Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Foundations of morality

At a very young age, children are able to tell the difference between social conventions (e.g. raising your hand in class) and moral norms (e.g. do not kill people). One major difference between the two is that social conventions are only binding in certain contexts or settings whereas moral norms are taken to be binding across all contexts and settings. At least some moral norms are thought by some to be instinctual or self-evident, whereas all social conventions are learned. A final, yet controversial, distinction is that moral norms have a basis in fact, whereas social conventions are invented for practical purposes. Over time, we humans believe to have made moral progress, and will continue to make discoveries as to what kinds of actions are morally right or wrong. Just like there are facts about mathematics that were unknown to mathematicians of the past, there are probably facts about morality that we have not yet discovered. As stated previously, the comparison of morality to mathematics is a controversial one. Those who make such comparisons usually adopt a view called moral realism

Moral norms
Social conventions
Universally binding
Not universally binding
Instinctual or Self-evident
Learned and not self-evident
Factual basis

Moral realism is the view that states that there are facts of the matter as to whether a particular action is right or wrong, regardless of the context, culture, or time period. Moral realists typically believe that slavery was morally acceptable in the United States during the 17th century, but that the practice was still morally wrong at the time. Moral realists think the answers to moral questions—like mathematical questions (e.g. 2+2=4)—are timeless, and that people of past generations who got the answers wrong were either ignorant of some relevant facts or incompetent at doing their moral calculations.

A competing view, moral relativism, states that there are just facts about what is wrong in a given context, culture, or historical time period. To contrast, the moral realist will say things like “harming animals without any justification is wrong”, whereas the moral relativist will say things like “harming animals without any justification is wrong in western cultures, but morally acceptable amongst the Hopi Indians.” On moral relativism, facts about morality have to be relativized to a certain culture, time period or even an individual. 

Lastly, moral anti-realism denies the existence of moral facts. The anti-realist might believe that moral claims are invented by humans to preserve the peace or that they are the product of our emotional reactions and evolutionary history. The anti-realist would deny many of the distinctions between moral norms and social conventions and argue that moral norms are just a sub-class of social conventions. Now moral anti-realists do not deny that moral talk is useless or irrational. Rather, most accept that moral talk is indispensable, or an incredibly useful fiction. Furthermore, being a moral antirealist does not prohibit one from endorsing normative theories such as utilitarianism or social contract theory. Anti-realism is meta-ethical view, one that just makes claims about what moral language amounts to.

Moral realism is perhaps the common sense view. Most major religions imply a kind of moral realism by having God as the foundation of moral facts. For instance, one might believe that something is right or wrong because God—the moral authority—commanded it. A common challenge raised to the moral realist is the existence of moral diversity. People of different cultural, religious, and philosophical backgrounds often disagree about what is right and wrong. If so many people disagree about what is right and wrong, how can there be a fact of the matter? Furthermore, how can moral disagreements be resolved? Moral realists typically respond by saying that moral diversity exists because moral questions are hard to answer. Moral disagreements should in principle be resolvable, but it might take extensive debate and discussion to understand why such disagreements exist. Take for instance meat eating. 

Say that Tom believes that factory farm meat eating is wrong and Sally believes that it is morally acceptable. What could be the source of their disagreement? One possibility is that Sally and Tom disagree about other matters of fact. For instance, Sally might believe that animals don’t feel pain or experience emotions while Tom believes animals can experience pain and suffering in a way similar to human beings. If this were the case, the moral realist would have an easy way to settle the moral disagreement. The right answer to the moral question (i.e. Is eating meat morally acceptable?) hinges on whether animals can experience pain and suffering. 

Regardless of what one thinks about the ontological status of moral claims (i.e. whether they're factual or not), there are other unrelated kinds of views one may hold about how to determine what is right and wrong. Philosophers develop theories to try and make sense of how we arrive at answers to moral questions. In a later post, I will discuss the area of moral philosophy that deals with such theories about morality known as normative ethics. 

Next week, I will discuss the evolution of biological organisms, the theory of natural selection and the many misconceptions about both. I will also assess the atheist philosopher Jerry Fodor’s critique of the theory. Fodor argues that natural selection cannot be true because it involves a contradiction. I will try and explain where I think Fodor goes wrong. 


  1. I'm a former Kantian turned moral anti-realist (more or less). Any chance you'll write an essay on meta-ethics?

  2. I'll probably write an essay on moral relativism at some point. Specifically, I'd like to write on how moral relativism can be construed as either realist or anti-realist, depending on what one means by 'truth' and 'facts'. Before writing it, I'd like to check out Owen Flanagan's new book "The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility". In it, I think he defends a kind of objectivist moral relativism.