In this piece I consider the two related concepts of ‘moral facts’ and ‘moral obligations’, contrasting them within theistic and naturalistic worldviews. I first consider what is meant by ‘moral facts’, and argue that, subject to a certain clarification regarding the meaning of ‘mind-independence’, objective moral facts can exist within a naturalistic framework, as facts concerning states of affairs relating to idealised human desires. I then consider the concept of ‘moral obligations’, and argue that such obligations may be consistent with naturalism depending upon how the notion of ‘moral duty’ is interpreted. I also argue, however, that the concept is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic worldview, as it does little beyond what is done by the concept of ‘moral facts’. I conclude with some analysis of how theists and naturalists may respond to the moral skeptic, arguing that neither can provide moral motivation to the skeptic on the basis of reason alone.
The first question to be considered is whether or not ‘moral facts’ exist. For a moral fact to ‘exist’, what I mean is that the proposition in question is true. Thus, the question I am asking is whether any propositions about moral states of affairs are true, a view called moral realism, as opposed to error theory, the position that all moral propositions are false. (There are also so-called non-cognitivist positions which hold that moral statements are not propositions at all. I will not address such views in this piece.)
To facilitate clarity, let me propose a working definition of objective moral facts:
(1.0) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, which is true irrespective of the mental state (opinion, belief, etc) of any person.
In my personal view, I think it unlikely that objective moral truths as defined in (1.0) exist, as I believe that the rightness or wrongness of any action is always ultimately determined by the mental states of human beings (and potentially other sentient creatures too, but I’ll leave that out of the discussion for now). According to the view that I lean towards, moral facts are propositions concerning the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences, considered from a social point of view (see my earlier piece describing Railton’s Reductive Naturalism for more detail).
In keeping with this view, I would propose a new definition of moral facts:
(1.1) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, the truth of which is not dependent upon the mental state of the agent making the moral judgement in question.
The difference between (1.0) and (1.1) is that, while (1.0) requires that the truth values of all moral propositions be independent of the mental states of any person (i.e. they are facts about nature itself independent of humans, or perhaps something beyond nature), (1.1) only requires that the truth values be independent of the mental state of the person evaluating the claim. Thus, if one person or group thought that genocide or female genital mutilation or ignoring the poor were not morally wrong, by this view they would be mistaken. They would be mistaken because they hold a false belief concerning the truth value of a certain moral proposition, which proposition derives its truth value from particular states of the world concerning which states of affairs would be conducive of the maximal fulfilment of idealised desires, from a social point of view. Moral facts are thus facts about the world with objective truth values independent of the mental states of those evaluating the truth of the claims.
Also note that according to my preferred view, it is even possible for everyone to be mistaken about moral facts. This is because the truth value of moral propositions does not depend (primarily, though it may have some relevance in some cases) upon people’s opinions concerning the truth value of the proposition. Rather, moral propositions derive their truth value from states of affairs concerning idealised preferences of agents considered from a social point of view. It is perfectly possible for entire societies to hold systematically mistaken views regarding such idealised preferences – indeed, I think I can cite some plausible historical examples, though I won’t do so here because I’m fairly sure that doing so would distract the discussion. The main point to note is that, although according to my preferred position, moral facts are subjective in the sense that their truth value is dependent upon the mental states of humans, and not merely upon natural states of affairs outside of humans (as are, for instance, many scientific claims), they are also objective in the sense that their truth value is not determined by the attitudes or preferences of the person making the judgement, or even the collective judgements of a society, since it is possible for an entire society to hold mistaken views concerning what would best satisfy idealised preferences from a social point of view.
Having considered objective moral facts, what can we make of the idea of moral duties? It seems that the mere existence of moral facts, absent certain further assumptions, need not necessarily imply any moral duties – after all, there are any number of other propositions which are objectively true, but nonetheless do not entail any duties.
Let me (tentatively) define moral obligations as follows:
(2.0) A moral obligation is a duty to act in a certain way that arises as a consequence of one or more objective moral facts.
While I think this definition goes some way towards capturing our primitive notion of ‘moral obligation’, I am left rather unsatisfied. I still find it very hard to understand what is meant by this notion of a ‘duty to act’ -what does it mean to say that we have a duty to do something? Sometimes duties are acquired on the basis of someone accepting a formal or informal position of some authority and responsibility, and explicitly or implicitly promising to act in a certain way in fulfilment of this role. It seems, however, that this does not really capture the inherent proscriptivity entailed by our concept of ‘moral duties’. That is, we would generally want to say that there is no action that one needs to take in order to acquire moral duties, nor is there any way of eschewing them, as would be possible for other duties by, for example, stepping down from the role in question.
The idea of ‘moral duties’ seems to be that, in some sense, we “must” act in a particular way, regardless of whether or not we want to, or whether or not we agree, or even whether or not we even know about the duty (though some may perhaps dispute this last point, at least my naive notion of ‘moral duty’ would say that even, for instance, feral children would have moral duties, even though they would presumably have no notion of the concept of morality). But what does it mean to say that we “must” act in a certain way? Obviously this doesn’t mean that we are literally unable to act differently, because quite clearly it is possible to act immorally.
One possible answer, traditionally advocated by some theistic philosophers, is to ground the notion of ‘moral obligation’ in the commandments of God. That is, moral obligations are injunctions to act in a particular way which are made by God, and are (ultimately) enforced by God through some sort of final judgement. The notion of ‘moral obligation’ is thus analogous to that of a legal obligation – both derive from some external authoritative source, both are binding regardless of our particular attitudes or opinions, and both are ‘enforceable’ in the sense of there being consequences for disobedience.
This would lead to a definition something like the following:
(2.1) A moral obligation is an enforceable injunction to act in a certain way, deriving from some legitimate authority ‘external’ to human preferences or opinion.
I think there are various problems with approaches such as this to ground moral obligations on God’s commandments. For example, I think it is at least plausible that one may acknowledge an injunction to come from God, but still question whether or not obeying is the right thing to do. It seems to me that God could at least potentially be evil, and that therefore moral duties are not constituted solely in the injunctions of God, but have reference to things outside of God as well. I’m not saying these and other issues are necessarily insoluble, nor do I wish to get distracted into an extensive debate about them here. I just wanted to flag them as being tangentially relevant before moving on.
Let us suppose, however, that we can develop a consistent and plausible theory of theistic moral duties which circumvents some of the difficulties mentioned above. Can the same be done from within a naturalistic worldview? I think doing so is at least conceptually possible – it seems for example that a principle like karma would go some way towards meeting the criteria set out by (2.1), and at least some understandings of karma see it as essentially a completely natural phenomenon. However, I personally do not believe in karma, or any such natural process like it. As such, I would lean towards the view that, if there is no God, then moral obligations as defined in (2.1) do not exist.
In essence, I lean towards the view that the notion of ‘moral obligations’ is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic universe, and is really only the cause of conceptual confusion. I believe, as I argued above, that objective moral facts as defined by (1.1) are perfectly capable of existing in a naturalistic universe, and that there is simply no place for or need of ‘moral duties’ that go beyond moral facts. So, for example, I do not believe that it is necessary to interpret a statement like ‘you should behave in this way’ as a statement about the existence of moral obligations or duties. Rather, I think it is perfectly consistent and sufficient to interpret this as an assertion of the proposition ‘behaving in this way would promote the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences from a social point of view’, as well as an injunction to act in accordance with this fact (this notion of moral assertions constituting injunctions relates to another model in meta-ethics that I find persuasive, R. M. Hare’s Universal Prescriptivism, however I do not wish to get too distracted discussing that in detail).
Furthermore, I do not believe that the mere truth of particular moral facts provides any rational obligation to act in accordance with them. That is, those who ignore morality are not necessarily irrational, they are just immoral. Do I believe that the truth of moral facts provides any moral obligation to act in accordance with them? It depends upon what is meant. If by ‘moral obligation’ one means something like (2.1), then no, I do not think moral facts entail moral obligations (since the moral facts are not injunctions from an external authority in the sense required for moral duties). On the other hand, I think a lot of people talk about ‘moral obligations’ more loosely as essentially referring to the same thing as ‘moral facts’, and in this looser sense I do tend to think that moral duties exist, because (as I argue above) I tend to believe that moral facts exist.
Responding to the Moral Skeptic
So where does all this leave us? Certain theists tend to phrase this discussion in terms of having a response to the ‘moral skeptic’, who when confronted with a moral claim, asks question like ‘why should I?’ or ‘what privileges your view over mine?’ I believe that, working within the framework of Railtonian Reductionism that I have outlined here and elsewhere, the naturalist can provide answers that are at least as satisfactory as those the theist can give (I personally think they are much better, but that’s a stronger claim I won’t attempt to defend in full in this piece).
The theist could answer (something like) ‘you should because God commands it, and he is our creator and so has legitimate authority over such things’. It seems to me, however, that the moral skeptic could acknowledge that God exists and mandates particular commandments, but still either dispute that they are morally obliged to follow these commands, or even just fail to care about divine moral obligations, and not feel motivated to live up to them. It seems to me such a person has not committed any mistake of rationality here – they just don’t care what God has to say on the matter, and so far as I can tell this violates no precepts of sound reasoning. It may, of course, make them an immoral person, but there seems little else the theist could say to motivate or convince them.
The naturalist could answer (something like) ‘you should because doing so would better promote the fulfilment of idealised desires from a social point of view’ (this is often described less verbosely using language like ‘promoting human flourishing’ or ‘maximising wellbeing’). Of course, the moral skeptic could acknowledge this to be the case, but still dispute that they have any moral obligation to promote human flourishing, or simply fail to care and see no reason to act in accordance with any moral facts or duties that may exist. As before, such a person may be immoral, but as far as I can see they have not committed an error of rationality, and as such there seems little else that could be said to motivate or convince them.
Thus, at the end of the day, I think that neither the theist nor the naturalist can convince the moral skeptic to follow the precepts of morality using reason alone, which perhaps they may antecedently have wished to do. I think, however, that this inability should not come as a great surprise, as to suppose that rationality and moral motivation are inextricably linked in this way would be to believe that the most rational people are also the most moral, a view which seems highly dubious at best, nor indeed does it even seem consistent with our naive notions about morality. As such, I think that what Adam Smith described as ‘moral sentiments’ are very important – not to ground the existence of moral truths as such, but rather to provide a basis for our caring about them and acting in accordance with them. I think this is necessary regardless of whether one believes in God or not.