This explanation helps us to understand where the debate over moral facts originates from and thus gives us the ability to open up the debate over the existence of moral facts. To start we will discuss the claim put forward by Moral Objectivists; that there are underlying moral facts in every society, that there is an undeniable urge that influences our actions and the decisions we make. This is the less popular view and finds its home mainly within religion, specifically Judo-Christian religions which have a source of tangible authority that contain codes of practise; for example the 10 commandments.
They detail basic moral standards such as ‘thou shall not kill’, ‘thou shalt not steal’4 and provide actual rules that members of that ‘society’ should keep and uphold. There are two major models within Objectivism; Duty Based Theories and Consequential Theories5. The difference here is an action/outcome relationship with Duty Based theories influencing the action you take and Consequential theories as gaining a desired outcome. Many famous philosophers have contributions to this debate.
Emmanuel Kant; father of the theory of perpetual peace, argued that “[you should] Act only according to that maxim”6. This theory stresses that if you act according to moral codes and standards, then the outcome will be a desirable one whereas if you act in the interest in the consequence then you may provide a short-term miscarriage of justice. John Stuart Mill on the other hand disagrees with this and sees short-term injustice as less detrimental to society in the long run if the outcome will produce the greatest pleasure; which of course is tied in with his theory of Utilitarianism.
This also draws striking parallels to Machiavelli’s theory of social politics, who argued that the Prince cannot always act in ways that are considered good; he must act in his best interests (which in turn Machiavelli argued would be the best for society) even if it condones an action such as murder7. The contrasting view here is that of Moral Relativism; the school of thought that argues that moral facts do not exist in a physical form. It has many derivatives ranging from those who believe there is no moral code whatsoever (amoralist) to those who believe that there can be moral judgements without moral facts (quasi-realism).
This theory argues there can be moral substance; without moral fact. This is the argument essentially put forward by J L Mackie, who argues there are “no objective values”8 but argues that there are “value statements”9 which can “evaluate many sorts”10 in relation to “assured standards”11. What this means is that there can be a judgement on the merit of an issue, which can be compared to that individual issues’ paradigm, without establishing a universal fact. This argument, Mackie argues, extends to the idea of morality by introducing ‘first and second order statements’.
Briefly Mackie makes a distinction between first order statements which are used to assert an opinion or judgement, and second order statements which give an account of first order statements. Mackie’s argument is that in general we use first order statements to make moral judgements and that this should be reversed to use second order statements so we are able to assess the status of a moral judgement before accepting it, yet they always remain independent of one another. Moving a step further we come to the issue of opinion, which was the second part of our title question.
Here Moral Relativism divides into two main schools of thought; “Subjectivism” and “Conventionalism”12. Subjectivism is the idea that something is right or wrong in the perception of the individual in question; i. e. it is subject to the morals of the person being examined. For example person A may believe that it is wrong to not give charity, whilst person B, although may agree that charity contains good moral value, does not necessarily see it as morally reprehensible if one doesn’t give charity at every given opportunity13.
Here person A sees giving charity as a ‘moral fact’ in their eyes but person B does not feel it so important thus gives it ‘a moral value’. Thus the argument that there can never be a complete set of Moral Facts seems to be supported by subjectivism. Conventionalism is the moral perception of a complete society and can be entrenched in the history or culture of that society. The same is true here, where society A may believe it is a ‘moral fact’ to swear in public, society B may not condone swearing, but sees it as a ‘moral value’ to avoid swearing, conceding that there may be an instance where swearing is not morally culpable.
To conclude, to ask whether there are moral facts is difficult to come to a definite answer on. It is clear that there are strong arguments both ways, but that there are major exceptions to both sides of the argument. One can argue, as we have earlier, that there are general underlying moral codes which we all accept as ‘moral law’, but the importance of these perceived laws tends to fluctuate in a subjective way. One can argue that the Ten Commandments are only the basis of the original 613 commandments and thus we should be following those religiously; however some are outdated due to advances in modern science.
The argument against moral facts is a stronger argument, accepting moral codes and values, but not saying that these values are homogeneous across all societies. Where this argument breaks down, is over the nature of relativity. One can argue that an individual’s view is shaped by nurture rather than human nature and one can make the accusation that moral realism is based solely on the previous society’s teachings being passed down without any rival concept to appraise their moral codes value with14.
To summarise, the argument that there are no moral facts tends to eclipse that of moral objectivist, but the question one must ask throughout this thesis is whether this is truly a philosophical debate, or rather a misinterpretation of the English language?
1 http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/morality-definition/ 2 http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/morality-definition/ 3 http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/morality-definition/ 4 http://www. therain. org/studies/ten. html 5 http://www. ucs. mun. ca/~alatus/phil1200/RelativismObjectivism.
html 6 http://www. ucs. mun. ca/~alatus/phil1200/RelativismObjectivism. html 7 http://www. english-literature. org/essays/machiavelli. html 8 P. 15 Mackie – Ethics (Full title in bibliography) 9 P. 25 Mackie – Ethics 10 P. 25 Mackie – Ethics 11 P. 25 Mackie – Ethics 12 http://www. ucs. mun. ca/~alatus/phil1200/RelativismObjectivism. html 13 http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/morality-definition/ 14 users. ox. ac. uk/~mert1230/prospectusTT03. rtf Reasons For Action – V4ARFA – 1 – By David Weinberg 4020504.