Objection 1: Disagreements about ethics seem irresolvable. Arguments about ethics are different from arguments about colors, or about math. In the latter two cases, controversies get settled. If we disagree whether the fabric is yellow, we take it outside and look. At worst, we ask a third party about what color they see. If we disagree about the validity of a proof, we double-check the steps. This might take work, but the debate gets settled for good. Theorems are just validly proven, period. If humans have the capacity to detect moral truths, why don’t we settle ethical questions in a parallel way? If our moral seemings are detecting a moral reality, why are our judgments of this reality not converging? Why are there so many cultural differences? Are some cultures more “moral-blind” than others?
Objection 2: Ethical intuitions might be mere feelings, not discoveries of facts. Emotivists agree that many things seem right and wrong to people, but the mere presence of these – often strong – feelings doesn’t mean that we’re detecting through them something about a non-natural reality. Instead, we might just be having feelings; that’s it. The Moral Intuitionist can give no evidence that something real and objective is actually being detected when people experience such feelings. Emotivists can explain everything we do and say without postulating some mysterious realm of non-natural facts, which we can lock on to through an equally mysterious moral sense. (How does a natural thing like a brain detect non-natural facts, anyway?)
Objection 3: Even if there were ethical truths, why would our intuitions reveal them? Our ethical feelings and sentiments most likely came about through natural selection. Evolution would have led us to the sentiments we have whether or not they corresponded with the actual ethical truths: these sentiments gave us a survival advantage. It would be a strange coincidence if these very sentiments happened to correspond to non-natural moral truths, since this truth did not shape the sentiments. (Evolution did.)
Pedagogical note: I didn’t try very hard to talk you out of the theories of Emotivism and Moral Intuitionism. This is because a commitment to either of these theories is perfectly compatible with everything in the next unit. There we will change the subject from asking about what makes right things right, and tackle instead the question of which actions are right actions.
1 The hemlock tea used in the execution of Socrates was indisputably natural.
3 Don’t get confused that I called the claims “factual” and in the next sentence considered the possibility that they’re false. Their status as factual just means that they’re the type of claim that belongs in the left-hand column, and their truth/falsity is settled by non-normative natural facts about the universe, the sort of stuff recorded in Wittgenstein’s world-book. The sentence “The moon is made of cheese” is a factual-type sentence that belongs in the left column, and happens to be uncontroversially false. Other claims that belong in the left column are uncontroversially true, and everything in between those extremes.