Jeffrey Ostrove, University
of Washington, Seattle
There is No Relation
Between Judgment and Moral Facts
ethical judgment is non-rational
suggests what Hume’s is-ought problem confirms, that a priori logic
itself cannot prove the existence of any moral code. Nonetheless, both
those cognizant of the is-ought dilemma and those unaware of “proof
paradigm” moral theory (i.e. categorical imperative, religion) issue
ethical judgments such as “in this case, I judge this action to be
are two possible origins of such a judgment: either the judgment is
created by reference to an earlier judgment e.g. “I judge slavery to be
wrong because it is the opposite of freedom and I judge freedom to be
good,” or the judgment is not created by reason of other
judgments. I will call such a
judgment axiomatic. This observation does
not pretend to show that judgments are unrelated to moral facts, only
that the judger is not deductively reasoning when he arrives at
foundation of all moral judgment is axiomatic. The tree of judgments
must begin with initial ethical judgments created without reference to
any other ethical facts. We might imagine these judgments to be simple,
something like “suffering is wrong” or “harming others is
wrong” etc, but we must remember that in each case the judger
cannot, after an infinite regress of questioning, point to any reason
for his claim except “x feels wrong and therefore I
believe that x is wrong.” Perhaps the judger says merely that “I
believe x is wrong” but if the judger were pressed for an explanation
his justification would retreat to feeling, or some other word for the
inexplicable or self-evident. Felt moral sense is the foundation of all
moral judgment. The relation between moral facts and judgment therefore
relies either upon causality or coincidence between moral facts and
moral feeling, not reason.
causality are improbably absurd
as to avoid the spectre of the straw-man I wish to declare openly that
no moral realist to my knowledge argues that moral feeling is caused by
moral facts. In his defense of realism Ronald Dworkin parodies the
claim of causality as the “moral field thesis”, according to which
judgments of wrong are caused by moral facts.
According to the thesis,
wrongness is surrounded by moral particles or 'morons' which, though
otherwise completely undetectable, interact with the human nervous
system in such a way as to produce sensations of wrongness.
claim no originality in observing the moral
field thesis to be absurd. However, it is worth noting that absent some
causal relationship between moral facts and the mind, moral facts
cannot be the cause of axiomatic moral feeling.
of non-causality are
moral facts are not causing judgments, then realist confidence in the
congruence of human judgment and moral facts becomes an indefensible
tautology. I will use Talbott’s moral discovery paradigm as an exemplar
of this reasoning.
argues that the philosopher can use the record of human judgment to
illuminate the nature of moral facts. He analogizes judgments in
morality to observations in science which, though fallible, qualify as
positive evidence of objective fact and underlying objective
principles. For example we might observe cruel cold-blooded murder and
judge it to be wrong, take that judgment as evidence of the actual
wrongness of cruel cold-blooded murder, and then extrapolate from the
judgment evidence of the underlying wrongness of all cold-blooded
murder. Talbott recommends we find the “equilibrium” between
the observation (I judged cruel cold-blooded murder to be wrong) and
the principle (cold-blooded murder is wrong) such that the sphere of
our moral beliefs is maximally coherent.
is possible that human judgments generally align with moral facts, but
there is no reason to believe it is so. The
‘alignment’ supposition has three major weaknesses: the
character of human judgments seems determined by non-inevitable forces,
there is a significant diversity even within human judgments-within
which the alignment hypothesis has no power to evaluate relative
truth-, and ‘alignment’ is infinitely improbable.
network of forces which underly axiomatic judgment is complex and not
inevitable. Unless human will is outside the domain of causality,
judgments are the product of evolution and social circumstance. If we
accept evolutionary psychology at all, we must concede some
relationship between our moral feelings and Darwinian circumstances.
Likewise if we accept social determination at all, we must concede that
environmental idiosyncrasies have some effect on our moral attitudes.
If we discount both free will and moral-fact causality, the totality of
judgment lies within these two forces.
this way, claims of alignment become epistemologically ridiculous. Even
if we avoid the facile moral imperialist claim that “our culture got it
right” (thereby attempting to remove environmental causality
from our account of the good) we are still making basically the same
argument about Homo sapiens.
the sake of unusual argument let us imagine we
are visited by the Nerubians, a rather sadistic breed of
extra-terrestrials. Due to the high population instability which
characterized their species’ evolution, they often eat their
young (who are born with powers of sentience similar to an adult human)
for whom they feel zero empathy, but find very tasty. When their
sentient off-spring discovers our abhorrence for the practice, they
contact us, asking for help. Our outraged response results in the
following dialogue between the general secretary of the United Nations
and Anub’arack, Nerubian high-lord:
people of Earth find your practice of infanticide to be categorically
wrong. By which we mean that the practice of infanticide is
universally, objectively bad regardless of view-point. By definition,
once we convince you that infanticide is wrong you will feel impelled
to stop doing it.
I see, but of course we disagree. What is your evidence for the
wrongness of infanticide?
benefit you receive from killing your children is far less than the
harm done them.
Ha, I suppose that is true. But tell me, do you believe your meat-meals
provide you more good in tastiness than they do bad for the
No… but our livestock is not sentient. Your children are.
Intelligence makes value? That is a startling claim. Again I must ask
for your evidence.
intelligence does not ‘make value’ but there is an intrinsic
value in all sentient life. Killing any sentient being is wrong. It
feels extremely wrong.
But if I said “eat your children because we Nerubians feel it to be
right” surely you would not count that as evidence of our
objective rightness. How can you expect the same from us? The forces
which created our attitudes are different than the forces which created
yours. I see no more in it than that.
psychology indicates that Anub’arak is correct in saying moral
attitudes are at least partially determined by evolutionary
circumstance. There is no reason to believe that our evolutionarily
determined judgments are in any accordance with objective moral facts
about what sentient beings ought to do.
same reasoning implies that there is no reason to believe our own
individual axiomatic judgments to be more correct than those of anyone
else. It is important to emphasize that I do not mean humans are
incapable of any moral mistakes, only that axiomatic judgment is
subjective. Felt judgments vary, and the moral equilibrium model does
not provide any way to determine which among the variance is more or
for example, we wished to persuade the psychopath of the wrongness of
murder, we would find ourselves woefully short of epistemological
ammunition. Assuming, as seems to be the case, that psychopaths really
do not feel empathy, arguments for the objective wrongness of murder
become impossible. The astute sociopath can question the infinite
regress all the way down to the axiomatic judgment-feeling underlying
our belief that murder is objectively wrong. At this point, like
Anub’arak he can confidently rebut the argument that “my feeling that x
is wrong justifies my belief that murder is objectively
wrong” with the observation that x does not feel wrong to
we wish to continue the argument from here we are forced to invoke the
opinion of the majority. The sociopath would be correct to observe the
absurdity of the argument that “Alex believes the table is red. Mark
believes the table is blue. This evidence justifies the belief that the
table is red.” However, “Alex, Henry, and Peter
believe that the table is red, while only Mark believes the table is
blue. This evidence justifies the belief that the table is red” is more
plausible. We could make an argument that the overwhelming majority of
people believe murder to be wrong, and therefore the sociopath is
epistemically justified in believing murder to be wrong.
majoritarian is argument is problematic, even forgetting the fact that
it relies on the unlikely premise that mere existence of a non-rational
belief is itself positive evidence that the belief is correct. If we
are to take the majoritarian argument seriously, the landing of the
Nerubians would be compelling evidence that actual moral facts lie
around the mean of average human and Nerubian beliefs.
use a less exotic example let us imagine the case of a child born in an
isolated penal colony for psychopaths. This child objects strongly to
the depravity of his society; he is especially revolted by the practice
of torturing babies for fun, which enjoys a great popularity among the
axiomatic judgments of the colony. When the child is eventually called
upon to participate in the communal torture he exclaims “I will not, it
is wrong.” “Not at all”, respond his fellows, “the vast
majority of us agree that it is not wrong, and therefore you are
epistemologically justified (and perhaps obliged) to
agree.” If the average opinion is to be held as positive
evidence that the average opinion is correct, the child must concede
the argument. A casual stroll through the asylum shows that faith does
not prove anything.
equilibrium model cannot epistemologically justify any set of axiomatic
judgments above any other. But even if every sentient being in the
universe judged identically and it could, the alignment hypothesis
would still suppose a spectacular providence. Absent the moral field
thesis or something like it, there is simply no reason to suppose any
relation between judgment and moral fact.
Anti-realism is Therefore Strongly Justified
fact that judgments are unrelated to moral facts, taken together with
the impossibility of the proof paradigm, demonstrates that if moral
facts exist, we have way of knowing what they might
be. The total disconnect between judgment and moral
facts means also that judgments cannot be evidence for moral facts.
our own conviction, there is no positive evidence for moral facts. No
argument outside of the proof paradigm can be made for realism that
does not in some way reference human belief. It is possible for
realists to claim proof an unnecessary threshold for the justified
belief in moral facts, just as it is possible for one to claim that
reality is as it appears to be, even though we cannot be absolutely
certain this is so. It is not, however, justified for realists to claim
the existence of moral facts without evidence, just as one is not
justified in saying “reality is not as it appears to
be” without some cause.
opinion is the last surviving evidence for moral facts; even moralists
must agree that all previous attempts to ground moral facts in a priori
logic have been unsuccessful. The futility of the proof paradigm forces
supporters of moral facts to draw evidence from the world. Our own
conviction is the only possible qualified evidence, but it is evidence
of nothing but itself.
lack of evidence for moral
facts justifies the belief that moral facts do not exist
was correct in observing that if moral facts do exist, they are
profoundly unlike anything else in the universe. Out of an otherwise
meaningless universe morality imagines a purpose, an ought. The
concepts of right, wrong, good, and evil demand a fantastic ordered
universe out of a prosaic chaos. Like theology, the extravagance of
moral claims bear the burden of proof. All of nature suggests the law
of parsimony, and so coherence makes the universe itself powerful
evidence that the simplest explanation for all the observed phenomena
is best. Perhaps nothing but God more complicates the universe than
moral facts. The lack of evidence for the claim therefore strongly
justifies belief in anti-realism.
the above reasoning is perhaps unfairly compact, I will use an example
to illustrate the general process. Reality may be an illusion, but I
have no positive reason to suppose that it is. Illusion and reality
explain my evidence equally well, but illusion is a far more
complicated explanation. Therefore, unless some positive evidence
suggests otherwise, I am justified in believing that reality is not an
illusion and may say so with as much confidence as I can say anything
except the most basic existentialism (I am experiencing
being). If moral conviction is not evidence for
moral facts, then there is no evidence for moral facts, making the case
against moral facts superlatively strong.
Ostrove is a junior majoring in political science. His
include ethics, political theory, and international relations.
Ronald Dworkin, “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better
Believe it,” Philosophy
and Public Affairs 25, no. 2 (1996): 104.