Ethical Realism

November 4, 2010

What are Moral Facts?

If you merely look at the world of tables, chairs, and atoms, you won’t find moral facts anywhere. Some people have suggested that moral facts are utterly mysterious—that we have no idea what could make something right or wrong. Some people decide that moral facts can’t exist because they are too “spooky.” Other people decide that moral facts could only be true with an independently existing moral realm of Platonic forms or with the existence of God. I don’t think moral facts are utterly mysterious or offensively spooky because we do have some ideas concerning what could make something good, bad, right, or wrong without being overly spooky—and I don’t think moral facts require anything like Platonic forms or God. That’s not to say that there is no mystery surrounding moral facts. I suggest that moral facts are primarily concerned with intrinsic values, but we are also interested in alternate possibilities.

What exactly do we want to know when we ask for “moral facts?” We want to know how reality relates to morality. We think that we know some “moral truths,” such as (a) suffering is bad, and (b) you shouldn’t cause needless suffering. Truth is usually understood to be language used that corresponds to reality appropriately. To say that “my hand is solid” is to say that I really have a solid hand in a world independently of my sentence. The statement is true if it corresponds to a reality rather than an illusion, hallucination, or dream. We want to know, if I have a solid hand because there really is a solid hand connected to my body, then what makes it true when we say that “pain is bad” or “you shouldn’t cause needless suffering?” What sort of reality can correspond to those facts?

Intrinsic values

It’s not too difficult to realize that some things have a property of “goodness” or “badness.” Some things are intrinsically good (good just for existing) and others are intrinsically bad (bad just for existing). We agree that happiness is intrinsically good, but suffering is intrinsically bad. We don’t just dislike pain or prefer happiness. We dislike pain and prefer happiness for a reason—we experience one as bad and one as good. This sort of experience is persuasive and potentially reliable, just like experiences of our own thoughts and “qualia” (the “what it’s like” of our experiences). When I experience my thoughts it is quite similar to “hearing” a voice, but I can usually tell the difference between my thoughts and real sounds. When I see red it looks a certain way. I can imagine that there could be primary colors other than red, blue, and yellow, but I have no idea what they could be like. How do I know what it’s like to see red or experience my own thoughts? The same way that I know what it’s like to be happy or suffer. I’ve experienced those things, too. If someone asks, “What’s it like to feel severe pain?” then I need to try to explain what it means for something to be “intrinsically bad” because that’s how I experience it. (I discuss this in more detail here.)

Someone might still wonder, “What makes suffering bad?” or “What makes happiness good?” They could argue that the evidence for intrinsic value is found within experience, but it’s still not clear what sort of reality the “badness” or “goodness” corresponds to. My answer is that these are properties of actual things—such as happiness and suffering—and these two things in particular exist within our minds. I think it is plausible to think that the goodness of happiness comes from the same place as happiness (a living body) and the badness of suffering comes from the same place as suffering (the body). I’m not saying that happiness and suffering are nothing more than our brain or body, but that is where they seem to “originate from.” This is an “emergentist” or “non-reductive materialistic” understanding of reality. I don’t think it would be right to say that happiness is nothing but a certain variety of brain states. Happiness is a real and irreducible part of reality that has a materialistic origin. Certain material conditions can give rise to various phenomena. In the same way the goodness of happiness is also a real and irreducible part of reality.

What kind of thing is a property? What is it for my hand to be solid, for green to look a certain way, and so on? I don’t have a good answer to that question at this moment, but it doesn’t seem objectionably mysterious. I’m not going to reject that properties exist—that my hand is solid or that green looks a certain way—just because we don’t know how exactly properties relate to reality.

Alternative possibilities

Although intrinsic values can explain where one element of morality comes from, it doesn’t necessarily answer all questions relevant to morality. David Hume made it clear that the physical objects in the world (what is the case) doesn’t seem to tell us what we should do (what ought to be the case). However, if we admit that intrinsic values exist, then we know that we should help people be happy and we should refuse to make people suffer because we have some control over the happiness and suffering in the world (and therefore some control over the intrinsic value that exists in the world).

It’s not merely the fact that happiness exists that makes it so that I should help people be happy—it’s the fact that there are alternate courses of actions and some lead to more happiness and others thwart people’s happiness. This is no more mysterious than the fact that you shouldn’t eat too much chocolate to stay healthy, or the fact that you should use good reasoning when you argue to learn the truth. There are goal-oriented right and wrong courses of action. For example, our goal to be healthy means that we shouldn’t eat too much chocolate because there are alternate courses of actions that have various effects on my health. Some courses of actions will make me healthier than others. In the same way we all share the goal of promoting intrinsic values because these things “really matter” and have overriding importance over our other goals, and we can compare how each course of action will lead to more or less intrinsic value.

What “ought to be the case” is relevant to “right” and “wrong.” It is right to eat healthy and wrong to eat too much chocolate given our goal to be healthy. It is right to help people (or other sentient animals) be happy and wrong to cause needless suffering given the fact that one course of action promotes what is intrinsically good and the other promotes what is intrinsically bad.

Some people aren’t content with this understanding because it’s “vague.” However, health and rationality are also vague. It’s not entirely clear how much chocolate is “too much,” and it might depend on the situation. In a similar way it’s not clear how much happiness (if any) we need to try to promote. Many people think it’s wrong not to try to promote any happiness (i.e. we have a duty to help the needy). We know that there are some clear cut cases—some actions should be called right and others should be called wrong—but there are some unclear cases as well. That’s the main reason why moral philosophy exists. People aren’t always sure how to solve “difficult cases.” Also, moral philosophers have never (or rarely) tried to give us a computer program that could answer all of our moral questions because morality is complex and we need to understand the potentially infinite relevant details of the situation we are in. We tend to be better at solving moral problems found within our own lives through at least some appeal to intuition rather than something like a computer program that could decide right from wrong for us.

Some people seem to think that vagueness found in morality proves that morality is a human invention or is delusional. I disagree because there are clear cut cases and a reality that we are trying to understand when making moral judgments. However, I agree that we as human beings have no choice but to make arbitrary choices and distinctions when our knowledge is limited. We have to make choices based on the information that is available. It might often be impossible to decide right from wrong when we have no way of knowing what actions will do more good.


I must admit that our understanding of moral facts is limited and we think we know certain moral truths that might not be adequately explained by our limited understanding of the facts. For example:

  1. Keeping promises is important to morality.
  2. Personal relationships have some relation to what we ought to do.
  3. It is more important that we don’t hurt people rather than help people.
  4. Our duty to help others doesn’t override our ability to have a personal life.
  5. Fairness or equality are important to morality.

Keeping promises is important to morality.

When you promise to meet a friend for lunch, we think that it would be wrong not to meet your friend for lunch. This could be for at least two reasons. One, you will waste your friend’s time while she waits for you, and she could have had something more important to do. Two, you will destroy your own reputation and it’s beneficial for you to have people trust you.

Notice that when we break a promise, we have some responsibility to explain why we were “excused.” For example, if your car broke down and you had no way to call your friend to let her know you couldn’t show up. Even with an excuse, we often think that some compensation is in order. You might say you will “make it up” to your friend.

However, we think we have an even stronger obligation to save a life when doing so at little cost to ourselves. If we see a child drowning in a shallow pool of water, and we can easily save the child’s life, then it is of the utmost importance that we do so. However, I don’t know that the child’s family would find “compensation” acceptable in that situation. I can’t imagine trying to “make it up” to anyone if you let a child suffer serious injury.

Personal relationships have some relation to what we ought to do.

For example, parents have a “duty” to care for their children. I find that personal relationships are essential for morality based on purely pragmatic reasons. Society shares responsibility and we divvy the duties to various people within the community. Our society requires that parents either care for their child or take the necessary steps to put the child up for adoption, and it is the responsibility of our community to have doctors without requiring every single person to become a doctor. We have many needs that our communities have a responsibility to fulfill, but we don’t require that every single person helps meet every single need. This is an example of “group responsibility” where a group organizes itself into various specializations for increased productivity.

It is more important that we don’t hurt people rather than help people.

Perhaps the greatest mystery to morality is why helping people is more important than our obligation of noninjury. It’s almost always wrong to steal from others—even though we usually steal to help someone else. One person loses $5 but someone else attains $5. Such an action can actually promote intrinsic value when one person is in need of $5 and another isn’t. Why is it usually wrong to hurt people even when necessary to help others?

First, hurting people might simply be more important than helping people in terms of intrinsic value. Causing suffering might be worse than helping someone be happy. However, saving two lives by killing another seems wrong even though the value gained is greater than the value lost.

Second, hurting people to help others is “too risky.” We don’t actually know that our action will have the results that we hope for. For example, if I kill one person to use their organs to save the lives of two other people, it might not save the lives of the others as I hoped. The so-called rational of using the atom bombs against Japan to save “millions of lives” would be an obvious case of overly risky behavior based on unpredictable outcomes, even if the rational was correct.

Consider the recent experiment in moral psychology—people thought it would be wrong to throw a man in front of a train to save lives, but it would be right to change the train’s direction to hit one person rather than several others. In both cases one person could be sacrificed to save the lives of others, but people thought it was right to kill people changing the train’s direction rather than by doing a violent act of throwing a man overboard. Why? I think it’s pretty obvious that these two situations are totally different. You can’t easily predict what will happen when you try to throw a man overboard. It’s a very risky action to take.

Our duty to help others doesn’t override our ability to have a personal life.

Although helping others tends to have a greater impact to promote intrinsic values than watching television and spending time with friends, we don’t think we should spend every waking moment helping others. We think this would be “too demanding” on people, and people who do a great deal to help others can actually do so “above the call of duty.”

Why is it that morality itself isn’t the sole priority in our lives and we are justified to enjoy ourselves? I have three suggestions. One, we aren’t obligated to help everyone at all times in every possible way because much of our responsibility is dispersed within a group. We share our responsibilities to help others. Two, we aren’t obligated to help others more than anyone else in our group. We can make demands of each other, but it would be unreasonable to give ourselves (and others) unlimited moral obligations. (That’s not to say that we shouldn’t help people more than anyone else anyway.) Three, we aren’t obligated to do anything too difficult, but there are unlimited possibilities of helping others. We couldn’t possibly help everyone in every way possible, so doing so would be “too difficult.” Additionally, we might suspect that giving up a personal life would also be “too difficult” at least for most people. They either lack the motivation or the energy to spend too much of their free time helping others.

Fairness or equality are important to morality.

For example, when a judge or jury finds someone “guilty,” they should do so because the person really is “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” not just because finding the person guilty will prevent a riot, because we are all “equal” before the law and it would be “unfair” to treat some people as above or below the law.

Additionally, we find it important that all children have access to a good education. It would be unfair to treat children unequally and give only rich children a good education, which would inevitably keep the rich in power. All children have equal “merit” to have a good education because all children have roughly equal value—and we want hard (and smart) work to “pay off” rather than merely distribute wealth based on inheritance.

Why is fairness and equality so important? I suggest the following. Equality and fairness could be based on the fact that it ultimately promotes intrinsic value. We should think twice about becoming criminals if it will end up warranting punishment, and we should think twice about being lazy or stupid if doing so will warrant lower pay or lower position in society. Rewarding people based on their “merit” could merely exist to help promote certain virtues that help society, and punishing people based on their “merit” could exist to help deter certain vices that harm society.

One difficulty with my suggestion is that there might be some situations that would warrant an exception to the rule. It might be justified to find an innocent person to be guilty if enough lives are saved. Again, this might be an issue that is difficult to solve due to the vagueness of morality, but I think at least one major concern is that finding an innocent person to be guilty might not have the consequences we hope for. We shouldn’t be overconfident about our ability of predicting human behavior.


We don’t fully understand what sort of facts make our moral judgments true, but we do know quite a bit about it. We might not know for sure what exactly properties are, but we have good reason to believe that there are intrinsic values and they are properties of things. We don’t know for sure why it’s more important to refuse to hurt people than to be willing to help them, but we do have good reason to believe that we have some control over helping and hurting people.


  1. >>people thought it would be wrong to throw a man in front of a train to save lives

    To add to the point you do not know if the persons body would stop the n train. The other thing is that the person was not in danger, unless you consider the person choosing how to act as an intrinsic danger to all of us. Well the man on the train was not involved in the situation, until someone decides to toss him into the situation. In the other situation there are two choices and the only factors you know at the time to decide is that one track has one person and the other has several. Both groups are tied to the situation. Several people, all factors being equal would have more value than the one. That could change if we knew the one person was an important person to the world and the several were all hardened criminals. Then you would have other factors to weigh to help you decide.

    >>Additionally, we find it important that all children have access to a good education. It would be unfair to treat children unequally and give only rich children a good education, which would inevitably keep the rich in power.

    While on the surface I agree we all find this important up through grade 12, but after that it is survival of the richest. I wish that would change.

    >>It might be justified to find an innocent person to be guilty if enough lives are saved.

    I don’t think that will ever be a moral choice. The taking of ones liberty unjustly would in my opinion never be right or moral. I can not think of a situation in where it would make sense to me. Like an angry mob? It would be the job of the government to explain the persons innocence and protect the individual if necessary.

    I was interrupted and lost my train of thought…

    Nice post🙂

    Comment by Mike — November 5, 2010 @ 3:30 am | Reply

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for the compliment and comments.

    You said,

    I don’t think that will ever be a moral choice. The taking of ones liberty unjustly would in my opinion never be right or moral. I can not think of a situation in where it would make sense to me. Like an angry mob? It would be the job of the government to explain the persons innocence and protect the individual if necessary.

    There might be no situation where it would ever be “right” or we might just have a limited imagination. I don’t know that we could rule out such a possibility, but most Americans share your belief. If an argument can actually prove that finding an innocent man guilty is wrong no matter what, that would be quite impressive.

    Comment by James Gray — November 5, 2010 @ 3:49 am | Reply

  3. Fantastic article.

    I think you understate the importance of knowledge and prediction in moral judgments. You say that “hurting people to help others is ‘too risky,'” but I think that’s the crux of the issue. The human brain is incredibly complex, especially when contemplated by the human brain. So much more so are several human brains acting in concert. Tough moral judgments frequently involve predicting what others will do, and that’s where the difficulty exists.

    Imagine we could know with certainty the Full Consequences of a particular action. Imagine you see a woman about to be murdered, and you have the ability to intervene and stop it. It’s an easy moral choice. But suppose you are omniscient. And suppose further that this omniscience let’s you know (with absolute, 100% certainty) that should you intervene and save this woman, her son will cause World War III, ending in the nuclear annihilation of all humanity. Suppose you know further that this is the last possible moment to circumvent that future. The decisions that all other people will make from here on out will lead irrevocably to that gruesome end. All this is as certain to you as if you were god. The ability to change this future is entirely in your hands, and the only chance you have to change it is right now.

    The moral choice is still clear, although completely reversed. Sacrificing a life to save all of humanity is an easy choice. Saving a woman from murder is an easy choice. The only difficulty is in not knowing how one relates to the other. This is an extreme example, but a less black-and-white version of this underlies all moral judgments.

    For bodily health, we assume there’s one or more “perfect paths” — the right combination of diet and exercise that would lead us to a long and healthy life. We don’t know exactly the path, but we know it in general terms. Less fatty foods, more exercise. I think moral health is extremely similar, except with more uncertainty. We don’t know the perfect path, or even if one exists, but we know some of the components: do unto others as you would they you, help people more, hurt people less. I don’t think anyone would say that our medical science is bunk because for any one meal, we can’t specify if a particular person should choose the burger or the salad (maybe his body really needs the protein). Likewise, just because we can’t answer every hypothetical moral dilemma doesn’t mean we know nothing.

    Science can and should investigate moral truths. What if, hypothetically, an abundance of vitamin B12 in babies leads to greater compassion later in life? What if witnessing violence between ages 5 and 10 leads to bullying? These are questions science can answer, and they help us further refine the “perfect path.”

    Slightly meandering comment, but I just wanted to put my opinions out there…

    Comment by Michael — April 25, 2011 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

    • Michael,

      Thanks for the post.

      I think you understate the importance of knowledge and prediction in moral judgments. You say that “hurting people to help others is ‘too risky,’” but I think that’s the crux of the issue.

      Right, I think prediction is important to morality. I just think we should often admit that we can’t predict that hurting people will lead to a greater good. That kind of prediction often leads us astray.

      I pretty much agree with everything you said in the comment.

      Comment by James Gray — April 25, 2011 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

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