Metaethical Testimony: Do Laypersons Really Believe in Moral Objectivity?

I’m increasingly convinced that Derek Parfit is right to claim there are only two ontologically serious positions in metaethics: Nonnatural Realism and Nihilism. Either there are true “moral values” or “moral facts” built into the fabric of reality, or there are just atoms in the void. Take your pick. Since Nihilists believe there are no mind-independent moral facts, any possibility of moral normativity – our habit of thinking/talking in terms “oughts” and “shoulds” – can only be justified on the basis of the contingent desires/needs of sentient creatures.

Another way to think about this is to consider the difference between hypothetical and categorical oughts. A hypothetical ought takes the form of “If you desire X, you ought to do Y”. For example, “If you want to play chess, you ought to follow the rules” or “If you are hungry, you ought to eat something”. Hypothetical oughts are never “binding” in the sense that you must follow them or that the universe “demands” you to. If you don’t want to play chess, then there is no sense in which the universe “demands” you to follow the rules. If determinism is true then perhaps you can’t help follow these hypothetical oughts. But that could be a case of acting in accordance with a rule as opposed to being “obligated” to follow a rule. To follow a rule, the rule must somehow make a difference to your behavior. The rule must act as a binding control input that gives you a plan or guide for action.

And to be categorical, a rule must somehow be “necessary” or “required”. You are bound to obey categorical oughts whether you want to or not. Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges nicely illustrates the difference between hypothetical and categorical oughts. The Ring of Gyges is a magical ring that makes its wearer invisible. Suppose you find this ring and slip it on and now have the ability to get away with any crime without suffering any consequences that you don’t want. Suppose further that you have certain selfish desires as well as desires to help your friends and family. Now it occurs to you that if you commit a horrible crime against a neighboring and rival clan, you and all your friends and family will be much better off. With the ring on, you could easily get away with this act. Here’s the crucial question: do you have a binding reason to not commit the crime? If so, how does this binding work? In what sense will you be irrational if you do your act?

There are only two real answers to this question. The binding authority could come from the existence of Objective Moral Facts or it could come from the fact that in committing the crime you will really deep down be hurting yourself or your community in the long-run, so acting immorally is irrational. However, it seems downright weird to think that the reason why it’s wrong to commit genocide is because self-inflicted harm. Error-theorist Richard Joyce makes the point that it’d be bizarre to claim what was morally wrong with the Nazi’s is that they were really hurting themselves in the long-run.

So it seems like there are either binding Objective Moral Facts or no such facts at all. If there are no such facts, then any and all normativity can only ever be hypothetical. Without objectivity, the “binding-ness” necessary to categorical oughts is but a mere illusion and only stems from instrumental rationality (however complex and abstract).

Metaethical error-theory is a two-pronged view. The first prong is the claim that ordinary moral discourse is ontologically committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts and the second prong is to claim that all such discourse is untrue due to a missing referent. When someone says “killing an innocent baby for fun is always wrong no matter what and you really ought not to do it”, they are committing themselves to the existence of Objective Moral Facts. But since error-theorists argue there really are no such facts (for various reasons), there are all committing an error. The metaethical error-theorist is akin to the atheist with respect to religion. When someone says “God loves you”, the atheist thinks this is untrue because the term “God” fails to correspond to anything in reality, like “unicorn” or “Sherlock Holmes”.

Error-theory has come under attack from two different angles. The first angle is to defend the existence of Objective Moral Facts and hence that people aren’t mistaken in making such judgments. The second angle is to argue that ordinary people aren’t really committed to strong forms of moral objectivity in the first place. In this post, I’d like to critically examine the second angle.

One way to go about defending the view that common sense morality is not deeply committed to Objectivity is to do some sophisticated philosophy-of-language and claim that apparent assertions of fact really mean something like imperatives, or expressions of desires (e.g. Boo stealing! Yay friendship!) or our thoughts about ideal hypothetical reasoners (constructivism). I think this is a deeply problematic approach for the same reason I think ultra-sophisticated theologians like Paul Tillich do not represent the religious views of ordinary people.

The other way people have argued for this view is through experimental philosophy. A representative example of this work is Shaun Nichols paper “After objectivity: an empirical study of moral judgment”, published in Philosophy Psychology (2004). In the study, Nichols asked undergraduates questions like:

John and Fred are members of different cultures, and they are in an argument. John says, “It’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it,” and Fred says, “No, it is not okay to hit people just because you feel like it.” John then says, “Look you are wrong. Everyone I know agrees that it’s okay to do that.” Fred responds, “Oh no, you are the one who is mistaken. Everyone I know agrees that it’s not okay to do that.” Which of the following do you think best characterizes their views? (Check one and give a brief justification for your answer.)

—It is okay to hit people just because you feel like it, so John is right and Fred is wrong.

—It is not okay to hit people just because you feel like it, so Fred is right and John is wrong.

—There is no fact of the matter about unqualified claims like “It’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it.” Different cultures believe different things, and it is not absolutely true or false that it’s okay to hit people just because you feel like it.

Nichols compared judgments in cases like these to cases about disagreement other physical facts like whether the Earth is flat. In contrast to the flat Earth case, “a sizable number of participants gave nonobjectivist responses to the moral case (17 of the 40 participants)”. Thus, Nichols concludes that error-theorists are wrong to think that ordinary moral discourse among laypersons is deeply committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts. However, Nichols does admit that a commitment to objectivity is a “core” feature of morality, is universally present in young children, but is “defeasible” as evidenced by the diversity of opinion in his undergraduate polls.

Has Nichols “empirically refuted” the “armchair” reflections of error-theorists who naively thought common folk are committed to Objectivity? Hardly. First of all, the subjects of Nichols study were WEIRD, i.e. from Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic societies. That’s a huge reason to be skeptical about over-generalizing from these results. Moreover, half of these subjects were from into philosophy courses. If there is any place on Earth where moral relativism is likely to be more over-represented it is in undergraduate intro philosophy courses. Nichols can hardly make the leap from WEIRD undergrads taking philosophy courses to “core features of everyday morality”.

But is there any empirical evidence to show that everyday people are in fact committed to moral objectivity? I believe there is. According to a recent survey of 1,000 Americans from across all 50 states, “the vast majority of Americans (87%) believe in the concept of sin.  “Sin” was defined in the research as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective.”

Maybe there is some hedging to be had with defining sin as something that is “almost always” wrong as opposed to “always wrong” but I’m pretty sure that the most natural way to understand the question is in terms of situations like the Ring of Gyges and Moral Objectivity. The concept of sin seems necessarily committed to objectivity given that sin stems from God’s moral authority, which certainly isn’t constrained by contingent human desires for well-being, happiness, and group cohesion.

Moreover, I am skeptical about Nichol’s “experimental” approach for the following reason. Almost all epistemologists agree that people believe things on the basis of testimony from their trusted peers. Moreover, it seems plausible that people also rely on moral testimony from people like Church leaders (e.g. A pastor telling their flock gambling is wrong). What I’m interested in is the concept of metaethical testimony. I think it’s very plausible that almost all mainstream religious Clergy are committed to some strong from of Moral Objectivity. When they teach their congregation about sin and God’s Moral Law, they are likely arguing for metaethical Realism of the strong sort committed to the existence of Objective Moral Facts “enforced” by God’s will or “flowing out of” God’s perfectly Good nature. On this view, God is the source of the “binding” power that secures the demanding-ness of categorical oughts like “One ought not to torture for fun even if you have the Ring of Gyges”.

So even if Nichol’s managed to get lay Church-going folk to answer a questionnaire seemingly indicating a nonobjectivist view, I think it’s likely that the answers would be very different if their Objectivist pastor was sitting right there next to them giving metaethical testimony and reminding them of the existence of God’s Moral Law and to think carefully about the nature of sin.

In conclusion, I reject the claim made by experimental philosophers that they have shown error-theory to be mistaken in assuming laypersons are ontologically committed to the existence of “binding” Objective Moral Facts.


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