welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Are There Any Moral Facts?

Bob Harrison talks about Moral Realists and the Boo/Hurrah party, and explains what David Hume overlooked.

“What that fellow did was morally unacceptable. It was wrong. In fact, it was disgusting; downright revolting.”

You could say all of these things about the same act, and they could all refer, quite properly, to the same thing. But would they all mean the same thing? The first two expressions say something, quite obviously, about what the fellow did. It was morally unacceptable. It was wrong. Both of these expressions claim to tell us moral facts about the action. But the second two expressions – that it was disgusting, and that it was revolting – tell us something about the person speaking. She was disgusted, and felt revulsion. Quite apart from the fact that these expressions are examples of hyperbole; deliberately extreme language used to convey great strength of feeling, they are subjective; expressing the speaker’s feelings rather than reporting facts.

This distinction is important because of an ongoing debate amongst philosophers. On the one hand there are those who believe that there are such things as ‘moral facts’. Examples might be, “Adultery is wrong”, “We should not tell lies”, “We ought to keep promises”, “People should be kind”. All of these propositions claim to report facts, which might be expressed: “It is the case that X is wrong”, or “It is the case that we ought to do Y”. To those who believe in them, moral facts are very important because they can be seen as something certain, hard and fast, that we can appeal to when judging someone else’s behaviour, or when seriously considering how we ourselves should act in a particular situation. They are real, and we can consult them as we would a reference book. “Should I do this: yes or no? What is the moral fact?” For this reason, people who believe in them are sometimes called Moral Realists.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that there are no moral facts. What we are doing when we call something right or wrong, they say, is simply expressing our approval or disapproval, or urging our own preferences on others. Someone who is nervous about sex, and apprehensive of how one can be hurt when a relationship is betrayed, might well want to claim categorically that ‘Adultery is wrong’. If everyone agrees – and acts on their agreement – then it will be a much more emotionally safe world for this nervous person, in the absence of peer and media pressure to break with his own conservative moral practices. Again, someone who is generally insecure, feeling the need of moral support, might ardently confess the belief that ‘Family values are good’.

After all, if these values are generally pursued, then insecure persons will live in a world where it is easier, or at least more socially acceptable, to cling to the emotional matrix of that micro-community which is the family. And, of course, if moral statements are subjective, the rich man will want to claim that stealing is morally reprehensible, whilst the poor man will think unequal distribution of wealth is a moral scandal. In short, our talk about morality is just a matter of attaching high-sounding terms such as ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘duty’, and ‘obligation’, to the practices we like or dislike, in order to give our preferences more persuasive force.

One reason why we are not conscious of doing this may be that we are not actually expressing our own personal preferences, but those of the society we live in. Our community has long since decided it approves of certain things and disapproves of others, and will call them right and wrong, respectively. We have picked up the belief in ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ at this stage, without knowing that we are expressing something grounded in nothing more than the preferences of human beings such as ourselves.

I’ve remarked that believers in moral facts tend to be called Moral Realists: those who take the opposite view attract a more light-hearted title. Since the language of morality, for them, largely reflects our feeling of disapproval or our applause, for certain acts, they are sometimes nicknamed the ‘Boo/Hurrah’ party. ‘Boo to cruelty: Hurrah for kindness’ and so on. More soberly, we are inclined to call them Noncognitivists, or perhaps Subjectivists, since they think that moral theory is not a matter of cognition, i.e. knowing about moral facts, but of something more subjective, such as our feelings. David Hume expresses this subjectivity very clearly. If you see something happen that you judge to be wicked, such as murder, you look in vain at the act itself to find the ‘wrongness’ of it:

“The vice entirely escapes you as long as you consider the object. You never can find it till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation which arises in you towards this action… It lies in yourself, not the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.” (Treatise of Human Nature Bk III part 1)

And this subjectivity applies to judgments of right, as well as to judgments of wrong. Brand Blanshard, writing of Hume’s view, says, “The ‘insight’ or ‘perception’ that an act is right is simply that warm feeling about it which we call approbation.”

In his ‘belief-desire’ theory, Hume ingeniously analyses human action, including moral action; acts that we would describe as right or wrong. He claims that we can account for everything we do in terms of the interplay of two factors: reason and belief. An action begins with desire. We desire to do something. Hume doesn’t think we need to go further back than this. Our nature is such that we have desires. Reason is then consulted. How shall I do what I desire? If I do it, will it satisfy me? Will it be prudent? Desire initiates the course of action; reason enables me to undertake it, by giving me instruction as to the means, and as to how I will justify myself in doing it.

Reason, here, serves desire, as its counsellor. As Hume says, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” Whereas a moral realist believes that we can consult moral facts as to our course of action, Hume would have our desiring self consult our reasoning self. On this view, all human action, including that which we would call moral action, can be completely accounted for by desire and reason. There is no need to consult any alleged moral facts.

The effect of this ‘belief-desire’ theory is to make it difficult to see how moral facts can exist, or at least where in our psychological makeup we can perceive them. Facts belong in the realm of reasoning, not passion. One doesn’t feel a fact: one believes it to be the case. But on Hume’s view our behaviour has its roots in passion, and reason has only a subsidiary role. So at what point do we encounter moral facts?

Hume’s account of human action has been so influential that subjective accounts of ethics now play a major part in moral philosophy. Working at Edinburgh University, where Hume was not appreciated in his own lifetime but is now posthumously much admired, I am aware of the importance of Hume’s ethics, but I think his belief-desire theory takes an oversimplified view of human psychology.

Suppose I hear that my mother is ill, in Birmingham, and I am here in Edinburgh. I feel that I ought to go and see her. I therefore desire to go to Birmingham. Consulting my reasoning faculty I find that the train is at such a time, when I can be free, and that I can afford the fare. However, reason also reminds me that my mother has always been a bit demanding, and I suspect that she may have little more than a cold, so there is a bit of a tussle going on in my mind. What tilts the scale? A feeling! An uncomfortable feeling that I ought to go, just in case she really needs me. How do I account for this uncomfortable feeling? It seems that there is a belief, right at the beginning of my inner debate, that I ought to fulfil some filial obligation; a belief based on an assumption of some moral fact about parent/child relationships and that this belief plays a role that is not accounted for in Hume’s theory. The important thing about this belief is that it destroys the simplicity of Hume’s model (Desire > Reason > Action), by appearing as an additional feature at the beginning of the sequence. I am suggesting that there are beliefs which arouse our feelings in such a way as to create the desires which Hume sees as the beginning of the road to action. I call these beliefs ‘motivating beliefs’, as distinct from enabling beliefs; those beliefs which Hume recognises as enabling us, by wise counsel, to make our decision and act.

I am encouraged to suggest this more complex picture by a lecture I heard recently. At his inaugural lecture to a chair of Psychology at Edinburgh, Professor Michael Power took the topic ‘Cognitions and Emotions’. He mentioned Hume at the outset, but his discussion didn’t really address my present topic. However, he did show us some interesting diagrams of the interaction between cognition, emotion and action as understood by psychology. He began with a diagram of Humean simplicity, containing only three terms; emotion, cognition and action. However, psychologists have moved on, and a diagram which represents a more recent consensus is that below, where <-> means ‘mutually interactive’:

Cognition > Emotion (desire) > Action

He also showed us a later, much more complex one, with many mutual interactions between its terms, but I can’t remember it (sorry!). The gist of it is, though, that the relations between cognition, emotion and action are best represented as a complex web of interactions.

All this confirms my suspicion that human action is a much more complex thing than Hume’s theory grants. The model I would suggest can again be expressed by a couple of diagrams. To recap, here is Hume’s theory, which I think should be pretty straightforward:

Desire > Belief > Action

Whereas my own view is shown below:

Motivating belief > Desire > Enabling belief > Action

This diagram is by no means as complex as Professor Power’s (forgotten) one, but tries to capture a complexity in human experience that isn’t accounted for in Hume’s view, namely that we sometimes desire to do something, because we already think that it is right, or perhaps despite already thinking that it is wrong. (In the latter case, of course, the diagram would have to be more complex, since desire would be seen as rejecting the belief which motivates us to do right.)

If a moral realist believes a certain action to be right, he might say: “I do not call the action right because I feel in a certain way. I feel in this way because I think the action right.” In my diagram, ‘I feel in this way’ = desire, and ‘I think the action right’ = motivating belief.

Professor Jonathan Dancy puts it like this:

“When I am standing on the kerb looking for a gap in the traffic so that I can cross the street safely, I am not doing this because I desire a long and healthy life. I experience no desire; I m just looking for a gap in the traffic before I cross. Why insist that there must have been a desire in there somewhere? All that is happening here is that I take a fact (there is a bus coming now) as a reason for me not to step out yet. This is what we call being prudent; prudent people are people whose beliefs about safety and danger are enough to motivate them. The same is true in ethics. One’s beliefs about right and wrong are enough to move one to stop what one is doing or change one’s intentions, without needing the help of an independent desire.” (Dancy in Companion to Ethics, ed. P. Singer)

If I am not mistaken, and the desires which, Hume thinks, initiate the process of action, are at least sometimes preceded by motivating beliefs, then it seems to me that these motivating beliefs could themselves, at least sometimes, be true beliefs about moral facts.

But what are we to make of this new factor, ‘motivating belief’? Have I stumbled on something new and pathbreaking? I doubt it. The work I want it to do can, I think, be done by concepts we already know. We are looking simply for some faculty that enables us to recognise moral facts, and there are already candidates. Far from expecting to join the philosophical immortals as a result of this essay, I would just suggest a couple of already familiar possibilities. One of them is conscience, well-known in religion, commonsense morality and the writings of men such as Butler. The other is the ‘moral sense’ proposed by Shaftesbury and developed by Hutcheson.

Considering the moral sense, I at one time found this concept very hopeful, but I have second thoughts. Its weakness, in my mind, is that it is part of an aesthetic analogy. Both Shaftesbury and Hutcheson think that the moral sense identifies a kind of beauty in good actions, a peculiar fitness of the act in its relation to the circumstances in which it is performed. If I see a poor beggar and give him a fiver I might be doing something so appropriate to the occasion that it is morally beautiful, just as the splash of light illuminating an otherwise dim canvas gives a Rembrandt its unique beauty. If I bludgeon him to death, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson et al would be horrified at the moral ugliness of such an inappropriate act – like someone coming on stage and blowing a raspberry in the middle of a Beethoven string quartet.

Sadly, the analogy with aesthetics fails, in my view, to capture the force of moral obligation which I would expect from a moral fact. If a picture is full of features properly proportioned to each other, ‘fitting’ to their environment, we might say that it is beautiful, and we are fortunate that the artist painted it. Likewise, if it is filled with incongruities, we might say it is ugly and we are not interested in looking at it. The beautiful picture may attract us, impress us, take our breath away, and the ugly one might repel us, but neither of them demand or forbid, in the way that moral imperatives do. I realise that what we are speaking of is only an analogy, but the analogy requires us to make a great leap from the relatively weak idea of what is beautiful or ugly, to the idea of what we must do, or what is wicked, in order to talk of the moral sense. A theory of conscience, on the other hand, claims that we have a faculty which is capable of directly recognising and impressing upon us that certain acts are wrong, and other acts are right; that some are good, some evil. It makes no analogy, but speaks directly of what it claims are facts. Conscience puts us in possession of certain beliefs; beliefs which make such a strong impression upon us as to arouse desires; motivating beliefs.

If there are moral facts, a theory of conscience commends itself because of its explanatory power. It helps to explain why we have such strong intuitions of obligation to do certain things, and such a sense of shame after we do other things. What we need to hear is not just that clubbing one’s grandmother to death is messy and unartistic, or that marital faithfulness partakes in a particular kind of beauty. If we want to know moral facts we need to be told: “You shouldn’t kill grandma” and “You should keep faith with your loved one.” If we all listened to the voice of conscience granny would be safe – and, other things being equal, so would our marriages.

© Bob Harrison 2000

Bob Harrison is soon to become a Master of Letters of Edinburgh University and will then be released back into the community. He is a former clergyman turned philosopher and writer.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X