Ethical Realism

February 22, 2009

Chapter 3.6 “Ethics and Observation” by Gilbert Harman

Harman examines whether or not we can “observe” moral facts in the sense that we can observe scientific facts (119). If so, we can treat ethics as a natural science. Harman’s essay is related to a very important philosophical problem: Is the truth about moral facts relevant to our beliefs about moral facts? If our moral beliefs are unrelated to the truth about moral facts, then we have little reason to trust our moral beliefs.

Harman will argue that scientific observation can confirm or disconfirm scientific beliefs and theories, but moral observation can’t be used to confirm or disconfirm our moral beliefs. Therefore, ethics can’t become a natural science.

Gilbert Harman’s Argument

Harman admits that observation is complected by being “theory-laden” 120). In other words, observation requires beliefs. When we see an animal being tortured, we don’t just hear sounds and see visual splotches. We see flesh and blood creatures with thoughts and feelings because we believe that we understand that the animal has a mind of its own and so forth.

However, Harman points out a dissimilarity between moral observation and scientific observation: Physical facts help explain what we observe, but moral facts don’t help explain what we observe (121). When we observe physical objects, that physical object has a causal connection to what we observe. If someone trips on a rock, the rock had a causal impact. Moral facts do not have a causal impact.

He then argues further that the observations we make about physical objects partially justify our beliefs about physical objects because they have the expected causal impact. This, he argues, is not the case with moral observations, which do not help explain or confirm our moral beliefs (121-122). If you observe torturing an animal to be wrong, then your belief that it is wrong can help explain your observation. However, the observation did not confirm or disconfirm the belief, so your moral observation does not depend on the fact that torturing an animal is truly wrong. If “torturing animals is wrong” is a moral fact, it is not having a causal impact on our observations or beliefs.

Harman’s argument can be summarized as the following:

Harman’s argument can be summarized as the following:

  1. Observation can confirm a theory if and only if the theory contains facts that can cause the world to be a certain way.
  2. Beliefs about scientific facts are reliable because observation can confirm scientific theories.
  3. Moral facts can’t cause the world to be a certain way.
  4. Therefore, observation can’t confirm moral theories.
  5. Therefore, beliefs about moral facts might not be reliable.

My Comment

I actually agree with Harman. We will never see ethics become a natural science. An empiricist who thinks observation is the only kind of evidence might have to reject ethics altogether. However, I think there is another kind of evidence at work here.

Harman claims that our observation of something immoral occurring, such as an animal being tortured, could be based on a moral principal, such as “it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering” (123). The question is, “If we don’t know that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong from observation alone, then how do we know it is wrong?” Again, I thought Epictetus already answered this question. We experience pain, suffering, depression, etc. and we know that these experiences are bad precisely because of what it is like to experience them. I call this kind of evidence phenomenological or introspective, but it is a pretty ordinary kind of personal experience.


  • Ancient Ethics (More on Epictetus)
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    1. […] L Sturgeon considers Gilbert Harman’s argument that ethics cannot be like science because moral theories can’t be tested against the world […]

      Pingback by “Moral Explanations” by Nicholas L Sturgeon « Ethical Realism — June 21, 2009 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

    2. […] criterion. It does not seem that moral facts help explain our moral beliefs (268). He quotes Harman as saying, “[Y]ou need to make assumptions about certain physical facts to explain the […]

      Pingback by Chapter 3.11 “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence” by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord « Ethical Realism — July 24, 2009 @ 7:27 am | Reply

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