Moral Realism

Richard Carrier (author of Sense and Goodness Without God) has a longish blog post up about moral ontology, well worth reading if you’re into that sort of thing. (Via Russell Blackford.) Carrier is a secular materialist, but a moral realist: he thinks there are such things as “moral facts” that are “true independent of your opinion or culture.”

Carrier goes to great lengths to explain that these moral facts are not simply “out there” in the same sense that the laws of physics arguably are, but rather that they express relationships between the desires of particular humans and external reality. (The useful analogy is: “bears are scary” is a true fact if you are talking about you or me, but not if you are talking about Superman.)

I don’t buy it. Not to be tiresome, but I have to keep insisting that you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. You can’t use logic to derive moral commandments solely from facts about the world, even if those facts include human desires. Of course, you can derive moral commandments if you sneak in some moral premise; all I’m trying to say here is that we should be upfront about what those moral premises are, and not try to hide them underneath a pile of unobjectionable-sounding statements.

As a warm-up, here is an example of logic in action:

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The first two statements are the premises, the last one is the conclusion. (Obviously there are logical forms other than syllogisms, but this is a good paradigmatic example.) Notice the crucial feature: all of the important terms in the conclusion (“Socrates,” “mortal”) actually appeared somewhere in the premises. That’s why you can’t derive “ought” from “is” — you can’t reach a conclusion containing the word “ought” if that word (or something equivalent) doesn’t appear in your premises.

This doesn’t stop people from trying. Carrier uses the following example (slightly, but not unfairly, paraphrased):

  • Your car is running low on oil.
  • If your car runs out of oil, the engine will seize up.
  • You don’t want your car’s engine to seize up.
  • Therefore, you ought to change the oil in your car.

At the level of everyday practical reasoning, there’s nothing wrong with this. But if we’re trying to set up a careful foundation for moral philosophy, we should be honest and admit that the logic here is obviously incomplete. There is a missing premise, which should be spelled out explicitly:

  • We ought to do that which would bring about what we want.

Crucially, this is a different kind of premise than the other three in this argument; they are facts about the world that could in principle be tested experimentally, while this new one is not.

Someone might suggest that this is isn’t a premise at all, it’s simply the definition of “ought.” The problem there is that it isn’t true. You can’t claim that Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest basketball player of all time, and then defend your claim by defining “greatest basketball player of all time” to be Wilt Chamberlain. When it comes to changing your oil, you might get away with defining “ought” in this way, but when it comes to more contentious issues of moral obligation, you’re going to have to do better.

Alternatively, you’re free to say that this premise is just so obviously true that no reasonable person could possibly disagree. Perhaps so, and that’s an argument we could have. But it’s still a premise. And again, when we get to issues more contentious than keeping your engine going, it will be necessary to make those premises explicit if we want to have a productive conversation. Once our premises start distinguishing between the well-being of individuals and the well-being of groups, you will inevitably find that they begin to seem a bit less self-evident.

Observe the world all you like; you won’t get morality off the ground until you settle on some independent moral assumptions. (And don’t tell me that “science makes assumptions, too” — that’s obviously correct, but the point here is that morality requires assumptions in addition to the assumptions we need to get science off the ground.) We can have a productive conversation about what those assumptions should be once we all admit that they exist.

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69 Responses to Moral Realism

  1. Max M. Thomas says:


    Aristotle argues that happiness or contentment is also the highest good, “the one thing you want to be more than anything else.” He also argues happiness is possible only when one follows one’s own nature. (I suppose he’s thinking of character traits, talents, abilities, etc.) Thus, to enslave someone who has a slave nature is morally right. Of course, if the slave’s owner is also disposed to being a master, then both master and slave are on their way to achieving happiness.

    As long as my slave and I are following our natures, then I am doing what’s morally right, that is, only if the moral goal is happiness.

    Happiness based moral systems are dependent on empirical evidence that happiness occurs by doing this or that action. But empirical evidence allows for exceptions. So if I find any historical instance where master and slave were happier than if the slave were free, then the best claim you and Carrier can make is that slavery is not always wrong. Aristotle saw this and decided that slavery is not always wrong based on the arguments.

  2. Bee says:

    It all comes down to the question what’s the meaning of life.

  3. Gilgamesh says:


    Concerning Aristotle, do you think he was right that some people have a slave nature and others a master nature? Perhaps he was wrong? If he was wrong, then you bringing him up on this point is a red herring.

    Now, to the meat. If you find a case where slavery was the better system, then isn’t it odd then to say that slavery is always bad if you find cases where it is good? Moreover, we need more than hypotheticals–is there a case in history where slavery was actually the best system? I don’t know of one, so you have your work cut out for you. Empirical evidence may allow for exceptions, but that is true even in moral systems. Is it always wrong to kill? What if you don’t kill that person they will launch nuclear weapons? Obviously the maxim “never kill” would undo the very purpose of morality: making the world better for ourselves and others. You in fact you do need to look at the facts, and you have to look at the probabilities of what your actions will entail. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean doing that actions is logical; you might win the lottery, but logically it is silly to bet when the odds are against you, and instead investing elsewhere is more rational.

    As best as I know, slavery is a poorer economic policy, and it increases violence between humans which almost never leads to happiness. When something does not actually achieve your goals and does things to thwart them, then you ought not to do them. All imperative statements come down to what you desire, and the imperative “don’t own people” has moral weight because historically it does more harm than good, especially when compared to non-slave-based societies. Unless you have empirical evidence that life was better in early 19th century Mississippi than now, then the argument is pretty much moot.

  4. Miles says:

    I don’t understand how Richards definition of morality differs from enlightened self-interest, and I’ve always thought morality had more to do with enlightened societal-interest on the whole. One ought to do whatever is in the greatest interest to society (themselves included), but society ought not force individuals to always do so as there are cases where the use of force creates more problems than it solves – e.g. the War on Drugs with respect to harmful drugs. Either way, the above terms provide more clarity than the baggage-laden term morality.

    What’s most curious about all this to me is that the underlying basis of morality (the relevant consequences on people) has always seemed straightforward and obvious, even if working out the likely outcomes can be complicated and intriguingly difficult. Yet people go on at length about moral realism and Kant and Aristotle and whatnot! Meanwhile religions and corporations continue spreading misinformation about societal interest and discouraging people from following it in the first place. Oi vey…

    @Arun, You can never know all the relevant effects of every potential action, but you can make an educated guess.

    @ Sean, If the existence of rules and competition are an adequate test for whether something is a game, then rules and competition are an assumed definition, much like “that which would be most desired by affected individuals” is an assumed definition of ought. At least theoretically, the desires of the affected individuals can be tested empirically, so how is the analogy to games not apt? If I may be so bold, I wonder if your hang up about the analogy is really more about the fact that there is more consensus about what the definition of a game is.

    Though really the concept of games breaks down at the edges. The stock market has already been mentioned as meeting the set criteria for a game; is it one? Do prizes partially merge games with dominance contests or work? Consider roughhousing; it is the bane of mothers everywhere because the line between game and brawl is so blurry.

  5. FmsRse12 says:

    morality is a human construct subjected to all the evolutionary refinements, it is not a physical entity which is invariant under trans-universal formulation of laws that govern the most basic entities of those universes….so one is allowed to modify or evolve and formulate a new set of moral virtues not in line with older ones…..”moral ambivalence” is the driver which “refines” morality itself which is probably same as saying that stochasticity of underlying fundamental laws that govern the universe are the culprit…..

  6. spyder says:

    A great discussion on moral philosophy, but all i really want to know is: why i can’t just add more oil to the car if the oil is low?

  7. Will says:

    How strange. It seems to me that Carrier agrees on all the details of moral non realism but calls himself a realist. He thinks morality can vary from conscious mind to conscious mind and it is dependent on properties of those minds. Arguing about whether or not we should call this “real” or not is stupid; it is a phenomenon that has a direct and measurable impact on our universe, in the form of actions, electrical impulses in the brain, etc. Contrast with concepts like “god” or “epiphenomena” that have no impact on the universe, and so are not real/do not exist.

    If this was just some random blogger I’d assume he wasn’t thinking through his beliefs, and was allowing fuzziness and inconsistency about definitions and one place or two place functions to cloud his reasoning. But this is the guy who gave such an excellent definition of natural as “no ontologically basic mental entities”, so I’m surprised he’d be taken in by such a simple confusion.

    If morality is just an output of the physical system called human beings (and presumably other complex agents), what do we have to disagree about? Arguing about what is real and non-real makes less sense than arguing about what is mental and non-mental. Morality is like sexual attraction; when you see someone you find sexy, you don’t say “she has 60 objective attractive points, and this is a universal truth”. Everyone knows beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it has a large mental component. We could presumably say “she has 60 attractive points in person A’s classification scheme, but 25 in person B’s system”, providing you could measure and understand the right properties of those 2 people/aliens/etc. But you could equivalently say “She has 60 attractiveness#975 points”, referring to the particular set of features that A finds attractive. If A were different then the woman could have a different score (in A’s system), but she would still have the same score by feature set #975. Replace woman with action, and attractive/sexy with moral and you seem to get exactly what Carrier believes. Does he think there is an objective truth to sexiness? Does the whole idea of arguing about someone being objectively sexy just seem silly to you? Then maybe debating whether or not the outputs of a given physical system are “really real” or not is a pointless endeavor?

  8. Sam says:

    If we all agree that not being moral “makes more sense” than being moral we all will be fucked. Why not just understand this and realize the wisdom of “be excellent to each other, party on dudes.”

  9. Theresa says:

    True :) This post shows that we all have a desire for the truth, and to know how things should be.

  10. Defining behavior as moral depends on your big picture idea of society and it seems to go hand in hand with questions of who we are, why we are here – our obligations to each other , and what we can get away with so go figure… and yes make up any story you like . We dont know how carbon turns into life. Chaos to mush or mush to chaos ? and then – a butterfly.

  11. Woody says:

    What would Socrates say? All those Greeks were homosexuals. Boy, they must have had
    some wild parties. I bet they all took a house together on Crete for the summer.

    (a) Socrates is a man.

    (b) All men are mortal.

    (c) All men are Socrates.

    That means all men are homosexuals.

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  13. Alan Cooper says:

    @Bee#52: You came in ten comments too late! But don’t panic (so long as you still have your towel)

    @Will#57: I had similar thoughts on reading Carrier but I think that his real point is (or should be) that realism and relativism are not in conflict. Moral values, like the economic value of diamonds, may be relative but are real nonetheless. The existence of absolute moral values on the other hand is not supported by anything in his argument.

    I would add that Carrier shares with Sam Harris the blunder of referring to things like “the consequences you would want most”(assuming blah blah blah) without understanding that there is probably no single real variable which measures our level of “total satisfaction” at even a single instant (let alone integrated over time).

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  15. tomkow says:

    This is all rather sad.

    Carroll says Carrier is arguing for moral realism understood as the thesis that there are moral facts that are “true independent of your opinion”.

    This is a fair first approximation of how most philosophers understand “moral realism”.

    Carroll thinks it is somehow relevant to this claim to insist on the familiar thesis that you cannot derive “ought” from “is”: That you cannot reach conclusions about what you ought to do unless you assume premises about what you ought to do.

    This is confused: That we cannot “derive ought from is”, is not an argument against moral realism. Compare: “You cannot deductively conclude anything about Mt. Everest unless at least one of your conclusions mentions Mt. Everest.” This is perfectly true, but does nothing at all to subvert the claim that there are facts about Mt. Everest which are “true independent of your opinion”.

    Carroll concludes by saying: “Observe the world all you like; you won’t get morality off the ground until you settle on some independent moral assumptions. ” But:

    1) The fact that you can’t get moral conclusions without moral premises does nothing to show that you can’t discover moral facts by observing the world any more than the fact that you can’t get Mt. Everest conclusions without Mt. Everest premises shows that Mt. Everest is unobservable.

    2) The fact that moral facts are not discovered by observation does not entail that there are no observer independent moral facts. Thus: one can be a realist about mathematical facts without believing they are discovered by observation. Realism about a topic does not require empiricism about it.

    So none of Carroll’s arguments are arguments against Moral Realism as he and Carrier define it.

    On the other hand, none of Carrier’s arguments are actually arguments for moral realism in any interesting sense.

    Carrier want’s to say that there are objective facts about what people most want given what they believe the objective facts about the world are, so there must be objective facts about what people would most want if they knew all the facts. Which may be true but, of course, has no obvious connection to morality unless one accepts Carriers definition of morality as what you would most want to do if you knew all the facts. You can’t argue against definitions, however eccentric, but you can laugh at them. Cf. “Stalin and Hitler were good men, just confused about the facts. Discuss.”

    As I said, all rather sad.

  16. Ronan says:

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Carroll; it pretty much directly challenges my own views on morality, which is a fine and good thing.

    I’ve posted once in one of these morality topics before (long time ago; doubt I’m remembered by anyone), with my post being as follows:

    “This is nice; that first “Is/Ought” post got me thinking on the subject (the first time I had ever heard of the is/ought conundrum, in fact), and now…back we come again. I’d argue that deriving the Ought from the Is isn’t necessary, because the ought already is; or rather, there are a whole bevy of oughts running around, in the form of everyone’s individual ideas of what should be. I don’t quite see whether one should have to worry about whether or not they’re “true” (whatever that means, in this context), because regardless of that they exist. Seems like it would be sensible to follow along with those oughts, and do one’s best to make sure that what oughts one encounters, or can deduce to exist in other people, are followed through with–because, again, trying to figure out what context they should be true in seems difficult, impossible, or nonsensical. They exist, and resisting them or ignoring them is even more pointless (from a purely nihilistic point of view, mind) than following them, so…Hey, why not?”

    …So yes, I grant the point of this most recent post; there is no set-in-stone, cast-iron reason not to “resist or ignore” the oughts that exist. “Hey, why not?” is not a very satisfying response, I know, and it certainly falls short logically speaking, but…is there an alternative? If so, please tell me what it is.

  17. Ben says:

    It is a fact of the world that we will do what we want to do and so unless Carroll is a dualist (which he may be), the mechanical construction of desires and their necessary implications on the rest of the facts of the world are reducible to quite underwhelming empirical facts. Any further “ought” debate is a practically meaningless quibble over inherited semantics from whenever someone invented the word “ought.”

  18. Raskolnikov says:

    I don’t quite get your distinction. Fine, a premise was left out, thanks for bringing that up. Now we won’t forget.

    May I remind you that you introduced two premises in your “logical argument”: all men are mortal and Socrates is a man. How are you going to prove them logically? You can’t.

    So how is the “logical argument” different from the “moral agument”, except that another set of premises is used?

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