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.

  1. Georg, thanks for the catch. I was actually thinking of making that pun explicitly, but decided against it. Clearly my subconscious was unhappy with the decision, and stuck it in there anyway. Now fixed.

  2. A lot of Buddhist thinking starts with the premise that other people have the same desires (for happiness, peace, etc.) and sources of pain that the individual thinking about how to treat others has–essentially, leading to a nonthesistic version of the Golden Rule (or its Rabbinic counterpart, “Do not do unto others what you would find repugnant.”).

  3. Also, how can you include ‘human desires’ and claim to be excluding ‘opinion and culture’?

  4. I very much agree with the anti-realism view of morality. No amount of empirical knowledge will allow one to conclude that the statement “lying is wrong” is true. In fact, such statements have no truth or falsity unless derived from an axiomized system, like in formal logic. However, those axioms would be arbitrary inventions of the human mind and do not reflect properties inherent to reality.

    In fact, I used to think that one might be able to formulate some objective definition of morality, but I’ve since learned that, were such a thing to exist, it would be terrible for us. After all, we agree that if objective morals exist, none of us know what they are despite centuries of thought (for if we did know, we’d never need to have debates about morality in the first place)! Absolutely nothing guarantees that any action humans think of as moral is really objectively moral. It might be that the existence of intelligent life itself is morally objectionable, and were we to learn this is a property of the Universe we would be in dire straits, torn inexorably between our desire to do the “right” thing and to continue existing.

    It’s much more productive to look at this from the opposite direction. To realize that morality is merely an invention of human thought is to liberate one’s mind of a whole host of philosophical issues. This need not degenerate into radical moral nihilism, though. Instead we should work on defining our goals and seeking ways to achieve them. Moral decisions are then just those which we perceive as progress towards these goals.

    Josh Greene’s Ph.D. thesis was on this subject. I think it’s a rather worthwhile read:

  5. Well, it seems the problem here is that any premise that claims “ought” has a simple definition, applicable to all contexts, is almost certainly wrong — or at least contentious. This is not all that atypical of natural language terms (Wittgenstein’s favorite example is the word “game”.)

    Sean, would you at least agree that the factual accuracy of “you ought not to kill people” is no more problematic than that of “basketball is a game”? If so, I would submit that the problem is not so much with moral discourse, but natural language in general.

  6. It’s not a matter of “problematic,” it’s a matter of “empirical.” There is no experiment you can do to decide whether “you ought not to kill people” is a true statement. It’s not a “fact” in the way we ordinarily think of empirical facts.

  7. Sean,

    I’m just wondering what anti-realist metaethical view, if any, you think provides a better explanation of moral judgments.

    Some possible candidates:

    Moral skepticism (
    Moral relativism (
    Non-cognitivism (

    I’m finding it a little hard to interpret your arguments without knowing where you are coming from. Surely there are many moral realists who would readily concede that “morality requires assumptions in addition to the assumptions we need to get science off the ground.” In particular I don’t think it’s at all clear from what Carrier wrote that he would find that assertion problematic. My thought is that you probably have non-cognitivist intuitions, but it’s a bit hard to tell if you are just arguing that morality does not follow purely from scientific notions.

  8. John, not to be cagey, but I don’t think it should matter. I am basically just arguing that morality does not follow purely from scientific (although I would prefer “empirical”) notions. Once we agree on that, and admit that we need to have some moral assumptions that are not merely facts about the world, we can go on to discuss what those assumptions should be. I’m purposefully not trying to do that here, so as not to confuse the issue.

  9. Okay, it’s fair and probably wise to be cagey. I would just be hesitant to say that “moral realism” is synonymous with the view that morality follows from purely empirical notions.

    If you look at the definition Carrier is using–“Moral realism is the view that there are moral statements that are meaningful and true, and true independent of your opinion or culture”–I think there is some space open where your view and his are consistent.

    Carrier’s definition implies that (1) moral statements are truth-apt, i.e. can be assigned true-false values, and (2) the truth of at least some moral statements is not contingent on any facts that are based on “opinion” or “culture.”

    I think I can paraphrase your standpoint as (1) moral statements may or may not be truth-apt, and (2) if they are truth-apt, then there truth is contingent upon facts other than empirical facts.

    To be doggedly logical about things, if we admit that there are some facts that are both not empirical but also not based on opinion or culture, then these views do not contradict one another. It’s a little hard to know what to make of this. The word “opinion” in particular is not self-defining, but it looks like you are not interpreting Carrier charitably.

  10. It’s not a matter of “problematic,” it’s a matter of “empirical.” There is no experiment you can do to decide whether “you ought not to kill people” is a true statement. It’s not a “fact” in the way we ordinarily think of empirical facts.

    Well, is there an experiment you can do to figure out whether basketball is a game? Does this mean games aren’t real?

  11. Hello,

    To respond to number 12: this means the definition of “games” depend on your set of assumptions. Consider lacrosse. If you watched grown men participating in a contest of lacrosse six hundred years ago in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, you were witnessing an act of war. If you watch grown men (or women) participating in a contest of lacrosse in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States today, you are witnessing a game. Same rules, same objectives, same scoring system, etc. But the assumptions and understandings built into the outcome are very different.


  12. Does life have a purpose?

    I observe that in nature, existing systems combine to create new systems (nature is then a system of growth; and growth precedes life). I observe that natural systems are sensory systems in that they respond to influences. I observe that natural sensory systems combine to create new sensory systems of increasing complexity (sense grows). I observe that human sensory systems are of such complexity that they make sense of nature. This sense is put to work as “science”. Human “science” is then a product of natural growth — but also a voluntary project of human sense, with a defined purpose (to increase knowledge of nature?).

    What does modern science tell us about nature? Maybe it tells us how natural systems evolve (not “grow”), while appearing to consciously refrain from attempting to describe a purpose for the evolution of natural systems. But I find that simply by observing nature, a natural purpose is evident: the purpose of nature is to grow.

    Even with “scientific” restraint, it does not appear possible to describe the evolution of living systems (which grow from non-living systems) without finding that they follow a purpose — an end toward which they “strive”. For modern science, this purpose is survival (living on). Adaptation to changing environment (achieved by sensory systems) is then a survival strategy. Even growth is a survival strategy.

    But maybe adaptation is not a survival strategy, but a growth strategy. Maybe natural systems do not survive by growing; maybe they grow by surviving. The universe does not merely survive; it grows.

    There is a difference between the natural purpose of growth and the natural purpose of survival. Maybe by practising moral restraint, modern science blinds itself to the natural purpose of growth and settles for the natural purpose of survival. And the blindness extends to a mechanism by which sensory systems grow: the mechanism of harmonic sense, or sense of what fits. Harmonic sense is required for a system to adapt to a changing environment — not in order to survive, but in order to grow.

    For someone interested in the “science-morality debate”, it seems to me the crucial assumption is not the moral assumption “a good way to go”, but the more basic assumption of purpose: “a way to go”. And for me, the way is the way of growth, not survival. (This does not make life any easier, because there are ways of growth that lead to dead ends; Mother Nature gives no guarantee.) And the minimal (and useful) moral lesson given by Mrs.N. is: “seek harmony”.

    So, does life have a purpose? If so, what is it? If not, what is the purpose of “science”?

  13. Ray– Sure, you can do experiments to figure out whether basketball is a game. Look at people playing basketball. Are there rules, is there a competition, etc.

    John– I may be being uncharitable to Carrier, but I don’t mean to be. The problem with statements like “there are moral statements that are meaningful and true” is that they don’t mean very much until you get very explicit about the underlying assumptions. (“Initially parallel lines never intersect” is meaningful and true under the assumptions of Euclidean geometry, but not in spherical geometry.) They may be “true independent of your opinion or culture,” but again only under certain assumptions, and those assumptions do not reduce to empirical statements or the assumptions already underlying the practice of science.

    All I am really saying is that people should be as explicit as humanly possible about the assumptions they use to get “ought” values into the game, and that those assumptions are necessarily distinct from what we normally call “science” or “facts about the world.” Whether you then want to label your moral conclusions as “true” or “facts” is less interesting to me.

  14. Sean, much of the issue may be hung up on what is the definition of “moral/morality”. If we can clarify that, we may see if the premise mentioned falls out from the definition and other true premises. Otherwise, we may all just end of chasing our tails.

  15. If science is not capable of answering moral questions, what is? Are you claiming there is a better method to determine what is right and wrong, or what these words even mean, than the scientific method?

    I figure at the very least, science is our best approach for understanding what people think is morally right/wrong, why and how they believe that, etc., and that understanding the what/why/how of moral opinions is the first step to discussing whether moral questions fall under the realm of science, or if they have some elusive property that would seem to remain forever beyond the bounds of science.

  16. Nice article. I’d like to add the name of Richard Rorty to the discussion. His writings on moral philosophy are very much in line with Sean’s article and have had a profound influence on my thinking. Though Rorty thinks that reducing suffering and working for justice are “good” things to do, he would say these goals cannot be premised on any universal “facts” about reality or human nature. He chooses them because he likes living in that kind of society better than in the opposite kind. He also argues that those who try to ground morality on timeless realities ultimately, though inadvertently, end up with authoritarianism.

    “Truth and Progress” is one collection of his essays distinguishing his ideas from those of other moral philosophers such as Habermas and Locke.

  17. Sean

    Sure, you can do experiments to figure out whether basketball is a game. Look at people playing basketball. Are there rules, is there a competition, etc.

    I don’t see why the claim “immoral things are those that cause pain, suffering,death etc.” needs any more justification than the claim “games are those things that have rules, a competition etc.” It seems to me neither of those can be justified empirically unless we are willing to grant that the word “immoral”/”game” means roughly what people think it does.

  18. In reply to Cody:

    Science and the scientific method need not be the only ways we find out about truth in this world. In fact, they’re rather miserable at determining mathematical truths. It could easily be that the foundations of morality should more closely resemble those of mathematics than the empirical foundations of science.

    Also, I’d argue that each individual has a rather privileged view on what influences his or her own mind, and I think it’d be a mistake to completely throw out this subjective view in favor of objective measurements.

    (Of course, now you edited your comment, which makes much of my reply moot.)

  19. * You are pregnant
    * If you carry the pregnancy to term you will end up with a baby
    * You don’t want a baby
    * Therefore you should have an abortion.

    Wow! This moral realism is easy! Who do I notify of this new moral law I’ve derived? Do I just call Obama….. or what?

  20. Sean your post is insightful as always, but I think you’re looking for an argument that isn’t there. For instance Carrier says: “There are many facts about morality that are ontologically grounded…” (“many” rather than “all”) and defines moral realism as “the view that there are moral statements that are meaningful and true, and true independent of your opinion or culture.” (again “there are” rather than “all”).

    It seems that Carrier’s thesis is entirely consistent with the axioms you want. The “ought” that he is deriving is, in fact, not an “ought” in a generic abstract sense. He’s clear to point out that he is describing an “ought” that exists within a particular person-universe system. The person has want X (due to evolution, etc.). That’s a fact. The universe is in state Y, also a fact. Therefore, the person *ought* to be/want/do Z, since Z in the context of Y causes person to attain X. These are all factual.

    Again, the “ought” therein is not context-free. In Carrier’s formulation it’s just a fact of the system (that a certain thing will lead to another thing, and that the person will become aware of this given enough information). In the meta sense that you’re talking about “ought”, you would need an axiom along the lines of “axiom: people ought to do that which brings them what they want”. But Carrier isn’t talking about that level.

    Instead, what Carrier is saying is that there are *some* moral facts that are really true and really exist. They describe relations between actions and consequences. He’s not saying that you can prove abstractly that it is *right* for people to do the things that bring them what they want. What he’s saying is that there is a correct/true/will-work way and an incorrect/false/will-not-work way to go about achieving what you want.

    This is of course a subtle distinction. But the whole thing is a subtle argument. I guess it’s fair enough to ask that Carrier come out and mention that there’s an additional layer of axioms he’s not dealing with right now… But if you read exactly what he wrote, it seems that he’s specifically talking about a layer of moral realities that exist regardless.

  21. An Evil “ought from is” example …

    – A man witnessed my crime.

    – If I allow the witness to live he’ll implicate me and I’ll go to jail. 

    – I don’t want to go to jail.

    – Therefore, I ought to kill the witness. 

    Somehow I don’t think this is what the ought from is crowd had in mind, but this type of argument can be used to justify pretty much anything.

  22. Justin– I don’t want to be unfair, but it’s always possible that I am being so. Still, I don’t think the difference between universal and particular moral statements is relevant to this point. I’m happy to make the axiom be “this particular person, with these particular sentiments, in this particular situation, ought to act in this particular way.” All I am saying is that the axiom is necessarily there, and it is not empirically testable. We can call it “true” and a “fact” all we like, but it’s not the same kind of true fact as “the universe is expanding” is.

    Ray– The difference is that “game” is defined in terms of empirically testable qualities, while “moral” is not. Again, if you simply *define* morality as the list of things you think are moral, you can come up with a logically consistent system, but you won’t have any basis for discussion with someone who has a different definition. (Or any logical basis on which to disagree with them.)

  23. Sorry about that Max, I’ve wondered whether people can see the comment during that editable phase, and I guess the answer is yes. (The comment felt redundant and over reaching my point, so I deleted a lot.)

    You have an interesting counterpoint with mathematics, I’ll have to think about it.

    I agree with the privileged view remark, though I’d also argue that people often don’t know why they think what they do, or have inconsistent thinking, and outright lie to both themselves and others, unintentionally or otherwise, and all of that can (potentially) be compensated for in the near future of brain-probing.