Are there Moral Facts? 

That depends on how you choose to think about "morality"!  In this essay, I will briefly review the arguments presented on each side of the debate over their existence.  As prelude, however, I must adopt two preliminary assumptions.  I recognize that these assumptions are contentious for many, but one must start somewhere.

Assumption 1: a "fact" is something which is the case - the state of affairs reported by a true proposition.(1)  Equivalently, a "fact" is whatever it is in the world that renders a proposition true.  Facts are "truth-makers" that need not correspond one-to-one with true propositions.(2)  This understanding of "facts" is to intended to be neutral as to their metaphysical and ontological nature. 

Assumption 2: a "proposition" is the truth-apt sense or meaning of a statement irrespective of the words, sentence form, language, symbology employed, or its assertive status.  There can be more than one way in English to say the same "thing".  The same "thing" can be said in more than one language.  And the same "thing" can be left unsaid, or even un-thought.  And again, this understanding of "proposition" is intended to be neutral as to their metaphysical and ontological nature.  But by limiting "propositions" to those "things" which can be "truth-apt", I am ruling out a propositional interpretation of such "things" as commands (prescriptions), or emotional expressions, and the like.  Propositions are, by definition, either true or false.

A key corollary of these assumptions is that the essay's title question can be understood as asking whether there are moral propositions for which there are facts to render them true.  Equivalently, it can be seen to be asking whether moral language can be understood to express propositions.

Given these two preliminary understandings, the debate over whether there are moral facts can be seen as a debate over whether moral language can be understood in terms of propositions, and over whether there exist facts that would render such propositions true.  Those who argue that there are moral facts are the Moral Realists.  Those who argue that moral language can not be understood in terms of propositions are the Non-Cognitivists.  And those who argue that there are no true moral propositions (and hence no moral facts) are the Cognitivist Error-Theorists.

I will begin with the arguments presented the Moral Realists in support of the existence of moral facts, because these arguments are the more intuitively obvious.  Common sense "folk" morality is learnt by children in the same manner as they learn their native language.  They learn first that it is right or wrong to do certain things.  Later they learn why it is right or wrong to do these things.  And there are two ways of providing the why.  The non-philosophical response is for some particular rule to be cited, with the backing of some Supreme Authority.  The philosophical response is the provision of some non-moral description of the basis of moral rules.  From a descriptive point of view, statistics would suggest that most people regard the basis of their moral codes as the dictates or commands of some Supreme Authority(3) -- be it a God (like for the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions), or a highly respected thinker like Gautama Bhudda (Buddhism), Karl Marx (Marxism/Communism), or Laozi (Taoism).  So if the meaning of moral language is determined in some part by how people actually use (or intend) the language, then clearly moral language is a cognitive descriptive exercise that can be captured by propositions.

As pointed out by Peter Glassen(4):

"That any sentence asserts anything, says anything that is true or false, etc., can be found out in no other way than by finding out what it is that the speaker of the sentence means by it, that is, what it is that he intends to convey by it and what it is that he is characteristically understood as conveying by it."(Pg 69)

"One may, if one pleases, argue that moral judgments cannot be true or false, correct or mistaken; but the fact remains that in ordinary moral discourse these epithets are applied to moral judgments, and their use in this way does not at all seem to be Pickwickian. This fact surely indicates that in ordinary discourse moral judgments are intended to convey cognitive meaning. How else could we account for it ?"(Pg 65)

"If we ask, not 'Do moral judgments assert something?' but, 'Are moral judgments intended to assert something and are they so understood?', we must admit that moral discourse bears every evidence that those who engage in it do intend to assert something when they utter moral judgments and are understood as asserting something."(Pg 71)

Moral Realism thus embraces two basic theses: (i) moral statements, when literally construed, are literally true or false; and (ii) at least some of these statements are true.(5)  There are many different flavours of moral realism, from the non-natural realism of G.E.Moore(6) to the naturalistic realism of Michael S. Moore(7).  From the Conventionalism of Kekes(8) to the Contractarian Constructivism of Milo(9) and Rawls(10).  Each variation would provide its own specific understanding of just what would constitute a "moral fact".  But they are all in agreement that moral language is cognitively descriptive, can be captured by propositions, of which at least some are true.  Hence, for Moral Realists, there are moral facts.

Non-Cognitivism (or sometimes "Non-Descriptivism" or "Expressivism"), on the other hand, maintains that our "folk" understanding of moral language is grossly in error.  Moral assertions, judgements, and so forth are not "things" that can be captured by propositions, and hence are not stuff for which truth-status is apt.  Of course, like with the variations of Moral Realism, just how to understand moral language differs according to the variation of non-cognitivism preferred.  The classic version of non-cognitivism is Emotivism.(11)  Emotivism thus maintains that moral utterances (or thoughts) are not "things" to be captured in propositions.  Instead, they function primarily to express emotions, and to elicit the appropriate emotions in others.  Emotivism has sometimes been called the "Hurrah!-Boo! Theory" because of its interpretation of positive moral statements as doing something similar to crying "Hurrah!", while negative statements cry "Boo!".  The emergence of Logical Positivism and its verifiability criterion of meaning early in the 20th century led some philosophers to conclude that ethical statements, being incapable of empirical verification, were cognitively meaningless.(12)

Non-Cognitivism owes its origins to the work of David Hume, who argued that reason was impotent, and that the passions alone were the well-springs of actions.(13)  According to Hume, facts and propositions are the business of reason.  Whereas moral valuations and moral sentiments are the business of the passions.  Hence our moral judgments are not truth-apt.  Hume famously raised what is called the "is-ought problem" (also known as Hume's Law and Hume's Guillotine).(14)  He observed that many writers make claims about moral ought based on descriptive statements about what is.  However, he argued, it is not at all obvious how we can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive ones.(15)

Buttressing this reasoning was the reasoning of G.E. Moore captured in what he called the "naturalistic fallacy".(16)  Moore argued that the concept of "moral good" is indefinable because it names a simple, non-natural property.  Based on this premise, he claimed that a "naturalistic fallacy" is committed whenever a philosopher appeals to a definition of the concept "moral good" in terms of one or more natural properties.  While not strictly speaking a non-cognitivist argument, Moore's naturalistic fallacy has been combined with Hume's is-ought problem to reinforce the argument that since facts and propositions are about what is, and moral language is about what ought, there is no place for moral facts.

Another famous argument for the non-existence of moral facts is J.L. Mackie's "argument from queerness".(17)  Mackie argued that if moral properties (i.e. "goodness") did exist, they would have to be different from the usual kind of property.  Mackie's argument is that moral properties have no discernable effect on the world.  Is there any evidence that there is a property of "rightness" that morally right acts have?  Most cognitivists argue that the attitudes we have when we consider moral actions and choices is evidence of the existence of the relevant moral property.  But Mackie explains these feelings without saying that a moral property was their cause.  Mackie presents a two threaded argument for his position.  One thread is metaphysical and the other epistemological.  (But since the epistemological argument is all about how we come to know anything about the queer metaphysical entities, we can ignore it if we can show that objective moral facts are not as queer as Mackie suggests.)  Mark Timmons provides a useful reconstruction of Mackie's metaphysical argument(18). 

Moral discourse purports to refer to intrinsically prescriptive properties and facts "that would somehow motivate us or provide us with reasons for action independent of our desires and aversions"(Timmons, pg 50).  But such properties and facts do not accord well with the kind of philosophical naturalism that consists of the rejection of any properties or relationships that is not a part of the natural physical world that science investigates.  Hence "they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe"(Mackie, pg38). 

It is, however, unclear just what Mackie thinks that these objective moral properties might be.  On the one hand, he says "Plato's Forms give a dramatic picture of what objective values would have to be"(Mackie, pg 39).  But shortly thereafter, says "It may be thought that the argument from queerness is given an unfair start if we thus relate it to what are admittedly among the wilder products of philosophical fancy -- Platonic Forms, non-natural qualities, self-evident relations of fitness, faculties of intuition, and the like."(Mackie, pg 40-41)  Mackie seems to think that at least some supervenience relationships required by a supervenience theory of moral realism are not susceptible of further explanation and are thus sui generis.(19)  If he is right, that would make such relationships quite unlike any of the usual run-of-the-mill supervenience relationship -- like that of chemistry on physics, for example.  It would render them, in this narrow sense "queer" by comparison with the usual suite of supervenience relations.  (But any theological or utilitarian moral theory would provide an example that would refute Mackie's assumption.  So the "argument from queerness" actually begs the question -- it requires as a prerequisite, the assumption either of Platonic realism, or of sui generis moral properties.  Neither position is characteristic of contemporary moral realism.)

A more recently popular version of non-cognitivism is the Prescriptivism of Carnap and Hare.(20)  Arguments for prescriptivism focus on the function of normative statements.  Prescriptivists argue that factual statements (propositions) and prescriptions are totally different.  Rather than simply expressing emotions, Prescriptivism argues that moral statements express "universal prescriptions" or commands.  Hence, as commands, moral statements are distinct from assertions, and are not truth-apt.  Adjusting statements to reflect reality and adjusting reality based upon statements are contrary uses of language.  So factually descriptive statement are a different kind of linguistic entity than are expressions of prescriptions or commands. 

Prescriptivism, it is argued, is also supported by actual usage.  We utter moral statements as de facto recommendations or commands.  The most famous moral ideas are prescriptions: the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, Kant's categorical imperatives.  These are not statements that something is the case or not, they are not things that can be true or false.

Different variations of non-cognitivist ethical theories would provide their own specific understanding of just how to understand moral language.  But they are all in agreement that moral language is not in any literal sense cognitively descriptive.  Even where they admit that moral language can be captured by propositions, they would argue that no such moral propositions are true.  Hence there are no moral facts.

So the answer to the title question depends on how you choose to think about "morality"!


Notes & References

(1)        Wikipedia contributors;  "Fact." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

(2)        See for example: Frege, Gottlob;  "The thought: a logical inquiry" in P.F. Strawson (ed.) Philosophical Logic (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1967);  Mellor, D.H.;  The Facts of Causation (London:Routledge 1995);  Austin, J.L.;  "Unfair to Facts" in Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1961);  Davidson, Donald;  "True to the Facts" in Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1984).

(3)        Congress of World and Traditional Religions,

(4)        Glassen, Peter;  "The Cognitivity of Moral Judgments" in Mind 68, No 269 (Jan 1959), Pgs 57-72.

(5)        Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey;  Essays on Moral Realism, Cornell University Press, Cornell, New York, 1988. ISBN: 0-8014-9541-5. Pg 5.

(6)        Moore, G.E.M.;  Principia Ethica, 1903. URL=<>.

(7)        Moore, Michael S.;  "Moral Reality Revisited" in Michigan Law Review, Vol 90, No 8 (Aug 1992), pp 2424-2533. URL=<>.

(8)        Kekes, John; "Moral Conventionalism" in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 22, No 1 (Jan 1985), pp 37-46, URL=<>.

(9)        Milo, Ronald;  "Contractarian Constructivism" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 92, No 4 (Apr 1995), pp 181-204, URL=<>.

(10)      Rawls, John;  A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, ISBN 978-0674017726.

(11)      See for example: Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals;  Carnap Philosophy and Logical Syntax, 1937;  Stevenson, Ethics and Language, 1944; Ayer, Language Truth and Logic, 1952.

(12)      Wikipedia contributors;  "Emotivism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  Here also are Carnap and Ayer -

"Most philosophers have been deceived [by the seeming fact that moral judgments often take the form of an assertive proposition] into thinking that a value statement is really an assertive proposition, and must be either true or false. . . .  But actually a value statement is nothing else than a command in a misleading grammatical form . . . it is neither true nor false. It does not assert anything and can neither be proved nor disproved." [Carnap, Rudolf;  Philosophy and Logical Syntax, [Psyche Miniatures, General Series no. 70], Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London,1935), Pg 24-25.]

"Moral judgments] have no objective validity whatsoever. If a sentence makes no statement at all, there is obviously no sense in asking whether what it says is true or false. And we have seen that sentences which simply express moral judgments do not say anything. They are pure expressions of feeling . . . ."   Ayer, A.J.;  Language, Truth and Logic, Dover Publications, New York, New York, 1952. Pg 108.

(13)      "In moral deliberations we must be acquainted beforehand with all the objects, and all their relations to each other; and from a comparison of the whole, fix our choice or approbation. … While we are ignorant whether a man were aggressor or not, how can we determine whether the person who killed him be criminal or innocent? But after every circumstance, every relation is known, the understanding has no further room to operate, nor any object on which it could employ itself. The approbation or blame which then ensues, cannot be the work of the judgement, but of the heart; and is not a speculative proposition or affirmation, but an active feeling or sentiment."    Hume, David; "Appendix I. Concerning moral sentiment" in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, URL=<>.

(14)      Wikipedia contributors. "Is-Ought Problem." in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

(15)      "In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."   Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature. Book III, Part I, Section I, London: John Noon. p. 469.

(16)      Moore, G.E.M.;  Principia Ethica, 1903. URL=<>.

(17)      Mackie, J.L.;  Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Pelican Books, New York, New York, 1977. ISBN 0-14-013558-8.

(18)      Timmons, Mark;  Morality without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1999. ISBN: 019511731X.

(19)      Shepski, Lee;  "The Vanishing Argument from Queerness" in Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol 86, No 3 (2008), Pg 371-387.

(20)      See for example: Carnap, Philosophy and Logical Syntax, 1937. Hare, The Language of Morals, 1952.

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