Friday, October 12, 2012

Meta-Ethics and Moral Arguments for God

I haven't talked much on this blog about moral arguments for the existence of God, at least not explicitly. In a way this is a bit odd, because my first book can be viewed as offering one kind of moral argument--not for the existence of God, but for the legitimacy of having faith in God's existence.

Moral arguments for God's existence, or for religious faith, fall right at the intersection of my main philosophical interests. In this post, I want to consider one such intersection: The need for moral arguments for God to engage with the diverse range of ideas that fall under the heading of what is called "meta-ethics."

Off and on I've posted things on this blog pertaining to what is called "meta-ethics," although I've tended to eschew that term. The field of meta-ethics is perhaps best understood in terms of the questions it asks, which in turn are best understood as question about the answers to lower-level ethical questions. Such lower-level questions are usually categorized as either "applied" or "normative." Applied ethics asks questions like the following: "Is it always wrong for a person to terminate an unwanted pregnancy?" Normative ethics, meanwhile, asks more general-level questions about the nature of morality, such as,"Are there some things that are wrong regardless of the consequences, or is the moral status of an action always a function of its outcomes?"

Meta-ethics steps back, looks at the answers to such lower-level questions, and asks about the nature of these answers. When you say that deliberately terminating a pregnancy is always wrong, are you asserting something of pregnancy-terminations that you take to be true of them, namely that they always have the property of wrongness? If so, what kind of property, exactly, is "wrongness"? And if not, what are you doing when you say these words?

When I say that the end does not always justify the means, am I asserting a fact which is either true or false apart from how I feel? Or am I simply expressing, say, a general-level feeling about actions that prioritize ends over means? Or am I, perhaps, simply voicing my personal commitment never to let consideration of ends trump consideration of means? If I'm asserting a fact, is it morel like a mathematical fact ("2+2=4"), an empirical one ("There are two beers in the fridge"), or a socially constructed one ("Barack Obama is President of the United States")? Or are moral facts unlike any of these?

When I've wandered into meta-ethics on this blog, it has generally been in relation to the question of whether moral claims are "objective" or "subjective." This is a classic way of attempting to get at one of the most crucial meta-ethical questions: Does a moral judgment have a truth value that is independent of the preferences/attitudes/beliefs of the individual making the judgment?

Although I haven't explicitly pursued the connection here, these meta-ethical questions have bearing on issues in the philosophy of religion. More precisely, there's one especially widespread kind of moral argument for God's existence whose soundness depends on some very precise answers to a number of questions in meta-ethics. The species of argument I have in mind has something like the following form:

1. Moral claims have an objective truth value, and some moral claims are true (they're not all false).
2. In order for moral claims to have this sort of objective truth value, theism must be true (or at least metaphysical naturalism must be false).
3. Therefore, theism is true (or metaphysical naturalism is false).

(Clarifying note: What is premise 1 saying? Here's a rough elaboration: A moral claim attributes a property of a certain kind--what we might call a normative property, such as "right" and "good"-- to such things as persons, actions, character traits, and states of affairs. Premise 1 is saying, first, that some of these attributions are correct and others incorrect; and second, that what makes the correct attributions correct is something apart from anyone's (individual or group's) actual approval or disapproval, acceptance or rejection, of that which is being called good or right, etc.)

Typically, the case for the first premise of such an argument rests on an appeal to basic moral intuitions. We are invited to consider a moral claim such as "Torturing children for fun is immoral." We are invited to think about what it would mean for such a claim to be treated as lacking in objective truth. If the implications of such thought experiments are deeply counter-intuitive, it follows that we intuitively accept the first premise. Once this is established, an effort is made to defend the second premise--that is, to show that in order to remain true to our intuitions--in order to underwrite the meta-ethical position we intuitively embrace--we must suppose there is a God. How this is done will vary greatly according to the version of the argument being considered.

A weaker form of this strategy of argument would hold that theism does a better job of making sense of our moral intuitions than does any form of naturalism; hence, theism is the best way (at least given our current understanding of matters) to underwrite those intuitions.

One crucial weakness of any such strategy of argument is this: Even if it works, the reasoning can work in both directions. As one of my friends from graduate school once quipped, "One person's modus ponens is another person's modus tollens." (I won't explain the terms. Google them if you care.) In a nutshell, if you agree that given your intutions premise 1 should be accepted, and you accept 2, you actually have two choices: accept theism or reject your intuitions. And there are some who find theism so implausible (or naturalism so obvious) that they are more than ready to take the second option.

But this is hardly the only way to resist the conclusion of a moral argument along these lines. In fact, there are meta-ethicists who question whether our intutitions really speak as strongly in favor of premise 1 as defenders of this sort of argument suppose. Furthermore, there are meta-ethicists who deny premise 2, having offered quite sophisticated defenses of naturalistic accounts of objective moral truth

Put simply, both premises 1 and 2 make meta-ethical claims that can be and have been challenged in the philosophical literature.

Let's start with the first premise. I have formulated this premise so that it would be true if either of two important meta-ethical positions is correct: (i) moral realism and (ii) objectivist versions of constructivism. Moral realism is, roughly, the view that there are moral facts "out there" whose truth is independent of what any individual or group, even an "ideal" one, does or would think/feel/endorse. Objectivist versions of constructivism hold, roughly, that moral truth is determined by the judgments that would be made by a person or community under certain ideal conditions--for example, under the condition that the individual were being perfectly rationally consistent in the presence of complete knowledge of all relavant facts. In other words, what makes some moral claim true is that the moral claim would be endorsed by the ideally-situated person or group (not by what anyone actually endorses--actual endorsements are correct or incorrect based on their correspondence to this ideal). This view is to be distinguished from subjective and relativistic versions of constructivism. Subjectivism holds that a moral claim is true if it correctly reports the actual contingent thoughts/feelings/attitudes of the individual making the report. Relativism holds that a moral claim is true if it correctly describes that actual agreements reached by a given group, such as a culture or society.

The reason I've formulated premise 1 so that it encompasses both (i) and (ii) is simply this: In my judgment the intuitive case for objectivity in ethics (assuming it is convincing) would be satisfied by either of these theoretic approaches. This is not to say that I think both approaches can be philosophically developed or worked out with equal success. It is one thing to say that our intuitions would be satisfied if there were a moral truth "out there." It is something else to give a plausible account of what such moral truth would be like. It is one thing to say that our intuitions would be satisfied if there were some idealized perspective from which these intuitions would be reliably endorsed. It is something else to attempt to describe such a perspective and show that it would actually underwrite our moral intuitions.

In any event, what the first premise rules out are those meta-ethical views that deny that there are objective moral truths. These are: (a) noncognitivist theories (which hold that moral utterances don't have any truth value at all, since they don't assert anything but, instead, merely express attitudes or plans or some such); (b) subjective or relativistic versions of constructivism (sketched out above); and (c) "error theory" (which holds, in effect, that moral claims do have an objective truth value, but that all moral claims are objectively false in the way that all claims about the properties of non-existent things, like unicorns, are objectively false).

Premise 1 of the argument above effectively rejects each of these theories. But there are, of course, sophisticated meta-ethicists who have rigorously defended these alternative meta-ethical views, even in the face of the intuitive challenge. Simon Blackburn, for example, has been an importand defender of (a). Another, with whom I had dinner a couple of weeks ago, is Allan Gibbard. Gilbert Harman has defended (b). And John Mackie has defended (c). These philosophers have endeavored to account for the intuitions that seem to support an objectivist meta-ethical stance either by explaining the intuitions away or by showing that there remains a way to preserve the intuitions (perhaps in a modified form) within these alternative meta-ethical frameworks.

As to the second premise, there are some sophisticated moral realists who, in recent years, have attempted to stake out a version of moral realism that is thoroughly naturalistic (David Brink and Richard Boyd are good examples). Furthermore, there are a range of sophisticated theories--most of them inspired by Kant--that purport to provide an objective foundation for moral truth that is "constructivist" in the technical sense and which makes no appeal to God in the course of offering that foundation (John Rawls, Alan Gewirth, and Christine Korsgaard offer examplars of such approaches). In general, constructivist accounts of morality, whether objective or subjective or relative, are consistent with naturalism (even thought at least some constructivist theories may also be consistent with theism or other forms of supernaturalism). As such, there are a wide range of theories that would need to be discredited in order for the second premise of the above argument to remain anything more than controversial.

In short, moral arguments for the existence of God that have anything like the above structure need to tackle the entire range of meta-ethical literature. It's not enough that they be able to show how moral objectivity could be defended on theistic assumptions. They also need to show (a) that naturalistic forms of moral realism don't work as well as the favored theistic theory; (b) that objective forms of constructivism don't work as well; (c) that contrary to claims made by some noncognitivists, subjective constructivists, etc., these theories really do fly in the face of our moral intuitions; and (d) if one must choose between one's moral intuitions and a metaphysical naturalism, there is good reason to jettison the latter.

This is quite a project, to say the least. It's unlikely that even with a hefty book one could adequately pursue each elements of it (Robert Merrihew Adams has gamely attempted something along these lines with his Finite and Infinite Goods; but while I regard that books as a great intellectual achievement, it is hardly the final word on the subject--as is evidenced by the rich exchange, following the book's publication, between Adams and the naturalistic moral realist Richard Boyd).

So, even if I were inclined to defend this sort of moral argument for God's existence, I wouldn't be inclined to do so in a blog post. And the fact is, I'm not sure what to think about this moral argument. I'd love to find a version of it that convinces me when I put on my critical philosopher's hat, but I haven't yet.

There are, however, other kinds of moral arguments. Some I find myself more drawn to than others.

In fact, one way to read Is God a Delusion? would be to treat it as an extended defense of a moral argument, not for God's existence as such, but for the decision to have faith in the existence of God. Here's how I'd formally reconstruct the argument along these lines that is nascent in the book:

1. Some things are objectively morally good.
2. If naturalism were true, then reality at a fundamental level would be indifferent to what is objectively morally good (the basic constituents of and principles governing reality would, given naturalism, neither embody such goodness themselves nor reliably promote its expression or preserve/perpetuate that which expresses it).
3. There is a worldview, opposed to naturalism, according to which reality at a fundamental level would not be indifferent to what is objectively morally good but, on the contrary, would embody such goodness, promote its expression, and preserve/perpetuate that which expresses it. A worldview of this sort is what unites theists who regard God as a proper object of devotion, trust, and worship (as opposed to fear and fawning subservience), and so can be described as the worldview of theistic religion (as opposed to theistic superstition, following Plutarch's distinction).
4. Both naturalism and the worldview of theistic religion are compatible with reason and our overall body of experience, even though both exceed what reason and evidence can establish.
5. Given the definition of theistic religion offered in (3), it would be objectively morally good if the worldview of theistic religion were true.
6. Living as if the worldview of theistic religion were true is a morally benign choice--that is, doing this would not produce outcomes or behaviors that are objectively morally bad, but would produce outcomes or behaviors that are objectively morally good.
7. Faith in one important sense of the word involves the decision to live as if a worldview is true based on the hope that it is true, and this decision is reasonable and moral if (a) the worldview is compatible with reason and experience even if not uniquely supported by it; (b) it would be objectively morally good were the worldview true (hence making the worldview a suitable object of hope); and (c) living as if it were true is morally benign.
8. Hence, faith in the worldview of theistic religion is reasonable and moral.

Framed in this way, it's obvious that my overarching line of argument in Is God a Delusion? depends on a meta-ethical premise, one which I never explicitly defend. But notice that this premise--roughly, that there are objective moral goods--would be true were any form of moral realism or objective constructivism correct. In other words, this argument does not depend on discrediting naturalistic forms of moral realism and every version of objective constructivism. It does, however, suppose that noncognitivism, error theory, and subjective and relativist forms of constructivism are mistaken.

In short, a unifying argument in Is God a Delusion? presupposes a meta-ethical position, but a far broader one than the more narrow moral argument requires.

There are other moral arguments for God's existence, and I suspect that each such argument probably depends for its soundness on some kind of meta-ethical position being correct. If so, then criticisms and defenses of moral arguments for God, to be complete, will inevitably have to consider work being done in meta-ethics.


  1. Eric-

    "... that what makes the correct attributions correct is something apart from anyone's (individual or group's) actual approval or disapproval, acceptance or rejection, of that which is being called good or right, etc.)"

    How could this possibly be constructed? Do we call in aliens to adjudicate this goodness and badness? Do we ask our pets for their opinion? It seems to me that one is living in a fantasy world trying to make this case.. a self-serving fantasy world where what you don't like (or what everyone doesn't like) magically transmutes into something "objectively" wrong. For most of us, our biological and cultural empathy align these things in a collectively acceptable direction, but still, that is no argument.

    You appeal to "basic moral intutions." Hmm ... that sounds subjective to me. Perhaps you also feel that certified philosophers have more sensitive (or even objective) moral intutions than others...

    Anyhow, this fantasm of moral objectivity is impossible to define, other than by repeating the words. There is no outside measure of it, there is no way to quantify it, and history is full of counter-examples of every possible moral position. The whole project deserves the deepest oblivion.

    OK- next question.. why #2? Why would one need theism to have objective morals, were such a thing true? This makes no sense to me. We have electrons, which are objective.. does that imply god? Why does one objective existence imply theism, and another imply no such thing at all? Again, you are just so wrapped in the theism narrative that you can not seem to escape that box of groupishness, which goes.. my group is totemized by our shared illogical beliefs that weld us into a social and moral community, thus we are good and other groups are bad. And somehow this makes our irrational beliefs true, and our goodness objective. My intuitions told me so! ... I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

    "4. Both naturalism and the worldview of theistic religion are compatible with reason and our overall body of experience, even though both exceed what reason and evidence can establish."

    Hold your horses there.. reason is not compatible with the goodness of the universe. You pulled that out of our intuition, not out of your reason. What reason tells us is that the we exist, and we have historically existed on a perilous cusp of pleasure and pain, finely tuned by evolution to keep us going as biological beings. The fact that in our modern day we have invented ice cream, police, and symphonic music may keep us on the happy and good end of the spectrum, but reason doesn't tell us that the basic constituents of the universe are anything other than tremendous randomness, structure, and complexity.

    And let me back up to #3 as well. The supposition that nature is good is not determinative of whether we will be or choose to be good. Those are two different things. If we as humans have to work at being good and making the world good, (and indeed at defining what is good), that may be better than having the goodness of everything handed to us on a theistic platter, which incidentally doesn't seem to be the case.

    Best wishes...

    1. How could this possibly be constructed? Do we call in aliens to adjudicate this goodness and badness? Do we ask our pets for their opinion? It seems to me that one is living in a fantasy world trying to make this case.. a self-serving fantasy world where what you don't like (or what everyone doesn't like) magically transmutes into something "objectively" wrong. For most of us, our biological and cultural empathy align these things in a collectively acceptable direction, but still, that is no argument.

      In this post I was mainly offering a taxonomy of meta-ethical positions and a quick definition of each, for the purpose of pointing out how moral arguments for the existence of God would have to engage with meta-ethics. I did not here attempt to develop a theoretic justification for any of the meta-ethical positions named.

      But, since you ask, the passage you are referring to with this remark is a generic description of an ethical perspective that encompasses both moral realism and objective constructivism. I'm right now reading two books in tandem that defend moral realism--one by a naturalist, one by a theist. But I have more deep familiarity with objective constructivist theories. Hence, I'm better equipped to quickly sketch out such a theory in order to give a sense of how such a thing could possibly be constructed.


    2. Alan Gewirth offers awhat I'm calling an objective constructivist theory along the following lines: Whenever we act, we implicity posit the right to act, and hence the right to the necessary prerequisites for action, namely freedom and well-being. Since this implicit assertion of a claim on freedom and well-being is implicitly asserted by nothing more than engaging in action as such, we implicitly presuppose that our being "prospective purposive agents" (beings who act for reasons) is a sufficient condition for our possession of these rights. As such, rational consistency demands that we ascribe rights to freedom and well-being to all prospective purposive agents. To say that violating your well-being is wrong is thus to say that a rationally consistent agent would disallow the violation of your well-being, since any such violation would involve a contradiction (in acting, the agent regards being an agent as a sufficient conditions for the ascription of the right to well-being, and the act is the violation of the well-being of someone in possession of the very condition one is implicitly holding to be a sufficient one for a claim to be free from such a violation).

      In short, for Gewirth, the "truth-maker" for the claim that the act is wrong is the fact that a rationally consistent agent would disapprove the act. And this truth-maker is independent of what any individual agent HAPPENS to approve of.

      Not sure if this sketch is helpful or not in giving a sense of how some moral philosophers have defended the idea that moral claims might have objective truth conditions.

  2. Right, I understand that this simply makes being a free agent into a virtue. But suppose I eat a chicken. I have put that chicken's freedom of action to an end, which seems now to be intrinsically and radically wrong. But perhaps my moral intuition doesn't call it wrong, but instead right.

    The issue is that you are making value judgements and calling them rational by way of a fanciful rational agent, where actual rational agents (computers) don't give a fig whether anyone's freedom is impinged or not. What you really mean is a putative caring agent full of empathy for sentient, free beings, etc.. Which becomes simply a circular argument about moral intuition. Which I hasten to add is completely valid if cast in subjective and social terms, which is where it should have been anchored all along.

    1. The issue is that you are making value judgements and calling them rational by way of a fanciful rational agent, where actual rational agents (computers) don't give a fig whether anyone's freedom is impinged or not. What you really mean is a putative caring agent full of empathy for sentient, free beings, etc..

      Obviously I can't do justice to a book-length development of a moral theory in a paragraph. But it probably shouldn't surprise you that Gewirth anticipates your concerns and addresses them. As to the second concern highlighted above, Gewirth would deny that a computer is an agent, no matter how "rational." Second, for Gewirth actions carry with them implicit judgments--and he wants to say that every agent, caring or not, empathetic or self-absorbed, implicitly asserts the right to act while acting. The more complex piece of his argument is that this implicit assertion is rooted in the mere fact of agency in such a way that it would be inconsistent for the agent then not to care about the conditions for agency in other agents. In other words, his argument aims to make a case FOR the rational fittingness of caring agency, as opposed to presupposing it.

      As to your first concern, I actually think it has some merit, but arguably not in relation to chickens. If my being the kind of being that I am--"a prospective purposive agent"--is what I implicitly take to be the sufficient condition for my right to the conditions for actions, then I may not land myself in a contradiction by denying this right to beings of a relevantly different kind--hence, much hinges on whether chickens are relevantly different in a way that permits differential treatment. Unpacking the concept of prospective purposive agency, in relation to Gewirth's theory of implicit judgments embraced when we act, is crucial here.

      But I think that the widespread intuition that we have a right to kill another human in self-defense is not defensible on Gewirth's theory. In fact, I published an article a few years back making this point.

  3. Hi Eric

    Thanks for a fascinating post. When I consider this issue, I always end up feeling as if I may be suffering from a terminal lack of imagination, because I can't get off first base, so to speak, in that I am one who not only has no intuition that some moral stances must be objectively right, but also has no conception of what such an intuition might feel like.

    When I attempt to parse my own intuition on the matter, I discover that some moral stances invoke in me tremendously strong feelings. Not only do I derive great joy from certain stances of love and service, but I find I have the belief that such joy is available to others, that it is part of the human make up. And of course I wish to share this joy, for such is its very nature. I experience the conviction that such joy represents the pinnacle of human experience, that it is worth striving for, and I feel a yearning to place this capacity within a greater narrative, which is to say I am also aware of, and value, the joy that comes from placing this experience within a greater narrative. But none of this entails the belief, or even intuition, that such joy is representative of moral rightness. I don't understand what else one would need to experience in order to have such a conviction, yet people speak so easily and commonly of this intuition that I feel I must be missing something. Any idea what that something might be?


    1. My comment on intuitions (below) was being written in response to Burk as you were writing this comment. It may touch somewhat on what you're getting at here, but doesn't directly tackle it. Your position resonates closely with those noncoognitivists in ethics who lean towards what has come to be called "quasi-realism." Allan Gibbard and Simon Blackburn are chief exemplars of this approach, so you might be drawn to their work. At the same time I'd recommend the work of those who endeavor to articulate and work out the realist perspective in the light of objections and contrary ideas put forward by such thinkers as Gibbard and Blackburn. At the moment I am reading side-by-side two very different moral realist works: Russ Shafer-Landau's MORAL REALISM and David O. Brink's MORAL REALISM AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF ETHICS. The first is a "non-naturalist" defense of moral realism, the second a "naturalist" defense. That is, the first regards moral properties as real properties that actions actually possess which are not natural properties investigable by science. The second regards moral properties as natural properties in something like the way that naturalists attempt to identify states of consciousness with brain states.

    2. Thanks Eric

      I'll see if I can hunt down those references. As you state your case in this post, you reject the non-cognitivist approach. Should you ever have time to a post on it, it'd be very interesting to see a sketch of your reasons for this. Although I imagine I might find much of it in these books?


    3. Yes--both books offer some of the core objections to noncognitivism.

  4. Another point relates to the concept of intuitions, which we've touched on before a few times on this blog. I use the term "moral intuition" to describe the immediate sense most of us have that it is wrong to torture children for fun, etc., but I do so with some hesitation. I choose it because the term doesn't beg the question about what kind of thing this immediate sense of wrongness is.

    Consider: I have an immediate sense that there is a computer in front of me. We typically think this sense comes from a cognitive faculty converting information coming in from the external world (the "reality out there") into a belief, more or less reliably.I also have an immediate sense that 2+2=4.In this case, that immediate sense comes from intellectually grasping the truth of the connection--a kind of immediate intellectual apprehension. I also have an immediate sense that certain people I don't know much about are lying whenever their lips are moving. This is more a gut level feeling. Smetimes it may be a subconscious working out of subtle evidence that I don't consciously understand. Sometimes it is more likely a projection of my attitudes/prejudies onto the field of experience.

    You are assuming, as if it were self-evident, that moral intuitions fall into something in the vicinity of the last of these categories. I suppose you have a strong, gut-level intuition that this is so--but I'm inclined to think that your intuition here falls into the last of these categories, whereas you presumably take that intuition to be an immediate apprehension of a reality outside your own opinions and preferences.

    Rather than thunk each other over the head with our rival intutitions about moral intuitions, it may be better to consider, in a reflective and systematic way, why someone might suppose that a moral intuition is nothing more than a subjective projection and why someone might suppose it is an immediate intellectual apprehension, etc. This is the kind of thing that meta-ethicists attempt to do.

    Right now, I'm reading Russ Shafer-Landau's "Moral Realism: A Defence," which pursues this project in a way that I suspect would strongly challenge your views, since he pretty much rejects and argues against most of the things you regard as obvious. Allan Gibbard's work, by contrast, would provide you with a carefully worked out defense of things you take to be obvious--but Gibbard, being a philosopher, appreciates the force of contrary arguments in a way you might find beneficial.

    Of course, you may have other priorities besides tackling work in meta-ethics. There are plenty of topics worth exploring and only limited time.

  5. Hi Eric,

    This is a little tangential to your post but there are aspects of this I find quite puzzling.

    Take the “torturing children for fun” business. This is of course something I wouldn't do but not because it is wrong or, in fact, not because of any reason whatsoever. As Bernard describes above, when I try to analyze my reaction to this and similar cases, I find it is overwhelmingly emotional. I can't even say I have any kind of intuition on the matter, or at least I wouldn't call this an intuition at all. On the other hand, what you describe seems to be a primarily rational process whereby one somehow figures out what should be done.

    Another point concerns these objective moral truths or facts. It seems to me that if you accept that these facts may exist (independent of the preferences/attitudes/beliefs of the individual...) then you must also accept the possibility that these facts could turn out differently from what you wish. For instance, it could turn out that the objective fact about torturing children for fun is that it is Good. (If so, one would - hopefully - ignore this moral fact.)

    If moral facts are decoupled from what anyone thinks, why would they have to turn out the way we feel about them? To claim the contrary, wouldn't one have to argue convincingly that there is some causal link between these facts and our feelings? Given, for one thing, the vast variety of moral values we find in history (and, why not, in other species as well), this appears to be a hopeless task. Lacking this, wouldn't objective moral facts (if we can make sense of them at all) become quite irrelevant to our moral life? After all, they would always be preempted by contrary moral feelings.

    1. What you offer here are some of the considerations that have motivated noncognitivists to develop their theories. It should probably not be surprising to learn that there are considerations that motivate cognitivists (I won't list them here, but perhaps I will devote a post to this issue at some point). What the respective meta-ethical standpoints have to do is find a way to account for the considerations that seem to lend more support to the opposing theory--that is, find a way to fit these considerations within their preferred theoretical standpoints.

      For what it's worth, my current leaning is to think that when someone makes a moral claim such as "Torturing children for fun is wrong," they are saying, essentially, that certain affective responses to child-torture (horror, aversion, etc.) are FITTING while other affective responses (indifference, glee) are UNFITTING. In other words, what makes it true that torturing children for fun is seriously wrong is the fittingness of the strong emotional responses you profess to have (and the unfittingness of contrary responses). This way of thinking about the matter, which falls within the broad tradition of virtue ethics, opens up the door for some moral claims having something akin to the variable status endorsed by subjectivism--since in some cases a range of affective responses might all be equally fitting.

  6. "I also have an immediate sense that 2+2=4.In this case, that immediate sense comes from intellectually grasping the truth of the connection--a kind of immediate intellectual apprehension."

    Actually, I would take issue with this. We generally learn this by rote means, or by empirical means, so that after time, it becomes second nature, and pops out by intuitive means. It may later become supported in higher intellectual ways as we find more efficient and abstract proofs of this kind of mathematical fact (whose fact-ness depends on one's axioms, which are in this case empirically defensible). But my point is that mathematical conceptions do not come from some magical objective-perception faculty, but from a long slog through either empirical or abstract proof-making that itself is ultimately anchored in empirical findings (for maths that have some practical application and whose axioms are empirically defensible).

    In any case, making moral convictions into some kind of direct apprehension of reality seems completely opposite from the way we know they come about. Which is, firstly by relentless training by cultural institutions, (Sesame street comes to mind!), by our inborn empathy and similar true intuitions, and thirdly by calculations of utility. Much of what Republicans have to say on the matter is framed in the third mode, where, while we may want to give to the poor, it is simply unwise, since they will squander it, end up dependent and worse off than before.. etc...

    Importantly, our moral intutions can be bounded by cognitive science, so all this categorization may eventually be made quite explicit, even scientific.

    As for your challenge about why moral intuitions may be thought by some to be objective, the reason is abundantly clear. If I can claim my intuition is objective, then it gains power in the social negotiation vs any contrary intuitions, which are then classed not only as "not the way I think", or perhaps "unnatural", but downright "wrong", forever and everywhere. What more power would one want to have .. for one's moral intuitions?

    That is a motivation argument. As for a cognitive argument, my inability to see things from another person's perspective is probably directly related to my tendency to think my moral intutions are objective.

  7. Sorry- I referred to "true" moral intutions, and should have been more clear. I was referring to our moral instincts, such as empathy, greed, groupishness, etc., which can hardly be defended as direct perceptions of reality, but rather how we naturally construct our realities in the social scene, prior to training and reasoning. Perhaps instinct would be a better word.

  8. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your answer.

    To follow-up, I guess one of the things I wanted to say was that there appears to be a clear contradiction or opposition between (1) the existence of objective moral facts (independent of what anybody thinks/feels) and (2) the idea that we can perceive them through intuition. This because moral intuitions, whatever else they may be, are certainly largely a personal thing – hence subjective. What is the path between these subjective intuitions/feelings and objective facts?

    Another point that I find important (but perhaps not so moral philosophers) is the question of whether or not these moral facts would also apply to non-human agents (think extraterrestrial civilizations). My understanding is that they would although I am not sure I'm getting this right. If it's purely a human thing (which makes sense to me), then we're into (species) subjectivism, aren't we? If not, if the claim is that objective moral facts apply universally to all advanced enough agents then my problem is (again) the secondary claim that we can know these facts at all (through intuition). Here, the claim (universal moral facts) seems totally out of proportion with the evidence (our subjective intuition). It just does not fit..

    Lastly, if objective moral facts are just that, facts established independently of our desires or beliefs, why bother? Why should we act according to these moral precepts if we have no emotional involvement in them at all?

    1. JP: These are the sorts of questions that meta-ethicists, both defenders and critics of realism, explore. Since I can't do them justice in a comment, I won't try. But a few remarks are worth making. Your first and last of the three concers you raise are standard questions of discussion in the relevant philosophical literature. The first concerns moral epistemology, and both of the books I mentioned in a comment above, and which I am now reading, devote chapters to this issue. The third concerns the nature of moral reasons for actions and the relationship between having a moral reason and having a motive to act. Again, both books devote chapters to this if you want to see how moral realists field them.

      Your middle question, about the scope of moral facts to non-human rational beings, is not a standard part of the discussion among philosophers the way the other two questions are, but different meta-ethical views would certainly have implications for how one answers this question. I'm not sure all moral realists would answer it in the same way; and I'm not sure that limiting moral facts to the human species reduces morality to species-subejectivism.

      Whether we are led to a kind of species-wide subjectivism would hinge on what MAKES moral facts specific to humans and not applicable to rational aliens. Russ Shafer-Landau helpfully characterizes realism in the following way: "That a person takes a particular attitude towards a putative moral standard is not what makes that standard correct." Subjectivism, by contrast, would be the view that what makes a putative moral standard correct IS the attitude one takes towards it. If a certain moral standard applies to humans but not to aliens because humans on the species-level approve of the standard but the aliens don't, then we have species subjectivism. If what makes it true that the standard applies to humans but not to aliens is some other difference between humans and aliens, something about differences in their cognitive capacities or psychological makeup but unrelated to the fact of approval or disapproval, I don't think one would have subjectivism. Rather, it would be an objective moral fact that for humans so-and-so is immoral but for Pletitorkians it's not.

    2. Apologies for the grammatical muddles in the above. I was writing quickly. Hopefully you can still determine my intent.

  9. Eric-

    "Subjectivism, by contrast, would be the view that what makes a putative moral standard correct IS the attitude one takes towards it."

    There is no such thing as "correct" in the subjectivist view.. that term is highly loaded and should not be used. Ditto with moral "facts".

    I have to say that you seem to be hiding behind abstruseness and piles of prior "treatments", which to put it mildly do not seem to have put the matter to rest. One would expect more of a putatively "objective" field. Perhaps you could just cop to putting your theistic cart before your ontological horse.

    I dipped briefly into the virtue ethics descriptions, and it seems more about meta-ethics than about ethics directly. As a virtue person, one asks- is the person good? As a deontologist, one asks- are the rules good? And as a utilitarian, one asks- are the results good?

    Each question has its point, and each is a way to think about the locus of morals. Their consideration seems sort of utilitarian- how do we heuristically focus on morals in a maximally useful way- on the person, the rules, or the results? Really, we can be for all forms at the same time.. who is against virtue, good institutions, or against any of these aims? But none of them lead to any more objective conceptions than the others, and each leave the basic question untouched.

    Which might be put as ... what's the difference between my liking something and my calling it good? Is there any difference?

  10. Hi Eric

    Thank you for the references. Although I'm only just starting to read about, and understand, the area, it's fascinating, not least because the positions I assumed I would have most sympathy for, don't much appeal. In particular non-cognitivism seems to cede too much. Whatever it is moral statements refer to, I don't quite see what is gained from giving up on the idea that they refer to something. It seems to me we could use the same move to claim that physical statements don't really refer to anything either, and at some point the gap between what we say we believe, and how we behave, becomes untenable.

    I suspect I don't quite have my head around this adequately yet, but I'm enjoying the exploration, so thank you again for your post.