Tag Archives: Ethical Theory

Article Summary: “The Supervenience of the Ethical on the Descriptive” by Frank Jackson


Jackson argues that ethical properties are merely descriptive properties – there are no properties above and beyond the descriptive. Jackson develops his thesis in light of the a priori truth that ethical properties supervene, or depend upon, descriptive properties. Then, Jackson handles two objections to his view.

Jackson begins by clarifying what ethical supervenience means, as opposed to psychological supervenience. In the case of psychological supervenience, physicalism (a metaphysical doctrine) holds that a full account of the physical world will entail a full account of the psychological world. The psychological depends upon the physical. But this is an intraworld, contingent supervenience thesis, rather than a global one. Another way of putting the point is that a full account of the psychological world does not entail a full account of the physical world: because the psychological is multiply realizable, there could be many different physical accounts which entail the psychological world. So the fact that the physical entails the mental in the way it does in our world is a contingent reality; it could have been otherwise.

Ethical supervenience, meanwhile, is a global supervenience thesis: it holds across all possible worlds. The descriptive entails the ethical in virtue of the meaning of these words; it cannot be otherwise. Suppose, for example, that two situations are exactly alike descriptively. Is it possible for us to condemn an actor in one situation and not the other? It seems not. The morality of the situation is determined by what occurs descriptively: an actor’s motivations, what the actor did, the outcome of the act, etc. It cannot be otherwise.

Now Jackson presents his argument: for any sentence ‘x’ about ethical nature, that sentence will be fully entailed by the world’s descriptive nature (this is a reiteration of the global supervenience thesis described above). Since the ethical depends upon the descriptive, it can be expressed fully in descriptive terms. So, any sentence ‘x’ about ethical nature ultimately reduces to merely descriptive terms, and ethical properties are merely descriptive properties.

Jackson then aims at clarifying his thesis: he says, for example, that it does not necessitate that an account of the ethical world is symmetrical with an account of the descriptive world. This is because a full account of the ethical world is consistent with infinitely many accounts of the descriptive world: one which includes electron E, for example, and another that excludes it.

Further, Jackson insists that his thesis does not imply that it is acceptable to do away with ethical vocabulary. If a given ethical property is an infinitely large descriptive disjunction, for example, the only way to express it will be to use an ethical term as shorthand. So too with ‘baldness’: baldness is really just referring to an infinitely large disjunction of possible hair distributions, but we point to a paradigmatic example of a bald person and use the word as shorthand out of necessity. But this does not mean ‘baldness’ is some extra feature of the world; so too, ethical terms, despite their necessity, do not imply extra features of the world.

Jackson then deals with two variations of an objection to the idea that ethical properties are merely descriptive properties. The general objection is that logically equivalent predicates may nonetheless point out distinct properties. In the case of ethical predicates, while they may be logically equivalent to descriptive sentences and necessarily co-extensive with them, it is still possible that they are pointing to distinct properties besides merely descriptive ones. The specific example in the first variation of the objection is the case of triangles: there seems to be a property of equiangularity and a property of equilaterality, despite their always occurring alongside one another.

Jackson thinks that this case conflates how we single out properties from how we distinguish how many properties there are. While it is true that equiangularity and equilaterality are distinct, this is so because they are ways in which we single out a property. The property itself, understood as a feature of the world, is singular in nature. So, we are singling out one property in two different ways.

Jackson also attempts to diffuse a more elaborate variation of the above objection: suppose we construct a machine that can detect the equilaterality of a triangle, but not the equiangularity. The machine has a light which blinks when this feature of the triangle is detected. This would seems to demonstrate that these two features of a triangle are distinct properties, since one is causally efficacious (it causes the machine’s light to shine) while the other is not. Jackson thinks that the force of this example derives from the machine’s operating in a segmented fashion: it first measures the sides of the triangle, then blinks if they are equal. It never gets a chance to measure its angles. In any case, Jackson thinks the example pertains merely to whether angles and sides are equivalent, not whether being an equilateral triangle and being an equiangular triangle are distinct properties or not.

Jackson finishes his rebuttal by deploying Mackie’s ‘argument from queerness’ (see my summary of Mackie on the ‘metaethics’ page). He does not understand what an ethical property could possibly be if not a descriptive one: what could a person mean when they say that something is ‘right’ if not the merely descriptive facts of the thing being picked out? What else could possibly be picked out? To Jackson, it is better to suppose such non-natural properties do not exist than to suppose they exist in some strange, unknown way.

Jackson concludes by stating one important implication of his argument: all  moral realists must express ethical properties in descriptive terms. Since his thesis is modal and not metaphysical, it does not claim such properties exist. It merely says that if indeed they do exist (or if one is a moral realist), then they must be expressed as descriptive, natural features of the world, regardless of one’s specific metaphysical allegiances.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: Ethical properties = Descriptive properties

1. Ethical nature depends upon descriptive nature (global supervenience thesis).
2. Descriptive nature can be expressed in full as a sentence with merely
descriptive terms.
3. Therefore, ethical nature can be expressed in full as a sentence with
merely descriptive terms. [1,2]
4. Therefore, when one expresses something about ethical nature, one is
merely expressing something about descriptive nature. [from 3]
5. Therefore, ethical properties are merely descriptive. [from 4]


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Article Summary: “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” by Philippa Foot


Foot argues that, contrary to commonly-held belief, moral judgments are not categorical imperatives, but rather are hypothetical imperatives like other judgments. Foot thinks this because she can see no basis for the claim that we always have a reason to obey moral rules. But if we do not always have a reason to obey, then it can be rational to ignore moral rules, and thus moral judgments cannot be categorical.

Foot discusses efforts to delimit the moral categorical imperative from other sorts, but believes that they all fail. The most basic theory about moral judgments is one about use: certainly, moral judgments are used categorically, as opposed to other sorts of judgments which tend to be hypothetical. But Foot points out that Kant (the originator of the claim that moral judgments are categorical) meant much more than this: he seems to think it is a metaphysical fact about moral rules that they are rationally binding, not merely that they are used as if they are rationally binding. Further, in certain circumstances, rules of etiquette are used categorically: when a man wants to disobey the rules of a club because he will never come back, nonetheless it is said he ought not to violate the club’s rules, despite his desires. So a theory of use cannot differentiate moral judgments from any other.

For Foot, the heart of the matter is whether moral rules are reason-giving: are we rationally compelled to obey, regardless of our desires? Foot proceeds to disputes the most significant attempts at justifying the reason-giving powers of moral rules. In the first place, such rules do not to Foot appear to be intrinsically reason-giving. That is to say, an action can be right and we can still have no reason to do it. An amoralist can rationally withdraw from the moral community and we will not be able to convict him of irrationality; we can say that he is vindictive, or evil, or something of the sort, but not irrational.

With the most common support for moral categorical imperatives removed, Foot proceeds to secondary reasons why we might always have a reason to obey moral rules. The first is the normativity of moral rules. But Foot rightly points out that many other sorts of judgments entail normativity; we do not, however, list them as categorical. Further, the notion that we simply ‘must’ adhere to rational precepts is, to Foot, likely an outcome of stringent teaching. So, we feel we must obey, but such feelings cannot serve as a support for a theory of categorical imperatives; regardless of how we feel, we might still be able to rationally disobey, after all. Finally, Foot dispenses with the idea that coercion (physical or psychological) might undergird the necessary obedience to moral rules. It is clear that Kant’s (and almost everyone else’s) conception of the categorical imperative is not one which people are coerced into; it should provide a reason to obey absent coercion.

So, Foot concludes that if moral judgments are not categorical, then they must be hypothetical. She then disputes the notion that, if this were so, and if everybody believed it, it would have a corrosive impact upon morality. Foot thinks that Kant himself believed this because he was a psychological hedonist with regard to all actions except those which adhered to moral rules: when we are not obeying moral rules, we are always promoting our own self-interest. Foot thinks that the fact that Kant believed this blinded Kant to the possibility of non-binding reasons for being moral.

People can, and do, have reasons for being moral despite moral rules not being binding. People love justice, liberty, charity, and other virtues. And since they desire these things, they will continue to promote them. So, people will still desire to promote the well-being of others, for example, despite the fact that they are not required to. Foot thinks that, in fact, dedication to a moral rule’s being voluntary might promote adherence: people will be more motivated to promote justice, say, if they feel they are volunteers banded together to promote the cause.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: Moral judgments are hypothetical imperatives

1. Either moral judgments are categorical imperatives or otherwise they
are hypothetical imperatives.
2. Moral judgments are not categorical imperatives.

S1. In order for moral judgments to be categorical, there must
always be a reason to adhere to them.
S2. The use of moral judgments as categorical cannot be a reason
for adhering to them.
S3. Moral rules are not intrinsically reason-giving.
S4. The normative aspect of moral judgments cannot be a reason
for adhering to them.
S5. Coercion cannot be a reason for adhering to moral judgments.
S6. Our feelings cannot be reasons for adhering to moral judgments.
S7. Therefore, there are no necessary reasons for adhering to moral judgments. [S2-26]
S8. Therefore, moral judgments are not categorical. [S7,S1]

3. Therefore, moral judgments are hypothetical imperatives. [2,1]

Sub-argument: Morality would be preserved, even if hypothetical

1. If people would still desire to be just, charitable, etc. even if moral
judgments were hypothetical imperatives, then morality would continue
on as usual.
2. People would in fact continue to desire to be just, charitable, etc. even
if moral judgments were hypothetical imperatives.
3. Therefore, morality would continue on as usual, even if moral judg-
ments were mere hypothetical imperatives. [2,1]

Symbolic Notation

Primary Argument
1. (C ∨ H) ∧ ¬(C ∧ H)
2. ¬C…Therefore,H
3. C ∨ H (1, SIMP)
4. H (2, 3,DS)

Where C=Moral judgments are categorical imperatives and H=Moral
judgments are hypothetical imperatives.

1. D → M
2. D…Therefore,M
3. M (2, 1,MP)

Where D=People will continue to desire to be moral, even without
categorical imperatives, and M=Morality will continue on as usual.

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Article Summary: “The Myth of Morality” by Richard Joyce

From The Myth of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


Joyce argues for an “error theory” regarding moral discourse. An error theory about a given discourse merely claims that sentences in that discourse tend to be used assertorically (i.e., they are used as if they are true), and that by and large such sentences are actually untrue (which is not the same as ‘false’: a sentence can be asserted which is neither true nor false; such sentences are called “Strawsonian” in the literature and include, e.g., ‘The present king of France is wise.”). Joyce thinks this because moral statements are said to provide categorical reasons for engaging them; but, such reasons do not exist. So, there are no real moral claims.

Joyce clarifies that by ‘categorical reason,’ he means one that is in accord with practical rationality. If it were merely in accord with an institution – a set of rules – then there would be categorical reasons for moral acts (assuming morality is a sort of institution). So the categorical reason must be one which transcends any particular set of rules.

Joyce presents what he calls the ‘moral rationalist’s dilemma’: in order to give an adequate account of a categorical reason, it must not be possible for anyone to ask “So What?” of the reason. In other words, it cannot be questioned that the reason applies to the person in question. But if one develops an account that is truly universal, then individual persons can justifiably ask how the reason applies to them. As an example, Joyce discusses Roderick Firth’s account of an ‘idealized observer’: a person who is fully rational and dispassionate. What this observer does, so the argument goes, so too we ought to do. But Joyce contends that any person can wonder why what the observer does pertains to them. Why should one care what a completely dispassionate person would do?

Any attempt to avoid this problem leads to the other half of the dilemma: when one tries to tie normativity (and thus the categorical reason of a moral act) to desire, then it is true that no one will be alienated from their normative reasons. But, the result is relativism: what one ‘ought’ to do will be based upon one’s desires; so, there will be alternative, conflicting accounts of moral oughtness. Again, Joyce procures an example: Michael Smith’s theory of ‘non-Humean instrumentalism.’ On this view, a person X ought to do what X+ (a fully rational, epistemically successful version of X) would prescribe X should do. This resolves the problem of alienation: no one will be able to rationally dispute the reasons offered by such idealized selves, and thus such reasons will be categorical. But, each person will have different desires, and thus different idealized selves. In other words, X+ and Y+ will probably not prescribe the exact same acts, despite their being fully rational. So moral ‘oughts’ will be relative to the desires of idealized selves. Thus, it seems there are no categorical reasons one way or another, and thus no moral reasons. Moral discourse is founded upon an error.

Joyce then tackles what Smith thinks is good evidence that normativity (and thus moral ‘oughts’) is non-relative: the fact that there is as much moral agreement as disagreement, that moral disagreement of the past has been successfully resolved via rational means, and that moral disagreement is merely the result of one side or the other failing to act rationally. Joyce thinks all of these reasons, even if true, would be inadequate to show that normativity is non-relative. For example, even if there were complete agreement on norms, that convergence could be a result of any number of things besides rational resolution. It could be the case that cultural pressure is forcing hegemony of norms on the world. Or, it could be some other process like the convergence of taste in food. But Smith is dedicated to the view that such convergence is rationally driven. So, his view is far from vindicated.

Further, Joyce does not think that the thesis that moral disagreement occurs solely because of irrationality on one party or another is sufficiently justified. Must it be the case that any moral failing is equivalent to a rational failing? It does not seem so, or in any case, the view that it is needs support in order to be justified. So it seems Smith’s attempt to justify non-relative normativity (and thus non-relative morals) flounders.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: There are no real moral claims

1. In order for an act to be ’moral,’ it must necessarily provide a reason
for carrying it out.
2. No actions necessarily provide reasons for carrying them out.

S1. For an action to necessarily provide a reason for carrying it
out, that reason must adhere to practical rationality for all persons.
S2. In order for a reason to adhere to practical rationality for all
persons, it cannot rationally alienate anyone, nor can it collapse into relativism.
S3. Therefore, for an action to necessarily provide a reason for
carrying it out, it cannot alienate anyone, nor can it collapse into relativism. [S1,S2]
S4. The most plausible accounts of such a reason are ideal observer-based or desire-based.
S5. Ideal observer-based accounts alienate persons.
S6. Desire-based accounts collapse into relativism.
S7. Therefore, the most plausible accounts of such a reason either
alienate persons or collapse into relativism. [S4-S6]
S8. Therefore, no actions necessarily provide reasons for adhering
to them. [S7,S3]

3. Therefore, there are no moral acts.

Symbolic Notation

Primary Argument: There are no moral reasons
1. M → N
2. ¬N…Therefore, ¬M
3. ¬M (2, 1,MT)

Where M=There are moral reasons and N=Moral reasons are necessarily
provided by moral acts.

Sub-Argument: No actions necessarily provide reasons for carrying them
1. (∀x)[Ax → (¬Ux ∨ ¬Rx)]
2. (¬Ai ∧ ¬Ad) → ¬N
3. Ui ∧ Rd…Therefore, ¬P
4. Ai → (¬Ui ∨ ¬Ri) (1, UI)
5. Ui (3, SIMP)
6. Ui ∨ Ri (5,ADD)
7. ¬Ai (6, 4,MT)
8. Ad → (¬Ud ∨ ¬Rd) (1, UI)
9. Rd (3, SIMP)
10. Rd ∨ Ud (9,ADD)
11. Ud ∨ Rd (10,COMM)
12. ¬Ad (11, 8,MT)
13. ¬Ai ∧ ¬Ad (7, 12,CONJ)
14. ¬N (13, 2,MP)

Where Ax=x is an adequate account of categorical reasons, Ux=x is
universalized in a way which alienates persons, Rx=x collapses into
relativism, N=There are necessary reasons for certain acts, i=An account of
categorical reasons based on idealized observers, and d=An account of
categorical reasons based on desires.

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Article Summary: “The Subjectivity of Values” by JL Mackie

From Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London: Penguin Books, 1991. (originally published 1977)


Mackie argues for an ’error theory’ regarding objective morality: he believes moral judgments presuppose moral objectivity, which is itself false. Mackie believes moral objectivity requires two things: intrinsic reason-giving power (e.g., an action’s being objectively right is itself a reason to carry out the action), and the ability to categorically (unconditionally) motivate us to act. Mackie thinks that moral values have neither of these features, and thus are not objective.

Before arguing that moral values have neither intrinsic reason-giving power nor categorical motivating power, however, Mackie delimits his theory (what he calls ’moral skepticism’) from other popular theories in metaethics. In the first place, his theory is not subjectivist: it is not claiming that we ought to do whatever we feel is right. Further, it is not emotivist: while the emotivist says a moral judgment is merely an expression of the utterer’s feelings, Mackie thinks that moral judgments legitimately attempt to, and fail to, explain reality. In other words, while an emotivist says moral terms are neither true nor false, Mackie says that they are all false. Finally, Mackie makes clear that he is not dealing with moral values derived from hypothetical imperatives. The target of his opprobrium are values which claim to be objectively categorical in nature.

With his theory clarified, Mackie attacks the notion that moral values are intrinsically reason-giving. Mackie thinks this is false because he thinks moral values are best understood as subjective. In particular, he cites the widespread disagreement among cultures regarding moral norms and says that this disagreement is best explained as being caused by competing ways of life, rather than competing perceptions of objective morals. Since such ways
of life would be subjective, and since something which is subjective cannot be intrinsically reason-giving, it follows that moral values are not intrinsically
reason-giving. Mackie concludes this specific argument by responding to a criticism: perhaps it is not specific values but rather general principles of morality which all cultures agree upon, the critic might say. Mackie believes this is an inadequate response because it characterizes specific moral values as contingently and derivatively true: on this scheme, rape would only be
wrong because it violates some more general principle; if it had not violated the principle, then it would not be wrong (my example).

Next, Mackie presents what he calls the ’argument from queerness’ against the idea that moral values are categorically motivating. Since natural features of the world are not categorically motivating, moral values must be a strange, alternative sort of feature, unlike anything else we are aware of. Further, it must be the case that there is a special sense for detecting these alternative sorts of worldly feature. According to Mackie, no adequate explanation of these properties has ever been posited; further, he does not believe any such account is forthcoming. We therefore ought to suppose that these bizarre worldly features which are posited as real in fact are not. Moral judgments are best understood as subjective reactions on the part of agents to the world around them; such reactions, however, cannot undergird any categorically motivating moral value. Therefore, moral values do not have categorical motivating power.

Mackie concludes by recognizing that the ’queerness’ of moral objectivity is not as easily recognized in everyday moral judgments as it is in outlandish
philosophical reconstructions like Plato’s Forms. Mackie thinks this is so because in everyday judgments, the prescriptivity derived from the presupposition that morals are objective exists alongside other reasons, thoughts, and language. In some sense, then, the queerness is disguised. Further, Mackie thinks that since we tend to read our feelings into external objects, we probably do the same for moral things: we suppose (incorrectly) that the feeling an object or act elicits is a property of the object itself. Yet another psychological reason is that when we desire something, we try to characterize it as good. But instead of recognizing this, we pretend that the thing is intrinsically good, and that that is why we desire it. Mackie also thinks there are pragmatic reasons for the persistence of prescriptivity in our language: it might be the case that society depends upon the use of such
language. Keeping people in order may depend upon a claim of objectivity to our prescriptive language. This pragmatic reasoning also holds for individuals: people recognize (consciously or not) that objective morality provides a wellspring of authority; it allows demands made upon others in interpersonal relationships to be imbued with a motivational force they would otherwise not have.

Logical Outline

Argument One (There are no objective morals)

  1. In order for values to be objective, they must compel us to obey regardless of our desires, and they must be intrinsically reason-giving.
  2. Moral values do not motivate us to obey categorically.

S1. Natural objects do no impart categorical motivation to obey.
S2. So, if objective morals categorically motivate, they must be an
as-of-yet unknown type of feature of reality (r), and further must be detectable by some as-of-yet unknown perceptual apparatus (p). [from S1]
S3. No adequate explanation for (r) or (p) exists, and none is
S4. Therefore, it is most reasonable to suppose moral values are
subjective rather than objective. [S2,S3]
S5. Therefore, moral values are not categorically motivating. [S4,S2]

3. Moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving.

S1. If morals are subjective, then moral prescriptivity is best un-
derstood as emerging from intuition and not reason.
S2. If moral prescriptivity emerges from intuition, then moral values cannot be intrinsically reason-giving.
S3. Therefore, if morals are subjective, then they cannot be intrinsically reason-giving. [S1,S2]
S4. The variation of moral values among cultures is best explained
as emerging from alternative, subjective ways of life, not that it emerges from alternative perceptions of objective reality.
S5. Therefore, it is most reasonable to assume moral values are
subjective. [from S4]
S6. Therefore, moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving.

4. Moral values do not impart categorical motivation to obey, nor are they intrinsically reason-giving. [2,3]
5. Therefore, moral values are not objective. [4,1]

Symbolic Notation

Primary Argument
1. O → (C ∧ I)
2. ¬C ∧ ¬I…Therefore, ¬O
3. ¬C (2, SIMP)
4. ¬C ∨ ¬I (3,ADD)
5. ¬(C ∧ I) (4,DeM)
6. ¬O (5, 1,MT)

Where O=Moral values are objective, C=Moral values are categorically
motivating, and I=Moral values are intrinsically reason-giving.

Sub-argument One: Moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving
1. S → E
2. E → ¬I
3. S…Therefore, ¬I
4. S → ¬I (1, 2,HS)
5. ¬I (3, 4,MP)

Where S=Moral values are subjective, E=Moral values emerge from
intuition, and I=Moral values are intrinsically reason-giving.

Sub-Argument Two: Moral values are not categorically motivating.
1. C → (R ∧ P)
2. ¬E
3. ¬E ≡ ¬(R ∨ P)…Therefore, ¬C
4. [¬E → ¬(R ∨ P)] ∧ [¬(R ∨ P) → ¬E] (3,EQUIV )
5. [¬E → ¬(R ∨ P)] (4, SIMP)
6. ¬(R ∨ P) (5, 2,MP)
7. ¬R ∧ ¬P (6,DeM)
8. ¬R (7, SIMP)
9. ¬(R ∧ P)
10. ¬C (11, 1,MT)

Where C=Morals are categorically motivating, R=Moral values exist as a
currently-unknown facet of reality, P=We need an alternate sense to detect
moral features, and E=There is an adequate explanation for R and P.


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Article Summary: “Ethics and Observation” by Gilbert Harman

Harman, Gilbert. The Status of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, 3-10.


Harman argues that ethical theories do not – and cannot – have any observational evidence in their favor, as opposed to scientific and mathematical theories. This is because moral facts play no role in explaining why we make certain sorts of observations, unlike scientific facts. Harman means to use this as evidence that moral facts are not real (this is not explicit in this article, but is clear given his wider body of work).

Harman gives the example of a scientist who sees a vapor trail in a cloud chamber and thinks that this is the result of a proton. In order to explain the observation, we need to assume certain things about the situation; namely:(i) the scientist is in a certain psychological set (e.g., he believes a very specific physical theory is true, he believes his experimental apparatus works correctly); and (ii) a proton really did flit across the chamber, causing the vapor trail. We need (ii) because the addition of this further assumption about physical facts best explains why the scientist saw the vapor trail in the first place. This observation will then serve as evidence for the physical
theory the scientist holds, to the extent that the physical theory best explains the presence of the proton.

Harman thinks that in the case of moral theories, moral principles play no role in explaining observations. So, when a person sees an act and says, “That is wrong,” a moral principle can explain the wrongness of the act, if
indeed the act is wrong according to that principle, but it cannot explain why the person made the observation that she did. Rather, all we need do in the case of a moral observation is assume a certain psychological set on the part of the observer.

In the case of the vapor trail, the observation serves as evidence for a given physical theory, which explains the proton, which itself explains the vapor trail, which itself explains the observation. But in the case of any moral observation, the observation merely evinces a certain psychological set on the part of the observer, which itself explains the observation. Any rightness or wrongness embodied by an act does not explain a moral observation, and thus cannot serve as evidence for moral theories which explain the rightness
or wrongness of the act.

Harman then disputes the notion that moral facts might exist but might be inaccessible to observation, just like mathematical facts. Harman thinks that any analogy between moral facts and mathematical facts fails because
there is indirect evidence for mathematical facts, unlike moral facts. This is because mathematical facts undergird much of scientific explanation. There is no comparable role for moral facts in explaining moral theories; therefore, there is no observational evidence for moral facts whatsoever, direct or indirect.

Logical Outline

Argument One (We ought to assume moral facts aren’t real)

  1. If a posited fact cannot have any observational evidence (direct or indirect) in its favor, then we ought to assume that it does not exist.*
  2. Moral facts cannot have any observational evidence (direct or indirect) in their favor.

S1. In order to have direct observational evidence in its favor, a fact
needs to evince a theory, which itself explains specific observations.*
S2. Moral facts cannot explain why specific moral observations
occur (only observer psychology can).
S3. Therefore, moral facts cannot have direct observational evidence in their favor. (S1,S2)
S4. Moral facts can have no indirect observational evidence.
S5. Therefore, moral facts cannot have any observational evidence (direct or indirect) in their favor. (S3,S4)

3.   Therefore, we ought to assume moral facts do not exist. (1,2)

Symbolic Notation

Argument One
1. (∀x)[(Px ∧ ¬Ox) → ¬Rx]
2. Pm ∧ ¬Om … Therefore, ¬Rx
3. (Pm ∧ ¬Om) → ¬Rm (1, UI)
4. ¬Rm (3, 2,MP)

Where Px=x is posited as real, Ox=There can be observational evidence
for x, Rx=x is real, and m=Moral facts.

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Ethics Glossary

Note: This glossary is far from exhaustive, but it does serve as a decent primer for some of the most common terms one will encounter. As always, in-depth explorations of the literature are the best way to learn technical terms.

Cultural Relativism. The view that the truth of moral statements are relative to cultures, or societies. Sometimes called moral isolationism, this view holds that cultures are isolated enough entities such that morality can be relative to them.

Ethical Nonnaturalism. The view that ethical properties are not reducible to scientific, natural properties.

Moral Realism. The view that moral judgments are meant to describe the way things really are, and further that some of these judgments are true. The truth of these judgments are seen to be above the purview of any human; the standard for judging moral truths is not grounded in consent. This standard can be God, or whatever else, but what matters is that it is not a human construct.

Moral Antirealism. The view that moral judgments do not describe the fundamental reality outside of our heads, but rather derive their truth value from consent and human agency. The universe does not take sides in our moral disputes, or so the antirealist believes.

Normativity. Normativity concerns itself with the way things should be. Normative statements thus tell us how we ought to live our lives, and are in contrast with descriptive statements, which merely describe the way things are. Normativity is a necessary component of ethics and this fact is the primary tool against naturalistic theories of ethics (since naturalism more generally concerns only description as opposed to prescription).

Subjectivism. The view that the truth of moral statements is relative to the individual. Surprisingly common among college freshmen across the country, subjectivism is self-refuting because its maxim, “There are no universal truths,” is itself taken to be a universal truth by the theory. Careful revisions of the the theory’s maxim which avoid obvious refutation tend not to be convincing because they are ad hoc in nature (that is to say, there is no real reason to accept them besides a desire to preserve the theory at hand).

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Article Summary: “Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism” by Russ Shafer-Landau

Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism” in Metaethics After Moore, eds. Mark Timmons and Terry Horgan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 209-233.


Shafer-Landau (SL) uses an analogy between ethics and philosophy more generally to combat several common objections to moral realism. These objections include the ideas that intractable disagreement about moral facts implies antirealism and/or undermines justification for moral belief, and that the causal inefficacy of moral facts suggests that they do not exist.

SL disputes both forms that the objection that disagreement implies antirealism can take: the form that merely cites the disagreement as evidence of antirealism, and the a priori argument which posits that even perfect moral reasoners would come to disagree about moral facts. SL concludes that the former is inconclusive, at best: many lurking variables, such as self-interested bias, may be causing disagreement. SL then suggests that the ‘perfect reasoners’ of the a priori argument cause no problem for moral realism, because there can be a gap between reason and facts. In other words, it might be the case that no amount of reason can get us to moral truths; regardless, moral truths would still exist.

SL invokes his analogy between ethics and philosophy more generally to show that intractable disagreement is not sufficient evidence for antirealism: such disagreements abound in philosophy, and yet no one says that philosophical truths do not exist. Likewise, intractable disagreement over moral facts does not mean antirealism is correct.

The nail in the coffin for this line of argument, according to SL, is that it does not survive its own standards. If that which is disputed is not real, then neither is the principle that that which is disputed is not real, since indeed the principle is itself in dispute.

SL’s next target is the idea that intractable disagreement means that informed participants in a debate will inevitably beg the question when attempting to justify their moral beliefs to one another. According to SL, these individuals can still be justified in their beliefs; the reason this is so is that there is a distinction to be made between holding a belief justifiably and being able to justify it to others. So, individuals can hold justified beliefs while not being able to justify them to others. This is no problem for moral realism.

Finally, SL attacks the argument that only causally efficacious entities exist. Since normative facts in ethics are not causally efficacious, so the argument goes, they do not exist. SL rejects this and invokes his analogy between ethics and philosophy to show why: surely, normative facts in epistemology exist. One such fact is that we ought to hold beliefs for certain reasons. But there is not fundamental difference between normative facts in epistemology and in ethics. Therefore, normative facts exist in ethics, even if they are not causally related to other entities.

SL then attacks the presuppositions which undergird the view that all that exists is causally active. These presuppositions include the idea that all which exists is that which is scientifically verified (the ontological principle), and that all we ought to believe is that which we experience (the epistemological principle). SL shows how both principles are double-edged swords: the ontological principle is itself a scientifically unverified entity, and thus it fails to meet its own criteria. Likewise, the epistemological principle is not experienced, and thus ought to be rejected by its own standards.

Logical Outline

Argument One (Disagreement doesn’t mean antirealism is true)

  1. If antirealism is correct, then if any doctrine is subject to intractable disagreement, it has no truth.
  2. Doctrines can hold truth and still be subject to intractable disagreement.
  3. Therefore, if antirealism is correct, then antirealism’s central claim holds no truth. (1,2)

Argument Two (Antirealism is self-defeating)

  1. If antirealism is correct, then if any doctrine is subject to intractable disagreement, it has no truth.
  2. The antirealist assumption that what is subject to intractable disagreement contains no truth is itself subject to intractable disagreement.
  3. Therefore, if antirealism is correct, then antirealism’s central claim holds no truth. (1,2)

Argument Three (Internal vs. External Justification)

  1. If antirealism is correct, then question-begging in an attempt to justify belief(s) undermines all potential justification.
  2. There are least two sorts of justification: justifiably acquiring a belief and justifying that belief to others.
  3. Therefore, it is not the case that question-begging undermines all potential justification. [1-2]
  4. Therefore, antirealism is false. [4,1]

Argument Four (Antirealism bans all normativity)

  1. Normative facts are sufficiently similar in ethics and epistemology as to be logically equivalent
  2. If the causal test is an accurate ontological test, then normative facts do not exist in ethics.
  3. Therefore, if the causal test is an adequate ontological test, then there are no normative facts in epistemology either. (1-2)
  4. There are normative facts in epistemology.
  5. Therefore, the causal test is not an adequate ontological test. [4,3]

Argument Five (Ontological principle is self-defeating)

  1. The ontological principle holds that we should only believe that that which has been scientifically confirmed exists.
  2. The ontological principle has not been scientifically confirmed.
  3. Therefore, the ontological principle is self-refuting. [1,2]

Argument Six (Epistemological principle is self-defeating)

  1. The epistemological principle holds that we should only believe in that which we have experienced.
  2. The epistemological principle cannot be experienced.
  3. Therefore, the ontological principle is self-refuting. [1,2]


Argument One
1. A → (∀x)[(Px ∧ Dx) → ¬Tx]
2. (∀x)(Px ∧ Dx ∧ Tx)…Therefore, ¬A
3. A → [(Pa ∧ Da) → ¬Ta](1, UI)
4. (Pa ∧ Da ∧ Ta)(2, UI)
5. A → [¬(Pa ∧ Da) ∨ ¬Ta](3,DeM)
6. A(IP)
7. ¬(Pa ∧ Da) ∨ ¬Ta(6, 3,MP)
8. (¬Pa ∨ ¬Da) ∨ ¬Ta(7,DeM)
9. Ta(4, SIMP)
10. ¬¬Ta(9,DN)
11. (¬Pa ∨ ¬Da)(10, 9,DS)
12. Pa(4, SIMP)
13. ¬¬Pa(12,DN)
14. ¬Da(13, 11,DS)
15. Da(4, SIMP)
16. Da ∧ ¬Da(14, 15,CONJ)

Where A=Antirealism is correct, P=Philosophical doctrine,
D=Disagreement over, T=Truths to be had

Argument Two
1. A → (∀x)[(Px ∧ Dx) → ¬Tx]
2. (Pa ∧ Da) → ¬Ta(1, UI)
3. Pa ∧ Da…Therefore, ¬Ta
4. ¬Ta(3, 2,MP)

Where A=Antirealism is correct, P=Philosophical doctrine,
D=Disagreement over, T=Truths to be had, a=antirealism

Argument Three
1. [A → (∀x)(∀y)[[(Px ∧ Py) ∧ (Jx ∧ Jy) ∧ Dxy] → (Bx ∧ By)]]
2. (∀x)(∀y)[[[(Px ∧ Py) ∧ (Jx ∧ Jy) ∧ Dxy] → (Bx ∧ By)] → [(¬Sx ∧
Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ Oy)]]
3. A → (∀x)(∀y)[(¬Sx ∧ ¬Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ ¬Oy)](1, 2HS)
4. (∀x)(∀y)[(Sx ∧ Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ ¬Oy)]…Therefore, ¬A
5. A(IP)
6. (∀x)(∀y)(¬Sx ∧ ¬Sy) ∧ (¬Ox ∧ ¬Oy)(5, 3,MP)
7. (¬Sa ∧ ¬Sb) ∧ (¬Oa ∧ ¬Ob)(5, UI)
8. (Sa ∧ Sb) ∧ (¬Oa ∧ ¬Ob)(4, UI)
9. (¬Sa ∧ ¬Sb)(7, SIMP)
10. (Sa ∧ Sb)(8, SIMP)
11. (¬Sa ∧ ¬Sb) ∧ (Sa ∧ Sb)(9, 10,CONJ)

Where A=Antirealism is true, P=Person, J=Justified, Dxy=X disagrees
with Y, B=Begs the question, S=Holds justiifed belief, O=Can justify
belief to others

Argument Four
1. C → ¬M
2. M ≡ E
3. E…Therefore, ¬C
4. (M → E) ∧ (E → M)(2,EQUIV )
5. E → M(4, SIMP)
6. M(5, 3MP)
7. ¬¬M(6,DN)
8. ¬C(7, 1,MT)

Where C=Causal test is reliable ontological test, M=Normative facts exist
in ethics, E=Normative facts exist in epistemology

Argument Five
1. (∀X)(¬Sx → ¬Ex)
2. ¬So…Therefore, ¬Eo
3. ¬So → ¬Eo(1, UI)
4. ¬Eo(2, 3,MP)

Where S=Scientifically verified, E=Exists, o=Ontological principle

Argument Six
1. (∀X)(¬Dx → ¬Ex)
2. ¬De…Therefore, ¬Ee
3. ¬Derightarrow¬Ee(1, UI)
4. ¬De(2, 3,MP)

Where D=Directly experienced, E=Exists, e=Epistemological principle

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