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June 14, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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What is morality? Is it objective or subjective? Does it vary between cultures or is it universal? Does it even exist? According to a 2009 PhilPapers Survey, 56% of the world’s professional philosophers favour “moral realism” — the position that objective moral facts exist and govern our everyday lives. Some readers may find this number surprisingly low — surely certain actions, like unnecessarily causing pain to other people, are just objectively wrong! Other readers may find the number surprisingly high — obviously, morality is just subjective, or an arbitrary human construction! The fact that both of these reactions are plausible shows that the issue is more complex than people suspect.

Why might people find it surprising that so many philosophers endorse moral realism? One potential explanation is the common conviction that all “facts” must be ultimately discoverable and verifiable through empirical, scientific methods. Since we cannot scientifically “discover” or “prove the existence” of morality, perhaps we should conclude that moral facts do not exist. Yet, there are many other facts which we take for granted, despite an inability to empirically prove them: for example, mathematical or logical facts. We discover and verify these through our mathematical or logical intuitions. It therefore seems feasible to argue that we can discover moral facts through our faculties of moral intuition. So this “commonsense” objection to moral realism is not very strong.

But this is not to suggest that denying moral realism is not an academically defensible position. In particular, moral scepticism — the belief that no moral facts exist (not even subjective or culturally relative ones) — has some support among philosophers (in fact, VUW is home to one of the world’s most prominent contemporary moral sceptics, Richard Joyce). Moral sceptics raise many challenges to the realist conception of morality. If moral facts exist, why are there such deep disagreements over morality, both between individuals and across cultures? If biologists can provide an evolutionary explanation of our moral judgements, should we really believe that they are expressions of fact, rather than a useful adaptation? Given that moral facts would be unlike any other object we have knowledge of, should we really believe that they exist? These questions raise deep and difficult problems for the moral realist, which serves to explain the other source of surprise — why only slightly more than half of philosophers are willing to support moral realism.

Yet the majority of philosophers believe that these problems can be overcome. And even among anti-realist philosophers, many are relativists or “constructivists”,* holding that morality is in some sense constructed by human interactions or human judgements. Yet these philosophers do not believe that the fact that morality varies from context to context, or is socially constructed, robs it of its authority** or applicability to our everyday lives. They believe simply that we should view morality as something other than a set of universal, objective facts. So most philosophers are not what we might call “moral nihilists”.

Overall, questions about the nature of morality are immensely vast and complicated, but also fascinating. I hope that this has served as a brief introduction to the field of metaethics, which is concerned with these questions.


* There are various terminological difficulties here; many people consider relativism or constructivism to be forms of moral realism, for example. I’m ignoring those problems here.

** Admittedly some relativists, like Gilbert Harman, are relativists precisely because they doubt the categorical authority of morality, but again I am ignoring these complexities here.

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