Critical Thinking Note 10: Greg Damico on Moral Realism


This time we bring you a dialogue on moral realism authored by our newest philosopher Greg Damico (you might recall Greg as the BC philosopher who recently won the national Rockerfeller prize).

MANNY:  Perhaps today, Bert, I can convince you of my moral realism.

BERT:  I am quite convinced that you are a moral realist, Manny.  But I suppose that what you hope to convince me of is the truth of moral realism itself.

MANNY:  Yes, indeed.

BERT:  Remind me what you mean by the term.

MANNY:  I suppose really there are two things I mean by ‘moral realism’.  Just as with any kinds of statements, one might ask, first, what they mean, and, second, whether they are true.

BERT:  The answer to the second depending, I suppose, on the answer to the first.

MANNY:  Naturally.

BERT:  Fine.  So the realist gives a particular answer to these two questions.

MANNY:  Yes.  Our answer to the first question is that a statement like ‘Louis is good’ is much like ‘Louis is intelligent’.  When a speaker sincerely asserts ‘Louis is intelligent’, we take him to be attempting to express some objective fact about the world, viz. the fact of Louis’s intelligence.  In just the same way, moral realists hold that when a speaker sincerely asserts ‘Louis is good’, that speaker is attempting to express another objective fact about the world, viz. the fact of Louis’s goodness.

BERT:  I think I’m already getting off the bus.  But tell me the realist answer to the second question as well.

MANNY:  The answer to the second question is that many of our moral claims are in fact true.  That is, not only are we attempting to express these distinctively moral facts when we use the associated moral language, but in fact we are also succeeding in that attempt.

BERT:  I see.  That seems like a minimal step to take, given the realist’s answer to the first question.

MANNY:  How do you mean that?

BERT:  I just mean that it would be strange for someone to think that moral claims purport to express objective facts, but then to turn around and say that they’re all false!

MANNY:  Well, you’d just have to think—and this shouldn’t sound weird to you at all—that there aren’t, after all, any objective moral facts.  I find it in fact an interesting and worthy view.  My friend Mack has this view, and he’s had some followers.  I’m sure he would agree with you that his view is queer insofar as it proposes that we are all systematically in error about the moral claims we assert.

BERT:  But according to him, the error is not a matter of being confused about the meaning of what we’re saying.

MANNY:  That’s right.  We err only insofar as we think that the claims we make are true.  As I say, he would acknowledge, I think, some queerness in this feature of his view; but he thinks it’s far queerer to suppose that there really are moral facts that could ground the truth of those claims.

BERT:  Yes, well I suppose I’m on board with him there.

MANNY:  I’ve personally never felt any intellectual discomfort on this point.  Perhaps you could try to explain the source of your own discomfort?

BERT:  I’ve thought a bit about this.  It’s always better to have arguments for one’s views than to have only brute intuitions.

MANNY:  We can certainly agree on that.

BERT:  If nothing else!  I guess I think I have two reasons for my disbelief in moral facts.

MANNY:  I’m all ears.

BERT:  First of all, these alleged facts—or at least our relation to them—would have to be quite different from the more familiar sorts of facts, like scientific facts, for example, or even simple observational facts.

MANNY:  Can you say a bit more about that?

BERT:  Yes.  Well, let’s go back to your own example.  I’m happy to admit some objective fact of Louis’s intelligence largely because it admits of a very public and obvious verification.  Or take something even simpler like:  ‘Louis is wearing a brown and blue shirt.’  The truth of this, if and when it is true, just smacks us in the face.  All we have to do is to look and see whether Louis is indeed wearing a brown and blue shirt.  And, if he is, we could show anyone who denies it to be wrong simply by pointing to Louis’s shirt.  There would seem to be nothing at all analogous to this in the case of your alleged moral facts.  To what shall I point to prove Hitler’s evil or to prove the justice of an equal distribution of goods?

MANNY:  I think that is indeed a worthy challenge, and I shall try to respond to it in due course.  But what’s your second reason for skepticism about moral facts?

BERT:  The second one dovetails rather nicely with the first, or so it seems to me.  The fact that there are no obvious things to point to in order to prove moral facts makes possible a very large amount of disagreement about morality.  And the vast disagreement, I suggest, is good reason to think that there is no truth of the matter.  There is never any serious disagreement over the color of someone’s shirt.  But disagreement over the legitimacy of, say, the death penalty, is massive.  And anyway, I am very reluctant to judge other people or other cultures, located, as they are, in different places and in different times.

MANNY:  I’d like to respond to this second reason, first, if that’s okay.  I find it a little bit easier to address.

BERT:  Sure.

MANNY:  First of all, there is nothing wrong with being slow to judge other people.  But note that we may judge others’ actions without judging the others themselves.  Good people, do, after all, sometimes do bad things.

BERT:  That’s an interesting point.  So I could, for example, hold that it was wrong for American Southerners in the early 1800s to engage in slavery without judging all those slave-owners to be evil people.

MANNY:  Quite.

BERT:  That’s fair enough.  But I’m still not ready to give up on my skepticism.

MANNY:  Nor should you be.  You’ve given me some good challenges to think about.  But let’s see if I can make any farther progress in responding to your criticisms.

BERT:  By all means.

MANNY:  You bring up the fact of disagreement.  First of all, there may be less disagreement than you imagine.  There may well be disagreement over whether the death penalty, say, is immoral.  But all parties to the dispute presumably believe that citizens generally have a right to life and that the state generally has a right to punish those who transgress the law.  The dispute may come down to the question of whether the state has been administering the death penalty fairly, or whether those convicted of capital crimes count as citizens in the relevant sense.  And this last question, notice, isn’t a moral question at all!

BERT:  Perhaps, but I think there are other cases where the disagreement is clearly over moral questions.

MANNY:  That may be, but this brings me to the rest of my response.  And it’s this:  Disagreement on something does not entail that there’s no fact of the matter.  On the contrary:  If anything, genuine disagreement between you and me presupposes that there is something about which we disagree.  Note, further, that there is often disagreement over non-moral matters.

BERT:  Can you give me an example?

MANNY:  Sure.  There may once have been rather serious disagreement over the shape and size of the earth.  And today we might observe serious disagreement over, for example, which fundamental particles exist, or over who killed John Kennedy.  But no one doubts for a minute that there are indeed objective answers to these questions.  It’s clear that someone did in fact kill John Kennedy, despite our disagreeing over the identity of that someone.

BERT:  I suppose I have to concede that as well.  What about my first complaint, that moral facts don’t seem to be testable or discoverable?

MANNY:  Yes, that’s a bit tougher.  But let me begin by observing that, though some facts are easily verified, not all are.  The color of someone’s shirt is checked easily by our eyes, but there are other facts you would admit that are rather more distant from simple everyday observation.

BERT:  What do you have in mind?

MANNY:  Well, one might point to mathematical examples.  Take some famous unproved claim, like Goldbach’s Conjecture.  I don’t remember what it says.

BERT:  I do.  The conjecture is that every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

MANNY:  Oh good.  I’m glad someone remembers it anyway!

BERT:  So what was the point you wanted to make about the conjecture?

MANNY:  Just this:  No one doubts that it’s either true or false.  That is, either every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes or some even number cannot be so expressed.  And yet, it’s rather difficult to find out which is the case.  The conjecture has been around for quite some time, and it remains unsolved.

BERT:  I see, yes.

MANNY:  But in fact we needn’t appeal to mathematics to make the point.  There are scientific questions that are also difficult to answer.  There is, presumably, some fact of the matter about the origins of the universe or about the behavior of fundamental particles—and yet these facts are anything but easily ascertained.

BERT:  I take the point.  Still, questions of morality seem even further removed from observation than do those questions you mention just now—with the possible exception of Goldbach’s Conjecture.  I’ll have to think about that.

MANNY:  Yes, well I concede that all scientific questions would seem to have to have some sort of connection, however tenuous or indirect, to observation.

BERT:  What, then, of morality?  Surely moral questions don’t have any connection to observation.  You don’t deny that, do you?

MANNY:  Well, no, although I’ve heard of others denying it.  My friend Nick seems to have that view.  And I think the old philosopher Ben Tham had it as well.

BERT:  Weird.

MANNY:  Frankly, I agree with you, Bert.  But in any case, what I deny is simply that ethics is a science.  It doesn’t follow from ethics not being a science that ethics doesn’t concern objective fact.

BERT:  I don’t know about that!  If our five senses are irrelevant to ethics, then how could we ever have any knowledge of ethical facts?

MANNY:  Yes, well this is where things get a little mysterious, I have to admit.

BERT:  Perhaps untenably mysterious.

MANNY:  Perhaps, but bear with me.  One possibility is that moral facts are conceptual facts.

BERT:  And what does that mean, Manny?

MANNY:  It means that grasping the concepts involved in moral claims is sufficient to determine whether those claims are true or false.

BERT:  I don’t understand what you’re saying.

MANNY:  On this view, moral facts would be much the same as claims like:  “All green things are colored things” or “All bachelors are unmarried”.  If you understand what it is to be a green thing and what it is to be a colored thing, you can in effect deduce from that understanding the claim that all green things are colored things.  Similarly, if you understand what it is to be a bachelor and what it is to be married, you can in effect deduce from that understanding the claim that all bachelors are unmarried.  So the thought would be that, if we could just get a more complete grip on the relevant moral notions—like goodness and justice—we could deduce the true moral claims from that conceptual understanding.

BERT:  That sounds crazy!  The claim that all bachelors are unmarried is just about the simplest fact I can think of.  It’s just so obviously true.  But moral claims aren’t like that all!

MANNY:  I agree that the truth of moral claims is not obvious.  But that doesn’t mean that they’re not conceptual claims.  The concept of goodness is, presumably, much harder to pin down than is the concept of being a bachelor.

BERT:  I’m still unconvinced.  I don’t even know if I accept that there is some concept of goodness.  Where does this concept come from?  And how is it that we have access to it?

MANNY:  Yes, well this brings me to another point I wanted to make.

BERT:  And what point is that?

MANNY:  The following:  I quite agree that we do not measure moral claims up against our five senses, the way we do for scientific claims.  Nevertheless, I think I know, for example, that Hitler was evil, and that the killing of innocents is wrong.

BERT:  I know you think you know those things, my dear Manny!  But how in the world is such knowledge even possible?

MANNY:  I think I know these things not through any of my five senses but rather through intuition.

BERT:  So the moral claims you make turn out to be about your own feelings?

MANNY:  Not at all, though my good friend and mentor David, with whom I seem to disagree on almost every significant point of philosophy, has such a view.  This is often called the subjectivist view.  It seems clear to me, however, that, though I certainly experience feelings of approval when I think about the death penalty applied in certain cases, say, nevertheless the permissibility of the death penalty does not consist in those feelings, but is rather a cause of those feelings.  It’s difficult for the subjectivist to explain why we have certain feelings, or why certain feelings are appropriate.  We all agree, let us suppose, that we experience feelings of disapproval when we think about the killing of innocent people.  But what I can say that the subjectivist cannot is that I experience those feelings precisely because I perceive that such killing is wrong.

BERT:  So how exactly is your view different from the subjectivist’s?

MANNY:  I say that I know moral facts through intuition, not that moral facts are about my intuitions.

BERT:  So if moral facts are to have the objectivity you claim—or, at any rate, if they are to be discoverable, then we must all have the same intuitions.  Right?

MANNY:  Yes.

BERT:  But it seems that we do not!

MANNY:  Well, again, I think there’s not as much disagreement as there may at first blush seem.  I don’t know that I really think we all have the very same intuitions on all moral questions.  But I do think there is very substantial agreement, ultimately, on a very large number of the deeper moral questions.

BERT:  I am not unmoved by all your fine argumentation, Manny.  But I still find moral realism a difficult view.

MANNY:  Consider the following:  One of my moral beliefs is that the death penalty is permissible.  And I would not accept this thought to be paraphrased away in such a way that the claim comes out to be—quite surprisingly!—about me, or about my culture, or anything like that.  No.  When I say that the death penalty is permissible, I take this claim at face value.  That is, I take it to be about the death penalty and permissibility.  I think that what makes the death penalty permissible is not anyone’s laws or set of moral norms.  I think that there is something about the very nature of the death penalty that allows the concept of moral permissibility, at least in certain cases, to apply to it.

BERT:  I think I see your point.  When, for example, you encounter someone who thinks that the death penalty is not permissible, you’re not content to say that you’ve got your feelings and he’s got his.

MANNY:  That’s right.  I think the death penalty is permissible.  Period.  For all people at all times and places.  And I hardly deny the non-moral anthropological fact that some cultures have rejected the death penalty as morally impermissible.  But I think the death penalty is permissible for them as well.  I think they have simply misperceived the moral facts.

BERT:  I feel much clearer on the nature of moral realism now, Manny.  And I am more sympathetic to it than I was before.

MANNY:  I’m happy to hear that!

BERT:  But surely there would be more for realists to say.  There would be more to say, for example, about the nature of these moral facts they posit, or, relatedly, about how exactly the semantic analysis of moral claims is supposed to work.  Can you say anything further about these matters?

MANNY:  Well, these are rather large questions, and so perhaps they are for another time.  But I can say a few words.

BERT:  Please.

MANNY:  The most obvious way, probably, of being a moral realist is to think that there are genuine features or properties of goodness, justice and the rest that apply to particular things or to people, to actions or to states of affairs.  If one is antecedently inclined to suppose that something like this is what’s going on in non-moral cases, then this would be a natural extension of that sort of view.

BERT:  I’m not sure I understand.  What do you mean by the non-moral cases?

MANNY:  I just mean non-moral claims quite generally.  One might have thought that, say, what explains the fact that tomatoes are red is that there is some property of redness that applies to tomatoes.  And so in just the same way, one might hold that, say, what explains the fact that Gandhi is a good man is that there is some property of goodness that applies to Gandhi.

BERT:  And the facts that these properties hold of various things—goodness of Gandhi, and all the rest—would be discerned by something like intuition.

MANNY:  That’s probably the most natural thing to say.

BERT:  What other possibilities are there?

MANNY:  Well, personally I think that all moral facts can be discovered just by thinking long and hard about the nature of the human will and the nature of practical reason.  According to me, what grounds the truth of moral facts is human reason as such.

BERT:  So acting immorally is acting irrationally.

MANNY:  In a nutshell, yes.

BERT:  Interesting.  Any other realist views on the table?

MANNY:  My friend Stu, though a realist, has an unusual view.  He seems to think that the truth of moral facts is grounded in a certain empirical fact about what human beings desire.

BERT:  And what fact is that?

MANNY:  That we all desire happiness.

BERT:  So, according to him, the moral facts would be different if we didn’t all desire happiness?

MANNY:  Presumably, although I think he thinks that that’s a very big ‘if’.  Probably he thinks that human beings by their very nature desire happiness, though he rarely allows himself to talk that way.

BERT:  There certainly are a lot of possibilities!

MANNY:  Well, the questions of morality are very subtle and difficult.  But it seems to me that morality would be of rather limited interest unless there really were answers to those questions.

BERT:  Are you offering that as another argument in favor of moral realism?

MANNY:  I suppose I am.  Are you not yet convinced?

BERT:  I feel a bit overwhelmed, both because you’ve given me reason to doubt my relativism and because you’ve offered me so many alternative views to take!  I’ll need some time to sort out my thoughts on all this.

MANNY:  Then let’s continue our discussion another time.

BERT:  Yes, that’s what we ought to do.


March 19, 2014

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