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Moral judgement and the marks of truth


To: Kristine K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral judgement and the marks of truth
Date: 13 February 2003 16:05

Dear Kristine,

Thank you for your letter of 2 February, with your fourth essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, "Using several examples, compare and contrast the way moral and non-moral judgements exhibit the 'characteristic marks of truth'. What is the significance of that result for the claim that 'moral judgements are objective, not subjective'?"

This is a determined attempt to grapple with the question. You correctly note that in the realm of actual judgements, there is a difference between perceptual judgements like 'this apple is green' and judgements the determination of whose truth does not depend on assumptions about normal perceivers/conditions. In the terminology of measuring instruments, we do not use any instruments to determine the colour of an apple: for we ourselves are the instrument. If someone protested, 'You can't say that the apple is really green until you have confirmed your judgement with scientific tests' the proper response would be to say that they did not understand the meaning of 'green'. (Imagine someone producing an instrument that conclusively 'proved' that apples we call 'green' are in fact purple. Under what circumstances would such a claim make coherent sense?)

A proposition can be truth-apt without being true. This is an important distinction which needs to be made in your example of 'humans descended from apes'. We have a clear enough idea of what it would mean for it to be true that human beings descended from apes. The trouble is that investigators do not have sufficient evidence to convince those who refuse to accept their view. Worse than this, opponents of the theory appear to be in a position where no amount of evidence gathered from the fossil record would convince them. So what does it mean to talk here of 'investigators converging towards a single result'? There is a single 'result', the truth about the matter in question, both sides are agreed on that. They just disagree on what this is.

Given human limitations, we cannot *define* truth as that single result to which investigators will inevitably converge. For there is nothing inevitable in the resolution of the evolution dispute. However, we can say that there cannot exist two different and opposite 'truths', one for the evolution theorists and one for their opponents. This is one of the marks of truth. We can also go further and say that together with the idea of a unique truth, goes the idea that *in ideal circumstances* investigators would converge. For example, both sides can agree that *if* we had a time machine we could resolve the question once and for all.

One question to ask about moral judgements, therefore, is whether in order to make sense of moral judgements we need to assume the existence of a single truth. Another question to ask is what are the prospects of moral investigators who start off from a position of initial sharp divergence reaching agreement about what that truth is.

Let us consider your example of murder. I agree with you that 'bad' is far too general a term. However, from the context, the statement is understood as meaning that murder is morally bad, rather than 'not nearly as much fun as torture' or 'leaves an unpleasant mess for street cleaners to clear up' etc. Let's make it more specific. 'The person who committed the street murder deserves to be severely punished'. For all we know, there may be people out there who believe that the person who committed the murder deserves to be rewarded, but we feel fully confident in asserting that such a belief is *false*. Similarly with members of the mythical tribe who view murder as sport and the best test of ones manly prowess.

As before, there are two questions here. The first is whether the statement I just made about murder is truth-apt. Do we in fact have a clear idea of what would make it true. The second question is whether we can conceive of circumstances in which agreement would be secured about its truth.

It seems clear enough that there are problems with the idea of truth-aptness, even with as seemingly clear-cut example as murder, not to mention other far more debatable moral questions such as abortion, euthanasia, animal rights etc.

You say at one point, 'even if a moral judgement is found to be true that still does not necessarily imply that it is objective, although it should be true to be objective.' In other words, truth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for objectivity. I would agree that we can talk of 'truth' in the bare sense of agreement, in cases where one would hesitate to talk of objectivity. The moral subjectivist (as Simon Blackburn has argued) can happily allow talk of the 'truth' of this or that moral claim. However, I still believe that there is some scope for the idea of objectivity without 'truth' in the sense of a notion satisfying all the marks of truth. That is why I am not daunted by the examples of seemingly irresolvable moral disputes.

All the best,