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Are there moral facts? (revisited)


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are there moral facts? (revisited)
Date: 5th October 2011 13:55

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 28 September, with the revised version of your essay for the University of London BA Ethics Contemporary Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Are there moral facts?'

This is an acceptable answer to the question. You cover a number of points which an examiner would be looking for. But it isn't the best answer that could be given, and I think you feel this too.

I take it as axiomatic that there is a 'model' answer to any question that you are likely to see in an examination. So it is safe to assume that if you are tempted to react, 'I can't see how...' then you are missing something. There is a range of possible answers, all of them excellent, it's just a matter of finding one.

The point about the question, 'Are there moral facts?' is that this can be seen as a way in to moral theory. Whereas your approach is, 'If you hold theory T then you will answer yes to the question, and if you hold theory T' then you will answer no.' That's true, but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter.

It's good to start by asking, 'What is a fact?' Facts are truth-makers for true propositions. A point you could have made here, however, is that the predicate 'true' can be applied to any sequence of words which grammatically passes the test for a sentence. What that means is that we can't rely simply on the fact that people are prepared to use the word 'true' in determining whether they believe in the existence of moral facts or not.

That naturally leads to the question, What are the characteristic marks of truth in the substantial sense, truth without scare quotes, rather than mere 'truth'? This is something that David Wiggins has looked at. Truth in the substantial sense implies things like convergency, permanence, underlying explanation, truth 'makers'.

So let's assume we are talking about substantial truth. One line of thought which is fairly persuasive (at least, at one time it persuaded me) is that there are many concepts in our language, not just moral concepts, which justify action of some kind because that's just what the concept is. To accept the use of the concept is to accept the inference from the criteria for its application to the consequences of applying it. A crude example given by Michael Dummett in his first 'Frege' book is the term 'Boche' used of Germans during the First World War.

This has given rise to a big debate over 'thick' and 'thin' moral concepts. (See, e.g., Simon Blackburn.) The fact that the criteria for a thick concept are satisfied 'leads to' appropriate action, so (seemingly) bridging the is-ought divide. The only problem is, you can always reject the concept!

Note, that we haven't yet talked about any particular moral theory. We are in the area of metaphysics or semantics. What the question is asking you to do, in my view, is describe the ground rules for debate over moral theories, prior to consideration of this or that particular theory. That's what G.E. Moore does with his naturalistic fallacy. Moore has a theory (a pretty unpersuasive one) but that's merely his response to the challenge which he himself has posed. What other responses can there be? What are the relevant considerations on the adequacy of any possible response to the naturalistic fallacy argument, or to Hume's 'is-ought' argument? (Again, Hume has his own response, but it is not entailed by the 'is-ought' challenge.)

What kind of thing would a 'moral fact' have to be? You discuss Mackie's argument from queerness, but a criticism to make here (which I've mentioned before) is that Mackie simply assumes that the hunt is on for some special kind of 'object', whereas if we consider George Kreisel's dictum about mathematics ('the point is not the existence of mathematical objects but the objectivity of mathematical truth') and apply it to ethics, then we should also be looking for constraints on what is 'rational' or 'irrational', as Kant effectively does with his categorical imperative.

For Kant, doing the right thing for the right reason is a matter of seeing its 'rationality', in a not totally dissimilar way to the way one accepts the validity of a logical inference. Of course, this claim is contentious, but it opens the way for moral facts which are not objects in any sense but rather rules like the rules of logic. This is something I discussed in the Moral Philosophy program.

Moral facts could be natural facts. They could be transcendental facts (i.e. conclusions of a Kantian transcendental argument). They could be supernatural facts. Each of these alternatives leads to questions and problems. Once again, we haven't even looked at any particular moral theory, we are merely describing the ground rules for debate.

As you can see, I am not trying to give you a 'model answer' but rather throwing out ideas of possible ways of proceeding which would get deeper into the heart of the question than simply considering the consequences of this or that theory. I hope this helps.

All the best,