What is a moral claim?

ScalesI thought I had something like an epiphany several weeks ago and had finally identified a theory of ethics that I could say was, from my perspective, “most probably true”. I started writing and had drafted outlines for a 9-part series. I wrote, and read, and thought … and then I stopped. I hit a wall. The theory, like every other moral theory ever, was incomplete. There were unexplained assumptions and unanswered questions.

The pseudo-epiphany began with a realization that I had misunderstood the core definition of moral realism, which is

Moral Realism:  Moral claims can be true or false and some are true.
(extracted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article)

Despite my interest and reading on the nature of ethics these last couple years, my prior conception of moral realism did not align with the definition above. Through numerous sources and interactions I had been led to define moral realism as requiring ontological independence – that morality, in a sense, exists on its own in some way (though I should note that the SEP article does add the disclaimer that “some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way”). I guess that’s what happens when most of your education on ethics comes from sources in the God debate. Regardless, the definition given above is much less restrictive in its application than I had previously conceived and as I pondered this I found that it opened the door to new explanations for our intuitions regarding the truthfulness of moral claims, though I eventually began to doubt that I was really heading toward any kind of solution. Even so, I’m not yet willing to admit defeat, so I’m calling in reinforcements (yeah, that’s you). I have several “open questions” and I would like to solicit your input to help me clarify some things. My first request is for answers to the question “What is a moral claim?”, but before you answer, let me give you something to think about.

First, note that the definition of moral realism assumes that we know what a “moral claim” is and, the more I think about it, the more I question whether we can define “moral claim” without presupposing moral realism. To help illustrate this, I’d like to run through a couple examples. Consider the following two sentences:

  1. It is wrong to skin a cat.
  2. It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it.

We generally agree that #1 is a moral claim and that #2 is not. Now consider the following:

  1. It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Wednesday.

Now the turning of a screw has become a moral claim. What changed? What is it that makes #1 and #3 moral claims, but not #2? As best I can tell the difference is in the referent of ‘wrong’. Claim #2 is referring to a goal – the outcome of tightening the screw, so ‘wrong’ in this context means that the goal will not be met. What is the referent in #1 and #3? Well, the referent seems to be morality itself – some standard of good and bad that isn’t really definable in any other terms without presupposing the existence of morality itself. That does not, however, mean that morality is thus necessarily independent of everything else. It simply means that our faculties are not equipped to define it by reference to something else. As far as I can tell, this leaves us with some form of moral realism – and it’s worth noting that under the definition given above, relativism is a form of realism. It is just a limitation on the scope of the moral truth.

As far as I can tell, this throws various forms of anti-realism out the window. There may be gray areas where it’s hard to tell whether something is or is not a moral claim, but at the extremes even an anti-realist can identify a moral claim from other types of claims. There must be something that they’re drawing upon to do that. That “something” may reduce to emotions, or some neurochemical state, but that’s still something. It’s real.

What do you think? Am I right about this? Does our ability to distinguish moral claims from other claims require moral realism?

PS: If you’re interested, this theory that I’ve put on ice is somewhere in the vicinity of contractualism with a contract that is based on negotiation between the core value judgements of all parties, rather than rational agreement, where by “core value judgements” I mean something like what we see in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations.

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