• Moral Facts and Opinions – Ron Murphy

    An occasional commenter here, Ron Murphy (ronmurp), linked to one of his pieces in another thread. It’s a really good piece, with some thought-provoking stuff on the is/ought issue in moral philosophy. See what you think and comment as usual below (massive thanks to Ron for allowing me to repost):

    Yet another moral philosopher (another religious one) makes a hash of morality. So I wanted to get this down as a summary of my position on how morality is nothing more than opinion elevated to nobility; a common man made special by simply calling him a lord or a bishop.

    Before We Get To Moral Facts and Opinions

    The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how reading him makes it 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.

    Let’s start out with a summary of what happened to get us where we are today. This is necessary to get the modern day picture. If you are religious you probably don’t buy this modern day picture, but instead seem content to hold beliefs from 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.

    It’s rather cryptic – as you’ll note by the use of the short hand ‘stuff’. But I think the meaning is plain enough. And this exists in other posts, but I’m repeating here for the context that’s required to avoid any special kind of dualism, gods and excuses for ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ morality.

    1. Humans as a species awoke to start thinking about stuff, about themselves and their world. This development is lost in history. The first we know about it now is the written history and the artefacts we have from the past, and the best early stuff we have starts with the Greeks. 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 and three, and then a scant few memories remain, some of which may be false memories we’ve adopted from later tales about our early life (we cannot tell), until, like the early Greek works, our parents show us crusty daubs of paint on crispy ageing paper. All we can tell now is that at some stage humans, as a species and as individuals, started to think about stuff.
    2. 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 and all sorts of other creatures, material and non-material to explain away strange events – oh, and to blame people for bad stuff. I suppose this was a natural way to go. It seemed to be possible to invent stuff in the mind that had its own sort of existence, it’s own reality, and yet it couldn’t be touched by the physical world, by the senses. This was the creation of the primacy of thought as the key to understanding the whole of reality. Philosophy and religion were bedfellows, with our senses being able to tell us only some of 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 we did.
    3. Not all thinkers fell for the supremacy of the mind. Empiricists of various kinds recognised the folly of some of the thought stuff. 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 was that they figured there was more; and even wanted there to be more, so much so that they really believed there was more, of other realms, gods, demons, angels. But, with so little understanding of the material world, and our part in it, the balance of power remained with the dualists, and the religious in particular.
    4. Eventually science got going. And then Darwin. And then the brain sciences, from psychology to neuroscience. And we started to get a better picture of what we were and are now. What were we? We 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 with vast amounts of emptiness prevent atoms moving through each other. In small life forms, cells, the interaction is the physical boundary of the cell wall and the chemical transmission of information, food, energy – and information and food and energy are indistinguishable on these scales, they are just interactions of particle elements and molecules, and the exchange of energy.
    5. What are we now? Eventually multicellular 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 long, and 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 as much as gaps across which chemical signals can be transmitted. We are creatures with brains: a collection of interacting neurons.
    6. 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, 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!

    Our mental lives are to a great extent full of illusions. The abstract self 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 when it isn’t. 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. We invent gods, contradictory gods, and make awfully bad reasons for believing in them, and yet there is zero evidence of any god anywhere, ever, as far as we can tell.

    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 fairly arbitrary to the material matter that we are and that we interact with. When a bullet rips through my flesh we model it as a moving solid object deforming as it tears through flesh, but underlying this mayhem is the electromagnetic force that prevents the bullet passing straight through me with its atoms mostly missing my atoms in the vast spaces between tiny nuclei. When an asteroid impact hits the earth and results in atmospheric reactions that wipe out species, that’s chemistry and physics at work.

    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 reasoning functions on the empirical data we collect.

    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?

    Moral Facts Are Opinions We Really Care About

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

    Really. Show them.

    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 Josephus, or will you use the reasoning of William Lane Craig, who will then lead me to Josephus and other nonsense? C. S. Lewis? 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?

    If you’re still here, then this is what moral facts are …


    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

    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, perhaps confidently, but contingently, that all swans are white. We have induced, from several, maybe many, particulars 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 and the result is a modified. Fact: all swans indigenous to Europe are white.

    The basis of the inductive argument is simple:

    • Collect evidence
    • Form a contingent 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

    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 bollocks, 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.

    Induction 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 that are tiny creatures trying to understand the world the best we can with incomplete and fallible knowledge?

    Deductive Reasoning

    Here we come to the other side of the philosophical supremacy of mind screw up.

    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 absolutely true.

    That’s just fine, but there’s that absolutely again, but here it is more clear 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. This great 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.

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

    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 over a lot of work that they appear to be true, or because intuitively they seems to be true and we haven’t had good reason to reject them.

    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, and perhaps anthropology, 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 my arse – an intuition of having an intuition that becomes a presupposition that we have that intuition, that … LOL!.

    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

    So, what about moral truths, are there no absolute moral truths? What about ‘it is wrong to kill‘, makes that an absolute moral truth, an objective moral fact? [Oh, no,objective, another of those weasel 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 opinions.

    Humans evolved to have the brains we have, to build the social structures we do, to have kids, and family. Our brains work using reason, now, but in many ways they are still very much like the brains of our animal relatives, subject to emotional stirrings, feelings that make us feel, that make us decide 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? 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 they don’t want to be killed either.

    This isn’t necessarily something that we all figure out in some rational instant. It’s what grows on us personally, and what we have learned through our cultural past and which 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. We are varied humans, and the killing and not killing business wasn’t a hard and fast evolved feeling, so some of us had more of the not killing while some had more of the killing. It makes things a lot easier if you invent a god that tells us we should not kill. It’s also handy if that god tells us 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 the characters of their own gods for the sustenance of those religions and the cultures that they bind together. It’s fairly easy to see that within the context of some general feelings about killing, different cultures can come to enhance their morality giving god stories to suit their own particular circumstances, and acquire some seriously dumb arbitrary moral rules along the way.

    It’s fairly easy to see that without evidence for these gods that the moral factsattributed to them are nothing of the sort.

    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? Doesn’t it mean someone can just say, “Sorry, in my opinion killing is good, so I’m going to kill you.”

    Yes it does.

    That’s precisely the problem with morality. It 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.

    In my opinion, formed from my personal emotional feelings about my survival, the survival of my children and parents, the survival of my friends, my protective society, killing is always bad news, if not for me then for someone in my society, and I can empathise with that. That’s why killing is bad. It’s a feeling, an emotion, a reasoned argument 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 eating pork? Nope. 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.

    Moral relativism! But this is descriptive moral relativism rather than prescriptivemoral relativism.

    I can observe and describe a relative matter of moral fact: some people think eating pork is good, some think it 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 of it, I feel I can argue that my moral opinion 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 an opinion, so there we have an opinion that there’s a god and an opinion that this god dictates some moral facts – but that’s opinion nonetheless.

    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.

    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?

    As such, our moral codes are arbitrary in the cosmos, but particular to us, as far as we know. Note that this is an inductive argument: 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 our friends.

    Objective/Subjective Moral Truths/Facts

    The religious or cosmologically determined objective moral truths are nothing of the sort. They are the 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 never are found there, they are only ever imagined to be found there.

    But, it is a contingent observable fact, an objective fact, 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 it has become a somewhat sketchy but generally acceptable objective fact about humans.

    But note the important distinction here:

    • That killing is wrong is a strong 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 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 facts. The above are the observable objective facts about the subjective facts of morality that we concoct. They include some explanation for why humans think there are moraltruths 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 subjectiveopinions 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.

    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.

    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 animals seem to care either. We are the only ones that appear to care, if we do at all. Of course, there could be some small scale operation of 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. But we really don’t know that this is how brainy species must evolve.

    But, of course, it’s not that arbitrary, for us. It is the case that humans do want to survive, they do have empathy, have a theory of mind, and this and other stuff all comes 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, not really, not in some cosmic sense. Go ahead.

    But, we have known for a long time that some people are prepared to kill and have no problem doing so. We have called them all evil in the past, but now we know of some categories of human brain that do not have the inhibitions most of us have. 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.

    And it seems some otherwise very good people can be persuaded to kill quite easily. Look at some of the smart young kids persuaded to join ISIS and kill for their religion.

    Religions have both helped prevent killing but have also been a significant excuse for killing. And still are. They have outlived their overall utility. 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 bollocks. We can have moral opinions and 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 reify morality into some cosmic or god given truth or fact. 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 moral humanists.

    Category: MoralityPhilosophyPhilosophy of Religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce