Ethical Realism

June 21, 2009

Chapter 3.10 “Moral Explanations” by Nicholas L Sturgeon

Many philosophers of our past wanted philosophy to be as much like mathematics as possible. That would give us the highest form of knowledge and certainty. This task is now considered unrealistic. Instead, philosophers want philosophy to be as much like natural science as possible. Nicholas L Sturgeon provides an argument that ethics can be like science because moral facts can have causal power and can therefore be necessary facts in determining our observations.

Background Information

Nicholas L Sturgeon considers Gilbert Harman’s argument that ethics cannot be like science because moral theories can’t be tested against the world like scientific theories can. Therefore, moral theories can’t explain why the world is how it is. Moral beliefs can help explain our observation (that torturing cats is wrong because causing unnecessary suffering is wrong), but moral facts don’t help explain our belief. The fact that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong (suffering has an intrinsic disvalue) doesn’t cause our observation, and it doesn’t help explain our belief. Moral beliefs (and psychology in general) can explain our moral observations whether or not the beliefs are true. (Is Harman correct that we have no empirical evidence that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong? Ask yourself, Why would anyone believe that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong?)

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.

Sturgeon will argue that premise three is incorrect because Moral facts can cause the world to be a certain way.

Richard Boyd argued that we take certain things to be valuable and we can use observation to figure out how to promote those goods. However, he didn’t answer the question: How do we determine what has intrinsic (objective) value? Few people would ever question whether or not we can use observation to figure out how to become happy or promote survival, but is happiness or survival intrinsically good?

So, the real question that Surgeon should answer is: Can we find out what has intrinsic value (or moral truth) from observation? Do intrinsic values (or moral facts) somehow play a causal role and therefore help explain our observations?

Sturgeon’s Argument

Sturgeon reminds us that scientific principles also lack explanatory power in the sense that “Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Darwin’s theory of evolution… are entirely devoid of empirical implications when considered in isolation” (231). In other words, scientific theories are theory-laden. Observation is pretty meaningless without assumptions. Theory can be necessary to have an observation and the observation can confirm the theory at the same time.

Sturgeon gives an example of a scientific experiment that proves that our scientific assumptions are inconsistent with our observation: A freshman chemistry student who does not get the right results when testing gasses (232). Since we require that our theories are consistent with our observation, we have a choice: Either the theory of gasses is wrong, or the observation is wrong. We know not to trust the experiments of freshman chemistry students because of the countless mistakes that can be made, so we will decide that the observation is wrong.

In the same way moral theories can be tested. Consider the belief that Hitler was a morally admirable person alongside the widely accepted belief that encouraging the death of millions of people could only be done by someone morally vicious. We have the observation that Hitler encouraged the death of millions of people, so we have a choice: Either encouraging the death of millions is not morally atrocious or Hitler was not morally admirable. It seems clear in this case that we should reject the belief that Hitler is morally admirable (232). It seems that moral beliefs can be rejected when they are inconsistent with other moral beliefs and observations, just like scientific beliefs.

However, Harman argued that moral facts can’t cause the world to be a certain way. Universal gravitation is a description of causal forces, so without these causal forces the world would be different and our experience of the world would be different. If moral facts were different, the world would still be the same and therefore our observations of the world would be the same. Therefore, moral beliefs can’t explain anything about the world and ethics can’t be scientific.

Although explanatory power might not be needed for ethics to be reliable (and for moral facts to exist), Sturgeon finds this possibility to be implausible because he accepts the causal theory of knowledge. We know facts because the facts cause our belief in them. This is a very scientific theory of knowledge and could amount to saying, “All knowledge is scientific.” (We can admit that if ethics is scientific, then it could be a reliable source of knowledge.)

Sturgeon accepts that ethics is scientific, so he rejects Harman’s premise 3. Moral facts cause the world to be a certain way. His argument can be summarized as the following:

  1. It is false that “moral facts don’t cause the world to be a certain way.”
  2. Harman’s argument requires that “moral facts don’t cause the world to be a certain way.”
  3. Therefore, Harman’s argument fails.
  4. Therefore, moral theories could be confirmed by observation and a reliable source of knowledge.

Moral facts can cause the world to be a certain way: For example, Hitler’s moral depravity (vicious moral character) caused his behavior of encouraging the death (murder) of millions of people (234).

Is Ethics Reducible to Physical and/or Psychological Facts?

Sturgeon (and Harman) admit that not all theories have to have a causal impact on our observation in order to be justified. Some theories are justified because they explain how something is reducible to other facts. We don’t see colors because objects are colored and cause our observation of color. We see colors because they are reducible to certain physical and psychological facts (238). Therefore, moral facts might also be reducible to other facts in the same way. Even if colors or moral facts are reducible to other nonmoral facts, that doesn’t mean we should dispense with color language or moral language.

[I]t is still the apparent explanatory role of color facts, or moral facts, that matters… We know of no precise reduction for facts of either sort. We believe even so that reduction is possible for color facts because even when we are able to explain color perception without saying that objects are colored, we will still sometimes refer to the actual colors of objects in explaining color perception (238).

Harman argues that moral facts aren’t reducible to physical and psychological facts in this way because “[t]here does not ever seem to be, even in practice, any point to explaining someone’s moral observations by appeal to what is actually right or wrong, just or unjust, good or bad” (239).

Sturgeon disagrees that we can dispense with moral facts in ordinary life, and he does not believe that moral facts can be reducible to physical and psychological facts. Although Harman argues that moral facts could be real even when reducible to physical and psychological facts, those facts could be entirely dispensed with. We do not have to refer to color language to discuss colors. If moral facts are reducible in this way, then we would not have to discuss moral language when discussing ethics. Sturgeon will argue that moral language and theory are indispensable.

This may seem strange because Sturgeon is a naturalist, and therefore he believes that everything is reducible to “natural facts.” “As a philosophical naturalist, I take natural facts to be the only facts there are. If I am prepared to recognize moral facts, therefore, I must take them, too, to be natural facts…” (239). However, Sturgeon does not believe that we can ever dispense with moral facts. He doubts we can ever entirely reduce moral facts to physical and psychological facts. Perhaps moral facts are an irreducible kind of natural fact. This point was argued in Richard Boyd’s “Materialism without Reductionism: Non-Humean Causation and the Evidence for Physicalism,” in The Physical Basis of Mind (240). Some information about this can also be found here.

Conclusion: No, Ethics is not reducible to physical and/or psychological facts.

Another Example of Moral Explanation

Suppose you see children igniting a cat on fire for fun. Is igniting a cat on fire for fun explained by moral theory? A moral theory will state that acts of sadistic cruelty are wrong. If the moral theory doesn’t explain our observation, then we would expect that the world would be exactly when moral facts are different. So now imagine that the act wasn’t immoral. But we can’t consider that what we observe (deliberate sadistic cruelty) isn’t immoral! We could only consider this act to no longer be immoral if the world (and the act) were quite different. If the cat was ignited on fire on accident, for example (248). Therefore, it is impossible for the moral facts to be different and for the world to be the same. More examples can be found in Simon Blackburn’s Supervenience Revisited. It is well-accepted that physical and psychological facts seem to determine moral facts. (Many people think this is evidence in moral anti-realism, which is the opposite of what Sturgeon wants. Anti-realists will take supervenience or the falsity of supervenience to be evidence of their anti-realism, which seems a little unfair.)

Sturgeon considers an objection to his argument: If all psychological facts and physical facts had been the same, then Hiter would have done exactly what he did. If all psychological facts and physical facts been the same, then the children would have still ignited the cat on fire (250). Therefore, nothing is added by mentioning moral facts.

Sturgeon’s reply to the objection: We can’t consider the moral facts to be different in these examples without also making the physical actions different. We believe that moral facts are partially dependent on physical and psychological facts, and because moral facts are dependent by other facts, we can’t change moral facts without changing those other facts (251).

The objection asks too much. It would be like asking of us the following: Imagine that a physicist sees a proton vapor trail using a machine. The proton explains the observation of a proton vapor trail. But now imagine that no proton was actually present, but all non-microscopic facts are the same (the machine still causes an observation of a proton vapor trail.) We will have the same observation, even though the microphysical facts are different (252). This is nonsense. We can’t demand that all facts of one sort remain the same when facts of a very related kind be different. The microphysical world is related to the non-microphysical world, and moral facts are related to physical facts.

Or another example: Imagine that you observe someone ignite a cat on fire. Now imagine that the psychological facts are the same, but the physical facts are different. You still observe someone igniting a cat on fire, but this is not physically happening. No one is actually igniting a cat on fire, even though you see it happening. This is nonsense because physical and psychological facts are connected. You can’t change what happens in the physical world without changing how we experience it. In the same way, Sturgeon would argue, we can’t change physical facts without also changing moral facts. Asking us to observe an immoral act as no longer immoral with all the same physical and psychological facts is impossible for the same reason as we can’t change the physical world without changing the psychological world.

My Objection

I agree that we use moral facts to help explain our observations in everyday life, but it hasn’t been proven that moral facts have explanatory power. It still isn’t clear that moral facts are causing anything to happen. It is possible that the opposite happens: Physical and psychological facts might cause moral beliefs. Different physical and psychological facts will cause different beliefs.

Although Sturgeon is correct that moral reality might emerge from physical and psychological facts, and it might be causally relevant in the way he described (just like psychological facts depend on and cause physical facts), he needs a stronger argument to be convincing. Hitler’s depraved character might be nothing but the character of his psychology (perhaps a sadistic sociopath). The fact that we disapprove of deliberate sadistic cruelty does not prove that it is morally wrong. Deliberate sadistic cruelty would exist whether or not it is morally right. Whether or not we have proof that deliberate sadistic cruelty is wrong is another question.

Does Sturgeon answer the question, “Can we find out what has intrinsic value (or moral truth) from observation?” The answer is, No. Sturgeon never tells us how exactly moral reality causes anything to happen. He discusses how things we believe to have moral significance can have a causal impact (e.g. cruelty), but he doesn’t tell us why we would believe cruelty itself is wrong.


  1. Are you teaching an introductory ethics course? If so, are you using the Ethical Theory textbook edited by Louis Pojman? I am just curious because that is the book I used when I taught ethics, and the ordering of your posts reads like the table of contents to the fifth edition. Also, I have responded to the questions you asked about my posts. Thank you for them. They were thoughtful.


    Comment by Liza — June 22, 2009 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

    • I bought an anthology entitled Essays on Moral Realism edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. I am not teaching ethics at this time. I taught ethics a couple of times, but it was mainly applied ethics.

      Comment by James Gray — June 23, 2009 @ 5:04 am | Reply

  2. […] have a challenge: moral realism seems explanatorily irrelevant. He quotes Sturgeon’s test of explanatory potency, “If a particular assumption is completely irrelevant to […]

    Pingback by Chapter 3.11 “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence” by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord « Ethical Realism — July 25, 2009 @ 7:59 am | Reply

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