Monday, April 14, 2008

There are no moral FACTS

Chris Drost linked this post in a response to various moral relativism discussions. The post is by Thomas Metcalf. (couldn’t find a link. If you can help me with that please do)

Metcalf suggests that many people, especially atheists, do not believe that objective moral facts exist. I fully agree with this statement. Metcalf claims that he once felt this way but has come around to the view that O.M.Fs do exist. He gives four reasons for this change of mind. These are:

I. There is no evidence that they do not exist.
II. II. The competing positions to objective moral realism all suffer serious flaws.
III. The evidence for the existence of objective moral facts is intuitional.
IV. But none of this is a problem for atheism.

I would argue that all three of these reasons are terrible reasons to believe anything. I say three reasons because I’m not entirely sure that IV is actually a reason or was intended to be one in the context as the proceeding three.

Reason I - There is no evidence that they do not exist.

This can be true of any non-existent thing. There is no evidence that santa claus does not exist. There is no evidence that invisible, intangible fairies are not living on all our shoulders. Being fair to Metcalf, I will assume that he means the evidence does not rule out moral fact. Again though, I would disagree. Metcalf suggests

“People disagree about uncontroversially objective facts all the time, such as, for example, whether God exists, who shot JFK, whether Gulf War II has made Americans more or less likely to be the victims of terrorism, and so on. The only way widespread moral disagreement would be evidence against the existence of objective moral facts would be if another premise, "if people disagree a lot about something, there's probably no objective fact of the matter" were true. But there's absolutely not a whit of reason to believe that premise.”

The list of uncontroversial facts provided by Metcalf is a little odd. I am sure they are uncontroversial to Metcalf but could hardly be so described in general. He suggests that a guide to determining whether or not there is a moral fact of the matter is the amount of disagreement on the subject. However you choose to define a moral fact, I would suggest that moral facts should always be true. If they can be untrue sometimes then they are not facts. It would be fair say that stoning adulterers is a moral fact by Metcalf’s criteria as this was once an uncontroversial point of view. Very few people disagreed with the idea. It is, by today’s standards also a moral fact by this reasoning, just the opposite moral fact. I am speaking in terms of western societies here. Most people would agree today that stoning adulterers is morally wrong. Similarly, humans were once sacrificed to please Gods, which was not only thought to be morally acceptable but morally necessary. Things have thankfully changed on that score too. Strangely, these things are as close to moral facts as you can get. Morality is decided by how the majority feel about things.

Reason II - The competing positions to objective moral realism all suffer serious flaws.

This is not evidence that O.M.F.s exist. This is utterly irrelevant. Incidentally, I don’t happen to agree either.

Moral subjectivism

Metcalf raises three objection to moral subjectivism.

The first is a basically intuitive one. If personal subjectivism is true, then when the Nazi says "Killing Jews is permissible," she's making a true statement, because she's merely reporting the fact that she approves of killing Jews. If cultural relativism is true, then Oskar Schindler was speaking falsely when he said "Saving Jews from the Nazis is good," because he was going against his culture. But that seems crazy. "Killing Jews is permissible" is false, no matter who says it.

Metcalf is conflating epistemological truth with moral ‘truth’. ‘Killing Jews is permissible’ has no epistemological correctness or lack of it. It is akin to saying ‘Gareth Brooks writes good songs’. If we fight the intuitional urge to say ‘This statement is false’ long enough to give it some thought, it is obvious that this statement is neither true nor false in any objective way. It is a matter of opinion. Some people think it is a true statement, people with taste think it is a false statement. Hitler and others within the Nazi regime obviously felt that ‘killing jews is permissible’. Most people would not agree with this sentiment. The statement, however, is neither true nor false. Metcalf is attempting to criticize moral relativism by starting with the assumption that moral realism is axiomatic.

The second is this. If personal subjectivism is true, then basically, everyone is morally infallible. No one ever makes mistaken moral claims, because how could we be wrong about whether we approve or disapprove of something? In fact, I could say "Killing Jews is great" today, and "Killing Jews is bad" tomorrow, and be speaking truthfully, both times, if personal subjectivism is true. A parallel objection exists to cultural relativism: all cultures are morally infallible.

This reasoning suffers the same flaws as the objection above. Morality has always been decided by the majority. It is a purely subjective concept. Discussing moral fact is equivalent to discussing fashion ‘fact’ or flavour ‘fact’. While is may be a fact for anyone graced with vision that furry boots or anything made from spandex are simply wrong, it is not a fact is any meaningful sense. Similarly, whilst it may seem indisputable that cucumber tastes wrong, it is not a fact. Most people believe that ‘Killing Jews is bad’. It is not however a fact. The word fact simply has no place here. Most Palestinians for example would not readily agree. It is not a question of moral fallibility, no more so than you can have taste fallibility. Morality is an innate, in-built sense that most humans posses. I do not wish to get into why this is; it may be an evolutionary advantage, a result of living in a co-operative social environment, etc. It seems obvious that the foundation of our morality is instinctual rather than learned. Actions in opposition to this instinct and its consciously derived refinements such as genocide will be repugnant to most people. This does not make it an objective fact.

The third objection is the following. If personal subjectivism is true, then no one has ever had a moral disagreement with anyone. S says "abortion is permissible"; T says "abortion is impermissible"; and because they're both just making statements about their own approval or disapproval, they're not disagreeing. But it sure looks as if they're disagreeing, doesn't it? (Again, a parallel objection is available in the case of cultural relativism.)

This is bordering on the nonsensical. Making opposing statements is not disagreement?
Is there no such thing as disagreeing with someone’s opinion? Assuming in any disagreement, that one party is correct then the other party is necessarily just making a statement. Does that mean no disagreement actually exists? If I am missing something subtle here I implore anyone who knows what it is to let me know.

Moral non-cognitivism

Metcalf suggests here that people are attempting to assert objective fact when they discuss moral opinions, not merely expression an emotional position. I agree entirely that many people are asserting an objective fact when they discuss morality. So what?
Are people not also doing the same when they assert that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Metcalf does not believe that is true, would he even go so far as to suggest it is a belief based on emotion? Most people are asserting an objective fact every time they give their opinion on anything. I have never met anyone who thought their opinion was wrong.

Moral naturalism

I doubt very many people actually adhere to this idea. It sounds more like a creationist’s misinterpretation of ‘survival of the fittest’ than any seriously held moral view. I agree with Metcalf that this view point essentially dodges entirely the issue of morality. It simply ignores it.

Moral nihilism

is the thesis that all positive moral claims are false. In addition to there being no evidence for this view (see section I above), it is massively counterintuitive. I believe intuitions tip the balance, so I will move on to the next section.

Positive moral claims are false. Ironically, this view is more in line with objective fact than any of the others. It seems to suggest that there is a truth of falsity to moral claims if you take Metcalf’s interpretation. What moral nihilism really posits it that there are simply no moral objective facts. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad or anything else. I would agree with this claim in a purely objective sense. Morality is simply not an objective concept. It is a subjective, personal and cultural, concept dominated by popular opinion on what is moral. Where these popular notions come from would be an entire field of study in its own right. It is worth noting also that there cannot be any evidence for it, just as there cannot be any evidence against it. Any such evidence is necessarily going to be subjective, essentially of the ‘because I say so’ or ‘because all of those people say so’ variety.

Reason III. The evidence for the existence of objective moral facts is intuitional.

Metcalf’s third reason for believing that O.M.F.s do indeed exist it that they are intuitional. This is the worst sort of reasoning. Metcalf is suggesting that OMFs exist because he feels like they do. We are often completely wrong about things we have strong intuitions about. It has proven a very unreliable source of truth. If intuition was evidence for the truth of any given claim then the Sun orbits the earth as is overwhelmingly our intuition on the matter. The Earth is flat, stars are very small, jumbo jets cannot possibly get off the ground and a thousand other things that science has proven our intuitions completely wrong about. The most obvious reason though that intuition is a really bad reason to believe that OMFs exist is that intuitions differ from person to person. If there were OMFs and our intuitions pointed them out, shouldn’t we all feel the same way about things? Is torture morally acceptable to save lives? I suspect there would be a lot of disagreement about that question. If the answer is an objective fact which we are all intuitionally privy to, then there shouldn’t be much disagreement at all.

Suppose, however, that they aren't evidence. Most people think they are; that is, most people take seemings to be evidence. For most people, if something seems to them to be a certain way, they take that as evidence that it is that way. Then we have to be global skeptics. We can't have any justified beliefs of any kind. For almost everyone has the intuition that skepticism is false, but no one can give us any evidence other than that that skepticism is false.
I don’t believe people think about these things in terms of evidence at all. In fact, most people treat statements like ‘killing is generally bad’ as axiomatic. Evidence never enters the equation. Most people ultimately act according to how they feel about things rather than on a critical evaluation of the evidence. There is no evidence that skepticism is false. Intuition is not evidence. We cannot hold any epistemologically robust beliefs perhaps, but that says nothing about what we can agree to. Most of us agree that murder is generally wrong. We can believe this quite comfortably. We do in fact. Strongly enough that we make laws about it and punish those who break that law. This does not at all imply that there is any objective moral fact about the matter. Christians believe that even thinking about having sex with someone who you are not married to is a sin, morally wrong. Most sane people think this is just silly. Moral issues will always be a source of contention, exactly because there is no fact involved. Opinions will differ and debates will rage.

Reason IV. But none of this is a problem for atheism.

This isn’t a reason in any sensible way so I won’t treat it as such.

I happen to think that intuitions are evidence. If that's true, then objective moral realism obviously wins. If it's not, then we're global skeptics. So at the very least, the person denying objective moral realism must be saying "None of my beliefs is justified, but I believe that objective moral realism is false." That's at least very preface paradoxical.

Is it paradoxical to hold a belief that cannot be epistemologically justified? How much evidence can you provide me that fairies don’t exist? I assume that you are none the less happy with the belief that they don’t.

What relevance does this have for atheism? Some people mistakenly think that if objective moral facts exist, that's evidence that some god exists. It's not. No one has ever found a good argument with the conclusion that objective moral facts would depend upon a deity, or upon any sort of person, or really, upon anything at all. On the contrary, it seems bizarre that a necessary truth would depend for its existence upon anything at all. It makes much more sense to think of them as brute facts. The atheist is free, in the first place, to say that she doesn't believe in any god; she just believes in Moralo, a person (not a deity) who somehow explains the existence of moral facts. (The theist cannot give any reason that Moralo can't explain moral facts, but God can.) And then, of course, it's a short step to saying that the atheist can believe in objective moral facts as brute facts, themselves. This is much more parsimonious than the theist's brute fact, God himself.

This is only true if morality is an independent objective reality. That doesn’t make any sense. Morality deals principally with intent. For example, if someone kills another person by unavoidable accident, were their actions morally wrong. No? Why not? Most people would say because they did not intend to harm the other person. A concept such as morality is essentially an exclusively human concern. If morality can possibly exist without human presence as would be the case if were truly an objective moral fact then some other entity capable of intent would be required to explain it. Without conscious intent, morality doesn’t exist. Can a machine take any kind of moral action? Even if a mindless robot that looked exactly like a human was to butcher children, torture people and do every conceivable evil deed, it has at no point taken any moral action good or bad. Morality requires a mind capable of distinguishing good and bad. The term ‘brute fact’ suggests that morality is a free floating independent reality. How can this be? I would be interested in any theory on how morality could possibly exist without humans? As a good solid objective fact should be able to!

I had considered the possibility that Metcalf was actually joking with this post. I still hold a small flicker of hope that is the case. It is somehow disappointing to see an Atheist making what sounds and functions almost exactly like a theistic argument. The ‘reasoning’ here is horrible. If I have misinterpreted anything or if you feel like calling bullshit on me, please do!


Lucian said...

What do jumbo-jets have to do with humanity? We don't know about things which we don't know ... but to be blind about our own nature? What has the Solar System got to do with good and evil?

The Celtic Chimp said...


The point was just that intuition cannot be trusted as a source of knowledge.

larryniven said...

Here's my take on the anti-moral-subjectivism argument that you asked about, which centers on the idea that moral arguments must always contain two mutually exclusive alternatives. I am of the mind that this argument simply misunderstands the nature of moral disagreement. Whereas the argument claims that moral disagreement always happens in the absolute strictest terms possible (i.e., about universally applicable, unchanging rules), I think moral disagreement happens in one of two ways, neither of which is really that one.

First - and this covers the typical scope of this argument - people can argue for situational moral rules, e.g. "It would be wrong for me to kill you right now." In this case, I think what they mean is, "Given the moral axioms that we both accept [where "we" is at least the people in the argument], it would be wrong for me to kill you right now." In this case, there absolutely still is a disagreement, because there's still a fact to be established and thus we can still have mutually exclusive alternatives. Just because this fact happens to be in the hypothetical ("If it were the case that murder is wrong, then it would be wrong for me to kill you right now") as opposed to the actual ("It would be wrong for me to kill you right now") doesn't make it any less of a fact, I don't think. This explanation becomes even more plausible on a morally relativistic view, as such views are built so as to include a society's set of moral axioms, thus establishing a starting ground for the disagreement.

Second, people could disagree about the moral axioms themselves. Given that they're axioms, I'm not sure what would satisfy Metcalf in this case - all axioms ultimately refer to our intuitions for verification, and he couldn't possibly expect us to have productive debates over those, especially given their unreliability. As such, this argument harms all metaethical theories equally, so I'm forced to discard it.

Obviously, either way, we don't even end up with the conclusion that a particular brand of moral non-realism is unsavory, let alone the entirely different conclusion that it's false. You said as much in your post, but you asked for comments, so...

sacred slut said...

I went over to the thread and read some of what Metcalf wrote. What a bunch of crap. Unbelievable.

If morality is a brute fact then show me where it exists. Does it exist independently of humankind? For billions of years there were no humans on Earth - was killing "immoral" then?

None of the examples he gave made a whit of sense. I got a headache just reading it. "Intuitions are evidence"? and "We intuit cats are possible"? Fuck me. Do we also "intuit" that iggy schlumpps are possible?

Morality is a concept, not a fact. The fact is that morality is clearly subjective, but some people don't like to have to deal with the sloppy reality and decisions that entails.

I need a drink after being exposed to that.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Very nice work, CC.

The Celtic Chimp said...


Yeah, that article was pretty unbelievable! I think you hit the nail on the head as to why people find that sort of nonsense convincing. They are so uncomfortable with the reality that they prefer to believe bullshit.

The Celtic Chimp said...


Thank you. Had a look at your quibbles. Very good points. I had the feeling I was being a bit loose with my terms.

The Celtic Chimp said...


The comment above this one was directed at the barefoot bum, in case of confusion.

As the barefoot bum points out on his blog, there is a need to distinguish between truth and fact. I think that distinction is crucial to your own objections. Remember also that these moral 'facts' or 'truths', in either case, are argued to be objective. Any rules regarding morality are always subjective and thereby any facts established against those rules are also subjective.

larryniven said...

"...any facts established against those rules are also subjective."

Maybe? I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean. I guess epistemologically it's subjective, because we rely on peoples' experiences to establish it, but I want to say that there are objective facts (or truths, whichever the vocab word is that we're using) about the way that people are designed that allows for these kinds of differences to emerge.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me you have 3 things:


There's what the body wants, what society wants, and the dynamic intellect of man towards evolutionary change. 3 should necessaraly trump 1 & 2, 2 should necessaraly trump 1.

So if your exessive masturbation and sexual debauchery somehow gets in the way of society, it's morally wrong. And if your fascist society gets in the way of dynamic intellect, then that's morally wrong.

The bottom line is, we're brutes and animals, but those insticts shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of our social solidarity.
We're also social creatures, but we shouldn't allow custom to stagnate to the point where we're stuck in the forest for the sake of traditional views. Let our thinkers think.

It's an ebb and flow like the body. If your body remains static (traditional/republican) and doesn't adapt to change it dies from the cold (the outside world is changing without you). On the other hand if it's adaptations are too dynamic (democratic/liberal) it drops everything for something new and again dies from the cold, but perhaps doesn't get cancer.

The white man destroyed the idians, what a moral tragety. But I disagree with that because the result was a much more evolved society and a freer intellect.The cromagnon man destroyed that neadrathol (how ever you spell that), tragic, or an intellectual leap. Something always dies to give way to something else.

I'm not saying the idians were not as smart, or somehow less evolved as a human, but certainly they were culturaly having been isolated from the world of change. The bottom line is, they were not as equiped to deal with change so as a result they're culture was dissolved / destroyed.

andy b. (hows that for spelling 101)

Anonymous said...

You should weigh in on the Debunking Xianity discussion on this.

Anonymous said...

"The white man destroyed the idians, what a moral tragety. But I disagree with that because the result was a much more evolved society and a freer intellect."

This is the first time I have ever read a post explicitly vindicating a creationists view of the dangers of evolutionary theory. Well done.

Anonymous said...

You don't want to end up being the apendix of society right....

I felt mine ready to burst one day so I went to the doctor. He said it wouldn't be moral to remove it, so to aleviate the pain and assure it's continued existance we built a tiny casino and sugicaly stiched it to the inside. I feel much better now, although I'm often bloated, and my small intestine isn't vary happy about it the whole deal either.

Andy B.

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for visiting my blog recently! I took the liberty of placing a comment with a link to this post in the comments on a different entry than the one where you left your comment, since it seemed germane to the subject.

openlyatheist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
openlyatheist said...

Found my way here from Debunking Christianity. Great post.

I would agree that morality “is a subjective, personal and cultural, concept dominated by popular opinion on what is moral.” If this is moral relativism, so be it.

However, I have found an array of fellow atheists who disagree my statements. Notable posts here, here, here, and here.

Sometimes I wish atheists with whom I disagreed were joking too. Such is the price of not having a religion to do our thinking for us.

The Celtic Chimp said...


Thanks! and thanks for the links. I've only gotten to the first one yet. I've spent the last hour wagging my finger at hellbound :)
Looks like you are starting a blog, if I may be so bold, can I suggest you start off with your thoughts on this topic. Either way, drop me a comment when you get a post up!

Aggressive Secularist said...

I had intended to write a blog on this very subject. I'm a believer in moral objectivity and an atheist. I think moral insight and moral rightness and wrongness is defined by our (almost) universal human moral sense.

A.C. Grayling was very good on the subject in a recent edition of the New Scientist (30 April 2008).

I can't reproduce it in full as it's copyrighted material, but here's as extended a selection of quotes as I dare:

"... empirical inquiry can have a major impact on normative considerations [i.e. defining right and wrong], and current research in neurology appears to be doing just this. In particular, it can be applied to one of the most vexing problems in moral philosophy: the problem of relativism. What neurology reveals about brain function might already have refuted relativism and established the ground for saying that the basis of morality is shared by all humans. If so, this is a truly major result.

"The neurological research that undermines moral relativism concerns the function of mirror neurons in the brain. Located in the motor cortex, mirror neurons activate in sympathy with what their owner perceives in the activity and experience of others.

"Some researchers hypothesise that malfunction in [mirror] neurons might be a factor in autism.

"The essential point is that mirror neurons underwrite the ability to recognise what helps or distresses others, what they suffer and enjoy, what they need and what harms them. This means that the ultimate basis for moral judgement is hard-wired - and therefore universal. So even when customs differ, fundamental morality does not; and if two societies differ over what they consider to be moral, one of them must just be plain wrong."

If you subscribe to my blog at, you'll get my opinion on the issue (for what it's worth).

I hope the above's helpful.

By the way, if you've got a subscription to New Scientist, you can see the Grayling article at:

larryniven said...

So, assuming even that this thing about mirror neurons is correct, secularist, why should we believe that it has anything to do with morality at all? I take it you don't believe that the pattern of neurons was intentionally hardwired into human's brains, right? What you're really pointing out here, in the best case, is an accidental but fundamental agreement of at least a formulaic sort of morality (one with variables and input, that is) among most humans - the fundamental part of that doesn't cancel out the accidental part of it. That brute fact by itself isn't enough to demonstrate an objective morality. Or do you have more supporting arguments?

The Celtic Chimp said...


I was about to say something along those lines. You got their first.

One additional point though. Grayling seems to be suggesting that the basis for empathy is built-in. That would indeed seem to fit with general experience.
Of course some poeple are assholes and actually like it when other people experience bad things. Take Gengis Khan for example. Apparently his greatest pleasure was enjoying the wailing of his victims families. I don't think he could have derieved any pleasure from it if he were simply apathetic to it. He did empathise to point of understanding what they were feeling and the hurt they were feeling gave him pleasure. An immoral asshole. As larry has pointed out. There neurons do not make any case for objective morality.