Moral Facts and Opinions

Having seen yet another moral philosopher (another religious one) make a hash of morality, I wanted to write a detailed post on my position on how morality is nothing more than opinion elevated to a fictitious nobility; a common man, made special by simply calling him a lord or a bishop.

There are a few details to tidy up, and then we can get on to moral facts and opinions and the distinctions between objective and subjective moral facts or truths:

  • The error of the is/ought distinction
  • A potted history that explains how we got to where we are now
  • The mental lives of empirical creatures
  • Facts, induction and deduction
  • Moral facts are opinions we really care about
  • Objective/Subjective moral Truths/Facts
  • Moral consequences

The Error of the Is/Ought Distinction

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how when some people read him it might seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises.

Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

The potted history explains why there are only ises.

How We Got Here – A Potted History

Let’s start out with a summary of what happened to get us where we are today. This is necessary to get to the modern day picture. If you are religious you probably don’t buy this picture, but instead seem content to hold beliefs that were established in a dim and ignorant time. If you’re an old school philosopher you might not buy it either. I’d be interested to know why; but so far any religious and philosophical counters to this following explanation, about our reality and our understanding of morality, have been full of errors.

This review of how we humans got here is necessarily simplistic. But I think the meaning is plain enough. This explanation exists in other sources, but I’m summarising it here for the context that’s required to avoid any special kind of dualism, gods and excuses for ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ morality.

Humans and pre-humans, as species, awoke to start thinking about stuff, about themselves and their world, and their place in it, more than other animals did or do. It’s difficult to imagine how rudimentary this thinking was. This development is lost in history. All we have are artifacts and then writings from societies that came much later than this dawn of thinking. In a way, the lost distant history and the emergence of Greek philosophy is analogous to our individual personal awakening from infancy. We can’t remember much, if anything at all, about our early life before the ages of two or three, and then a scant few memories remain. Of those very early personal memories, some may be false memories that we’ve adopted from later tales about our early life. Similarly, all we know now is that at some stage humans, like we as individuals, started to think and become self aware to a degree that we would now recognise as the possession of human cognition, and all we have left are stories, some of which will be false.

With little more to go on, humans played with their newly found minds, and invented gods to explain what couldn’t be explained. They also invented witches, ghosts and all sorts of other creatures, material and non-material, to explain away strange events. They used those gods to justify blaming and punishing other people that would not comply with what the gods or their priests required. I suppose this was a natural outcome, from a time when the ideas of reason and evidence were not as well developed as they are today. It’s relatively easy to invent an entity in the mind that had its own sort of existence, it’s own reality, and yet couldn’t be touched by the physical world, by the senses.

This was the creation of what I refer to as the primacy of thought as the key to understanding the whole of reality. Philosophy and religion were bedfellows dictating this primacy of thought, while our senses were believed to give us access to only some part of a greater imagined reality, and not always reliably at that. A lot of the mental stuff wasn’t reliable either, but you couldn’t really test that – you sort of had to take it on faith. And oh how we did.

Not all thinkers fell for this supremacy of the mind. Naturalists/Empiricists of various kinds recognised the folly of it. Conflicting beliefs seemed so easy to conjure up, and the only reality that smacked you in the face on a regular basis was the material world. It wasn’t as if many philosophers or theologians denied the existence of the material world and our sensory access to it. Their main difference of opinion with naturalists was that they thought there was more than just the physical world. Many desperately wanted there to be more, so much so that they really believed there was more, of other realms, gods, demons, angels. With such little understanding of the material world, and our part in it, as existed then, the balance of power remained with these dualists, and the religious in particular.

Eventually the Enlightenment, better philosophical tools of thought, and science emerged. And then Darwin. And then the brain sciences, from psychology to neuroscience. And eventually we started to get a better picture of what we were and what we are now.

What do we understand now of our history?

Life started as simple empirical creatures, interacting with the world through physics and chemistry alone. And much of physics is chemistry and chemistry is physics, at the molecular level, where the electromagnetic interaction of electrons around atoms describes everything at those scales. In small life forms, the early cells, the interaction is the physical boundary of the cell wall and the chemical transmission of information, food, energy. Information, food and energy are indistinguishable on these scales, they are just interactions of particle elements and molecules, and the exchange of energy.

Multi-cellular creatures evolved variation in their cell types, to become organisms with multiple organs. And, for our purposes here, one distinct cell type is of interest: the neuron. A neuron is just another type of cell that specialises. It’s generally a long cell that transmits signals along its length – not by the conduction of electrons as in an electrical wire or electronic component, but as waves of ions crossing the boundary along the cell’s length, with each ion event triggering the next, like a Mexican Wave. The neuron can also grow extensions – synapses – to connect to other neurons, and other cell types in our peripheral nervous system. The connections are not direct cell-to-cell physical contact of cell walls, as much as gaps across which chemical signals can be transmitted. We are creatures with brains: a collection of interacting neurons.

The remaining details of how neurons work is not important for now. What is important is this: there is little significant difference between peripheral neurons and brain neurons. The brain neurons are essentially ‘sensing’ and ‘activating’ each other just as the sense neurons connect to each other and to other tissues or to the neurons of the brain. Whatever other cell types and processes go on in brains, this seems to be the most significant feature: brain neurons are sensing and activating each other in such a complex way that the brain becomes aware of itself, even invents an abstract model of itself, me, my mind and I. We consider our peripheral neurons to be engaged in the empirical aspect of our epistemology while the brain neurons are engaged in the mental aspect, our reasoning. But since brain and peripheral neurons are all engaged in the same type of physical and chemical activity we are in fact totally empirical systems, and what we call the mind and its thinking and reasoning function is the outcome of a mass of empirical neurons working together. We were empirical beings all along! We are empirical beings!

Consciousness … humans have argued for a long time about what it is. But here’s a materialist perspective. Brain neurons communicate locally, regionally, and externally, in and outside the brain. The brain’s processes can be viewed as many layered models of processing. And such models don’t require detail all the way down. So, here’s what consciousness is: when a system of neurons has such massive amounts of internal interaction, and creates models of itself, it also creates models of its modelling, such that this modelling becomes so internally reflexive, that one model that emerges is the mind. The brain’s self awareness of the brain’s own processes is what the brain is creating, as an executive level model. And here’s the killer: this mind model does not model, does not sense, the individual neurons engaged in its own modelling process – the brain’s mind model feels like it’s a free floating entity, an abstract non-physical entity, and this is why we (we embodied brains) have the feeling that gives rise to the dualism of mind and body. The error in the brain’s model of its own self, is to give it the impression that that very model is something altogether different from the physical brain that creates it. This error has a lot to answer for.

And so here we are. Products of Evolution. Embodied brains. Empirical creatures, with brains that concoct mental lives. Conscious creatures with a flawed model of our own consciousness. Those flaws have consequences. One is an erroneous view of what morality is. Another is the idea that death for apostasy is morally necessary to maintain a religious system of morality, … but more on that elsewhere.

The Mental Lives of Empirical Creatures

Our mental lives are to a great extent full of illusions. The brain cannot sense its own neurons at work, so to the brain itself, it feels like it’s a disembodied mind, floating around in close proximity to the head, somewhere behind the eyes. The physical brain with a self model of consciousness is the reality; but the free floating conscious mind is the illusory aspect that the conscious brain has of its conscious processes, and that is what is meant by the illusion of consciousness.

The abstract self, the mind, vanishes when looked at closely, or when the brain deteriorates. We know many of our optical illusions are not in fact tricks of the physics of optics but tricks that the brain plays on itself; or more graciously, the brain is fooled into to believing something is the case when it isn’t.

Our whole mental view of our visual ability is an illusion – we do not see a continuous movie made up of frames, but rather concoct an internal mental model based on snippets of encoded transmissions from the eyes and the re-invention of previous models. It’s such a remarkable system that it really does look like the mind has an immediate and detailed and accurate window on the world.

Internal mental illusions are plentiful. There is zero evidence that an out of body experience is anything other than an illusion, and much evidence of it being an error. Out of body illusions can be stimulated in the lab and the subject tested on the accuracy of what they think they are seeing from outside the body, and they are wrong. Experiences such as ‘astral planing’ are no more than trippy internal experiences, no matter how profound the experience may feel. The same with hallucinogenic drugs: the experiences my feel profound, and indeed, chemical changes in the brain may take place as a result of using them, sufficient to enlighten one’s life or destroy it … but all that is happening between the ears.

We invent gods, contradictory gods, and make up awfully bad reasons for believing in them, and yet there is zero evidence of any god anywhere, ever, as far as we can tell. And, again, to doesn’t matter how uplifting and spiritual these ‘visions’ or ‘voices from god’, it’s all an internally generated light show.

In the sense laid out above it’s important to grasp that the categories we invent, the physical and the mental, the material and immaterial, even categories of the material such as the distinction between physics, chemistry, biology, are all fairly arbitrary, with regard to the material matter that we are made of and that we interact with. When an asteroid impact hits the earth and results in atmospheric reactions that wipe out species, that’s chemistry and physics at work, not a punishment from the gods.

In this context we are material creatures in a material world, experiencing that world empirically through our epistemologically limited sense and brain neurons, co-opting our brain neurons to perform reasoning functions on the empirical data we collect. Our gods are the inventions of brains of such creatures.

This leaves us with some straight forward results. There is no evidence of anything other than the material world, the material universe. There is no evidence that we humans are anything but components of that material universe and not somehow distinct from it or transcendent beyond it. There is no evidence of a magical mind or soul that is distinct in kind from our material brain-body systems. There is no evidence of anything like a god from which we can derive something that might be a moral fact. There is nothing in the cosmos that reveals itself as something that might be a moral fact.

So, what are moral facts? First, it might help to establish what we mean by ‘facts’.

Facts, Induction and Deduction

We can take facts to be truths or near truths about the world, or something along those lines. That sounds a bit vague, and that’s because even the most solid facts we have are vague in detail if not in appearance. How do we establish facts? In one of two ways mainly, and often in some combination: inductive evidence, deductive reasoning.

Inductive Evidence

Arguments from induction have a bad rep in philosophy, but that’s the fault of philosophy. Remember the primacy of thought, the supremacy of the mind that I mentioned earlier? That’s where this erroneous philosophical misjudgement comes from. The black swan argument has a lot to answer for.

I see only white swans. I confer with other people and they too see only white swans. We don’t presume we’ve seen all swans in the world, so we conclude, tentatively, or perhaps confidently, but contingently, that all swans are white. We have induced, from several, maybe many, particulars of evidence to the general case that all swans are white. Fact: all swans are white.

But then someone tells us there are black swans in the southern hemisphere, and maybe brings back a pair to Europe! Oh no, our fact isn’t correct any more! What the hell happened?!

Induction worked, that’s what happened. We contingently concluded that all swans are white, based on the ones we’d seen. It was inductive: arguing from the particular evidence, contingently to the general case.

And now we adapt our argument based on these new particulars, and the result is a modified. Fact: all swans indigenous to Europe are white.

This evidence based inductive argument is, in this simple form, representative of science: observation, specific data, hypothesis statement, checking the hypothesis against more data, adapting the hypothesis to account for the new data. Science is a lot more than that. Collections of such uses of inductive evidence form whole sciences, and many such collections can be used to create theories that model the world so well we call what we can derive from them facts.

The basis of inductive evidence is simple:

  • Collect evidence
  • Form a contingent inductive argument from the particular evidence collected to the general case.
  • Declare the general case as a contingent fact
  • If conflicting evidence comes in, adapt the argument and the details of the fact – and if the new evidence makes the argument and the fact useless, abandon it, otherwise declare the updated contingent fact.

For more on the contingency of human knowledge (and the bogus ‘other ways of knowing’) see here.

You will find that people like David Deutch will make a fuss about how bad induction is, that isn’t how science works; and many philosophers will tell you all about the ‘problem of induction’. They are talking nonsense, because there is no problem with induction unless you use it incorrectly – that is, if you expect it to prove anything beyond doubt. It doesn’t.

An induction argument is a contingent argument based on particular evidence in order to make some useful general statement about the world, and it’s adaptable, correctable. What could be more useful to human beings, tiny creatures trying to understand the universe? It’s the best we can do with incomplete knowledge and fallible and limited evidence collecting and reasoning tools.

Deductive Reasoning

Here we come to another aspect of the error that the philosophical supremacy of mind created: giving deductive reasoning too much credit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful tool. But it doesn’t discover new facts about the world. Instead, it tidies up our reasoning about facts about the world, and helps to link facts together in a more reliable reasoning process.

Deductive reasoning is based on logic. The binary stuff: 0/1, true/false, yes/no. Deductive arguments take a set of premises and using strict rules argue to some conclusion. That sounds pretty good. We can get from something we know and really reliably, absolutely, prove the conclusion, right? Wrong. That absolutely bit – that’s where it’s wrong.

A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion cannot be false, if the premises are true. A sound argument produces a conclusion that is absolutely true if the argument is valid and the premises are absolutely true.

That’s just fine, but there’s that absolutely again, but here it is clearer that the soundness of the argument depends on the absolute truth of the premises. In other words, the conclusion is contingent on the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises. Deduction stuff is contingent after all. But our understanding of at least simple arguments is rock solid – if we can rely on logic at all – a question for another time.

The problem for deductive arguments sits squarely in the contingency of the premises. And so for any deductive argument, we have to be able to prove its premises too, … with another argument; and then that argument’s premises; and on it goes back up the line of reasoning – all necessary for a sound argument and our ultimate conclusion we want to prove absolutely.

And so it all falls down. We cannot prove all premises in a chain of arguments. Somewhere along the line we rely on either a guess, some arbitrary decision, some assertions by definition, or an inductive argument from observation.

Some premises, in mathematics, for example, are called axioms. What are they? They are premises we take to be true, either because we have learned, inductively and deductively after a lot of work that they appear to be true, or because intuitively they seem to be true and we haven’t had good reason to reject them. Mathematics is contingent on these axioms, for its absolute truth, so it isn’t absolutely true, in any of its claims. That’s quite different from whether it’s useful enough for our purposes.

Acquiring Premises

Intuition can sometimes be good. But what is intuition other than the physical brain having established some idea about what might be the case. We don’t know why a particular intuition exists – though in some cases psychology and neuroscience can give us some ideas. But many intuitions are shown to be flat out wrong, so they are not arbiters of ready made truths. Will someone point this out to Alvin Plantinga – sensus divinitatis – he has intuition of having an intuition that becomes a presupposition that we have that intuition, that leads him to believe that … there is a god … or some such nonsense.

What about scientific foundations? They are taken from observations about the world, and a few trial and error guesses, hypotheses, that someone then tests, and finds to be good enough.

Are there any absolute truths that we can use as premises? None that I know of. Really, none. There might be some we assume to be true because it really feels as though they should be true. But I bet in all cases it can easily be pointed out what guess or other arbitrary choice is being made, or how it’s based on some observations about the world.

In the end deduction is nothing more than a tool to get us from one set of contingent facts to another set in a reliable manner. The proof of deduction is localised to the argument and does not prove the premises; so its reach is limited.

And so always, we are empirical humans, observing the world, even empirically reasoning about it, since our brains are full of empirically operating neurons interacting to carry out reasoning processes. And all our knowledge so acquired is contingent.

Moral Facts are Opinions We Really Care About.

With a working idea of what facts amount to, how are we to think about moral facts?

Are there no absolute moral facts? What about ‘it is wrong to kill‘ makes that an absolute moral truth, an objective moral fact?

Oh, hold on, ‘objective‘, another of those words we need to clear up. I’ll come back to that…. But, in the mean time, when it comes to the ways in which the term ‘objective moral fact/truth‘ is often used, no, there are none, they are all contingent, and when we look closer, they are nothing more than opinions.

Humans evolved to have the brains we have, to build the social structures we do, to have children, to live as a family. Our brains work using reason, but in many ways they are still very much like the brains of our animal relatives, subject to emotions, feelings that make us feel that something ought to be the case, that make us decide to act for no apparent rational reason – though we might rationalise our reasoning to fit our emotional decisions after the event.

When we get together and decide that killing each other is a bad idea we do that because we feel that. We feel it about ourselves, because we are survival machines – hey, who wants to be killed, right?

We have evolved to have empathy for each other, and we have developed a theory of mind whereby we think that other people behaving like us think and feel like us, and that they too don’t want to be killed.

This isn’t necessarily something that we all figure out in some rational burst of self-awareness. It’s what creeps up on us personally, through our personal mental development, and what we learn from our cultural past and the way in which it is passed on to us in turn, through our moral systems.

That cultures have tended to invent gods as authority figures to authorise these rules seems obvious now. In such a world it makes things a lot easier if you invent gods that tell us we should not kill. It’s also handy if your particular god tells you under what convenient circumstances it’s good to kill; and that makes for a very handy self-sustaining system of bullshit if that god is supposed to authorise the killing of people that don’t believe in that god and his non-killing rules.

It’s fairly easy to see how many conflicting religions can invent and then mold the characters of their own gods for the sustenance of those religions and the cultures that they are bound to. It’s fairly easy to see that within the context of some general feelings about killing, different cultures can come to enhance their morality, by constructing god stories to suit their own particular circumstances. And they can acquire some seriously dumb arbitrary moral rules along the way.

It’s fairly easy to see that, without evidence for these gods, the moral facts attributed to them are nothing of the sort: they are not moral facts at all.

All human moral facts are based on opinions humans have about how other humans should behave, and if maintaining such benefits to us necessitates agreeing that we must be mutually subject to these rules, then that’s fine. We all get along by sharing some moral opinions.

But I like strawberry and you like chocolate, so who is right? If moral opinions are just like that, aren’t they easily argued against?

Yes they are!

Doesn’t it mean someone can just say, “No, in my opinion killing is good, so I’m going to kill you.”?

Yes it does! Sorry if that’s uncomfortable. But bear with me.

Morality is all about opinions just like that. But the thing is, many if not most of us are survival machines, and we like an easy life, so most of us are prepared to submit to the general opinion that killing is bad, most of the time.

In my opinion, formed from my personal emotional feelings about my survival, the survival of my children and parents, the survival of my friends, killing is always bad news, if not for me then for someone in my society, and I can empathise with victims of killings. That’s why killing is bad. It’s a feeling, an emotion, and a reasoned argument about those instincts as to why we all should not kill – an opinion based on all that, such that in my opinion killing is wrong.

I have invented an ought as an emotionally charged is.

What about the opinion that eating pork is not okay but eating beef or lamb is? Nope. Not worthy of being a moral opinion . That does nothing for me. But my Jewish and Islamic friends feel otherwise. Some might pass it off as a cultural requirement rather than a moral proscription, and that is exactly what it is; but for many it’s an opinion elevated into a moral fact, for them.

So, here we have two moral facts that have been elevated from mere opinion: ‘not killing’ and ‘not eating pork’. One is more widespread in its acceptance than the other. The latter seems more obviously a relative moral fact, more like an opinion. To may Jews and Muslims the avoidance of pork is more than an opinion, it is a moral fact.

On the other hand we can concoct yet another moral opinion that eating any animal is wrong. But such an opinion derives from the association of human suffering with the suffering of other animals. It’s still an opinion.

They are all opinions.

“Moral relativism! You’re a moral relativist!” –  Well, yes and no.

This is descriptive moral relativism I’m presenting, rather than prescriptive moral relativism.

I can observe and describe a relative matter of moral fact: some people think eating pork is morally good or neutral, some think it is wrong, and yet others think eating any animal is wrong.

But, I do not subscribe to an absolute unbridled prescriptive moral relativism.

I would suggest and argue that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is morally wrong. That is an opinion of mine based on my observations of reports of how harmful it is, and, given my low opinion of the moral merits claimed for it, I feel I can argue that my moral opinion on this matter is a worthy one.

A moral fact is only an opinion given some extra emotional status, sometimes backed up by arguments from evidence, sometimes backed up by the belief in some imagined god that sanctions the moral fact.

But in the latter case the claim that there is a god is itself based on an opinion, but one with zero supportive evidence. And as you’ll often find, the religious, when pushed, tend to turn to human nature themselves – they just seem unable to take that last step and fess up that their god is an invention to codify the moral opinions of humans, sometimes of humans from more barbaric times, and that’s why their holy books often present a barbaric immoral god.

That most humans feel very strongly about the ‘not killing’ moral opinion, such that they hold to it and elevate it into a moral fact, does not stop it being an opinion. It is an opinion common to most if not all humans. But it nonetheless an opinion based on feelings, biologically evolved feelings.

A male lion, on acquiring a new mate, is likely to kill the cubs his new mate has had by some previous vanquished male. The killing is a bit strong for humans, perhaps, but relations between step parents and step children is known to not always run smoothly. Why is that? Human couples can adopt children quite well, so what is it about some step-relationships that are so fractious? How often are step children driven out of a home? What, of our instincts of jealously, possession and so on, have we retained from our older animal past? The detachment leading to abuse, sexual, violent, or both, is certainly not unknown. And most of the sexual violence is male on female, and the male on male violence strikes of competition. This is not to say that human relationships are so simplistically similar to that of lions [Update: Lobsters], but, we are not as distant from our animal past as we would like to believe.

Suppose there is some alien race of beings that do not have our empathy and other brain tools helping us survive as a group, but rather use some other facts and reasons upon which they build their societies. What if an alien race exists whereby the females always bite off the heads of the males after mating, or where the female lets her offspring eat her, or where reproduction is non-sexual and killing is an enjoyable sport? Where does our ‘not killing’ prescription fit into the bigger picture? You may have recognised that these are indeed other behaviours of some other animal species.

The point is that, our moral codes are arbitrary in the cosmos – but particular to us, as far as we know.

Note that this is an inductive argument, about moral facts being opinions: it is wrong to kill because all the creatures that can think about this stuff that we have come across so far tend not to like killing. It is contingent upon having a majority of humans that feel this way. It is contingent upon us putting in place systems that counter our occasional frustration or anger that incites our wrath that in turn incites us to kill others, friends or strangers. It is contingent upon us constructing organisations like the UN to declare our moral opinions on killing globally. All the facts about human history and its tendency to generally oppose killing, imply that it is an opinion acquired through personal feelings and societal development.

And yet still, some think that insulting a dead prophet is enough to abrogate that moral opinion.

Let me state it explicitly:

Our morality on killing is arbitrary in the scheme of the cosmos – nobody out there cares, the stars do not care if we kill each other until the human race is extinct. There is no objective moral requirement in the cosmos that demands we should not kill. But, there are evolved and socially developed reasons, opinions, that we have come to feel very strongly about, that humans should not, on the whole, kill each other.

Objective/Subjective Moral Truths/Facts

The religious or cosmologically determined objective moral truths are nothing of the sort. They are subjective human opinions about the sources of morals.

Some humans feel so strongly about these sources of morality that they treat these opinions about sources, and opinions about morals, as if they were objective moral truths, as if the facts about these moral ideas can be found, somewhere out there, in or from God, or in the cosmos – but they are never found there, they are only ever imagined to be found there.

But, it is a contingent observable fact, an objective fact about human behaviour, that humans have on the whole come to treat the requirement not to kill as a moral fact.

Humans have invented and hold to a subjective (personally, and culturally) moral opinion, that we should not kill, and hold it so strongly that many mistakenly take it as a moral fact.

But note the important distinction here:

  • That killing is wrong is an opinion held by humans.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many if not most humans have that opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans feel so strongly about it, and are so unable to see the source of our moral opinions, that they take killing to be wrong as an objective fact about the cosmos or about what gods think.
  • It is not an objective fact that killing is wrong in any sense other than the sense that it’s a strongly held opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans will find convenient exceptions to this general rule that they hold to, that killing is wrong.

We, as humans, have opinions about morality and concoct subjective opinions. The above are the observable objective facts about the subjective opinions of morality that we concoct. They include some explanation for why humans think there are moral truths independent of that, and some explanation about the ways in which we are mistaken.

This subjective/objective business seems to confuse some, but it’s fairly straight forward once you get it, so it’s worth restating it:

  • There are objective discoverable facts about humans.
  • One such (simplified) objective fact is that humans concoct subjective opinions they sometimes feel are objective facts about the world.
  • There is no discoverable (or discovered as yet) cosmological objective fact that it is wrong to kill.
  • There is a human-relative subjective opinion that killing is wrong, and this is (likely) to be the result of evolutionary and social objective facts about human development that we have been discovering for millennia.

There are no gods and no cosmologically available moral facts, that we have found.

Really, there aren’t. Show evidence for them, if you think there are. Sorry, your holy book that asserts there are doesn’t count any more than the thousands of other cooked books.

Don’t just declare that your holy book tells you about God. That a holy book self-declares its own truth should be setting off big alarm bells in your epistemology. A liar writes a book that declares the liar is telling the truth? How would you distinguish a liar’s bible from a genuine bible? Evidence? Well, where’s this evidence? Will it lead me to the hearsay of Josephus, or will you use the reasoning of William Lane Craig, who will then lead me to Josephus and other nonsense? C. S. Lewis? Mohammed? Oh please. But by all means, let’s go down a few of those rabbit holes if you like.

Are you a non-theist moral facts person? Are your moral facts absolute, written in the cosmos? Where? What physical laws best model your moral facts?

Moral Consequences

The consequences of all this can be disconcerting to theologians and philosophers alike, and to many people that don’t think about this stuff much.

There’s a problem we have if we take the absolute moral facts view (god given or written in the stars). To say we ‘ought’ to do X is an assertion. But then one could ask any of the following:

  • “Why ought we to be concerned with morality?” This isn’t merely meta-morality, which is ethics, but a sort of met-meta-morality.
  • “Ought I do X? If so, why? Ought I ought, to do X?”
  • “What’s the moral fact basis upon which I should care about morality at all?”

It becomes circular. The moral opinion based on our evolved feelings and social development is much more coherent. But is morality that arbitrary?

It seems that arbitrary, on the scale of the cosmos. The stars do not appear to cry out when humans kill each other in large numbers. In fact no other earthly animals seem to care either. We are the only ones that appear to care, if we do at all.

There could be some small scale operational fact about the universe, on the scale of physics and chemistry, such that when biological brains evolve in groups of sexually reproductive animals like us there is a tendency to prefer not killing over killing, based on the evolution of survival and empathy and theory of mind. This ’emergent’ phenomenon might exist. But as yet we really don’t know that this is how brainy species must evolve – it is totally speculative, and does nothing to help the religious or philosophical opinion that moral opinions are in fact facts.

Of course, it’s not that arbitrary, for us. It is the case that humans do want to survive, they do have empathy, and do have a theory of mind; and these and other factors all come together to make us create cultures (many times, independently) where ‘not killing’, at least within the culture, is valued and elevated to a moral code. But that’s about as objective as it gets.

Does that mean there is really nothing stopping you killing when you want to?

No there isn’t, not really, not in some cosmic or god given sense. There is nothing that demands that you should not kill.

Some people are prepared to kill and have no problem doing so. In the past we tended to call them all evil, based on our religious notions of that concept. But now we know there are some categories of human brain that do not have the inhibitions most of us have, nor the empathy to drive such inhibitions.

Some people have brains that have no problem killing, and it’s perhaps to the credit of our moral systems that they don’t kill more often. We have built police services, armies, laws, courts of law, prisons and lots of other mechanisms to persuade those of us not convinced by the not killing code to actually not kill.

But it takes a particular type of mind, or a mind under some particular conditions, to actually kill; and so mostly we don’t kill. Except for a number of very densely populated cities and some areas of conflict, like war zones, killing is quite rare. There are about 3 million people living in my Greater Manchester home, and not so many people are murdered – it’s news when they are. Even in cities with a high murder rate, it’s still a tiny fraction of the city population that do the murdering, and very few murder more than a small number of times. War zones are exceptions and news. And yet, when it comes to hand to hand combat the killing is small scale, and so only weapons of medium or mass destruction kill many people at once.

The Nazis were a modern exception that mechanised killing on a far more personal scale. Other genocides are occasionally personally brutal. And there’s a whole other subject about how otherwise decent people can be incited to kill other humans with such ease.

Sadly, as well as for personal gain and power, political and religious ideologies have played a big part in motivating people to kill when they otherwise would not. It seems some otherwise very good people can be persuaded to kill quite easily, in the right circumstances. Look at some of the smart young kids persuaded to join ISIS and kill for their religion.

Religions have helped prevent killing, with their imaginary god given law, but have also been a significant excuse for killing. And still are. They have outlived their overall utility. The brutality of religions was once hidden among the barbaric social systems that were less opposed to killing. But now, religious barbarity stands out like a sore thumb.

We need to improve education with philosophy and morality and science, to explain who we are and why we don’t want to kill. The naturalistic reasons presented above are enough. Develop those into humanist principles and we don’t need religion.

The non-religious answers aren’t absolute, and are not guaranteed to stop all the killing. But religion doesn’t stop it anyway, clearly. It seems like there’s a good chance that a better education, a reduction in religious indoctrination to remove the temptation to allow religion to increase divisiveness and encourage killing, could move us to a generally better world.

But we have to understand what morality is, and why we want it. We have to get rid of this religious scaremongering that tells us we’re off to hell in a hand cart were it not for religion. It’s nonsense. We can have moral opinions, and we can reason about them to improve them. And we can elevate them to moral codes of conduct that are backed up by law.

We don’t need to uplift morality into some cosmic or god given truth or fact – or to some is/ought distinction. The objectivity of our morality lies within the personal subjective experience of our common human nature. We may have only contingent facts and truths that we must adapt in the light of evidence – but that’s all we have. We are empirical moral humanists, with some common moral opinions.

Not all our opinions are the same, even with regard to killing. Morality becomes even more clearly a matter of opinion when we get down to lesser moral dilemmas. Property is theft? Words are violence? Not complying my choice of pronouns is a hate crime? I appreciate it’s very easy to get your moral knickers in a twist. We can do better. And we can do much better than religions have: we can use reason, evidence and good arguments as to why some moral codes make sense, and why others do not.

5 thoughts on “Moral Facts and Opinions

  1. Here’s a thought — most people are freaked out by the sort of moral relativism you’re talking about because it makes moral opinions arbitrary.

    You say above that you can make arguments against FGM in terms of harm — but people will respond that the fact that we consider harm a bad thing is also just an opinion – like whether we like pork or not.

    So I think it’s useful to recognize that we have the desire to ground moral opinions in some way so that our arguments aren’t arbitrary.

    I think you already sort of hit on the way to do that:

    “We feel it about ourselves, because we are survival machines – hey, who wants to be killed?”

    That we are survival machines is as close to a necessary moral fact as we are likely to find. If we weren’t survival machines, we’d be extinct — therefore all species are survival machines.

    A lot follows from that fact about what it’s possible for us to disagree about in terms of harm. From that fact, things get a lot more messy and complex, but it does provide a minimal basis for the origin of “ought”. It’s a sort of minimal moral realism.

  2. Hi Asher,

    “That we are survival machines is as close to a necessary moral fact as we are likely to find.”

    I still see that we are survival machines to be a biological fact. That we want to survive is a fact too, about those specific machines. That we express that fact, and invent opinions about that fact, is a fact about how those opinions come about. When we feel really strongly about these things we invent rules. These rules become facts about our rule system. That’s all “ought” means: it’s about certain types of “is”. My main objection in this post is to the notion that “ought” is something different in kind from an “is” rather than this elevated “is”. I still don’t see the need for a moral fact that isn’t, in fact, a moral opinion.

    On moral relativism. Because humans are unique individuals – across all humans, and in the same human over time – moral opinions vary. Moral relativism is inevitable. That’s why I refer to this descriptive observation moral relativism of humans having different moral values. Prescriptive moral relativism is the claim that because of this descriptive observation we are not entitled to have our moral opinions hold sway over others – hence, FGM is ‘their’ cultural moral truth and so we should not western imperialist noses in where it isn’t wanted, which is the common imperialist guilt trip excusing acts that under western scenarios would be objected to strongly by the same people. Prescriptive moral relativists can be awfully confused as a result – how do you deal with immigrants from other culture enjoying the freedom to carry out FGM in our western culture.

    On the cosmological scale there is no moral wrong with moral relativism. It is yet another moral opinion of mine that prescriptive moral relativism is sometimes immoral in practice, because of its inconsistency across cultures and in mixed culture, failing to support yet other moral opinions, like the right to freedom from harm.

    The way I deal with moral relativism, accepting it’s all opinion, and arguing for my opinion above opinions of others, actually eases the moral problem. I don’t have to argue my unsupported asserted moral absolutism of my god against some other theist’s unsupported asserted moral absolutism – an argument for which there is no resolution. I don’t have to accept prescriptive moral relativism the way someone who commits to prescriptive moral relativism does, and so avoiding their confusion and contradictions.

    Making morality a matter of opinion based on facts about the world, including facts about harm and so on, is just like any science based argument and opinion on the weight of evidence. Humans already disagree on the ‘external (cosmos/God) moral facts’ view, but there’s no way to resolve that. At least with the opinion perspective we can bring evidence to the argument – evidence about the suffering of FGM victims.

    The actual problem we have in practice then is arguing with someone that does hold that the value of FGM is a moral fact supported by their religion, which they feel is more important than the harm to the victims. So then we have to argue why their religion is unevidenced, and argue that it’s harms do outweigh their god’s sketchy existence. This is an example of why it is morally good to argue against religious belief – an opinion too, of course.

    There’s another problem we have if we take the moral facts view. To say we ‘ought’ to do X is an assertion. But then one could ask, “Why ought we to be concerned with morality?” This isn’t merely meta-morality, which is ethics, but a sort of met-meta-morality. We’re basically asking, “Should I do X? If so, why? Ought I ought, to do X?” This is what comes of trying to set out morality as something other than opinion.

    Everything is based on opinions emotionally driven by our humanism – assuming typical empathetic humans. The only reason we win out over sociopaths with brains that don’t get empathy is by shear numbers.

    If we lived in a world where sociopathy was the norm, we weak stomached empathy fools would be ridiculed. One might wonder if there would be something called morality in such a world, rather than just some flimsy code of agreement to avoid being killed while sleeping.

    Morality is messy. Moral systems that as supposedly based on objective morals that are different from “is” and are some special “ought” only complicate matters.

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  4. Reblogged this on Freethinkers Notes and commented:
    “Moral facts” are an oxymoron

    Morality is an opinion, literally, it’s a set of standards given a special name. Treating it like a fact won’t make it a fact.

    Facts are more or less of a way of thinking than is it a body of knowledge. I’m sure you’ve learned what the scientific method is in school.

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