Is there an objectively true morality?
The question usually goes astray where those who ask or answer it never stop to clarify what they even mean by “objectively true.” In fact, people who ask or answer this question almost never define what they mean by that. And even when they do, they never establish that their definition is the pertinent one. Someone asking the question might mean objective in the sense of not made up, “true” whether we know or think or believe it’s true. Then someone who answers them might act as though “objective” meant based on an external authority, or not accessed through subjective experience. When in fact that’s not at all what the questioner was asking. Sometimes people confuse “objective” as the opposite of “relative,” when in fact many relative truths are also objectively true; or they confuse “objective” with “absolute, devoid of exceptions,” when in fact exceptions can be just as objectively true as the rule.
So before you debate this question with anyone ever again, you need to read on. Because you need to sort this out first. You have to know what it is you are actually debating. Before you can prevent talking past each other or dodging the real issue.
Objective vs. Subjective
Everything in the universe is accessed by us only through subjective experience. Yet there is still a difference between what’s true about that experience (that I see a certain shape; that I feel a certain way; that I think a certain thing), and what we can infer is true about the world from that experience (I see an apple; my feeling fear indicates I’m in danger; what I am thinking is true). In a sense colors only exist subjectively; there is no such thing as “red” in the external world. It is entirely a conjured product of our brain, a fiction our mind uses to try and keep track of what does exist in the external world, which is a lattice of atoms structured in such a way that they predominantly absorb all photons except those that vibrate at frequencies around 450 terahertz, which they transmit or reflect, and those transmitted or reflected photons strike cone cells in our eyes initiating a chemical reaction producing a corresponding electrical signal to the brain. Nowhere in there is anything colored red. Redness is only ever experienced; nothing exists that is red.
There is at least one objective fact about colors, which is that wherever a certain physical system exists, the experience of colors will exist, as an inalienable property of that system. And even if that weren’t the case, even if physicalism or epiphenomenalism are false, it would still be the case that “colors exist” is an objectively true fact of the world—because our experience of them is a part of the world; therefore, this world does contain color experience, whatever it consists of. Whether we know that or believe it or not, it remains true. So even something as radically subjective as the existence of the color red is still an objective fact. So what exactly do we mean when we want to know if morals are objective facts? Are they like colors? Or are they like photons? Or are they like something else? Is there any way they could be, and not be an objective fact of the world?
Typically the objective/subjective distinction is made between “opinions/feelings/emotions” (subjective facts) and “that which can be independently observed or measured” or “that which exists regardless of what we think or feel” (objective facts). But that we have a certain feeling or opinion can be independently observed (e.g. by a future brain-scanning technology; because feelings and opinions are a physical, objective property or state of our brain). And they exist regardless of what anyone else thinks or feels. Thus, that we feel a certain way or have a certain opinion is an objective fact of the world.
The distinction people want to make, then, is between our having an opinion, and that opinion being true. When opinions make assertions of fact (“in my opinion, no one will buy this product”), they can be false. Then they are really just less-informed beliefs about the world, rather than pure opinions. They differ from what people want to call “objective facts” only in how well informed the conclusion is from what we can all observe or measure. But what about opinions that can’t be false? For example, “in my opinion, this music sucks” could be making a claim to objective fact (it could be making an assertion that the music fails to satisfy some mutually accepted standard), but often it’s simply stating how the subject feels. That the music at that moment sucks to them is an undeniably true fact of how they feel about the music. And that it sucks, in that case, cannot even be false (for them). It is in that case like the color red.
And yet there is still an objectively true fact of the world here: their feeling that way about the music will manifest in a physical arrangement and state of their brain that can in principle be observed by a suitably informed third party, without ever having to ask them what they thought of the music. There can also be objectively true properties of the music that, once called to their attention, changes their opinion of it; but even then, their opinion still only shifts in reaction to their own individual feelings and responses, and not on anything that’s true of the world apart from themselves and their own idiosyncrasies (see Musical Aesthetics; and part VI of Sense and Goodness without God). Ultimately, it can simply be the case that an individual hasn’t acquired the neural structures that will ever make that music pleasant to them. And we generally are okay with that—which is why “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a widely respected proverb.
So really, what’s actually at issue when people make this distinction, between objective and non-objective truth, is whether others should feel obligated to agree with a judgment. If we accept that “this music sucks” is simply a description of how the agent feels, then we can all agree it is an objectively true fact of the world that that’s how they feel. We don’t have to agree that we “ought” to feel the same way. That requires an extra step of reasoning. It requires, in fact, that “this music sucks” not be simply a description of how the agent feels. It has to be describing something else, that other observers can agree is true.
And this is usually what people get hung up on when they argue over whether morality is objective or subjective. What they really mean is, whether they ought to agree with a moral assertion or not. But then they confuse that question, with the entirely different question of whether their access to the objective truths of the world is mediated by subjective experience. But since all objective truths are mediated through subjective experience, that question is totally moot. How you feel is one thing (e.g. that you feel fear); whether that feeling corresponds to something you should really act upon is another thing entirely (e.g. whether something genuinely dangerous is approaching). Both are simultaneously objective and subjective facts of the world. The fear is an objective fact about your brain. And the danger is only known to exist through your subjective experience of the world.
Likewise, pain and suffering are entirely subjective feelings. They are just like our opinions about music. What causes you pain may be different from what causes someone else pain. They might have PTSD, or a body in a different condition, or a different past history that makes some things more painful than others, or just genetically have a different pain tolerance than you. Yet that anyone’s pain and suffering are 100% subjective, all “just a feeling,” and different from person to person, there is still an objectively true fact that something is causing them pain. Even full-on divine-command-style Christians must agree: that pain is purely and only a “feeling” does not make it irrelevant to a third party’s moral judgment. To the contrary, moral judgment is always 100% dependent on whether that’s true, whether something you do will cause any pain or suffering.
Consequently, that information about moral facts is always accessed subjectively can in no way argue that objective moral facts don’t exist. Any more than it can argue that you shouldn’t fear a bear charging you; or worse, that a bear isn’t charging you when you observe one to be. As that observation can only ever be subjective. Yet there remains an objective fact as to whether a bear is actually charging you—and as to whether you should fear that. Moreover, causing a purely subjective feeling of fear can be objectively wrong, even within the most fundamentalist of metaethics. For what will cause that subjective experience, and what that subjective experience will cause in the subject who experiences it, are both objective facts of the world.
Objective vs. Relative
So that distinction doesn’t get us anywhere. The next confusion people fall into is to think the opposite of “objectively true” is “merely relative,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Defenders of objective moral truth will rail against “cultural relativism,” for example, which they imagine is the belief that morals are only true within specific cultures, such that one culture cannot criticize the morality of another culture (and there are fools and loons who actually believe that, so it’s not simply a straw man; it becomes a straw man, though, when it is assumed most relativists think that way). Or they rail against some kind of biogenic relativism (“speciesism” they call it: Sense and Goodness without God, index). Or individual relativism (whereby every individual has their own moral truth, so what’s morally true is relative to them). Or situational relativism (what’s morally true is relative to and thus changes with the circumstances). Or whatever.
This is actually a false distinction. Even if every one of those “relativisms” is true, morality is still an objective fact. If biogenic relativism is true, then it is an objective fact of the world that certain morals are true for one species and not another. And if there are moral facts for humans that aren’t true for other animals like sharks or apes, it is no argument to say we should act like sharks or apes, when in fact we should act like humans, a specific kind of animal. It remains objectively true in that case that certain moral facts are true for us, that aren’t true for sharks or apes.
Likewise individual or cultural relativism: there can still be objectively true moral facts for each culture and individual; that they differ by individual or culture is no different than that their language or clothing differs. It’s still objectively true that their language and clothing differs. And situational relativism is no less objective. My velocity is relative—relative to my car, it may be zero, when at the same time, relative to the road ahead, it’s sixty miles per hour. Yet both remain objectively true facts of the world. And they remain true regardless of what I think, feel, or believe. Thus, as most moral systems would agree, whether it’s moral to kill depends on the situation (homicide vs. self-defense, for example), but that can itself be an objectively true fact of the world: that killing is okay in situation A but not in situation B. Because the systems physically differ (e.g. between homicide and self-defense), and differ in objectively observable and measurable ways.
What people seem actually to be worried about with alarmist accusations like “relativism” is that “relativism” sounds like we can just make up whatever morality we want. And “therefore,” there is no moral truth. Morals are then just like fictional stories. We can invent anything we like. There is no sense in which one is better than the other. And this is usually what people get hung up on when they argue over whether morality is objective or relative. What they really mean is, whether someone else ought to agree with a moral assertion or not; whether their being a different person or living in a different culture somehow makes them immune to condemnation or correction. But then they confuse that question, with the entirely different question of whether there is an objectively true fact about how that other person ought to behave—even if it’s different from how we ought to behave.
For example, traffic laws are obviously culturally relative. Like fictional stories, they are completely invented by each culture however they want. And yet there is an objective fact of the matter that they realize. There are better and worse traffic systems, when measured by the standard they were invented for. And this remains so regardless of your opinions, feelings, or beliefs. For example, a system in which there was no enforced rule as to which side of multi-lane roads to drive on would produce far more traffic collisions, and the universally recognized (and universally needed) goal of traffic laws is to facilitate transportation while minimizing collisions. Thus, in some cultures vehicles are expected to drive on the right; in others, the left. Which it is is completely arbitrary. And in consequence completely relative to which culture you are in at the time. Yet it is an objectively true fact that everyone ought to drive on the same side of the road—whichever side that happens culturally to be—if they want to avoid traffic collisions.
Thus, cultural relativism does not allow just any rules or morals willy nilly. There is no objectively true fact that cars must drive on the right rather than the left to reduce collisions. There is, however, an objectively true fact that cars must all drive on the right or on the left to reduce collisions. Moreover, even though it is culturally relative whether you drive on the right or the left, when you are in a culture that drives on the right, you ought to drive on the right. Which side you ought to drive on is an objective fact of which cultural system you are traversing at the time. Relativism thus has no bearing on whether objective morals exist. Objective morals might exist—and be relative, to the individual, culture, situation, or species.
So Get to the Actual Point Instead
Whenever you get into or see an argument over whether objective moral facts exist, stop everything until you ascertain what it is you or others are actually arguing about.
Some people want moral facts to exist outside of and apart from human beings. Like people who want the position of the stars at our births to influence our personalities, they are just going to have to accept being disappointed. The world doesn’t work that way and never has. All the evidence of thousands of years of history confirms the fact. Moral facts are facts about human beings. They therefore cannot, even in principle, exist outside of and apart from human beings. It is the properties of human beings (especially what causes us harm and suffering and what doesn’t) that entail moral facts. If we were different (e.g. if hitting us never caused us harm but in fact always made us happier and healthier), the moral facts about us would be different.
But some people want to be able to truthfully say that everyone should agree on what’s morally true—and that when they don’t, someone is wrong. They want to be able to say that the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites were immoral—indeed, that this should be an indisputable fact. They want to be able to say that there has been moral progress in human history—which requires there to be some true morality we are getting closer to. This is what most people actually mean, and want, when they say there has to be an objectively true morality. It’s not enough to just say we don’t like the Nazis and slaveowning Southerners and the biblical Israelites. Because anyone who wanted to be like them can just say “So what?” Just like someone who disagreed with us about what kind of music to like, our saying they were immoral would be a meaningless and useless gesture—and wholly ineffectual to any purpose. We could no more call them wrong for acting like that, than we could call them wrong for liking different music.
But this means it’s a derailing tactic to answer someone who says there are objective moral facts with “but values are subjective.” That in no way entails there is no objectively true fact of the matter as to which values we all do or should have. It is likewise impertinent to insist that morality is all just relative. Because that is only true if it is objectively true that different moralities obtain for different people. Which obligates you to check. Is it actually the case that different cultures ought to behave in different ways? Is it actually the case that every moral system is entirely the equal of any other and there can never be any grounds to criticize any? Is it actually the case that there is no moral system that, implemented anywhere by anyone, would make the world a better place even by their own standards?
So we can’t just say things are relative and subjective. That doesn’t even address the question, of what’s actually true. And the question of whether objective moral facts exist, is simply and only the question of whether any moral facts are true. Yes, that means not just true for the one doing the judging; but true for those they want to judge. True, in other words, for basically everyone. But that can be the case even if moral facts were entirely relative, and entailed by subjective facts of human experience.
The Fact-Value Distinction: Not as Pertinent as You Think
What this often comes down to is someone trying to argue that facts and values are totally different—that values aren’t facts, and so there can’t be any moral “facts,” there can only be facts about morality. For instance, whether abortion kills a person, or gay marriage destroys the fabric of society: those questions can be answered empirically and scientifically (the answer in both cases is no), but that whole question still depends on the assumption that we value persons and the well-being of society. And not just whether we do, but whether we ought to. And that question, we are told, can’t be answered empirically or scientifically.
People who say that are wrong.
Of course, that you value something is an objective fact of the universe. That shouldn’t be controversial to say. What you value is reducible to a physical structure in your brain, such that if you changed that structure, you would change what you value, and no changes in what you value are possible without corresponding changes in your brain’s structure. But since values are in that sense empirical facts, even ascertainable scientifically (after all, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and cognitive science, are all engaged in empirically determining the objectively true fact of what certain groups and individuals value), and facts entail things about what we ought to do (as the facts of abortion and gay marriage do, once conjoined with a certain set of values), they also entail things about what we ought to value.
It can be objectively true that you ought to behave a different way than you think is best, when doing what you think is best would be self-defeating—it would undermine the things you actually value. You may not know or believe that that’s what you ought to do, yet it remains true that you should—because you just haven’t realized how your behavior otherwise is destroying the things you value rather than upholding them. But once you realized that, you would agree your behavior was wrong, even by your own standards. So that you ought to behave a certain way is an objectively true fact about you. It follows from what you actually value, and how your actions either serve or thwart those things you value. Even this should not be controversial to say. It should be quite self-evident in fact.
What may be surprising to say is that this is also true of values. It can be objectively true that you ought to value certain things, when your valuing other things instead is self-defeating—because valuing things causes you to pursue them, and pursuing them might undermine things you value more. You may not know or believe that you ought to value those things, yet it remains true that you should—because you just haven’t realized how your valuing other things instead leads you to destroy the things you value even more, rather than upholding them. And once you realized that, you would agree your values were wrong, even by your own standards. So that you ought to value certain things is also an objectively true fact about you. It follows from what you value most, and how your other values either serve or thwart what you value most.
Consider an example:
Suppose you prioritize making money, and do so because you value money above all else. That you should do that, and value that, can still be false. Because even if you say it, even if you believe it, it isn’t actually true about you that you value money above all else. Because that’s impossible. If you thought about it, money actually has no value to you, except in respect to what you get with it. In other words, you only value money because you value something else more. If you could get all those things, the things you actually value most, without money—or worse, if money actually caused you to lose them, and thus not gain those things—then you would no longer value money.
And yet, the question of whether money gets you the things you want most, or actually in fact gets you less of those things than other approaches to them, is an empirical question that can be answered scientifically. Thus, science can in fact tell you it is empirically false that you should value money above all else. And it would do so by simply pointing you to actual empirical facts about you (and, of course, the world) that reveal the pursuit of money is harming rather than helping you gain the things you actually value. And indeed, this is often what goes on in cognitive therapy: a scientist empirically ascertains what you actually value most, and then shows you, empirically, that your priorities are undermining your own values, and helps you adjust your priorities so that they align with your actual values.
Yes, this does mean that what a person actually values most will be ultimately a subjective fact about them. Though it can still be a fact they have false beliefs about—like the person pursuing money at all costs, who doesn’t realize that they want a lot of other things more, things that can be more efficiently and reliably obtained, and sometimes can only be obtained, when they stop prioritizing money. This is therefore an objectively true fact of themselves, and thus of the world. It is not like how they feel about music. The truth does not reside in what they happen to think or feel at any random moment. It resides in what they would think and feel when fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.
But isn’t there at least some ultimate value, which is actually the thing we value above all else? Yes. Necessarily, in fact. But can’t that ultimate value be different for different groups or individuals, such that what value system a person ought to adopt will differ from one person to another? Yes. And it remains, even then, an objectively true fact which value system a person ought to adopt. And we can determine what value system that is, empirically and scientifically. Because it will be an objectively true fact about them, observable to a third party (at least in principle). Although it’s also possible that what humans ultimately value is universally the same—such as, to be as satisfied with ourselves and our lives as our situation can allow. Being that we are the same species, with the same fundamental properties and needs, living in the same physical environment, it may well turn out that we all ultimately value the same thing. And if that’s the case, then it follows that every single one of us ought to adopt the same core value system. But either way, objective moral facts exist—whether they are universal facts about all humans, or facts relative to individuals or types of individuals.
The Godless Turn
I’ve already worked out what moral facts are and why they are fully empirical, and accessible to science—if we bothered to apply science to the task (my peer reviewed case is in “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (And Science Could Find Them),” in John Loftus, ed., The End of Christianity; the colloquial case comprises Part V of Sense and Goodness without God). We haven’t much done that yet, though. Contrary to the claims of overzealous proponents of this idea like Michael Shermer and Sam Harris, we have not discovered scientifically yet what we ought to value or do. They confuse the claim that science theoretically could do this, with the claim that it already has. And in result they (or at least Shermer) sometimes propose pseudoscientific bullshit about what our moral values should be, falsely claiming science says so (see, for example, Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science). But that’s their own folly. That science could do this correctly remains true.
In the absence of science being put to the task in a methodologically relevant way (and then accumulating decades of results, as we’d need at minimum), we still access moral facts empirically, just not scientifically. Most of us lack the resources to apply scientific rigor to the question, and those who have the resources, aren’t applying them to the task. But every moral argument you’ve been in has probably assumed empirical access to an objective moral truth was available. You always argue from your opponent’s own values to a conclusion about their behavior, or from their own values to a conclusion about what they should value. And those are all objective facts of the world.
The first case is the least controversial: when you argue by showing that even granting the values they affirm (e.g. valuing the welfare of actual persons and society), they ought to behave differently (e.g. not hinder abortion access or gay marriage), in light of the empirical facts of the world (e.g. fetuses aren’t actually persons, but the women who need abortions are; and gay marriage won’t harm society, whereas opposing gay marriage does). You are arguing solely from objective facts of the world. Not only the facts of the world (about fetuses, women, gay people, social systems), but facts of the person you are arguing with. You are assuming that they value the welfare of persons and society. And if they do, then that is an objective fact about them, and thus of the world. And therefore what you conclude they ought to do, given their own subjectively-accessed value system, is an objective moral fact (for them).
Even if the moral facts are different for you, because you value different things—that would no more matter to the objective truth of how they ought to behave, than the fact of whether measuring your velocity relative to the car you are sitting in or the road ahead matters to the objective truth of how fast you are going, for both velocities are objectively true. If nothing changes, you won’t collide with your steering wheel, but you will collide with a stalled car ahead: both are 100% objectively true. Likewise, if they ought to do x, and you ought to do y: both will be 100% objectively true. Different moral facts are true for each of you in that case. Yet they are still objectively true moral facts
Although when you do have the same values, that’s like talking about the same frame of reference in describing your velocity: the same moral facts will then be objectively true for you both. Likewise “the same moral values” in this sense can mean not only what you happen to value shared in common, but in fact what you ought to value—if, for example, your current value system is self-defeating, then there is a realignment available whereby your subordinate values would be serving rather than undermining what you value more, and it would be objectively true that you ought to realign your values that way. In the same way pointing out that someone’s actions contradicts their own values entails they ought to behave differently; so also pointing out that your subordinate values contradict your core values entails you ought to value differently.
This is important to realize. Because you can get lost on the wrong framing of the question of what objectively true moral facts—and objectively true moral values—are.
Steve Novella rightly notes that people who use the “objective moral facts” assertion most typically are defending some form of theism (see his article Objective vs Subjective Morality). And that does ultimately fail (as I’ve explained myself in The Moral Bankruptcy of Divine Command Theory). Novella argues that moral facts are neither objective nor subjective, that theists are creating a fallacy of false dichotomy in an attempt to rationalize their false morality. Really, he argues, moral facts are a compound of objective and subjective facts. Novella thinks the subjective part is the motivating values; the objective part, what’s needed to realize those values in action (the laws of physics, psychology, social systems, etc.). But as I’ve just shown, it’s actually more complex than that.
Though values are usually only accessed as subjective facts (what individuals feel and think and desire), those subjective facts are actually fully reducible to objective facts: namely, the physical structure of an individual’s brain (including universal structures shared among all brains); and the objective facts of what causes certain feelings in a subject, and what those feelings then cause in the subject. In other words, that I value something is an objective fact of the universe (in principle observable by a scientist looking at my brain’s structure, if we had the requisite neurological information, something we will eventually in future have) in exactly the same way that my hair is brown or that I am 47 years old are objective facts of the universe. Likewise, if it turns out that all human beings value the same thing, that would also be an objective fact of the universe (just as all humans needing food, water, and air to survive is an objective fact of the universe). And regardless of the differences between you or me in what causes us to feel certain things, and what feeling those things then causes in us, there remain objective facts, empirically and scientifically accessible, as to what will cause us to feel a certain way, and what those feelings will cause in us.
Hence, I argue that objective moral facts exist. But I am not saying what Novella’s critics are—I have no interest in the irrational false dichotomies of theists. I am saying there is an objective fact of the world about not just what Novella agrees there is (such as the actual consequences of different actions and choices—in other words, what we need to do to realize our values), but also about what he calls the subjective fact of human values. What you actually value most at any given moment is an objective fact of the universe in exactly the same sense that your brain and its structure is an objective fact of the universe—because the one is entirely reducible to the latter without remainder. But moral facts do not follow from what you just happen to value most at any moment, because you could be wrong about what you should value at that moment. And I don’t mean wrong by some objective standard external to you. I mean wrong even by your own subjective internal standard. Because there is also an objective fact of the world about what you would value most when fully informed and reasoning without fallacy.
And since that’s what you would value when you have true beliefs, and true moral facts can only follow from true beliefs, there is an objective moral fact of the matter as to what you ought to value, not merely an objective fact as to what you do value. And it derives not from any external standard or authority (like god, or culture, or any cosmic whatever). It derives entirely from you. But that remains an objective fact about you—and as you are an objective fact of the universe, objective facts about you are objective facts about the universe. Again, just as your age or hair color or music preferences are.
The question people want to know is, still, of course, whether those objective moral facts for you are the same as for them, or anyone else. Is there a set of objective moral facts that’s true for everyone? That’s a different question than whether they are objectively true facts. Because there could be a different set of objective moral facts for everyone. And yet they would still be objectively true moral facts. For example, a fully informed and rational observer would have to agree that the moral facts that are true for you really are the moral facts that are true for you, even if they aren’t the moral facts that are true for them. In other words, the observer would have no basis for criticizing your morality based on what was true for them, as long as you were following the morality that was indeed true for you. But they could criticize your morality based on what’s true for you. And that is indeed where most people go wrong—for instance, they might fully agree the Golden Rule is true, then invent a moral system that routinely violates it (like condemning abortion or homosexuality). Even if the Golden Rule were only true for you, an outside observer (like some sociopathic space alien who had no reason to value the Golden Rule) could still validly criticize your condemnation of homosexuality as violating your own objectively true moral values.
And that’s how all actual moral criticism operates. We always criticize either of those two things: we either argue that a moral agent has the wrong idea about what the consequences of an action are (“permitting homosexuality will destroy society”), which is a straightforward matter of fact accessed empirically, or we argue that a moral agent is acting against their own values (“the Golden Rule entails treating homosexuals the same as heterosexuals”). Thus we always appeal to some values we assume the agent already has. And if we actually believe they have no values that would motivate them to engage in any moral behavior at all, we declare them a monster, an enemy of humankind. And such is the case. We would treat them accordingly. And fully ought to do so.
It is tautologically the case that what you ought to do above all, is what achieves what you want above all. Moral facts follow from what you must do to achieve that, when considering you have to live with yourself, the truth, and society afterward. In the end, we would not want above all to be an awful person—to be cruel, indifferent, unreasonable, and dishonest. Whether that’s true, and for whom it’s true, is a scientifically testable empirical question. Therefore, moral facts are scientific facts. We just haven’t applied science to answering the questions needed to have scientific answers in the matter.
“What would you agree you ought to value and do, when you are fully and correctly informed and reasoning without fallacy?” is not a question any scientific study has attempted to ascertain, for you, or anyone. Much less whether the answer is the same for everyone. Science hasn’t even seriously asked yet what it is that human beings want above all else—what, as Aristotle explained, is the thing we seek that is the reason we seek or value anything else whatever. Not even of individuals. Much less of us all, so as to determine if it’s the same thing for us all—and if not, how and why it differs. Science could get at all of these questions. But it would require a lot of specialized effort, developing and applying new methodologies. It would entail billions of dollars and hundreds of scientists working nonstop for decades.
Until that ever happens, we have only an unscientific access to the relevant empirical facts, and have to make do with that. Moral truth is what you would do if you were fully informed and reasoning without fallacy. And that is a generalization of what you will do when you are fully informed and reasoning without fallacy. And as with all other empirical knowledge, you seek increasingly accurate approximations to this on the best available evidence. Just as what you ought to believe true is what you would believe true if you were fully informed and reasoning without fallacy, and just as that is a generalization of what you will believe true when you are fully informed and reasoning without fallacy. The one is a definition of the other. And though we are never fully informed and fully rational, even in any other branch of science, we can still reach increasingly accurate approximations, with tentative and revisable knowledge, achieved through the best empirical methods and information available to us, to reduce if never eliminate the probability of our being wrong.
This is why moral knowledge is just as objective as all other scientific knowledge about the nature of who you are and of how the world works. But serious scientific research in that direction has yet to begin.
- Moral Ontology
- Are Moral Facts Not Natural Facts?
- Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same
- What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?
- The Moral Truth Debate
- Goal Theory Update
Two of those relate to Sam Harris’s contest, asking for someone to challenge his theory of objective moral truth in The Moral Landscape. This article has addressed part of what’s confusing people there. But I’m going to publish next an article analyzing the prize winning essay in that contest specifically, and Harris’s reply to it. Stay tuned.