Morality — whether you want it or not

Originally published at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog.

Abstract. There are some good reasons for us to use the concept of “moral realism”, in the following sense: moral realism asks us to think of morality as independent of the will. It entails moral optimism — that all other things equal, the interests of the right will triumph. Moreover, it suggests that some interests are objective because we didn’t choose them. If moral claims are “real”, it’s because they have a force whether we want them or not. Yet if moral regularities are “real”, it is because it derives from instincts (sympathy and resentment) that are independent of the will. And, perhaps, instinctive sympathy and resentment are more important than the other parts of our psychology. If so, then moral realism is defensible because moral norms hold (for morally competent observers) whether we want them or not.

People worry. That is, sometimes people worry about whether or not morality is real. If morals were real, then it would mean that there are facts about the world that, by their very nature, motivate us to do good. We would know right and wrong by our instincts.

If morals were real then we would not have to worry about relativism. For if morals were real, then they would be inevitable — we could rest assured that justice will be served in the long run, and it will be served for the right reasons. If morals were not real, then (as Ophelia Benson put it succinctly) it would turn out that it’s a contingent fact that we care.

This is a mind-bendingly, gut-wrenchingly difficult issue. But the thing that makes it difficult is that we are lacking information about human nature, and not because we’re conceptually confused about what makes a thing “real”. In the present essay, I’m going to argue that it is an empirical question whether or not morals are real. Specifically, I’ll argue that, if morality is real, then that means that being witness to suffering is inherently motivating.

Here’s the Coles Notes version:

  1. There are some good reasons for us to use the concept of “moral realism“.
  2. Moral realism asks us to think of morality as independent of the will.
  3. Moral realism entails moral optimism — that all other things equal, the interests of the right will triumph.
  4. Some interests are objective because we didn’t choose them. If moral claims are “real”, it’s because they have a force whether we want them or not.
  5. If moral regularities are “real”, it is because it derives from instincts (sympathy and resentment) that are independent of the will.
  6. Instinctive sympathy and resentment are more important than the other abilities. Consider the psychopath and the autist.

Here are some platitudes that nobody should disagree with, echoing Sam Harris at a distance.

First, we can say that morality is about objective things. For example, when we learn that innocent civilians in the Middle East are dying needlessly — say when we learn about the latest suicide bombing, or we consider the cruel and futile economic sanctions that first-world nations use to starve whole populations — there’s no doubt that we direct moral outrage toward something going on in the world. It isn’t just a nebulous rage, a passing sentiment, a temper tantrum, or a vague sense of guilt. It is a disdain that is directed at the situation, the culprits. And we direct our sympathy to the real people, the victims.

Second, it is also obviously true that wethe moral arbiters — are part of the world. Moral condemnation is an activity that is accomplished by real persons. And our judgments are mental-states that supervene on brain-states. There are no spooky ghosts and devils, apart from the ones that are a part of our neurophysiology.

Third, moral judgments are not arbitrary. Our judgments hang together in such a way that can be investigated by moral psychologists. Specifically, we have the ability to understand each other (empathy), to be sensitive to rules in deliberation (rationality), to make decisions that are coherent across time (ego integrity), and to learn from experience. Furthermore, our morals are motivated by sympathy and/or resentment. All of our laudatory moral judgments involve sympathy, and our condemnatory judgments involve resentment.

Fourth, moral judgments are rationally meaningful. Sincere moral statements like “Genocide is wrong” can be said to be true or false under certain conditions. Sincere moral statements allow us to infer other moral statements: from “Genocide is murder” and “Murder is wrong”, we can infer that genocide is wrong. “Genocide is wrong” means more than just “Boo for genocide”. (Though arguably, insincere moral statements are little more than expressions of “boo” and “hooray”.)

A moral fact, if there were any, would have to satisfy expectations that are similar to those that we have of garden variety facts. First, moral facts would have to be modest, in the sense that moral facts would have to be independent of our minds. That is, in order for there to be moral facts, it would have to turn out that we could be shown to be rationally mistaken about the moral attributions we make to situations, even when we are well-appraised on the details of the case. Second, we would have to think that we (those who have the required abilities) had reliable access to that feature of goodness or badness. And this kind of access would shape how we make our judgments. Third, in order for these two conditions to be met in some meaningful way, they would need to apply equally across all those subjective knowers that are possessed of the requisite abilities: both for the individual and the collective. At the very least there must be some features of moral judgments that apply across all morally competent persons.

If you’re a spirited anti-realist about morals (carrying the fire of J.L. Mackie), this whole conversation will already seem like a stupid effort. In some sense it is obvious that there are no moral facts. There are no moral particles floating out there in the world that we can detect by plugging in our moralometers. Presumably, if everybody on Earth died tomorrow, then there would be no good or evil left in the universe, while mountains and molecules would remain unchanged. The moral anti-realist wants to point out that moral attributions are dependent upon our mind in this crucial way.

The spirited anti-realist is coming from the right place: they are particularly antagonistic to the claims of naive theologians who would think of good and evil as features of the universe that correspond to God‘s opinions. Since the naive theological picture of the world leads us to empty prostrations and vapid rhetorical games, I will not consider it further.

Thankfully not all moral realists are naive theologians. Some moral realists argue that we’ve set too high a standard for what counts as real. They point out that we can weaken the meaning of “mind-independence” to a point where we can talk about morality as real. They would argue that things can be independent of the mind in some useful sense without it being necessary for us to imagine a world without observers.

I think that’s right. I don’t think we would need to be committed to the view that the real world is independent of all observers. Sure, if everybody died tomorrow, colors would no longer exist, since colors are complex facts about the way that the world relates to us and vice-versa. That doesn’t mean colors aren’t real. It just means that they’re the kinds of facts that relate us to the other stuff going on out there. They are observer-dependent.

Colors are also dependent on the mind in the sense that they’re dependent on our evidence. There is no color without evidence of there being color. Colors, like morals, are observation-dependent: if we could not find any cases that inspired moral judgments, then there would be no such thing as morality. In that sense, both colors and morals are dependent upon the (individual and collective) mind.

Colors are independent of the mind only in the sense that colors don’t exist just because we decided they exist. If you have a working pair of eyes, a certain kind of neurophysiology, and a cooperative environment, then the experience of colors comes for free. Colors are independent of the will. The color concepts have nothing to do with our choices and commitments. (Well, the primary and secondary colors are independent of the will, at any rate. Paint store colors may be a different story.)

Perhaps a similar story could be given for morals. If it turned out that morality was independent of human explicit expectations and contracts, choices and commitments, then we could call ourselves objectivists about morality, just as we can call ourselves objectivists about colors. On the other hand, if Benson is right — if it’s a contingent fact that we care — then we are going to end up with different conclusions.


At this point, the critic might ask: “fine, but what would we have achieved in this case? It seems like bafflegab, poppycock, dross, and lunacy to pretend that some of our interests are objective.” It sounds like a category mistake, a non-starter. Maybe human interests just aren’t the sort of thing that admit of objectivity — they’re just a subjective kind of thing. And this concern is grounded by the fact that our analysis has become rather shifty. After all, it seems as though we’re at the stage where we’ve watered down the meaning of “independent of the mind” to the point where it borders on homeopathy. Why should we accept that “will-independence” is a respectable stand-in for mind-independence? Surely the mind is made up of more than just the will!

From the start, I have assumed that the thing that motivates the debate between realism and anti-realism is the sense that justice is inevitable. The idea is that the demands of morality will eventually be recognized for what they are (by people in similar circumstances), and then be applied prospectively. The gambit of the moral realist is that there are some stable features of the human conscience that can be expected to persevere, and eventually, to triumph — at least, so long as all other things are equal.

If this is the sense of “moral realism” that we are interested in, then it becomes clear that will-independence is entirely appropriate. If morality is riddled with human choices and commitments, then it could only be by accident that people would arrive at morally sound conclusions. Far from being inevitable, it would only be through luck or circumstance that people would come to treat each other in a decent way.

The next question is, “would it be absurd for us to talk about some of our interests as “independent of the will”? After all, aren’t all of our interests based on our choices and commitments?

Suppose we were able to show that some of our interests are objectively real in the same sense that colors are. If we can show this, then we will have shown that it is possible for us to convince ourselves that our moral interests are objectively real as well. If there are such things as objective human interests, then that would show that it isn’t absurd to think that morality might be objective, too.

Here’s an argument that is based on an analogy to colors (inspired by Peter Railton and John McDowell). We are directly acquainted with colors through the experience of sight. Still, colors are ultimately just physical events in the world. The experience of seeing a color is composed of the relation between the neurophysiology of an animal, the lighting conditions of the environment, and so on.

Some of our felt desires are more persistent than others. We learn the difference between wants and needs after we’ve been put through the grinder of hard won experience. So we learn that we need to ingest certain proteins in order to stay nourished; we learn that it is a dumb idea to drink milk on a hot day; etc.

Let’s call the stuff that we discover to be our needs later on in life our “objective needs”. Our objective needs are like colors, in that we think we have a special acquaintance with them. But our objective needs also supervene on natural, psychological, and social facts – and they would have to, or else we’d be led into making the kinds of decisions that put us early into the grave. Natural selection demands that at least some of our preferences are objective.

Vital human needs are objectively real. They are mind-independent, because they’re composed in large part by features of the world (and our reactions to the world) that we had no say in. There was no group vote on whether or not we need warmth, sustenance, air, stimulation, and satisfaction — we just do need these things. Some interesting people can trick themselves into thinking they are hungry, even when they are not; or that they are sated, when they are starving. But the fact of the matter about their thirst or hunger does not depend on how they have chosen to interpret their bodily signals.

So, some of our interests are objective. Are moral interests objective in a similar way, or do they depend on the choices and commitments made by the will?*

It’s not a question of whether or not morality originates from divine commands and moral particles, it’s a question of whether or not morality is contingent upon the stuff we do on purpose. Quite a lot depends on what kinds of morally salient mental resources we think are independent of the will. If our moral radar is powered by abilities that are independent of the will, then the prospects of moral realism will disappear entirely.

I have characterized the moral capacity as being made up of empathy, ego integrity, prudential learning, and rationality, and powered by instinctive sympathy and resentment.

    • Our ability to learn of deleterious and beneficial consequences of actions tells us something about real facts in the world. And by learning about the world, we learn facts about our objective interests; and our objective interests are salient to any plausible idea of morality. General learning, then, is independent of the will.
    • Ego integrity is essential to doctrines of personal responsibility. Ego integrity is synonymous with the ability to choose and the ability to make commitments that last across time. As such, it is dependent on the will.
    • Instinctive sympathy and instinctive resentment might draw from unconscious drives that possess some distinctively moral pattern, like the instinct for reciprocity. They are constitutive of the will, but are also independent of it. Insects don’t have a will of their own, but there is no denying that they have instincts.
    • There are no straightforward answers to questions like “Is rationality is innate or learned?” and “Does rationality discover or create these systems of rules?” Answers to questions that aim to be even approximately accurate will depend entirely upon the details of the case. There is no “rationality module” of the brain that we can fit neatly into the boxes of “objective” or “subjective”. Hence, when taken on its own terms, it’s a neutral conception, neither dependent or independent of the will.

However, when employed for the purposes of moral tasks, rationality seems to be social and conscious, and hence dependent on the will. Foundational rules like the categorical imperative, the maxim of utility, and the maximin are not hard-wired into our brains. They are abstractions that are grounded in an admixture of assumptions about human nature, social consequences, and the things we think are worth caring about.

  • Empathy, in the sense of “putting yourself in another’s shoes”, is a faculty of the imagination. As such, it is dependent on the will. Empathy allows us to reduce the social distance between persons. Not incidentally, explaining empathy as choice-dependent explains why certain kinds of moral arbiters are reluctant to understand the plight of persons who are at a distance, and who they find morally repugnant. They are self-consciously afraid of empathy, because while they can choose whether or not to empathize, they can’t choose whether or not to sympathize.

So on balance, it seems as though morality is dependent on the will. For while prudential learning and the moral instincts are independent of the will (at least on the face of it), empathy, rationality, and ego integrity are all dependent upon our choices and commitments.


But the critic might point out that not all of these abilities are equally significant to morality. Some are more important to ethics than others. Although all of them are necessary for morals, the instinctive sense of sympathy (and resentment) appears to be what is characteristic of moral deliberation.

To see the relative contributions of the different abilities, consider the cases of autism and psychopathy.

Some high-functioning autists haven’t got a rich sense of empathy. According to research by Simon Baron-Cohen, autists can’t simulate other minds, or “put themselves in another person’s shoes”. So, at least initially, they fail various experiments, like the “false belief” task where they’re asked to figure out what false beliefs other people are thinking. They’re terrible at deception — both detecting it, and performing it. But they can get along in the world, compensating by learning new rules, like rules of folk psychology, morality, and propriety.

Autistic morality depends on conventional rules. From a naive perspective, the discovery that autists can display broad moral competence on the basis of explicit instruction will force us to conclude that conventional theories and learned behaviors are more involved in moral cognition than anything else. But that can’t be entirely right. After all, even the autists that are the subject of the above reports have an instinctive sense of sympathy. When someone else is hurt, they become physiologically aroused.

Morally speaking, the real odd case is the psychopath. Psychopaths don’t have an instinctive sense of sympathy — but, bizarrely, some of them are evidently able to empathise in ways that the autist finds challenging. Uta Frith observes: “Children with psychopathic tendencies, who were educated at special schools because of severe behavioral problems, were not only very good at mental state attribution, but even superior to children of the same mental age.” That’s precisely what makes them so frightening — they empathize, and can deceive, but don’t care. No arousal. They are the perfect case to show that morality strongly requires a natural disposition towards sympathy.


The upshot here is that while rationality is able to compensate for a deficit in empathy, there is no way to compensate for a lack of instinctive sympathy. Given that instinctive sympathy is the crucial ingredient to morality, and given that it operates independently of the will, it would seem that we have reasons for optimism. So, in that very thin and vaguely disappointing sense, morality is real.

And yet bombs keep exploding, women are stoned to death, economic sanctions starve thousands, first-world governments assassinate or deport democratically elected leaders in the global south. Sympathy seems to be in short supply. How can that be?

If we can explain this as a failure of empathy, then it would turn out that it’s only a contingent fact that we care in the same sense that it’s a contingent fact that we can close our eyes and block out the colors around us. And if it turns out that we can turn off our instinctive sympathy, as if turning off a light switch, then there would be no hope for moral realism.

I don’t quite know what to think. But I do think that, whatever the answer may be, it will be answered through empirical means.

Further reading

*[Sept 2: Section edited for clarity, and to clean up an inconsistent statement left over from an earlier draft]Enhanced by Zemanta

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