Are moral values invented or discovered? What importance does this question have for moral debate and decision-making? Realism about ethics could be described as the naïve conception of ethics, as ordinary morality seems to endorse the view that matters of ethics are matters of facts. This is seen in the language we use to describe moral judgements, the use of the categorical imperative without recourse to justifications by reasoning or opinions. It is further corroborated by the strong feeling that attaches itself to moral judgements; in believing an action to be good, we are committed to it being the rightthing to do, not subject to difference in taste or opinion. However, if we accept that moral facts do exist independently of us and can be known, we are now faced with some difficult questions: What kind of facts are these? How do we come to know them? How can we account for the many examples of disagreement over the facts and come to the correct view?
John Mackie offers two main arguments against the objectivity of moral values. The first of these deals with the first two questions raised above, regarding the possible nature of objective moral values and our access to them. Certainly moral statements are not ‘about’ things in the more obvious way that statements of science are, and cannot be verified by empirical evidence save perhaps our own psychological tendencies. Mackie argues that the ‘queerness’ of moral facts is a good reason to reject their existence. There are certainly many properties of moral values that no other facts possess. The realist, to defend his view, must offer some explanation of how objective facts are able to motivate people to act in the way that moral ones do, when, as Hume argues, belief itself is motivationally inert. Some realists simply deny that this is the case, agreeing with Hume that belief must be coupled with a desire to act. But when we form a moral belief, say that some action is ‘right’, in making the judgement we are already moved to act. If we disassociate our desire to be moral, or desire to do the right thing, whatever that specific thing may be, then surely we are removing some part of the moral judgement we are trying to explain.
Then there is the problem of explaining the connection between natural facts and moral ones. For it is clear that moral facts are supervenient on natural ones for no two acts could be naturally identical and yet differ morally. But in what exactly consists the goodness of an act if this is supervenient on and yet distinct from its natural components? As Mackie puts it, when saying an act is wrong because it is cruel, “what in the world is signified by this ‘because’?”
As already mentioned, a realist view of ethics is quite an automatic one, and so to convincingly reject the doctrine we must offer a plausible alternative. If holding that there is no objective moral reality, how is it that our linguistic and psychological tendencies seem to be so in error? Blackburn seeks to show how an apparently realist language can be explained on a very different ontological basis, something that he describes as ‘quasi-realism’. According to quasi-realism, statements that appear to asset an objective truth can be viewed as a “proper, necessary expression of an attitude to our own attitudes”. Even if this can explain the objectification of moral values in language, the inclination to ascribe objectivity to moral judgements comes also from the sense that they are binding upon every person- one cannot opt out of moral behaviour. If we are to reject realism, and say that morals are of our own invention, then are we at liberty to disregard them? The idea that we are sacrificing the notion of obligation is threatening to ordinary morality, as well as hard to reconcile with the strong feeling of having a moral duty.
In fact, we are at liberty to reject objectivity without real fear for the abandonment of morals altogether. The sensation of conscience is very real, and its source may be otherwise explained, by our education, upbringing, and the deep social entrenchment of moral rules. To suggest that through rational rejection of objectivity we could reject morality altogether is just as impossible as to suggest that through philosophical examination of subjectivity in humour we could stop finding things funny. This is not to say that our sense of duty will be entirely unaffected- our sense of obligation can certainly diminish with the belief that it is not objectively correct. As much as we might at first glance seem to trust in the objectivity of our moral beliefs, the possibility of their being mistaken prevents us from being too forthright in our imposition of them on others. We are able to privately believe in the ‘rightness’ of our views while not condemning someone for holding different views, on the grounds that it is often difficult to discern the correct moral response to something. Similarly, if we were to hold that there is no such thing as a ‘correct’ response, we would still retain our preference and commitment to a certain one.
Now we are touching on another of Mackie’s methods of attack, the empirical fact that people just do hold very different moral views. Some situations are difficult to assess, and this is usually those in which great harm and great good can be incurred by both of two different courses of action. Morality covers a broad spectrum of types of action, and we are willing to recognise differing degrees of wrongness and rightness, and further recognise that these are frequently incommensurable. This itself should not trouble the realist, for if we are to hold that moral values exist, I have already shown that we must acknowledge their peculiar nature, and the difficulty of explaining our access to them. That disagreements exist does not belie the possibility of there being a right answer, however difficult it may be to identify.
But let us look at cases that are not so hard to assess. Rather than talking about disagreements between individuals, let us examine variance between cultures. There are some practises that in Western society would be considered fully abhorrent, but that remain an integral part of other cultures, specifically the practise of female circumcision in many parts of Africa. The ritual mutilation of girls’ genitals is hardly a matter of contention for ordinary western morality, it is clearly condemnable. Yet this remains standard practise in many countries, and it is not a case of forcible oppression of women, rather it is morally accepted and usually carried out by other women. Now the western realist must hold that this is morally corrupt, and so is forced to say that these cultures are just mistaken. That they have failed (or not yet managed) to discover the correct moral nature of female genital mutilation. An alternative, and more satisfying, explanation is that their moral rules have simply developed in a different way to those of Western societies, in response to the combination of factors that influence any society’s development, such as environment, politics, or religion. We may strongly believe in the superiority of our own ethical code, but this can be seen as a product of its deep entrenchment in our culture. Systems of ethics are not static, rather they evolve over time, albeit very slowly; certain things are outlawed as morality shifts, and things which were once considered strongly immoral begin to be accepted. Of course this does not preclude the possibility that what they evolve towards is some kind of objectively correct standard. But I don’t think there is any motivation to believe this, given the already cited difficulties of elucidating the strange nature of this objective reality.
Of course there are some values about which there is no discord, such as the killing of innocent people. Even those values have been disregarded in the past, for example in the religious sacrifice of humans, but I am not suggesting that we are not justified in strongly holding to these basic values. We simply do have strong faith in our own moral beliefs, and as such I feel we remain entitled to consider current morality an ‘improvement’ on past ideas. There are plenty of things which are created rather than discovered by humans and yet the value of which is strongly advocated. Moreover, the non-objectivist does not have to refrain from propagating their own moral views, or refrain from criticising practises they find abhorrent such as FGM. It is not contradictory to believe that your morals are not objective, and still want others to conform to them, as it is a part of their nature that you strongly prefer them, and indeed feel obliged to uphold them. As already stated, there may be some less drive to try and impose them, and this is currently reflected in the way people do refrain from interfering with cultural practises they disagree with.
Mackie seems to regard his error theory as having no implications for a change in the practise of ethics. Blackburn draws a comparison with mathematics on this point, saying that one could be an anti-realist about mathematical objects without ever doubting that 7+5 really is 12. Actually this is not a good analogy, as anti-realism in mathematics does lead to a great change in its practise- intuitionists have reformulated logic and mathematics according to their philosophy of its foundations, and consequently rejected whole fields of classical mathematics. Most working mathematicians are realists for this very reason. To reject normal morality on the basis of philosophising into its ontology is far less possible. The urge to preserve classical mathematics for most people is not as strong as the urge to preserve morality; any subject so intimately connected with peoples’ psychology and emotive responses is far less open to revision on the basis of reasoning.
Realism about ethics faces many challenges, and there are significantly different answers to these even within this doctrine. Issues include whether moral facts are natural, or in what sense they depend on natural facts; the epistemological difficulties in accounting for our knowledge of this ‘queer’ subject matter, and finally the fundamental ways in which moralities can differ, which are apparently contingent on social and cultural differences. The naïve view looks less and less appealing, especially when we consider the ways in which the linguistic and psychological tendencies upon which it is founded can be explained without objectivity. Reluctance to call morals subjective can be motivated by the fear that lack of objectivity means removal of obligation, but this would not be the case. That moral values are invented rather than discovered does not make a significant change to ordinary practise of moral reasoning. Tolerance for cultural differences already exists, even when these offend some of our moral views; the cases in which we don’t accept differing moralities are ones of very basic, core values, that are upheld by most societies even if not by all individuals. Furthermore it is perfectly possible to accept that these are products of human invention, and yet feel just as strongly about our duty to uphold them.