Moral Realism Is A Thing

Moral Realism Is A Thing March 5, 2015


An op-ed in the New York Times fretting that Common Core is teaching kids that there are no moral facts has generated a bit of discussion. A Common Core poster says there are only “facts” (in the sense of “brute facts”) and “opinions.” My friend Noah Millman says that we shouldn’t fret, and uses a second-grade moral example to illustrate his point. But in doing so he merely repeats the confusion that is being fretted about.

Here is Noah’s example:

Eddie takes Billy’s cookie without permission. Billy protests to the teacher. What are the facts of the case?
– Eddie took the cookie.
– The cookie belonged to Billy.
– Billy did not give Eddie permission.

Noah goes on:

To know what consequence follows, you need to know some other facts – facts of law. In this case, these are:
– Taking other people’s things without permission is not allowed.
– The teacher is the one who determines what happened, and what the consequence is if a student does something that is not allowed.

And finally, what’s opinion?

What would be an example of an opinion? Well, Eddie could say that his punishment of being sent to the principal’s office is unfair, because he gave Billy a cookie last week so Billy has to give him a cookie this week. That’s an opinion. It’s certainly not a fact.

Well, that’s precisely what is at dispute, here, isn’t there?

If there’s a problem here at all, it’s not with what constitutes a fact but with what constitutes an opinion – that is to say, a failure to distinguish between an opinion and a preference. For example: the statement “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” is an opinion.

Here’s another opinion: “The United States government, in collaboration with the Israeli government and oil companies, engineered the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” That’s an opinion. Is it an opinion in the way that “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” is an opinion?

Well, no, because it’s an opinion about facts. It’s an opinion about things that are the case.

And that is the question at hand. Is “[X] is unfair” an opinion in the way that “Vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” an opinion, or is it an opinion in the way that “The US government is responsible for 9/11”, or “Al Qaeda is responsible for 9/11,” is an opinion? That is to say, is it an opinion about things that are the case independently of us? In other words, is there an objective standard of fairness that exists that various moral opinions can be measured against, in much the same way that there are objective historical facts that various historical opinions can be measured against? And is it the case that, because there are moral facts, much in the way that because there are historical facts, even though “The US government is responsible for 9/11” and “Al Qaeda is responsible for 9/11” are both opinions, we can nonetheless say that one is true and the other is false (or, at least, one is more true than the other), we can adjudicate between moral opinions using an objective standard?

Now, if Noah feels that this is a silly thing to say, that’s fine. Other people think it’s silly to believe kerosene could have melted down the World Trade Center towers.

Suffice it to say that some of the most hallowed philosophical, spiritual, and cultural traditions in human history have believed in, and argued for, the existence of moral facts, a position once so universally acknowledged that it did not have a name, but which is now known as moral realism. If Noah feels that moral realism is wrong that’s his prerogative, but if he simply asserts it then he hasn’t actually engaged anything that is being talked about.

These philosophical traditions would say that if there are no moral facts, then the only way to settle disagreements is force. Children quarrel about who should get the cookie, implicitly appealing to a common standard. Animals, lacking such a common standard, simply fight until someone wins.

They would say that just because some aspects of moral facts are in dispute does not mean that there are no moral facts, anymore than disagreements among historians mean we can know nothing about history, or that disputes among theoretical physicists mean the physical world is an illusion.

They would say that just because moral facts are something that is taught doesn’t mean that they are just opinions, any more than the multiplication tables or the date of the Fall of Constantinople are.

They would readily concede that moral facts are not empirical facts, but they would assert that there are also non-empirical facts, such as facts of mathematics, or facts of logic.

They would reject the notion that disagreements between various cultures about the moral law show that there is no moral law, pointing to the much deeper agreements between cultures. Cultures may differ on the specific definitions or “scopes” of murder, or theft, or adultery, or incest, but all of them agree that these things are in principle wrong. No culture valorizes cowardice, or disloyalty, or reneging on a promise. Cultures disagree about when it is acceptable to use violence to solve problems, but no culture asserts that it is right to use violence out of personal whim. Cultures disagree about what counts as sexual license, but all of them agree in principle that sexual license is wrong. In other words, as in all endeavors of human understanding, there is vigorous disagreement on edge cases but also prodigious agreement on essentials; much in the way that historians disagree about, say, the relative importance of various causes of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, but they do not dispute that Rome fell, or physicists disagree about string theory, but they agree that if I let go of this pin it will drop to the ground.

They would say that while morality is associated with feelings or instinct, it is nonetheless different from it. If you see someone getting mugged, you might feel two feelings at the same time: an instinct of self-preservation that would tell you to walk away, and an instinct of compassion that would tell you to intervene. Morality is neither of those feelings, but the thing that tells you which of those feelings to obey, a thing which we experience as being different than either of those two feelings. And the situation would reach the same objective result with very different subjective feelings. Let us say you are an adult, and the mugger and muggee are children, so that there is no danger in stepping in and your instinct of self-preservation does not kick in; or, contrarywise, perhaps the person getting mugged is someone you know and intensely dislike, and it’s actually quite pleasing to watch them be humiliated. And yet, (bald assertion alert, no true scotsman alert) all rational people would say that the moral course of action in this situation remains the same in every case I have mentioned. The determination of the moral course of action has all the character of a determination about objective facts, and not subjective feelings. Moral realists would go on to say that we all have had the experience of doing something that feels right, and yet we know is wrong (taking vengeance, for example); or, on the contrary, something that feels wrong and yet we know is right (rebuking a mentor or other hallowed authority figure when it is necessary, for example). They would say that just because much of the time what we feel is right and what we know is right is the same does not show that moral feeling and moral knowledge are indistinguishable. In every other area of human cognition feeling can help as well as hinder: if you see someone drop a bucket of water on you from a fourth story height, you will feel that it’s going to hit you long before you can access your knowledge of the theory of gravitation, and your feeling will be correct; but if you watch a sunrise, you will feel that the Earth is stationary and the Sun moves around it, and your feeling will be incorrect. They would say that human flourishing, both at the individual level and at the collective level, depends on the difficult work (more difficult for some than others, just like learning mathematics is more difficult for some than others) of disciplining and aligning our moral feelings and instincts with the moral law, and that this is precisely why moral education–education into the facts of the moral law–is so important.

They would say, along with the overwhelming majority of Greek philosophers and Church Fathers and Medieval theologians, many Jewish thinkers, and a significant number of Enlightenment thinkers, including the writers of the Declaration of Independence, with its references to the natural law, and Immanuel Kant, and his definition of morality as “practical reason” over and against David Hume’s innovative identification of morality with feeling, that what is worthwhile and noble in being human is connected in some deep and intrinsic way with the faculty of reason, of deliberating and making choices towards ends, that rational ends are ends that are good in themselves, so that in fine to behave rationally and to behave morally are essentially the same thing, so that to sever the connection between morality and rationality–to reduce it to mere opinion or feeling–is in the end to deny our own humanity and to reduce ourselves to animals.

Maybe all of this is hokum but these are some of the arguments deployed in favor of the position known as moral realism–in which case it would be a good idea to engage them before dismissing moral realism.

What is Noah’s alternative?

What would be an example of an opinion? Well, Eddie could say that his punishment of being sent to the principal’s office is unfair, because he gave Billy a cookie last week so Billy has to give him a cookie this week. That’s an opinion. It’s certainly not a fact.

It’s also moral reasoning, and it should properly be engaged, so as to develop Eddie’s moral reasoning further. The teacher should say that he understands it feels unfair that Billy didn’t reciprocate in cookie exchange, but that this still doesn’t justify taking Eddie’s cookie without permission because – and here the teacher would have to give a second-grade level explanation of why this is wrong. For example: if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights. Or: how would you feel if you were Billy and somebody took your cookie without permission because he felt you owed it to him? Wouldn’t you feel that was wrong? Regardless of what he said, he would need to present an argument – which could be debated. Because that’s how moral reasoning works.

But he would also have to say: even if it feels unfair, Eddie has to suck it up, because the fact is that he, the teacher, gets to decide this question.

The point is: a debate about whether or not it’s wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie is different in kind from a debate about whether or not Eddie actually tookBilly’s cookie, and we need some kind of nomenclature for distinguishing the two questions. “Fact” versus “opinion” will do fine.

Well, sorry, but this is all muddled, and in important ways.

What is Eddie saying if he’s saying that the punishment is unfair? He is appealing to a standard of fairness. And he is doing it in such a way that suggests or assumes that this standard is (even if he could not voice it that way) objective, or, at the very least, shared by all people involved. Is Eddie correct in making that assumption? I and many others–and there’s the rub–believe that he is. That’s the question under discussion.

Let’s go on. How does moral reasoning work? Well, if the teacher says to Eddie, “if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights,” he is appealing to some standard, either some version of the categorical imperative, or consequentialism. If the teacher says to Eddie, “how would you feel if you were Billy and somebody took your cookie without permission because he felt you owed it to him?,” now, this is fair enough as far as second grade goes, but I would say that while the teacher is perhaps educating Eddie’s empathy and this is worthwhile, he is not, properly speaking, engaging him in moral reasoning.

After all, what counts as moral reasoning? What counts as reasoning at all? Noah says, “he would need to present an argument – which could be debated. Because that’s how moral reasoning works.” Well, yes. And what is necessary for an argument or reasoning? Some sort of accepted objective standard by which various arguments may be judged. That is how reasoning works. Suppose you are having a discussion about logic with someone who says “Well, I don’t feel that there is a law of non-contradiction.” What is there to discuss? Suppose you are having a discussion about Cesar’s conquest of Gaul with someone who says “Well, I don’t feel that the Universe existed before 1800 AD.” What is there to discuss? Rational arguments can only obtain between people who agree on a standard by which their respective arguments are to be judged.

Noah also writes:

But he would also have to say: even if it feels unfair, Eddie has to suck it up, because the fact is that he, the teacher, gets to decide this question.

Well, is it? Suppose Eddie asks, “Why?”

One answer the teacher might give is that the teacher is bigger and stronger than Eddie and that if Eddie will not comply with the teacher’s decision he will use physical force to make him comply. In other words, might is right, and when there are disagreements force wins the day. Eddie might feel that if this is the case then there is no difference between Eddie taking the cookie and the teacher making Eddie go to the principal’s office and the only thing he did wrong was to get caught. And the moral realist might feel that this is ultimately the only thing the teacher can say to Eddie in a school where everything that is not brute empirical fact is described as mere opinion.

Or the teacher might appeal to some objective standard of morality to justify his positive law on the basis of a higher moral law.

Now suppose that the teacher decides to punish Eddie not by sending him to the principal’s office but by dispantsing him in front of his classmates and solemnly belting him twenty times and making him say “Thank you, Sir” at each stroke of the belt. Suppose further that Eddie’s school is in a time and culture where this might be judged excessive, but not something a teacher need worry face professional or legal repercussions over. Is there really nothing Eddie might say in response to the brute fact of the belt other than a mere opinion?

A personal anecdote here: I still vividly remember a moment in 6th grade when instead of following a history class, I was writing a fantasy story (I wouldn’t call it a novel, exactly, but it was long, and intricate, and I had been working on it for quite some time). Upon seeing this, the teacher not only rebuked me, but took the story out of my hands and tore it up in many little pieces and threw it away. While I will readily acknowledge that it was in some sense wrong for me to write something else in class (though I will note that I had only begun doing so after checking that I knew the material well beyond what was in the textbook) I still believe that the teacher’s reaction was excessive and, ultimately, morally wrong. The fact that she did so anyway and that there was nothing I could do to stop it really doesn’t change that.

We don’t need no education . . . We don’t need no thought control . . . Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!

That being said, Noah says, moral opinions aren’t exactly like preferences, because unlike, say, liking vanilla ice cream best, you can change someone’s mind about a moral opinion. We can come to an agreement about some standard by which moral opinions should be judged (a kind of meta-opinion, if you will), and once we do that we can change each other’s minds. So even though moral opinions are just opinions, they’re not fruitless and they’re not mere preferences, because we can still meaningfully debate them and change each other’s minds.

Well, the first thing is that we can in fact change each other’s minds about preferences. There is the phenomenon of acquired tastes. I’m still grateful for the friends who helped me change my mind about beer. I’ve had my mind changed about, say, a particular wine, by having an aspect of its flavor called attention to. A very dark Spanish wine, say, whose strength is at first overpowering and unpleasant, but whose underlying sweet flavors of blackberry and black currant and bitter oak combine with that strength to produce an overall richly textured and deeply pleasant taste nostalgically reminiscent of the wine’s sun-soaked terroir.

But the more important second thing is: why would I change my mind about any given moral opinion?

In a way, Noah might be more right than he knows. His description of “moral reasoning” sounds a lot like a description of art criticism, an analogy which is very apt (indeed, under some metaphysical worldviews, extremely apt) if you think there are objective standards of beauty, but I don’t think that’s where he’s coming from. The fact that art criticism can and does change our minds about some pieces of art is a very good argument for the existence of objective standards of beauty, but I am wandering somewhat afield (though not that far).

Here’s what Noah goes on to write:

Which brings me to a final test proposition.

“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” Fact? Or opinion?

Obviously, it’s a problem if you teach the above proposition as an example of fact. And if it isn’t a fact, then it’s an opinion. But if you were a pious Muslim parent, and learned that your child was taught that a central tenet of your religion was “just a matter of opinion,” you’d be unhappy, right? That statement is certainly more than a statement of fact about personal preference (“I like Islam best!”) – but it’s also not really something subject to public dispute, by which I don’t mean that such dispute is blasphemous or forbidden but that it’s a category error, at least within modernity, to argue with a proposition like the above in the way that you might argue about whether it was right or wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie, or whether George Washington was the greatest President.

The statement, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” is a creedal statement, an affirmation. It’s something more forceful and substantial than a preference, not really subject to public reason like an opinion, and not subject to verification like a fact. It belongs in its own category of statements.

My question is whether McBrayer thinks moral truths belong in that same category. If so, then I would say that he is the one arguing against moral reasoning – arguing, in fact, that moral reasoning is impossible and that therefore what we need to teach children is obedience to moral commands. That view has a venerable history in Western and non-Western philosophy, but I dissent from it.

Well, again, this is hopelessly muddled.

Nevermind that the concept of “public reason” is highly problematic, if not outright fraudulent–in some forms, at least, it presents itself as a necessary exclusion of metaphysics from public debate when it is in fact the imposition of a very specific metaphysical fideistic creed and the exclusion of other competing metaphysics (an exclusion which can not be justified from within the system) from public debate, and that it is certainly not synonymous with “modernity”.

Nevermind, also, that, apart from reasons of mere etiquette, it is quite possible to question at least some faith claims on the basis of natural reason. Just ask Sam Harris. (Or Immanuel Kant. Or Thomas Aquinas for that matter.) For example, it is an article of faith in Islam that Jesus of Nazareth was never crucified, when the Crucifixion is one of the few uncontrovertibly established facts of Jesus’ life. For example, to reprise–ahem–the argument by Manuel II Palaiologos cited by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg lecture, it is a doctrine of Islam that Allah transcends all human categories including reason and that his will is not bound by reason, but it seems that if there is a God who created a rational Universe and endowed some of his creatures with rational minds, then he must have a rational nature. Now, maybe these arguments are wrong, but they are certainly arguments drawn from reason by any meaningful definition. And, obviously, as a matter of prudence, the best course of action for a second-grade public school teachers who is asked about religious claims is probably to arfully dodge the questions.

The whole point of moral realists is precisely that moral truths are accessible to reason (public, private, non-profit, co-op), because they are objective truths rather than subjective opinions. Reducing moral discourse either to the domain of “faith claims” understood in a narrow, fideistic sense or with subjective opinion is precisely what, under that argument, makes moral discourse eventually impossible. Maybe that’s a wrong argument, but that’s the argument that’s being made.



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