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Are Moral Values Real?

In what sense are ethical values part of the fabric of the world?

Do moral values and judgements exist solely within the rational mind or are they in some sense external entities with which we can become acquainted through experience? Would a world devoid of sentient, rational beings contain moral values or just plain facts? If so then what is the epistemological and logical status of such values? Is it coherent to regard moral values as ersatz predicates which describe the nature of a subject? Similarly, does it make any sense to assign truth values to moral statements? Can we take a third person perspective towards morality or is the question forever bound up with our own subjective attitudes? In this essay we shall attempt to examine answers to these questions and to explore their consequences with the key objective of establishing whether a realist stance towards morality is tenable.

Firstly, we must be clear about the subject of our enquiry. What are moral values? What does morality consist in and how do we recognise it in the world? Morality is essentially concerned with about how we ought to act – what it is that guides our decisions given our innate ability (in the general case) to foresee the consequences of our actions. Morality provides a key part of the causal framework that drives our actions, moderating between our sensory experiences (which give rise to propositional attitudes within the mind – hopes, fears, beliefs etc.) and our rationality which reasons upon these attitudes, to arrive at our intended actions. Moral judgements provide a key mechanism for deciding upon one course of action over another given the same external premises – what ought I to do given p? In short, morality is the bridge between thought and action. Action A may be judged the ‘right’ thing to do compared to action B because it has greater ‘moral status’. But what does this mean? Is morality then a scalar value like mass or temperature which take a range of values which can be evaluated and placed in order? Does action A contain more good than action B – and if so how much more? Alternatively are moral values purely Boolean such that action A is good while action B is simply not?

The general consensus is that a moral action is one that, all things being equal, produces the best outcome both for ourselves and for all others conceivably affected by our action. The question then reduces to what is meant by ‘best’. This may be, as in the utilitarian view, the greatest degree of overall happiness (i.e. pleasure and the absence of pain). But, one may ask, whose happiness is of concern here - the instigator of the moral action (self-interest), the subjects of that action or some complex aggregate of all concerned? In addition, how do the relative proportions of these ’happiness-interests’ change with the nature of the moral judgement? Surely I will not (or indeed should not) assume the same level of self interest in deciding upon a matter of social policy as upon a decision about my choice of lunchbox contents.

Given that morality is concerned with choice over alternative possible actions according to some criteria of ‘best possible result’, we must examine whether these criteria are relative to and based in the individual, the cultural group, the human rational mind in general or to the external world at large. Firstly, consider that moral judgements are rooted in the local value framework of individual cultural groups. Such moral relativism allows that different cultures have different moral frameworks which are locally self-consistent but which may differ radically between cultures. If morals are relative only to the local group then there can be no underlying sub-structure upon which these local interpretations are variants. Such cultural relativism asserts that there is no such thing as a single objective moral truth – only the various cultural codes within which our own morality has no special status. This in turn will have a number of serious consequences. Firstly, I have no rational grounds for making judgements about the morality of other cultures since I have no independent frame of reference on which to base my opinion. Thus I can have no grounds for imposing my moral framework on a differing culture. But surely this itself is a moral judgement which has no objective foundation? Conversely, what grounds can I have for allowing other cultures to follow moral practices that I believe to be wrong according to my own values?

But surely the argument of cultural relativism is unsound. The conclusion (there is no objective truth in morality) does not really follow from the premise (that there are different moral codes between cultures) and, even if the premise were true, the conclusion might still be false. The problem here is that the premise and conclusion occupy different domains of discourse and logical entailment cannot cross from one to the other. The premise is concerned with the domain of people’s beliefs (what is right and wrong) while the conclusion is concerned with what is actually the case in the world. As an analogy, I might argue that because some people believe the earth is flat while others believe that it is a sphere that there is in fact no objective truth of the matter! It must then be the case that the argument from cultural relativism leaves open the question of objective moral values.

Let us consider the opposite position of moral realism. Here it is asserted that moral values exist independently of whether there are moral agents in the world able to act according to these values. Value judgements of good and just would exist therefore even within a dead universe devoid of the mental realm. Plato is perhaps one of the earliest advocates of this view, with the form of the ‘good’ representing the ultimate and supreme form from which all other forms derive. Within the experiential world of becoming we come to apprehend and act according to the form of the good through experience, rational thought and moral instruction. But what follows if moral values are indeed external third person perspective entities? Firstly, they must be analogous to primary qualities such as size, shape, motion and must therefore remain constant independent of any observer. Taking goodness as an example, if realism is true then a thing can be inherently good in itself and not only in consequence of the experience of some observer. If so then moral values must play the logical role of predicates able to confer a truth value to any moral statement. Thus, ‘this man is good’ must be regarded as a proposition with a definite truth value – just as I might say ‘this man has ginger hair’. Moreover, if two observers of an event proclaim that ‘the event is good’ (or just, right, fair etc.), then these statements make the same factual claim and are not just expressing the personal feelings of the speaker. In short, there is an objective fact in the world that ‘this event is good’. Given a set of external objective moral values then it is the task of moral agents to become acquainted with these values and act according to them.

There are a number of immediate and fundamental objections to the realist position. The two most well known were raised by J.L Mackie (Ethics, Inventing Right and Wrong). Firstly we have the argument from moral relativism. If there is a single objective set of moral values, then why is it that we see a variety of radically different moral systems amongst the cultural groups in the world? Surely, if realism were true then we should see a small number of closely related systems sharing fundamental axioms. It is not just that these various moral systems are different; they can be mutually contradictory in a way that makes any notion of a single objective reality a nonsense. However, this is not a serious objection since it is perfectly possible that all but one (or even all) of the moral systems are in fact in error. Given the frailty of human perception and rationality, then why should we expect a uniformly correct appreciation of the true moral framework as opposed to some distorted or misconceived version of the truth?

We might also argue, as does Mackie in his ‘argument from queerness’, that, if moral values are real then they must comprise some very strange substance indeed –utterly unlike any other substances in the universe. How, for example, is it possible for us to apprehend these external values in order to act on them – do we have some as yet undiscovered faculty of moral perception? How can we come to know these real moral values and what causal role do they play in human affairs? If moral values exist outside ourselves in some realm of morality then how can I judge that my conception of moral truth is valid or that I am correctly following moral rules? There would appear to be no empirical methods for verifying the truth (correctness) of a moral judgement. Moral values must then be different in fundamental character from other real properties of the external world. Moral values, clearly, cannot be looked for as primary qualities upon which two observers can simultaneously agree. The central problem here is the search for moral properties which are derivable from (or are explicable in terms of) empirically verifiable properties. In other words, how is it possible to derive moral values from statements of fact – or as David Hume put it, how can we make an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’?

The realist might counter the argument from queerness by crying ‘but surely we do have true knowledge of moral values. We do know whether our actions are right or wrong. Surely there are other entities in the world than we cannot deny and yet are beyond empirical detection from a third person viewpoint.’ Richard Price attacks Mackie’s argument by proposing that ideas such as number, identity, substance, causality time and space are themselves beyond empirical knowledge in just the same way as moral values. If we possess the mental faculty to apprehend the truth of such concepts then why cannot we have the ability to directly perceive moral rightness and wrongness? But surely the key difference here is that a complete account of the world as we experience it is incomplete unless we include these other elements as objective properties or events. The problem with moral values is that they are not required to complete a account of the external world which is wholly complete and consistent. There is nothing missing in a third person account of the world that excludes moral values. In addition, objective moral values would need to be inherently action-guiding and motivating. Surely the very essence of moral laws is concerned with their intimate effect upon the mental. It is difficult to see, as the realist position requires, how such values could arise from or supervene upon ordinary substance in the absence of mind itself.

If we reject that moral values are either objectively real or cultural artefacts, then we must embrace them as subjective entities which originate within and which are wholly experienced by the sentient moral agent alone. Moral values are subjective if they exist only in the sense that they are thought to hold or exist in the mind of the beholder. According to the subjectivist view of morals, to ascribe goodness to a person is not to perceive some inherent quality or property but is to express a feeling or attitude of the observer towards the subject. In other words, nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Thus, taking the subjective approach, morality is not a means of discovering some objective truth about the world – it is a mental framework governing one’s attitude to facts about the world and which guides one’s actions in the world.

For example, my statement that ‘murder is bad’ is not a verifiable statement about the external world – it is an expression of my attitude towards the act of murder. This may be interpreted in different ways. I may be saying ‘I do not like to do murder’, or ‘I do not like to watch murder being committed’, or perhaps ‘one ought not to murder’ or even as the imperative ‘ do not murder!’. But this simple approach to subjectivism is surely an inadequate account. If I express a moral statement then, according to this view, I am merely expressing my approval (or disapproval) or some subject action. But this would mean that I can never be wrong in my moral judgements – I would be infallible. But, since clearly we can be mistaken, even while holding sincere beliefs, this is incorrect and hence simple subjectivism must be false.

Furthermore, consider two individuals expressing divergent moral opinions: A says ‘eating people is wrong’ while B says ‘eating people is right’. Clearly they are making contradictory statements about the same subject. But, taking the simple interpretation of moral subjectivism, they would actually agree with each other’s statement in the sense of ‘I agree that A/B approves/disapproves of eating people’. Hence moral statements cannot be just about the speaker’s attitude to the subject – something crucial is left out of the account. What is it that bridges the gap between an ‘is’ (empirical facts about the world) and the corresponding ‘ought’ that guides our consequential actions?

David Hume argued that we are motivated only by our emotions; not by our reason. Logic and reason alone are clearly insufficient to drive our actions. Hence, if morality has a motivating force, then there must be moral emotions. For Hume, the motivating passions that drive us may be differentiated into two classes: those concerned with self-interest and those concerned with sympathy for others. It is this sympathy that, when in circumstances where or self-interest is allowed to subside, allows us to adopt a third person viewpoint of the world and reflect impartially on our actions within it. While fainter than the passions that drive our self-interest, these sympathetic passions are nevertheless consistent and more stable. Because we share this sympathetic disposition as a society of individuals, then collectively our moral sentiments provide a far stronger force than individual passion. It is this disposition to sympathy with others that leads to communally agreed constraints on our actions and is thus the origin of morality.

The concept of Humean sympathy is perhaps easier to understand however if considered in terms of our appreciation of other minds. Evolution and selection have developed the uniquely human ability to rationalise together with the disposition to believe that there are other rational minds that share the same qualitative experience of the world as we do. We experience pain, hunger, despair and fear for example while being able to appreciate that our fellow creatures also possess sentient minds able to experience the same unhappiness. Furthermore, we have advanced powers of reasoning able to build an internal model of the world within which we can mentally play out various scenarios in which potential actions have different consequences. Our ability to do this has been selected for by evolution since it gives us a critical advantage over non-sapient agents in the struggle for survival. Crucially though this faculty has the consequence that we are able also to appreciate that certain actions will cause pain, hurt or damage (physical or psychological) to other humans in our vicinity. This alone would still be insufficient to account for morality. The critical step is to shift our mental viewpoint (the seat of the ‘self’) to the recipient of our actions and to be able to imagine the consequential experience. In short, we possess the critical ability to empathise with other (human) minds and to appreciate (to a greater or lesser degree) what it is like to be that other person. Like all animals, we have an inbuilt disposition to avoid damage and injury to ourselves. Empathy, derived as a consequence of our ability to model the world mentally, then transposes this protective drive onto other humans possibly affected by our actions. In short, the basis for human morality arises from the fact that we are behaviourally conditioned to avoid the infliction of pain or suffering on our fellow humans. From this merely behavioural pre-disposition, human rationality and culture have constructed the systems of moral codes that we see in all human societies.

The basis of a subjective moral agent then is comprised of a number of objective facts: the ability to experience pain and suffering, the ability to conceive of other minds, the ability to rationalise, and (crucially) the ability to empathise. The absence of any one of these traits leads to the absence of moral behaviour. The psychopath for example has a severely restricted ability to empathise and hence to understand the pain and suffering potentially caused by his/her actions. Likewise, autistic children, who have no innate concept of other minds, require careful guidance and care in order to prevent them from behaving in ways that, in a normal child, would be regarded as immoral. Even in normal children, moral education consists in appealing to an initially poorly developed ability to empathise in order to instil this ability to appreciate the moral consequences of our actions.


1. Rene Descartes, Meditations of First Philosophy, 1
2. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind
3. Daniel Dennet, Consciousness Explained
4. Stephen Priest, Theories of the Mind