can sensibly be interpreted as attributing a moral obligation. Replacing “ought” with “would be well-advised” clearly doesn’t work here, but replacing it with “have a moral obligation” does.

      Not every “ought” statement is clearly moral or non-moral. It may be ambiguous or combine elements of both. That’s why I think it’s a good idea, when discussing metaethics, to stick to unambiguous examples, like “Doing X is morally wrong”, or “You have a moral obligation to do Y”. Including the word “moral” eliminates the danger of conflating moral and non-moral senses. (I note that you did include the word “moral”, but as I recall Carrier is not so careful. I should say, though, that I’ve only read his blog, and not his book.)

      Does “would be well-advised” mean the same as “have a moral obligation”? I think it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t. But I also doubt that Carrier has asked himself this question. I conclude that he has conflated the two senses of “ought”, which has led him to overlook the distinction.

      In my view it’s a mistake to object that Carrier’s alleged moral facts are only subjective. Arguably, facts about the best way to achieve one’s goals are objective facts. It can be an objective fact that I want to catch the train, and that I can only do so by leaving now. I see no good reason to deny the description “objective” to facts about the state of my mind/brain, such as facts about what I want. The real problem with Carrier’s position (as with many other metaethical positions) is that he’s got the meaning of moral language wrong. We shouldn’t call his facts (about how to achieve one’s goals) subjective moral facts. They are not moral facts at all.

  • John

    There is no reason to believe premise (1). Maybe ethics is subjective and some people are mistaken or confused.

  • John


    “Chocolate ice cream is gross,” when uttered by you, cannot have the same meaning as “I (Jeff) don’t like chocolate ice cream” (as you imply, above). The proposition expressed by the latter sentence is true and would be agreed on by everyone, since we would all take your word for it that you don’t like chocolate ice cream. Most of us would not agree with the former sentence, however, because we would hold a different attitude towards chocolate ice cream to you. So the two sentences cannot have the same meaning,

    Sentences such as “Chocolate ice cream is gross” or “Chocolate ice cream – yuk” are noncognitive and express attitudes and NOT propositions. The theory that ethical sentences might be similar to that is called EXPRESSIVISM. If you are considering a theory which takes moral utterances to express propositions, it seems off-track to bring in the idea of ice cream flavour preferences.

  • Richard_Wein

    Reppert’s argument is essentially an appeal to naive intuition. His numbered argument appeals to the wisdom of the folk (how “people view wrongs”). Outside that argument he (in effect) urges subjectivists to trust their gut instinct over their intellect. Their gut instinct tells them that the professor’s behaviour is objectively unfair/immoral, though their intellectual position says otherwise. (I don’t have too much objection to his use of fairness as an example, though I see fairness as a “thick” moral property.) Of course, as a serious skeptical truth-seeker I’m inclined to decide such matters based on careful skeptical reflection, and not just on gut instinct.

    Reppert seems to use the word “subjectivism” to refer to the view that (e.g.) moral wrongness is only from a particular point of view. I think these days such a view would usually be called “moral relativism”. I for one reject that view, but it’s not the only view that denies objective moral truth. I’m a moral error theorist. I don’t think that moral propositions can be true in some subjective or relative sense. I say that they cannot be true at all. Coming to that view doesn’t mean that I no longer have any moralistic impulses, such as feelings of unfairness. Perhaps I might at times even give voice to such impulses. I don’t claim to be a robotic speaker of nothing but the truth (as I see it in my most careful moments). I might occasionally say things which (in my more reflective moments) I believe to be untrue. So sue me. But don’t tell me to put my gut instinct ahead of my carefully considered judgement.

    That said, much of the dispute in metaethics is over the meaning of moral language. I say that moral relativists have got the meaning of moral language wrong. It doesn’t have a relative character (or mostly it doesn’t). On questions of meaning (rather than substance) it makes more sense to appeal to instinctive intuitions, because our use of language is primarily instinctive. I think that moral relativists are overriding their pre-theoretical instincts about the meaning of moral language, without adequate reasons for doing so. (I have quite a lot to say about language and how philosophers often get it wrong. I’m something of a Wittgensteinian. But that’s too big a subject to get into here.)

    • Jason Thibodeau

      Big question, so I understand if you can’t provide a quick answer:

      Why do you think that a gut instinct cannot be indicative of the truth?

      • Richard_Wein

        Quick answer: I don’t think that. I think that, if we want to maximise our chances of getting at the truth, we should subject our gut instincts to skeptical scrutiny (as far as reasonably possible). I don’t think that’s controversial. I’m just inclined to question some instincts that most other people don’t.

  • Joseph O Polanco

    Thing is, mankind doesn’t treat acts like ped0philia, the gunning down of innocent children, sadism, genocide, gang rape, racism or serial murder as just socially unacceptable behavior, like, say, picking your nose at the dinner table. Rather, these cause shock and horror and are treated as a moral abominations – acts of evil.

    On the flip side, love, equality and self-sacrifice are not just treated as socially advantageous acts, like, say, bringing a girl flowers on a first date, but, instead are treated as things that are truly good.

    Now, irrational beasts don’t have **objective** morals. When a lion savagely kills another it doesn’t think it’s committing murder. When a peregrine falcon or a bald eagle snatches prey away from another it doesn’t feel it’s stealing. When primates violently force themselves onto females and their young they’re not tried and convicted of rape or ped0philia. Obviously, then, we certainly didn’t “inherit” our **objective** moral sense from them.

    **Objective** morals do not come from science either because science, by it’s very nature, is morally nihilistic. Where, then, do we get our **universal objective morals** from?

    Consider the following:

    (1) If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

    (2) Evil exists.

    (3) Therefore, objective moral values and duties do exist.

    (4) Therefore, God exists.

    (5) Therefore, God is the locus of all objective moral values and duties.

    That is to say, as Dostoevsky once mused, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”