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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51 thoughts on “What is a moral claim?

  1. You’re right. It’s not an easy subject to dissect. The more I delve into it the more I get confused.

    I would however say that morality may be subjective in the same way color is. We can all agree on the different colors, but only because we humans are made the same, and can relate to our subjective views, not because color actually exists.

    May be morality can be equated with Qualia and changes with time and our nature, just the same as the taste of smelly cheese, which I’m assuming was not accepted as tasty all the time, but I could be wrong.

    • I agree that morality might be subjective and have been leaning that way for some time. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I also wouldn’t say that color doesn’t exist. There is a phenomenon in which electromagnetic radiation at different wavelengths stimulates our retina and we call this color. Of course, situations like the recently viral dress picture show that it isn’t so much the radiation as it is the neural translation that defines color. Either way, it is a real thing. If morality is analogous then what is the moral equivalent of radiation? That’s the million dollar question.

      • Hi Travis just stopping by and read this comment.
        I think the color of light might be a good analogy. But it would show that morality is not completely subjective. Sometimes our mind plays tricks on us and we think we see a green dot when there is no objective light causing it. Our mind simply does not correspond to objective reality like we think it does. Like in this optical illusion:

        On the other hand sometimes there actually is light of a particular wavelength causing us our belief.

      • Thanks for that Joe. I can’t get enough of illusions and that’s a good one. Things have been crazy busy lately so I’m going to leave it at that, but I do plan to revisit this some more once I have more time.

      • btw in order to see the green dot stare directly at the cross in the middle. But then try to follow the green dot with you eyes and you will see its not really there.

  2. Like Philomath, I also think the concept of morals is a subjective viewpoint that differs from person to person. Another subjective concept you could compare it to is beauty. I think replacing the word moral with beauty in your question could be an interesting thought experiment.

    Consider this statement: She would be more attractive with a thinner waist.

    Most of us would agree that this is a claim about beauty even if we might disagree on whether it was true or not. What is it about the statement that makes this a beauty claim? Do I have to presuppose the existence of beauty? I don’t think so. I think we are just dealing with the common understanding of the word and the shared concept of it. I don’t know if that helps or not, but there it is.

    • Do I have to presuppose the existence of beauty? I don’t think so. I think we are just dealing with the common understanding of the word and the shared concept of it.

      If beauty doesn’t exist, but we do have a shared concept that we call beauty, then does that shared concept also not exist? I’m not suggested that beauty or morality must exist independently, they might exist as names or concepts which simply express a neural state. But that neural state is real, isn’t it? Not only is it real, but it’s real enough and distinct enough from all of our other neural states that we’re able to communicate it to each other and understand it (or so it seems).

      • When you put it that way, then yes, beauty does exist as a shared concept within our heads. So does morality. I guess the question is whether it is special or whether anything could become a shared concept.

      • This is the question of the referent. For beauty, we can generally link the shared concept to “the way we feel about certain sensory perceptions”, like sunsets, music, etc…. There is a class of experiences which trigger a similar response in us and so we call those things beautiful. But for some reason we don’t feel like other people need to share our determination of beauty.

        If morality is a shared concept in the same way that beauty is a shared concept, then why is morality different from beauty in the sense that we are driven to accountability for a correct determination of morality? What is the referent for that part of the shared concept and does it’s existence imply any actual obligation to moral claims?

  3. I love the topic of morality and ethics; although it is one of the most frustrating concepts. I also have attempted at writing about it, and have put my writings on the temporary backburner. But I am pretty much leaning in a certain direction.

    The first distinction, which often gets lost (especially with apologists) is the difference between descriptive and prescriptive morality. I will proceed to describe morality from my perspective. Keep in mind that these are just my opinions and developing thoughts.

    Descriptive concept of morality:

    1) Morality is a concept related to, and inseparable from the mind, and how it forms ideas and concepts related to human interaction. Primatologist Frans de Waal has done a lot of research in chimps and primates which seems to suggest an evolutionary foundation for the development of morality. It is related to how humans live socially and interdependently, and has a lot to do with trust.

    2) Morality does not ‘exist’ in some physical, and observable sense. It does exist as a shared human concept, but this form of existence is not observable. This means that our views of morality are subjective; being created by human minds.

    3) Morality has meaning, despite it’s subjectivity (and despite what lousy apologists try to say). I always relate it to taste in food. We generally understand the concept of good food, despite the fact that there is no universal standard for judging the deliciousness of food. Healthy humans in healthy environments are similar enough to share concepts such as morality without them losing all meaning.

    4) Morality is relative. This is a hard pill for people to swallow, but in a descriptive sense I don’t see how one can avoid it. An action itself cannot be moral or immoral. It is our understanding of that action in the concept of it’s foreseeable consequences that has led to certain acts being generally labeled ‘immoral’. If I move my arm in a fast downward motion with a knife in my hand while I am alone, that is not immoral. But if a human being happened to be in the path of that knife, and I had knowledge of this, it would be considered immoral. It is not the physical motion that is wrong, but our understanding of physical acts in relation to other humans and sometimes animals. Another common example is a lie to protect Jews during the holocaust.

    Prescriptive thoughts on morality:

    5) Morality/ethics should be seen as a practice, and a skill. Just as someone can become a chef, and learn to make great food, without having a formal algorithm for deliciousness, so a moralist can be focused on pursuing what he perceives as moral. I suggest that the problem is not that we don’t know what is moral, but that we don’t pursue it utilizing our intuitions. I think healthy people have good moral intuitions, and anyone interested in studying virtues, or ethics/morals can learn a hack of a lot from studying the topic.

    6) The most grievous moral injustices seem to stem from misprioritization. Either a) we view ourselves as more valuable than other humans, b) we view our family, tribe, country, social group etc. as more valuable than other humans, c) we view our ideology/goal as more valuable than humans, d) we view some supernatural/metaphysical entity (e.g. God) as more valuable than humans, e) we view our race as more valuable than other races, or f) we view our traditions/values as more valuable than other humans. It seems that removing these types of misprioritizations that lead to terrorism, imperialism/tribalism, nihilism, classism, racism, etc. would remove most of the moral obstacles in our way. Just imagine if you removed all of those elements from the Bible and other religious texts, you would have a sublime moral code.

    7) I think it’s possible to design moral frameworks that would help people act morally without placing too much mental burden on them. People gravitate towards moral rules-of-thumb, which should be seen a heuristics, not hard-and-fast rules applicable in all circumstances. I think religion has had a monopoly on the moral framework market for too long. This makes it seem as if the choice is between religion and amoralism.

    That’s all I could think of at the moment. My thoughts are still developing on it.

    • Hey Zach,
      Thanks for chiming in. I’m going to try an limit my response to the scope of the original post and see if I can tease out some of the finer details in your thinking.

      You seem to be saying that the referent for morality is our internal sense of right and wrong and that this sense is generally a common experience in humans, making “morality” a shared concept. You then note that this sense originates in our understanding of consequences. Are consequences the reason you are able to identify “Thou shalt not work on Sunday” as a moral claim?

      I’m also curious as to whether you have any thoughts on why you (and I, and most everybody else) are inclined to suggest that “healthy people have good moral intuitions” and that we have an idea of when other people’s priorities are wrong? If we are only referring to our own sense of good and wrong, why do we also feel that it applies to others?

      • I think religious traditions and social memes often have been intertwined with morality, but on closer examination, not working on Sunday for example is not recognized as a moral issue unless it is commanded in the religion one ascribes to. It’s probably best to view religion as an amalgamation of different aspects of social living, including, but not limited to, morality. The consequences of not working on Sunday could have benefits (I still observe it because I think it does), but it would be committing the naturalistic fallacy to assume that all things labeled as morality by religion actually have beneficial consequences. I would say that this is a mislabeling if not working on Sundays is put in the morality category. It is considered moral by some because obeying God or their religion is seen as moral (misprioritization again.)

        I think we feel inclined to point to certain things as wrong as a function of human social interaction. I tend to think (I’m sure sociology has probably covered this; but I’m not very knowledgeable in the area) that humans have developed social consciousness you could say, which allow us to notice when things go against our instincts. We know that if people were lying all the time, trust in society is diminished. Therefore lying still has a negative connotation and we aren’t afraid to hold other people accountable. De Waal has shown that primates have been known to punish other primates for acting in certain ways withint their group.

        Hope that helps.

      • My point, however, is that you seem to recognize that it is a moral claim but disagree that it is true. In other words, you think that it is a false moral claim. Alternatively you could say that it isn’t a moral claim at all, but it’s referring to something comprehensible; it isn’t jibberish. If it isn’t a moral claim then what is it?

      • I think the dichotomy of true/false moral claim assumes absolute morality. I would not say that there is true/false morality in an absolute sense. However, there are external justifications which have been proposed by which we can judge actions as being moral or immoral. They are subjective, but at least provide grounds on which the morality of actions can be debated. I think we are all consequentialists deep down. We believe actions are right or wrong based on the perceived effects of them. I tend to like definitions provided by Bentham and Mill, however they still suffer from limitations.

        I think recognizing a claim or question as belonging to a category is not the same as assuming an actual category for actions exists universally and objectively. Human minds are good at categorizing types of actions and mental concepts. Morality is one of those categories that have been constructed by both our minds and society. I don’t think we can actually say with certainty that anything is or is not a moral claim. I think morality is actually deeply linked with decision theory. Morality is really focused on how we integrate other people into our decisions; albeit with a lot of useless social and cultural artifacts mixed in.

      • Zach,
        I appreciate your engagement on the topic. A key insight that I tried to share in this post was that moral realism does not assume absolute/objective/universal morality. A realist could assert that the truth value of a moral claim is instead dependent on scope and context. That consideration was the primary catalyst for all the ruminating that led up to this post. Do you think I’ve misjudged the potential for harmony between realism and relativism?

        I think recognizing a claim or question as belonging to a category is not the same as assuming an actual category for actions exists universally and objectively. Human minds are good at categorizing types of actions and mental concepts. Morality is one of those categories that have been constructed by both our minds and society.

        I think there’s good reason to think that our moral faculty, at its base, is largely innate. That said, even if it is a social construct, that does not discount its existence. At this point I’m only concerned to know whether it is real, because if it is real then there’s potential that it can be understood.

        I don’t think we can actually say with certainty that anything is or is not a moral claim.

        Can you give an example of an ambiguous claim? Not one in which it is ambiguous as to whether the claim is true or false, but one in which it is ambiguous as to whether it is a moral claim or not.

        Lastly, I’m curious to know what it is that leads you to say “I think we are all consequentialists deep down”?

      • I think we may have been on slightly different wavelengths, regarding what specific aspect it is that we are discussing (typical linguistic challenges of informal conversation). But I think I am starting to get the gist of what you are addressing. Have patience if I err again in identifying the exact question at hand; this is a good convo.

        Regarding descriptive moral realism. I would say that it is incompatible with moral relativism; they are in fact, polar opposites. Not everyone has the exact same sense of morality. Of course, we could speculate that there is an innate sense of morality which is a subcategory, or entirely separate from our presumably more malleable conscious beliefs regarding it. I think it’s a little tendentious however to go that far without any hard evidence; and even if we did have evidence, we would probably find more relativity. Maybe neuroscientists will someday be able to identify a part of the brain that corresponds more accurately to our seemingly innate moral sensitivities (possibly getting closer to the inherited evolutionary features) and form a theory based on that; or maybe they already have and I am unaware of it. It’s an interesting thought, but I am doubtful it would solve the problem of subjectivity.

        As far as prescriptive moral realism, the normative moral theories I’ve studied all have weaknesses in assessing the truth value of moral claims. They require very complicated algorithms that still seem to fall short of truly defining what morality means to people in every possible scenario. I tend to think assigning a moral truth value to actions is impossible without intimate knowledge of all the relevant factors in the scenario; and even then we have the problem of conflict with moral intuitions.

        We also usually assume that motives play a role (can anyone truly do a moral act with bad motives?). Motives will always be unobservable. If we remove motives, we could say that if someone has knowledge of all the relevant factors, then one could make a moral truth judgment, only if there were an objective criterion for moral decision-making that holds true in all scenarios that it could be judged by. As of yet I am unaware of any criterion robust enough to handle the complexities of everyday decisionmaking, of which I see morality as a subcategory.

        There are some possible similarities between AI and human decisionmaking as I’m sure you are aware. Intuition is an interesting part of this comparison. I was reading about Herbert Simon’s views on this yesterday, which were interesting. Here is the link: http://naulibrary.org/dglibrary/admin/book_directory/Psycology/8173.pdf

        Intuition (or System 1 thinking) and the use of heuristics seem to be the missing elements here. We can theorize all we want about ethics, but ultimately I don’t know a single person who makes calculations about moral choices (practicing utilitarians may be the rare exceptions.) Very few people could handle the mental load of such decisions. Simon referred to ‘satisficing,’ that is in decision-making, we don’t choose the best possible option since the cognitive load would be too great for us to weigh all possible options; instead we choose an option that satisfies a particular desire (or exceeds a certain threshold.) So to identify the best possible option in the majority of decisionmaking scenarios would require more cognitive resources than we have available to us. This makes a ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ choices based on consequences ultimately impossible. I don’t think a binary approach is possible in ethics.

        If we were to define morality based on physical actions, and not consequences, we would not be able to carry that very far either. Back to the example of the knife, it is the consequences that trigger our intuitive reaction to an action that activates our categorical processes. If we believe an action will seriously harm another individual it will trigger what we consider to be our moral sensitivities. But sometimes there is no avoidance of conflict between intuitions. War for example, is killing humans to prevented perceived consequences which we consider to be worse than the killing of other humans and risking the lives of our soldiers. War still makes us sick to our stomachs regardless of how justified or necessary we feel it is.

        I think morality suffers from the same issues decisionmaking does. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision, but we all feel like it is possible to become better decisionmakers. And I think morality is the same way. Certain dilemmas will never have easy answers; and we should recognize the complexities of moral decisionmaking. Yet, we should also seek to develop better heuristics, better ways of viewing morality, and better ways of cultivating character traits that promote peaceful, virtuous living. I am not sure we can go too far theoretically beyond creating helpful (but limited) heuristics and general philosophies.

        I almost forgot to answer the two questions you posed. Let me try to. As far as us all being consequentialists, what I mean is that when we consider the morality of decisions, we are always considering how they will affect people. That seems to be the ideal basis for morality; decisions that benefit all people and hurt no one (of course that’s not possible.)

        As far as amibiguity between moral and amoral claims, I think there is no clearly definable distinction between general decisionmaking and moral decisionmaking. Our decisions are usually made according to the consequences, as I said (how far we foresee the consequences is hard to know; but if we slash the air with a knife, we are not stabbing a human and thus the consequences allow us to stab away without harming our consciences.) The consequences may affect multiple people; including ourselves. Technically, many decisions which we don’t consider to be moral affect other people greatly, and can cause significant pain for them; and the more sensitive a person is to moral intuitions, the more they will consider everyday actions to have moral consequences. And even not acting, or wasting time could be viewed as immoral when we could be doing charity work.

        A good example is this scenario: if person P leaves their apartment on a Friday night to go on a date, and their lonely roommate L commits suicide, despite P’s urging L to get help before P left for the date, would P’s leaving the apartment without alerting someone have been morally wrong? A dilemma like that could be spun either way. In an autonomous way, P did nothing wrong; after all, L is not P’s responsibility and P left L to decide for himself whether he would ask for help. On the other hand, it could be argued that it is negligent to leave suicidal people to themselves when we can help prevent a suicide. Ultimately the decision to go out on a date and leave L to make an autonomous decision is not itself immoral unless one views it through a specific lens; one which either favors personal liberty or social responsibility. And even then it’s debateble whether it was wrong to go out on the date, or just not a very good decision in hindsight.

        End wall of text. lol

      • Hey Zach,
        This is a great comment (despite its length). While I don’t have time at the moment to sift through and offer a full response, I will get to that in the next day or so. You seem to have gotten a handle on the direction I was trying to go when you outlined the notion that you deemed an “interesting thought” in your second paragraph. In the original post I revealed that my take on this was working toward a combination of contractualism and Haidt’s moral foundations. Contractualism serves to address subjectivity the best we can, while the moral foundations provide the “innate” framework for the contract. I’m inclined to suggest that traditional consequentialist theories rely too much on the “rational agent” model that is facing constant attack from neuroscience and psychology – as I’m sure you’re aware.

        That is all putting the cart ahead of the horse, however, as my primary goal here was to consider the viability of merging realism and relativism, specifically through examining the context of how we identify moral claims in the first place. Anyway, I’ll have a larger response later. Thanks again.

      • I like that you are brainstorming on this issue. I’m excited to hear your thoughts on it in detail. I need to study contractualism a little more, but I think I get the basic idea. I’ve never heard of Haidt’s moral foundations, I’ll also have to research that.

        I can agree that the ‘rational agent’ approach is sketchy. I like consequentialism, but that may be because I view myself as capable of making good moral choices. I think it’s good that you are trying to find a practical theory. We need this badly in the atheistic community.

      • Zach,
        Sorry for the delay in getting a more thorough response to your comment. In addition to my prior observation that you seem to have gotten a handle on the direction I was heading, there are a few other points of interest in your comment that I’d like to address.

        Maybe neuroscientists will someday be able to identify a part of the brain that corresponds more accurately to our seemingly innate moral sensitivities (possibly getting closer to the inherited evolutionary features) and form a theory based on that; or maybe they already have and I am unaware of it. It’s an interesting thought, but I am doubtful it would solve the problem of subjectivity.

        As noted, this is something along the lines of where I was going, but you’re right that this doesn’t solve the problem of subjectivity. It does, however, offer a platform for establishing the goal of moral discourse – namely, trying to find how to best satisfy the moral foundations. I think this then avoids Moore’s Open Question.

        As you’ve noted, however, subjectivity presents a problem even if we focus on our moral foundations because one person’s “Foundation A” may be dominant while another person’s “Foundation B” may be dominant and the solutions which best satisfy each of these may be in conflict. My thinking with contractualism is that this is the best way we know of to summon an objective perspective that serves to find the optimal balance. And this optimal balance is what I was wanting to call “moral truth” in the context of a social situation where “moral truths” are competing at the individual level. This means that “moral truth” changes based on the context and scope, and is oriented toward satisfying our core moral foundations. One of the main roadblocks I encountered in this line of thinking, however, was the “repugnant conclusion“. There may be other issues, but that’s the big one for me right now.

        We also usually assume that motives play a role (can anyone truly do a moral act with bad motives?). Motives will always be unobservable. If we remove motives, we could say that if someone has knowledge of all the relevant factors, then one could make a moral truth judgment, only if there were an objective criterion for moral decision-making that holds true in all scenarios that it could be judged by.

        I absolutely agree that motives play a significant role and this was part of my motivation (pun intended) for the path I was pursuing. By combining contractualism and moral foundations, we expose the motivations by tying everything back to those core, innate valuations. In other words, it seems to do a pretty good job of addressing the problem of “moral luck“.

        As far as us all being consequentialists, what I mean is that when we consider the morality of decisions, we are always considering how they will affect people. That seems to be the ideal basis for morality; decisions that benefit all people and hurt no one (of course that’s not possible.)

        While I agree that our moral judgements are largely informed by the impact on people, I also see that there is a long history of adherence to moral principles that aren’t ultimately tied to that. I myself can recall a time when I felt that certain things were wrong without really being able to identify a consequentialist explanation. It was just how I felt. I don’t know that I hold to anything like that now, but I still see it regularly expressed in others. We can’t just assume consequentialism and suggest that those sentiments are actually something different than, or a misapplications of, our moral intuition. They need to be taken into account if we want to understand morality at its core.

        As far as amibiguity between moral and amoral claims, I think there is no clearly definable distinction between general decision making and moral decision making.

        Now we’ve gotten back to my original post. It seems to me that we are able to clearly distinguish between moral and non-moral claims and the most obvious indicator of this is in looking at the referent of “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “bad” in the claim. In moral claims, the referent is morality itself – not some goal or other tangible outcome.

        In your example of the negligent roommate, the moral claim might be stated as “It was [wrong | not wrong] for P to leave L under the stated conditions”. This, to me, is obviously a moral claim. The referent of wrong (or ‘not wrong’) is morality itself. You are correct to note that there is ambiguity as to whether the claim is true or false, but I don’t see any ambiguity as to whether or not it is a moral claim.

        If we all have this capacity to identify moral claims and we readily communicate with each other in these terms and in doing so we understand the referent of “right”, “wrong”, “good” and “bad” within those claims, then I think there is good reason to believe that this referent is in some sense real.

      • Thanks for the response Travis. I think I’m getting your point more clearly (I think the analogies in the post went over my head.) I think reading up on the concepts you referenced will help me to understand your view a little better. It sounds fascinating, and I love this topic so much as I mentioned before.

        I’ll see if I can give a more detailed reply after I study those concepts (gotta love Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; I use it all the time.) But for now, I can say that I think your points regarding some of my statements are valid, and I’ll have to do some more refining of my view to clear up those blind spots. I get what you mean regarding moral claims. I’ll have to moll it over a bit though to let it sink in. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. 🙂

      • It reminds me of logic. Before the Greeks, there was no formal way to gauge the effectiveness of an argument. I think morality is much more complex than logic, and that may be why there has not been a bulletproof theory on it yet. I don’t know if there ever will be. But regardless, the category exists and is relevant, but it is far from a hard science.

  4. Hi Travis, I am commenting to let you know that I am interested and have read this, but I don’t feel I have anything to offer.

    I don’t understand your dilemma about what a moral claim is, for I don’t see how adding “on a Wednesday” makes that sentence a moral claim – I think it just makes it an illogical claim. It seems to me that we assume context in almost any simple statement, and if the context was different, your two sentences could have the opposite status to what you give them. “It is wrong to skin a cat.” could be a non moral statement in the context of a cookery show, and “It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it.” could be a moral statement in the context of discussing the use of thumbscrews in torture.

    So I think I haven’t really grasped your dilemma here, which may be just as well, because if I did, past experience suggests, I may well disagree! 🙁

    • Context may help us fill in the gaps, but if the claim is specific and complete then the assumptions become apparent. For example, in the context of a cooking show the sentence could be expanded to identify the referent of wrong, as in “It is wrong to skin a cat if the goal is roasted turkey.” Wrong refers to the fact that using a cat will cause you to fail to obtain the goal of roasted turkey. So this is all about the referent.

      How does adding “on Wednesday” make that sentence illogical? It seems perfectly comprehensible to me. Do you think it is impossible that such a moral standard could exist?

      • Hi Travis, I think your first paragraph is agreeing with me, maybe just using different language. (I’m quite ready to admit you have read more on this and will likely use more precise language.)

        I would think if you asked a thousand English speakers about your second sentence, they would all know you were talking about the “right” way to achieve a goal, not a moral statement. So adding “on Wednesday” can only mean that achieving that goal must be via different means on Wednesdays, which given what a screw is, is illogical. I can’t see how adding those words changes it to a moral statement – can you explain your thinking here?

      • Eric,
        I guess the manipulation wasn’t as clear as I thought. When I read the amended sentence, with “on Wednesday” added, I perceive that the referent of ‘wrong’ is changed to some moral standard. In other words, the sentence becomes something like “It is immoral to try and tighten a screw by turning it left on a Wednesday”. I can understand why that might not be how everyone would read it. I was just trying to give an example of how the referent of ‘wrong’ can be changed from a tangible goal to the more elusive concept of morality and that we recognize this. I guess I need to come up with a better example.

      • Hi Travis, I think the distinction between your first two sentences is quite clear. I don’t really follow where you are going with all this, but I don’t see why you need sentence 3 at all. But I’m sure you could easily think of examples that work the way you seem to want – e.g. my cooking example. But I don’t think you should let it distract you from where you are going.

      • It was just an attempt to show how a claim can be switched tofrom a moral claim by changing the referent of ‘wrong’. The goal is to see how we implicitly make that assignment and infer moral realism in the process.

      • But is that how and why we infer moral realism? I would have thought we infer moral realism because that’s the way our brains are programmed – whether by God or evolution or both. Or am I still misunderstanding you?

      • This isn’t about how or why. I’m simply observing that our ability to distinguish moral claims from other claims seems to require realism.

  5. Travis

    This is a topic that I have been thinking about as well. I think the issue here comes down to which normative claims are also moral claims. I understand all moral claims are normative claims, but not all normative claims are moral claims.

    It seems to me that 1 is a moral claim (assuming its not a cooking show or involving someone starving to death etc) and 2 and 3 are just normative claims.

    Many (most?) moral anti-realists believe in normative claims. There is a right way and a wrong way to tie a fishing knot. If someone ties the knot wrong they might lose fish and hooks. But its not really clear there would be a moral issue. There is a right way and a wrong way to do math, to sew, to cook etc.

    The question is what separates these non-moral normative claims from moral claims? And like much else in this field I am not sure the answer is always so clear cut.

    But I will suggest in another blog (when I get a chance to put it out,) I think moral claims have to do with ultimate ends. That is if someone thinks there is ultimately way people should act, or ultimately a way the world should be such that we should act toward achieving it, then that is a moral type of claim.

    I intend to bring this up in relation to psychopaths. Some claim that they do not have moral beliefs. But I will question this and suggest that they do. Part of the problem in finding this out is because psychopaths are notorious liars. It is somewhat of a real problem with using them to understand how moral beliefs are formed. To some extent we are left with looking a psychopaths that we know well enough that we can draw these conclusions despite what they say. I have had the misfortune of knowing someone who I believe is a psychopath and do believe this person had a view of how people should act and the world should be etc. but that is my personal experience. It would be tedious and not necessarily helpful for me to write down all the reasons I think this person had moral beliefs. Its for this reason I ask you to consider popular leaders who we know about like Hitler and Stalin.

    Did they have a moral code? We all might generally agree that they did not share the same moral views we did. But it seems to me they acted according to a set of beliefs about how the world ultimately should be. It’s just that we believe they got it wrong. In an upcoming blog I will talk about how I think our failure to identify what morality is, is leading us to do some flawed research and draw some flawed conclusions regarding psychopaths.

    Anyway the distinction between realism and relativism is not as clear cut as we might like. A relativist could very well say it is “really” wrong to violate a community norm, or even your own conscience. A moral realist might agree to some extent but the realist thinks that there is more to an action being really right than just the community or an individual’s conscience. I think there are some helpful distinctions that can be drawn between non-cognitivists, relativists, realists, and nihilists, but I think we need to accept the lines can also get a bit blurred.

    But anyway I think 1 is a moral claim because it is a claim that it is ultimately wrong to skin a cat. Its not that skinning a cat is wrong if you want to win friends.(or any other end) Even if everyone would like you for skinning a cat it would still be wrong under certain circumstances. On the other hand turning the screw to the left is wrong if your goal is to tighten it. It’s just wrong in relation to that particular goal and not ultimately.

    I am not sure adding “on Wednesday” adds anything to it.

    • Hey Joe,

      The question is what separates these non-moral normative claims from moral claims? And like much else in this field I am not sure the answer is always so clear cut.

      Can you give me an example of a claim where it is not clear whether or not it is a moral claim? It would seem from the responses that #3 is such an example, but I hope to explain why I don’t think that is so.

      Unless you wish to discuss it here, I’ll leave it to your blog to discuss the notion of defining moral claims as those with ultimate ends and the relation to psychopaths. Your use of “ultimate” at the end of your comment may align with what I’m saying, but I think the term “ultimate” infers transcendent assumptions that aren’t necessary.

      As to the distinction between relativists and realists, I would like to propose that they shouldn’t be set at odds the way that they usually are – particularly in the God debate. Realism is about whether moral claims report facts – whether the referent of the claim exists in some sense. Relativism is simply about the scope of application for a moral claim. It seems to me that these could be mixed and matched:

      1. Realism + Relativism = Moral claims are true or false and the answer is dependent on context.
      2. Realism + Non-relativism = Moral claims are true or false and the answer is independent of context.
      3. Non-realism + Relativism = Moral claims have no truth value and exist as a product of their context.
      4. Non-realism + Relativism = Moral claims have no truth value and exist independent of context.

      The last one is bizarre but I threw it in there for completeness.

      Anyway, I’m really interested in your interpretation of statement #3. You think it’s purely normative and then say the “on Wednesday” doesn’t add anything. But that’s the problem. The claim is only purely normative if “on Wednesday” doesn’t add anything, but then that’s a rather useless change I’ve made, isn’t it? The sentence would mean the same thing with or without that part. If you assume that “on Wednesday” has a functional role in the sentence, do you see how it would then become a moral claim? That’s not a rhetorical question. Apparently the shift isn’t clear to everyone else the way it is to me.

      This might help too. Isn’t the following a moral claim?
      “It’s OK if you want to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Monday, but you won’t end up with a tightened screw.”

      • “Can you give me an example of a claim where it is not clear whether or not it is a moral claim?”
        Probably not, but let me try to dance around the edges and hopefully give you an idea of where this might go.
        One example comes from Clifford. He said something like it is wrong everywhere and every time to believe something on insufficient evidence. Now I think Clifford might have meant it was immoral to do that. The example he used was a morally loaded one. Now some people, like me, simply disagree with Clifford all together morally and otherwise. But I think other people might think it violates some sort of epistemic standard to do that, but not necessarily be immoral for someone to believe something on insufficient evidence. Hence it would violate epistemic norms but still not be immoral.

        “Unless you wish to discuss it here, I’ll leave it to your blog to discuss the notion of defining moral claims as those with ultimate ends and the relation to psychopaths. Your use of “ultimate” at the end of your comment may align with what I’m saying, but I think the term “ultimate” infers transcendent assumptions that aren’t necessary.”
        I don’t mean anything transcendent by ultimate. I just mean that there is no other goal or aim involved in acting morally. E.g., if you want to tighten the screw then turning it to the left is wrong. But if you want to loosen it then it’s good to turn it to the left. Morality generally isn’t that way. It’s not wrong to accomplish some end (like catch a fish, or solve a math problem) it’s just wrong. That’s not to say we can’t have reasons to think it’s wrong. But when we say something is morally wrong we are not just saying it won’t accomplish some end.

        “As to the distinction between relativists and realists, I would like to propose that they shouldn’t be set at odds the way that they usually are – particularly in the God debate. Realism is about whether moral claims report facts – whether the referent of the claim exists in some sense. Relativism is simply about the scope of application for a moral claim. It seems to me that these could be mixed and matched:
        Realism + Relativism = Moral claims are true or false and the answer is dependent on context.
        Realism + Non-relativism = Moral claims are true or false and the answer is independent of context.
        Non-realism + Relativism = Moral claims have no truth value and exist as a product of their context.
        Non-realism + Relativism = Moral claims have no truth value and exist independent of context.
        The last one is bizarre but I threw it in there for completeness.”

        Ok the distinctions can be defined slightly differently by different authors. But the authors I read would put it a bit differently.

        Context is important for all ethics. Intentions and circumstances can be equally important for moral realists and moral relativists. The big difference is that our beliefs about something being right or wrong will actually change whether something is right or wrong for the relativist. Consider a Nazi soldier who needs to load Jewish families on a train. Both the realists and relativists would consider his circumstances (such as whether he really has any other choice) and what he subjectively knows (like does he know they will be killed?) when deciding what amount of guilt he would have. The difference is for the relativist if everyone in the world (or a certain group) decided it was fine to kill Jews then it would in fact be fine to load them on trains to go to their death. The moral realist says even if everyone thought it was fine it would still be wrong. They would all be mistaken morally. That mistake might effect the culpability of the actors but it would still be wrong.

        Also many nonrealists do believe that moral claims have a truth value. It is generally one particular kind of non-realist who thinks they do not have a truth value – noncognitivists. For example a nihilist (Some prefer to be called moral error theorists – but nihilist is shorter) might understand that someone who says its morally wrong to skin cats is making a true claim. They just think the claim is wrong. Just like an alchemist might say I think this lead is a good candidate to turn into gold.

        Non-cognitivists claim that when we say skinning cats is morally wrong we are just saying “Boo Cat Skinning!” And “Boo Cat Skinning!” has no truth value.

        “Anyway, I’m really interested in your interpretation of statement #3. You think it’s purely normative and then say the “on Wednesday” doesn’t add anything. But that’s the problem. The claim is only purely normative if “on Wednesday” doesn’t add anything, but then that’s a rather useless change I’ve made, isn’t it? The sentence would mean the same thing with or without that part. If you assume that “on Wednesday” has a functional role in the sentence, do you see how it would then become a moral claim? That’s not a rhetorical question. Apparently the shift isn’t clear to everyone else the way it is to me.
        This might help too. Isn’t the following a moral claim?
        “It’s OK if you want to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Monday, but you won’t end up with a tightened screw.”
        I admit I am not following this.
        No it’s not a moral claim it’s an engineering claim. Do you think the person turning the screw the wrong way is acting immorally?

        Do you agree that the person tying bad fishing knots is not necessarily acting immorally? If I say he was tying bad fishing knots “on Monday” would that change anything with respect to whether that is a moral claim?

        I’m not saying that adding the phase “on Monday” doesn’t serve a function. It may – albeit its hard to see. But the function it serves is not to make the claim into a moral one. It’s sort of like saying “Poodles have curly hair on Monday.” Adding “on Monday” does not make that a moral claim does it?

      • Joe,
        I think your clarified definition of “ultimate” is in large agreement with what I’m trying to say here. I arrived at that conclusion in part by trying to understand what it means to distinguish between moral claims and non-moral claims. Explaining that conclusion was the goal of this post.

        I agree that Clifford’s Principle is ambiguous, but I would suggest that it is only so because he isn’t around to tell us what he really meant. If he had meant it in an epistemic sense then he could have said “It is an epistemic failure always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” and we wouldn’t question whether it was a moral claim or not. So my point is that when we have a fully qualified statement we seem to have the ability to clearly distinguish moral claims from other claims by recognizing that they refer to morality itself. I think this is what you meant by “ultimate”. I am in agreement and I think that our ability to make this recognition and distinction points toward something real; that we are drawing upon something which exists. This doesn’t yet tell us exactly what that is, only that something is there.

        The dichotomy you present between realism and relativism is how I understood everything up until a couple months ago. I think that dichotomy is too restrictive and closes doors that may be worth exploring. I’ve relied on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to extract the following core definitions:

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

        Moral Relativism: The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.
        (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition for Metaphysical Moral Relativism).

        Even so, 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”. Those additional commitments, however, are not necessary for realism – the claim that morality in some sense exists and we can thus talk about it as a matter of fact; as true or false.

        I’ve re-read some of the definitions of error theory and I think you’re incorrect when you say that “many nonrealists do believe that moral claims have a truth value”. The belief that moral claims do not have a truth value is what, by definition, makes them an anti-realist.

        I admit I am not following this.

        You’re not the only one, so clearly I need to improve my example. Mind if I use you to figure out the better way to make my point? I was trying to show how we can distinguish between moral and non-moral normative claims but apparently that distinction was only clear to me.

        I’d like to start by focusing on the new claim “It’s OK if you want to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Monday, but you won’t end up with a tightened screw.” What do you think “It’s OK” is referring to? In other words, why does the person uttering this statement think the action is OK?

  6. Travis

    This comment just addresses what the SEP definition is getting at. I will try to address some of your other comments in other comments.

    Let me try to help with some of the confusion. First let me start out by saying you are correct that I was not following the definitions set out by SEP. The authors I have read tend to include some of the additional conditions to be a moral realist that the SEP author alludes to. This helps them separate moral realists from relativists. But as you suggest that is perhaps too restrictive. And I do think there is a certain elegant simplicity in the SEP’s author’s description of the terms by leaving the extra conditions out. Both ways of categorizing the views have their advantages.

    So yes I am fine with leaving the understanding of realist broad enough to include relativists. (But understand that some people will see these 2 positions as exclusive.) So according to SEP a moral realist is someone who believes 1) that moral claims purport to have a truth value and 2) some moral claims are true. Relativists fit both conditions. So if they say “cat skinning is morally wrong” they mean that to be a true statement about reality and they believe some such statements are true. It’s just that in order to determine if cat skinning is morally wrong they basically just say if a certain defined person or community determines it is wrong, then it’s wrong. That is why they are relativists. Lots of people consider them anti-realists because they admit that the morality they follow is entirely constructed by a group or person – ie. we make it up. But according to this SEP definition they are realists.
    Objective Realists would say that morals are not entirely dependent on the views of a certain person or group.

    Now I think what the SEP author is saying makes sense. He agrees with me on error theorists. They agree that moral claims purport to have truth value. (so they meet the first condition) However he says they are not moral realists because they think all moral claims are false. So they fail the second condition.

    What do they mean by moral claims “purporting to have a truth value”? I think this condition is mainly (exclusively?) aimed at non-cognitivists. Moral non-cognitivists think when we make moral claims we are not really making an utterance that is properly considered true or false. They think when we say A)“cat skinning is morally wrong” we really just mean B) “Boo Cat Skinning”.

    Now when you think about it “boo Cat Skinning” is not really an utterance that is true or false. You might disagree and think “yay cat skinning” but you would not say its false to say “boo cat skinning” It’s sort of like hearing someone sigh when they have heard enough. They are expressing displeasure or boredom but not really making a statement that is true or false.

    • Hey Joe,
      OK, I think we’re in agreement on everything here. In looking back at your comment I see that I got tripped up on “For example a nihilist … might understand that someone who says its morally wrong to skin cats is making a true claim”. The last two words should have been “truth claim” instead of “true claim”, right?

  7. “You’re not the only one, so clearly I need to improve my example. Mind if I use you to figure out the better way to make my point? I was trying to show how we can distinguish between moral and non-moral normative claims but apparently that distinction was only clear to me.

    I’d like to start by focusing on the new claim “It’s OK if you want to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Monday, but you won’t end up with a tightened screw.” What do you think “It’s OK” is referring to? In other words, why does the person uttering this statement think the action is OK?”

    I would think his saying “its ok” means something like “its not immoral” Or go ahead if you want. If the speaker thought turning the screw to the left was immoral he would not say “it’s ok.” I don’t think it is morally relevant which day we are talking about.

    I might tell my daughter she is tying her shoelaces wrong. But that does not mean I think she is doing something immoral. That would be a relatively clear situation where someone is normatively wrong but not morally wrong.

    With Clifford I am pretty sure he meant his statement in a moral sense based on the examples he gave. I think our epistemic norms are something that borders on morally normative.

    • I’m glad we agree that “It’s OK” is referring to morality. If that didn’t work I was going to be at a loss.

      Under this understanding, “It’s OK” is equivalent to “It’s not wrong”. So look at this sequence of changes:
      1) It’s not wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it.
      2) It’s not wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Monday.
      3) It’s not wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Monday, but you won’t end up with a tightened screw.
      4) It’s not wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it, but you won’t end up with a tightened screw.

      I see this transition into a moral claim at #2, whereas you (and some others) don’t see the transition until #3. I think the reason is that I see “on a Monday” changing the referent of wrong, whereas you are just seeing that as an added detail to the situation. Then #3 adds a disclaimer which clarifies that wrong isn’t referring to the tightening of the screw and so much be referring to something else, which we then intuitively take to be morality. In that case, the “on a Monday” part is irrelevant (#4). Does this make sense?

      So I think my example of showing how we recognize a switch in the referent of wrong might be better formed as something like #4. Would you agree?

      • Ok I think I see what you are saying here. If by “its not wrong…” we mean “it’s not morally wrong” then all of the statements 1-4 make a claim about morality.

        But I don’t think the author of the SEP article would say that all claims about morality are “moral claims.” Thus I think the author of SEP draws a distinction between “claims about morality” and “moral claims.” Let me explain by using the formula from the SEP:

        “Taken at face value, the claim that Nigel has a moral obligation to keep his promise, like the claim that Nyx is a black cat, purports to report a fact and is true if things are as the claim purports. Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common and more or less defining ground of moral realism (although 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).

        As a result, those who reject moral realism are usefully divided into (i) those who think moral claims do not purport to report facts in light of which they are true or false (noncognitivists) and (ii) those who think that moral claims do carry this purport but deny that any moral claims are actually true (error theorists).”

        Now when I read the very last sentence it seemed to me that error theorists do make claims about morality. They would say the statement “it is not morally wrong to turn a screw to the left” is true. It’s just that they don’t think anything is morally right or wrong. So if saying “turning the screw to the left is not morally wrong” is a “moral claim” then the SEP definition is flawed. Because error theorists would agree that it is true to say “it is not morally wrong to turn a screw to the left.”

        I think the author of the SEP thinks that in order to be a “moral claim” the person must actually accept a moral framework. Just expressing that something is indifferent to this moral framework is not really enough. One would need to say something is in fact morally wrong or it is in fact morally right in order to make it a “moral claim” (as opposed to just “a claim about morality”).

        For any statement like “it is morally right to X” an error theorist would say that statement is false. Likewise any statement “it is morally wrong to X” an error theorist would say that is false. But every time you say “it is not morally wrong to X” an error theorist will say that is true. So you see any statement that simply denies something is a matter of morality cannot itself be a “moral claim” according to this author’s framework.

        So I think according to this author none of the 4 statements would be “a moral claim.” But instead would just be a claim about morality. An error theorist would agree that all 4 of the sentences are true if wrong means moral wrong. However they would agree that it would be “wrong” according to engineering norms.

        I’m sorry I am still not following how adding specific days helps. I think you are right that it is just adding a detail – and likely a useless one. It doesn’t matter what day it is. It will still only violate engineering norms to turn a screw to the left to tighten it. It will never violate moral norms dependent on the day.

      • I think the author of the SEP thinks that in order to be a “moral claim” the person must actually accept a moral framework.

        I agree, but this is circular since the framework itself is defined in terms of how we regard moral claims. In the original post, I said that “the more I think about it, the more I question whether we can define ‘moral claim’ without presupposing moral realism”. Non-cognitivists and error theorists seem to be able to identify moral claims. How are they doing that? What are they drawing upon to distinguish moral claims from non-moral claims? It seems like this ability betrays the theory.

        Regarding the prospect that an error theorist would have to see the negative version of a moral claim as not a moral claim – well, that seems like self-deception. I can’t imagine tricking myself into thinking that “murder is wrong” is a moral claim but “murder is not wrong” isn’t a moral claim. It is usually the case that statements of the form “X is not wrong” are not just claims of indifference. They are usually expressions of a desire for freedom from a moral obligation.

        I’ve given up on the proposal that adding “on a Wednesday” can serve as an example of a way to convert a non-moral claim into a moral claim, but I still want to explain the underlying principle. My goal was to show that we can recognize a distinction when the referent of “right” and “wrong” changes from something non-moral to something moral. In other words, we know a moral claim when we see it. I had hoped that this could be demonstrated by simply tweaking a sentence to change the referent of “wrong” but that didn’t work out. I need to find a better example where that change is more obvious to everyone. Does that make sense? Is there a better way to demonstrate the experience of recognizing the distinction between moral and non-moral claims?

      • I said:
        “I think the author of the SEP thinks that in order to be a “moral claim” the person must actually accept a moral framework.”

        Travis responded:
        “I agree, but this is circular since the framework itself is defined in terms of how we regard moral claims. In the original post, I said that ‘the more I think about it, the more I question whether we can define ‘moral claim’ without presupposing moral realism’.”

        Ok I was not precise. I should have said : According to the author in order to believe someone can make a true moral claim then the person must accept a moral framework.

        I think the author agrees that error theorists believe people make moral claims. Its just that the error theorist thinks all such moral claims are false.

        Travis also said:
        “Non-cognitivists and error theorists seem to be able to identify moral claims. How are they doing that? What are they drawing upon to distinguish moral claims from non-moral claims? It seems like this ability betrays the theory.”

        Noncognitivists refuse to believe that moral claims really have a truth value like most sorts of claims.

        The error theorists recognize we make moral claims but think all such claims are mistaken. Sort of like if I say:

        A) This type of lead will be very good for changing into gold.

        I can recognize this is an alchemy claim. But I think all such alchemy claims are mistaken.

        “Regarding the prospect that an error theorist would have to see the negative version of a moral claim as not a moral claim – well, that seems like self-deception. I can’t imagine tricking myself into thinking that “murder is wrong” is a moral claim but “murder is not wrong” isn’t a moral claim. It is usually the case that statements of the form “X is not wrong” are not just claims of indifference. They are usually expressions of a desire for freedom from a moral obligation.”

        I think the error theorist is ok. Let me recommend the introduction to Richard Joyce’s book the myth of morality. I have to go now But I think that is the book. It does a good job explaining the position by analogy. If I have more time later I will try to go through it a bit. It is an enjoyable read though.

      • I would like to address each of those definitions to help explain why I think they are representative of how relativism is being unduly excluded from realism.

        Non-cognitivists refuse to believe that moral claims really have a truth value like most sorts of claims.

        Here’s where I’m getting stuck. Non-cognitivists can distinguish moral claims from other claims. As has been noted, a non-cognitivist might translate “Lying is wrong” into something like “I disapprove of lying”, or “Lying makes me feel bad”. If those sentiments are truly isomorphic, then why can’t the truth value for “I disapprove of lying” or “Lying makes me feel bad” be equally applied to “Lying is wrong”? This would make the morality real yet relative.

        The error theorists recognize we make moral claims but think all such claims are mistaken. Sort of like if I say “This type of lead will be very good for changing into gold.” I can recognize this is an alchemy claim. But I think all such alchemy claims are mistaken.

        The alchemy claim is only mistaken if you require that it be about physical reality and do not allow it to be about an established concept of alchemy. I can make true claims about Star Wars (“Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader’s son”) without assuming that the people exist in physical bodies. I we accept the possibility that ‘morality’ is a label for a mental state – just as ‘Luke Skywalker’ is a label for a mental concept of a person with particular characteristics – then there should be true and false statements about the underlying concept, even if the concept is unique to an individual. This would make morality real yet relative (assuming we accept the existence of the mental, whether physical or not).

        I think that a “real yet relative” treatment of morality may address some problems that aren’t adequately addressed by the non-cognitivist and error theoretical treatments of morality. In short, it looks to me like non-cognitivism and error theory are actually “real yet relative” but are just ignoring the underlying foundations which inform the recognition of moral claims. In the case of non-cognitivism they’re glossing over the reality of the underlying emotions and in error theory they’re glossing over the reality of the underlying concept. I think there’s good reason to acknowledge that both emotional and conceptual factors are in play and that these are real things which should be incorporated into the model.

      • Travis said:
        “I would like to address each of those definitions to help explain why I think they are representative of how relativism is being unduly excluded from realism.”

        Keep in mind that it’s not considered a derogatory term to be an anti-realist. Many relativists might want the label anti-realist and be unhappy if you called them a realist. So how we define “realist” really is irrelevant beyond clarifying what we are talking about.
        Travis said:
        “Non-cognitivists refuse to believe that moral claims really have a truth value like most sorts of claims.

        Here’s where I’m getting stuck. Non-cognitivists can distinguish moral claims from other claims. As has been noted, a non-cognitivist might translate “Lying is wrong” into something like “I disapprove of lying”, or “Lying makes me feel bad”. If those sentiments are truly isomorphic, then why can’t the truth value for “I disapprove of lying” or “Lying makes me feel bad” be equally applied to “Lying is wrong”? This would make the morality real yet relative.”

        My view:
        Ok so first IMO non-cognitivists are odd birds. I don’t really follow anyone who is a non-cognitivist because at least superficially their position seems unintuitive. (but to be fair I have not delved into their view that much and I do find the view interesting.) Every translation you did was not what a non-cognitivist would say. Why? Because every translation you gave can be either true or false.
        For example, “I disapprove of lying.” Is a statement that can be true or false. Either you disapprove of lying or you don’t. If you, in fact, disapprove of lying then the statement is true. Non-cognitivist do not think that is what we are saying. When we say “Lying is morally wrong.” we are really communicating something like “Boo lying.” Notice “Boo lying!” is not really true or false. To accurately understand the non-cognitivist position you need to translate “X is morally wrong” into something that is neither true nor false.

        Now notice “lying makes me feel bad” is not only true or false but it is something that every meta-ethical camp might agree with. The relativist might equate that with what morality is. But every type of meta-ethical view might agree that lying makes them feel bad.

        The way you describe things may or may not be what a relativist thinks it means. It depends if they think right and wrong is defined by their own subjective beliefs or that of a group etc.

        I said:
        “The error theorists recognize we make moral claims but think all such claims are mistaken. Sort of like if I say “This type of lead will be very good for changing into gold.” I can recognize this is an alchemy claim. But I think all such alchemy claims are mistaken.”

        Travis replied:
        “The alchemy claim is only mistaken if you require that it be about physical reality and do not allow it to be about an established concept of alchemy. I can make true claims about Star Wars (“Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader’s son”) without assuming that the people exist in physical bodies. I we accept the possibility that ‘morality’ is a label for a mental state – just as ‘Luke Skywalker’ is a label for a mental concept of a person with particular characteristics – then there should be true and false statements about the underlying concept, even if the concept is unique to an individual. This would make morality real yet relative (assuming we accept the existence of the mental, whether physical or not).”

        My thoughts:
        Yes I think I agree. But do you see why relativists can be seen as realists and non-realists. In a certain sense yes Luke Skywalker “really” is Darth Vader’s son. In another sense that is not “really” the case. It was all made up. Relativists say that even though we make it up its still important. “Objective realists” say morality is not just a matter of what we make up. It has a real sense that is not entirely dependent on what some particular person or group believes.
        Travis said:
        “I think that a “real yet relative” treatment of morality may address some problems that aren’t adequately addressed by the non-cognitivist and error theoretical treatments of morality. In short, it looks to me like non-cognitivism and error theory are actually “real yet relative” but are just ignoring the underlying foundations which inform the recognition of moral claims. In the case of non-cognitivism they’re glossing over the reality of the underlying emotions and in error theory they’re glossing over the reality of the underlying concept. I think there’s good reason to acknowledge that both emotional and conceptual factors are in play and that these are real things which should be incorporated into the model.”

        I think I already addressed how I think non-cognitivists view things. Let me try to explain the error theorists. The error theorists do not deny they feel certain emotions when they see events that many people think are morally relevant. So they will be disgusted by Nazis killing Jews just like everyone else. They don’t deny or gloss over this disgust they just don’t think it points to something other than something that disgusts them. Or to be more precise they don’t think their emotions point to something that is morally wrong. But it is important to note that they do not think it is morally permissible either. They just think the whole talk of morality is mistaken.

        Relativists don’t just think that immoral actions make them feel bad. They claim that there is something more. In particular they think morality is motivation to act beyond just how it makes us feel. Error theorists will have a variety motivations to act a certain way beyond just the feelings as well. The law, reputation etc. But one thing they won’t claim is that they act a certain way because it’s morally right.

        Finally you seem to think that because we can identify something it must exist. I don’t necessarily agree. Error theorists don’t deny that they can see what we are getting at when we claim something is moral or immoral. Just like we can understand when someone talks about alchemy. They just think it’s a bunch bunk.

      • Joe,
        I’m not concerned with whether or not something is derogatory. It’s probably true that I have gotten too wrapped up in definitions. When it comes down to it I’ve been wanting to treating ‘moral realism’ as the view that morality exists in some sense and, in retrospect, that may have been too generous. Other ontologies have “middle ground” theories that place existence within the mental (conceptualism) or semantic (nominalism) domains and we are content to not call these realist.

        So, I’m dropping the discussion about “anti-realist” theories. It’s really become just a game of clarifying semantics and what I’m really interested in is what you closed with in your comment.

        you seem to think that because we can identify something it must exist. I don’t necessarily agree.

        I think that the ability to recognize something means that at the very least it exists as a concept. To recognize that “X is Y” is to establish a relationship between X and prior knowledge of Y. In order to experience recognition, Y must already be a concept we hold.

        Error theorists don’t deny that they can see what we are getting at when we claim something is moral or immoral. Just like we can understand when someone talks about alchemy. They just think it’s a bunch bunk.

        I don’t think alchemy is an apt analogy. Alchemy may only exist as a concept, but it is entirely formed through externally sourced fictions. The concept of morality, on the other hand, is referring to an internal sense – a certain type of subjective experience. That experience is wholly real and appears to rest on something innate. That something is what we’re drawing on when we are presented with a moral claim and recognize it for what it is. There’s nothing remotely close to that for alchemy. This is what I’m trying to say when I suggest that error theory doesn’t work.

      • Travis said:
        “It’s probably true that I have gotten too wrapped up in definitions. When it comes down to it I’ve been wanting to treating ‘moral realism’ as the view that morality exists in some sense and, in retrospect, that may have been too generous. Other ontologies have “middle ground” theories that place existence within the mental (conceptualism) or semantic (nominalism) domains and we are content to not call these realist.
        So, I’m dropping the discussion about “anti-realist” theories. It’s really become just a game of clarifying semantics and what I’m really interested in is what you closed with in your comment.”

        I think understanding how people define morality is actually quite important. I think a failure to grasp these difference is one of the main reasons it’s often difficult for people to have fruitful discussions about meta-ethics. So I do not think you are spending too much time on getting a clear picture of how different philosophers understand morality. I’m not saying it’s easy, and agree there are gray areas, but I think understanding the differences in how people think of morality is very helpful.

        I said:
        “Error theorists don’t deny that they can see what we are getting at when we claim something is moral or immoral. Just like we can understand when someone talks about alchemy. They just think it’s a bunch bunk.”

        Travis Said:
        “I don’t think alchemy is an apt analogy. Alchemy may only exist as a concept, but it is entirely formed through externally sourced fictions. The concept of morality, on the other hand, is referring to an internal sense – a certain type of subjective experience. That experience is wholly real and appears to rest on something innate. That something is what we’re drawing on when we are presented with a moral claim and recognize it for what it is. There’s nothing remotely close to that for alchemy. This is what I’m trying to say when I suggest that error theory doesn’t work.”

        My view:
        You might be right that alchemy is not a good analogy. Richard Joyce uses a different analogies – likely his are better to understanding the error theorist’s position. He is an atheist and he has likened belief in morality to belief in God or religion. From his perspective he can identify what different religious beliefs are but he still does not think that makes them real in any relevant sense that should effect how he lives.

        When you say that morality refers to a subjective experience I and other objective realists would disagree. I wonder if you are so convinced relativism is true that you think others couldn’t possibly think otherwise. I will say I used to think the same way about objective realism. But after reading the pros and cons of the various positions – especially the cons – I have come to realize that very reasonable people can have strong grounds for rejecting just about any of the major conceptions of morality. Now as a Christian I have a set of beliefs on how this works. But when I look at morality without my religion colored glasses and assume there is nothing other than evolution guiding our creation then I would likely conclude the error theorists make the strongest case. But even there I think the error theroist case is more likely than not wrong. Maybe I would give it a 40% chance of being true. I would give objective moral realism about a 40% chance, and relativism a 10% and 10% toward I am not sure what.

        But it’s important to note that Joyce (and myself for that matter) argue somewhat different than most error theorists. Because he does not focus on arguing real objective morality can’t exist. It is not a tangible thing that we can go out and see. So just like it was silly for the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to say “I looked and looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” It would be silly for him to look out in space and say “I looked and looked and looked but I didn’t see morality.” I give the possibility that objective real morality exists a fairly high probability even without God (about 40%). But the big problem is why would we think our beliefs about it are reliable if they arose from an the evolutionary framework. That is really the focus of Joyce, and Sharon Street, and Mark Linnville.

        Now Sharon Street argues that anti-realism is the answer. She includes relativists in the anti-realist camp based on how she defines realism as:
        “The defining claim of realism about value, as I will be understanding it, is that there are at least some evaluative facts or truths that hold independently of all our evaluative attitudes.”

        In a footnote after this definition she says:
        “More broadly, realism about value may be understood as the view that there are mind-independent evaluative facts or truths. I focus on independence from our evaluative attitudes because it is independence from this type of mental state that is the main point of contention between realists and antirealists about value.”
        http://fas.nyu.edu/docs/IO/1177/DarwinianDilemma.pdf
        see page 2 of the article.

        So clearly she is not defining it the same definition as the SEP. I point this out, as one example of the different uses for this terminology in the literature. But it’s also important to note that this problem with reliability of beliefs due to naturalism and evolution will not effect all meta-ethical formulations the same. So if you don’t understand what sort of meta-ethical basis someone is coming from you will not know which problems are relevant to their view.

        Sharon Street is not an error theorist. Yet she makes the same sort of arguments that Richard Joyce makes and he is an error theorist. Mark Linnville and I are also proponents of this argument and we are Christians.

      • Hey Joe,
        There is certainly value in understanding definitions but, as I noted, that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to examine whether our ability to intuitively recognize morality was a pointer toward its existence in some real sense. On that note, let me first address the topic of definitions:

        Sharon Street … defines realism as:
        “The defining claim of realism about value, as I will be understanding it, is that there are at least some evaluative facts or truths that hold independently of all our evaluative attitudes.”

        I like this better than the SEP definition. It coheres with the way realism is used more generally in ontological discussions, where realism infers that existence is independent of the one experiencing the object. I’ve gone back and read my own post defining ontology and realized that by adopting the SEP definition of moral realism I had introduced a conflict with the way I was using realism elsewhere.

        So I think you’ve brought me full circle. I’ve gone from latching on to the SEP definition and now I’m back to where I was before, where moral realism includes the commitment to independence. This also means, however, that anti-realism does not exclude morality from existence – it only excludes it from objective, independent existence. I think I had somehow conflated anti-realism with non-existence and under something like Street’s definition, which I also previously held, this would leave an unfilled gap that I think holds a lot of potential. So when I saw the SEP definition I latched on to it as a way to explore that gap. Now I’m thinking that the more consistent correction to my definitions is to understand that anti-realism doesn’t exclude existence.

        Now on to the more interesting stuff…

        When you say that morality refers to a subjective experience I and other objective realists would disagree. I wonder if you are so convinced relativism is true that you think others couldn’t possibly think otherwise.

        I should clarify. By saying that morality refers to a subjective experience I mean that it is phenomenal (in the philosophical sense). I am not intending to exclude the possibility that the phenomenon is grounded in something independent and objective (though I don’t know why I should think it is the case). I was simply trying to point out the difference between “experience of” and “knowledge of”. We are far more sure about the reality of that which we experience than the reality of that which is simply described and, in the case of morality, we can observe that the foundational experience is effectively universally shared even if the details take different shapes and forms. Not only that, but when we recognize moral claims and make judgements on them we are drawing upon that experience, not just upon some descriptive concept. So, unlike alchemy, morality seems to be grounded in something different than a socially constructed fiction – it is something phenomenal.

  8. Hey Travis

    Getting an understanding of morality is something that I have been trying to do for decades. I still struggle with many aspects of how to understand it.

    “We are far more sure about the reality of that which we experience than the reality of that which is simply described and, in the case of morality, we can observe that the foundational experience is effectively universally shared even if the details take different shapes and forms. Not only that, but when we recognize moral claims and make judgements on them we are drawing upon that experience, not just upon some descriptive concept. ”

    I seems that with the help of mris we are identifying the regions in the brain that fire when we consider moral scenarios. It seems that psychopaths have a very different reaction. I am curious what you think of them. Is their experience invalid just because it is different than ours? What basis do we discount their views? What seems especially troubling is that they tend to use more of the logical parts of their brain when thinking of morals but normal people use much more emotional areas. So in most areas of knowledge we would say the sociopaths have the more reliable brain processes.

    Also it seems that people can change their experience regarding morality over time. Guards at concentration camps eventually lost guilty feelings for what they were doing. This is not so scientifically proven but it seems our views of morality can be effected by all sorts of illogical things.

    I don’t mean to unduly stress the non-uniformity of moral experiences and beliefs but I think we need to acknowledge them.

    • Deja vu

      I think you’ve read too much into my comment. I qualified “universally” because there are clearly exceptions. There is natural variation in strength, but in general the majority of people have some emotion-like feeling at the core of their moral intuitions. And yes, we can become desensitized to particular situations, but I suspect that is more a disassociation of a particular scenario from the core feeling than a case of impairment to the feeling itself. That said, I don’t doubt that the core feeling can be diminished in general as well.

      The way sociopaths consider moral claims is interesting because I think that points toward these people treating it more like we treat alchemy. To them, morality is more a concept than a feeling. So they aren’t good judges of morality because they aren’t accessing it like those of us who have established the concept of morality through reference to that feeling.

      • Yes we are covering some of the same ground.

        I think we are also covering some new ideas. I am not sure that psychopaths would consider morality like alchemy. If we consider morality as just some ultimate way the world should be and how we should act, it seems they do believe in morality. At least it seems people like Hitler and Stalin did. It’s just that we think they got it wrong.

        It’s clear that sociopaths don’t have the emotional centers of their brain light up as much as normal people when they consider moral issues (and it appears the reasoning part lights up more than for normal people). For this reason you consider them to be poor judges of the truth of morality. Would you agree this suggests there is something unique about morality as far as an intellectual pursuit. In my last blog I considered politics, where we see emotional centers lighting up and therefore assume the views are unreliable. Would we not say the same if we considered physics, biology, philosophy or just about any other intellectual endeavor?

      • I am not sure that psychopaths would consider morality like alchemy. If we consider morality as just some ultimate way the world should be and how we should act, it seems they do believe in morality.

        I don’t mean that psychopaths are de facto error theorists. What I mean is that morality to them is heavily conceptual and lacking in feeling – it is perhaps largely informed by that which has been expressed by others. Conversely, for the “normal population” the conception of morality is pointing toward and engaged with an underlying internal feeling. Those MRIs are some evidence for this.

        It’s clear that sociopaths don’t have the emotional centers of their brain light up as much as normal people when they consider moral issues (and it appears the reasoning part lights up more than for normal people). For this reason you consider them to be poor judges of the truth of morality. Would you agree this suggests there is something unique about morality as far as an intellectual pursuit?

        Yes, it is unique relative to the study of externally sourced phenomenon, but perhaps similar to the intellectual pursuit of consciousness, emotion and other internally sourced phenomenon.

        In my last blog I considered politics, where we see emotional centers lighting up and therefore assume the views are unreliable. Would we not say the same if we considered physics, biology, philosophy or just about any other intellectual endeavor?

        Yes. I would say that a deep emotional ties to those intellectual pursuits probably indicates an unfounded bias toward a particular view; such as is sometimes seen when scientists are faced with the prospect that their pet theories are incorrect.

        Morality may be a different beast, however. If morality is itself defined as a dependent on, or tightly correlated with, those emotional feelings then it would be correct to say that perspectives which engage those faculties are more correct than those which do not.

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