The Moral Factless Fabric of the Universe

I will attempt to answer the question of whether moral facts or properties are part of the fabric of our universe. In order to do this, I will provide accounts both for and against moral realism by focusing on the arguments of G.E. Moore and J.L. Mackie along with reactions to their positions. I will argue that moral facts are not a part of the fabric of our universe.

The fundamental assertion of moral realism is that there are moral facts. Realists believe that moral facts are objective and are autonomous of any beliefs or thoughts that we have about them. We cannot determine what is right; forces out of our control predetermine that. Consider an example. “We cannot make actions right by agreeing that they are, any more than we can make bombs safe by agreeing that they are.” (Sheehy, 2). Moral facts allow us to decide on our own actions, justify those actions, and judge the actions of others. People want to believe in moral facts like we believe in the value of money. We believe and live our lives through it therefore it has value. Moral facts and their properties give us a kind of currency with which we can measure the actions of others and ourselves. The moral realist argues that if our moral claims are only subjective, how can we then judge the actions of others? How can we make moral claims without moral facts? We desire to construct suitable moral decisions. “We want to be able to judge the actions of others; we want meaningful moral discourse to be possible. And according to the moral realist, all of this requires the existence of moral facts.” (Smollet, 2).

In Principa Ethica, moral realist G.E. Moore writes that, due to the indefinable state of moral facts, they must be a part of our world. Certain things simply just are. The non-naturalist would ask how we could tell that moral facts are real. Moore’s response is that we intuit them (Moore, 12). Relating to the intuition proposed by Moore, the beginning of CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity discusses why there is such a thing as an objective morality (Lewis, 38). In Lewis’s example, you get on a bus. Right before you take your seat, someone pushes you away and takes that seat. Your reaction to this is one of repugnance. You do not think that was fair. Your reaction appealing to fairness accepts that there is some measure of fairness. If there is no measure of fairness, the person who robbed you of your seat would not share the same belief as you, and appealing to a notion of fairness would be pointless. Therefore, some notion of an objective moral right and wrong must exist (Kingsbery, 31).

Now, looking at what the moral anti-realist believes we can further understand the debate over the existence of moral facts. There is a distinct difference between what is fact and what is opinion. Fact, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, means something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven. Opinion, defined by the same source, means what one thinks, feels, or believes. This dichotomy between fact and opinion brings me to my opposition of moral facts. In J.L. Mackie’s Subjectivity of Values, moral facts and their place in our world are a controversial topic. He argues against objective morality (Mackie, 12). The strongest claim he makes is that moral objectivity requires (i) an action’s being autonomously right is a reason to perform the action (e.g., fundamental reason-giving authority), and (ii) the ability to unconditionally motivate us to act (e.g., categorically motivating). Subsequently, moral facts and their properties have neither of these features, and thus are not objective. Agreeing with Mackie, I argue that moral facts are not part of the fabric of the universe because we, as humans, have created them.

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In order for moral facts or properties to be objective, they must motivate us despite our desires and must be autonomously right. Mackie thinks that moral judgements fail to explain reality. Critics may ask what reality is then. Is it not the actions, events, and feelings we experience everyday in the world that surrounds us? Psychologists and behaviourists would say that moral judgements explain just that. They actually explain how we interact with the world. My counter to this is that moral facts are indeed best understood as subjective. However, I believe that this view clouds our judgment. Perhaps a better alternative would be to call them moral opinions.

To further explain this, I have developed a logical outline of Mackie’s argument (i and ii) for no objective morals:

(i)

P1. If morals are subjective, they form from intuition and not reason.
P2. If moral prescriptivity comes from intuition, moral values cannot be reason-giving.
P3. If morals are subjective, then they cannot be intrinsically reason-giving. [P1,P2]
P4. Different moral values among cultures are understood as subjective ways of life.
P5. Therefore, moral values are subjective. [from P4]
C1. Therefore, moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving. [P3,P5]

(ii)

P1. Natural objects do not convey unconditional motivation to conform.
P2. If objective morals categorically cause, they must be an unknown feature of reality (r), and must be evident by some unknown perceptual apparatus (p). [P1]
P3. There is no justification for (r) or (p).
P4. Moral values are subjective rather than objective. [P2,P3]
C2. Therefore, moral values are not categorically motivating. [P2,P4]

C3. If moral values do not disclose categorical motivation to obey, and are not intrinsically reason-giving then, moral values are not objective.

John McDowell, in Aesthetic Value, Objectivity, and the Fabric of the Universe, contends that Mackie’s position is fragile. He states that without the word ‘objective’ Mackie’s claims that moral facts are false would no longer hold up. But, in regards to non-cognitivism, McDowell states that moral facts are not found in this world, but merely projected onto it; they are a mirror of subjectivity (McDowell, 1981). I have taken a naturalist view that only natural laws, as opposed to spiritual or supernatural, operate in this world. The question then is, are moral facts natural? Because natural laws are observable laws relating to natural phenomena, moral facts or properties, then, are not natural. We cannot observe moral facts or their properties. For example someone running through the airport to catch their flight drops their passport without knowing it. A bystander picks up the passport and runs after the owner to return it to them. You, having seen this all play out, can see that the action to return the passport to its owner was full of good intention. However, you cannot actually see the property of good. Therefore, I have reason to believe that moral facts or properties are not part of the fabric of the universe; they are a construct of our philosophies. Even if moral facts were a part of our world they are not of themselves restrictions of unpredictability (Belliotti, 102). Moral facts cannot give us a security of anything.

Similarly to the invention of moral facts, we have also created our own system of measurements such as the metric system. If we tried to communicate any information, for example where the earth is located, with an alien race we cannot assume that they use the same standards of measurement; we fashioned them. If there is other life beyond our own, perhaps they have a completely different system of measurement. This example can be directly transitioned to moral facts. Who is to say that if we make contact with life other than what is on earth, this new life will even conduct itself in a way that we can understand to be welcoming, curious, or even hostile. For the purposes of this example, this alien race could be very aggressive toward us because we are a new race and their moral beliefs applaud the discrimination of every race that is not their own. This would confuse everyone on earth who holds the moral fact of social justice to be true. This brings me to believe that we could carry on our existence without moral facts.

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There can be truths even if no one can prove them; there may be life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it (Mcbrayer, 2015). Similarly, many things that have been “proven” now happen to be false; many people once thought that the earth was flat. We cannot confuse landscapes of this world (truths) with landscapes of our mentality (proofs). Additionally, if proof is required for facts, then facts become relative to that individual. Something might be a fact for subject A if they can prove it but not a fact for subject B if they cannot. For example, subject A can prove that feeding their dog will make the dog stop whining at the pantry door. However, subject B may feed their dog and the dog will still whine at the pantry door, thus not proving what subject A has proved, therefore not being able to prove the fact to be true. This relates to the dispute over the existence of moral facts because truth is relative. The moral realist says that society demands that we acknowledge moral facts and that we are consistent. “…For without rules we cannot have harmonious societies…” (Coyne, 2009). My objection is in favour of moral relativity; moral facts are only true relative to certain cultures. The inconsistency of moral facts throughout societies implies that there are no universal moral facts. The explanation of some facts may differ from one person to another, or on a wider scale, from one culture to another. We have come to know moral facts from our families. But even within our families there lies discrepancy over moral facts. Consider an example. Suppose that a young girl growing up in a rural American town is taught that gay marriage is wrong because it goes against the normativity of heterosexuality. In contrast, a young boy growing up in a liberal American city believes that gay marriage is acceptable because he believes in marrying whomever you wish. Both children hold these moral facts to be true. Our economic, societal, and religious backgrounds have given us an abundance of diversity. This proves that there is no consistency between moral facts. There is no solid foundation upon which all moral facts reside.

The view that I hold, similar to other skeptics, embraces that we are the creators of moral facts. If there were no human existence, there would not exist moral facts. There would only be scientific facts. But, can science give us a foundation for morality? Sam Harris, American author and neuroscientist, states that human beings look out for other human beings because we believe that they are exposed to the chance for happiness and suffering (Harris, 42). Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks? Because we do not think that they can suffer or have moral facts to follow as guidelines. This brings me to a key point: moral facts cannot exist without humans. We believe that there are certain rules to follow, but if no one is here to follow those rules, will they be abided by?

I realize that there will be objections to my view. The moral realist will argue that most individuals have a set of guidelines that adhere to moral facts. If we all have them, why are they not then true? How would we explain how we interact with our culture? It appears that the moral realist believes that the existence of moral facts is necessary for that explanation (Talukder, 1). My argument has revolved around the key point that moral facts are not unified and are therefore not objective. Even though I do not believe that moral facts exist, I do imagine that believing in moral facts enhances our abilities for moral understanding in our daily lives. The concept of moral fact appears to be useful in regards to the decisions we are faced with every single day.

References
Belliotti, Raymond A. “What Is the Meaning of Human Life?” Google Books. Rodopi Bv Edititons, 2001. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. N.p.: Penguin, 2009. Print.
“Fact.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2005. n. pag. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print.
Kingsbery, James. “Is There a Cogent Argument for Whether There Are Objective Moral Facts?” Ethics. Philosophy S E, Jan. 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity: A Revised and Enlarged Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books The Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality. New York: Macmillan, 1952. Print.
Mcbrayer, Justin P. “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.”Opinionator Why Our Children Dont Think There Are Moral Facts Comments. The New York Times, 02 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.
McDowell, John H. “Aesthetic Value, Objectivity, and the Fabric of the World”, in Eva Schaper, ed., Pleasure, Preference and Value (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983), pp. 1–16.
McDowell, John. “Non-cognitivism and Rule-following”, S. Holtzman & Christopher M. Leich (eds.), Wittgenstein: To Follow a Rule. Routledge. N.p., 1981. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.
Mackie, John Leslie. The Subjectivity of Values. London: Penguin, 1990. Print.
“Opinion.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2005. n. pag. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.
Sheehy, Paul. “Moral Facts.” Richmond Journal of Philosophy 32.121 (2006): 1-12. Richmond Upon Thames College, 2006. Web. 07 Nov. 2015.
Smollett, Sara. “On the Existence of Moral Facts.” Yellow Pigs. N.p., Dec. 2002. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.
Talukder, Munir Hossain. “Moral Fact and its Explanatory Role: A Critique.” Academia. National University of Singapore, Jan. 2011. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

Featured image: Flickr Creative Commons “Galaxy” by Windslash

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One thought on “The Moral Factless Fabric of the Universe

  1. Reblogged this on Resurrecting Reason and commented:
    I love this topic – it’s probably my favorite area for conversational discourse. Objective moral truth holds if we presume the existence of a divine artificer. Modulo a divine artificer though, and the landscape opens up into a world where everything is prescriptive, including the very definition of ‘objective’.

    Like

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