#8 Post of 2013 – Do Moral Disagreements Mean There Are No Moral Facts?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Moral realists believe that there are real, objective, moral facts. For example, a moral realist would say that it is a moral fact that raping for fun is wrong. Moral anti-realists disagree and would say that there are no moral facts. Statements such as “raping for fun is wrong” are not true or false in the sense that other facts are true or false (e.g., the statement, “the earth revolves the sun”). Moral statements merely express individual or cultural preferences which are completely subjective.

To prove their point, moral anti-realists often argue that the way we know that there no objective moral facts is that individuals and cultures differ in their moral values. One culture is supportive of female genital mutilation and another one isn’t. These disagreements, they argue, prove that moral values are not facts that are true or false, in the same way that scientific facts about physics, chemistry, and biology are true or false.

This argument seems obviously flawed to me, and “New Atheist” Sam Harris agrees. Harris dislikes moral anti-realism almost as much as religion. Here is Harris in his book The Moral Landscape:

I am simply saying that, given that there are facts— real facts— to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice.

What about the fact that there is no consensus on some moral issues?

Another thing that makes the idea of moral truth difficult to discuss is that people often employ a double standard when thinking about consensus: most people take scientific consensus to mean that scientific truths exist, and they consider scientific controversy to be merely a sign that further work remains to be done; and yet many of these same people believe that moral controversy proves that there can be no such thing as moral truth, while moral consensus shows only that human beings often harbor the same biases. Clearly, this double standard rigs the game against a universal conception of morality.

The deeper issue, however, is that truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.  There are surely physical, chemical, and biological facts about which we are ignorant or mistaken.

Although I disagree with Harris on virtually every other subject, he is right to chastise moral anti-realists. The fact that moral disagreements occur no more disproves the existence of moral facts than disagreements in biology disproves the existence of biological facts. It simply does not follow that a lack of consensus on a subject means that there are no facts about that subject.

  • John Moore

    Yes, you could say that human flourishing is the common good that we all share, so that’s a kind of objective moral fact. On the other hand, it may be that there is no single best way to achieve human flourishing, because a diversity of strategies is better than any single way. Thus, there could be an objective moral fact even though no objective moral rules exist.

  • Mark D Sadler

    This is why moral realists and antirealists should read both Hume and G.E. Moore on the fact/value problem of morality.

  • sean

    Just like to say that I’m in agreement with you here. I don’t think I quite have your level of conviction in this matter, but it does seem like an area where people on both sides of the gods conversation tend to agree, which is good. It’s always nice I think to see some common ground even when people disagree on a lot of subjects.

  • Andrew Ryan

    It’s a shame apologists try to take even that common ground and make it another division – “Atheists cannot ground their opposition to child rape; atheist Jews can’t justify why the holocaust was wrong” – rather than just saying “Here’s something we agree on, let’s build on that.”