Moral Facts

Justin McBrayer sets out to explain why children do not know there are moral facts, and gets soundly execrated in his comment thread.

Reading over the article and the comments, it becomes clear that there is something fundamentally problematic in the set of popular socially-approved stances one can take to the fact – value or fact – opinion distinction. Either one accepts the distinction and takes morals as subjective, or you reject it and you take them as objective. Those who try to strike a middle path are generally seen as trying to introduce something ‘subjective’ into morals, and so are put in the first group since, apparently, “subjectivity” observes something like the one-drop rule.

The word “moral” can be taken either in the ancient sense as indicating actions that make one happy or in the modern sense as indicating an obligation. We’ll bracket the ancient sense for the moment, although most of which will get said here is pretty easy to translate into that account.

On the one hand, a moral fact is simply the fact that I am obliged to do something, and to deny that there is a fact of the matter here is a non-starter. You might as well deny that there are birds. Sure, I suppose you could make some abstruse taxonomic argument that birds are really just dinosaurs, but it has no power to work as a magical incantation to make parakeets vanish from cages or chicken disappear from my sandwich. If I want to walk out of the store with five pizzas and a tub of ice cream, I happen to know that I’m obliged to pay for them, to do so with dollars, and to wait in line to do so. Telling me that this is an ‘opinion’ is a failure to grasp both the situation I find myself in and the epistemological stance I have to it.

But the “I” in the above example is important, as are all its circumstances, and considering them gives us a clear sense in which obligation is like an opinion and not a fact. If I had a free-pizza and ice cream coupon or was starving, I wouldn’t be obliged to pay for the things; if I were in another country I wouldn’t have an obligation to pay in dollars; and there might be any number of situations where I wouldn’t have to stand in line to do so. There have been times when I just mobbed the counter to pay for something, or was allowed or expected to jump to the front of the line. This is also true of every obligation – you expect that in many or all cases of experiencing one you could change some circumstance and remove the obligation. And so opposite obligations can be both binding and reasonable, which is the mark of an opinion as opposed to a fact.

The upshot is that obligations have both what is distinctive about fact and what is distinctive about opinion. To think they must have one to the exclusion of the other is to miss the nature of the thing you’re dealing with. Sure, you can set up a theory that all obligations are ultimately facts (like Kant or Sam Harris try to do) or that they are all mere opinions (like Callicles tries to do) but it seems simpler to reject the distinction altogether, as we are just starting to do with the “nature-nurture” distinction. I think the way to do this is though an analysis of natural and positive right, but that would be a topic to deal with later.



  1. mhumpher said,

    March 8, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    ” This is also true of every obligation – you expect that in many or all cases of experiencing one you could change some circumstance and remove the obligation.”

    Is this not also true of what we often consider facts? Things on earth fall down seems a fact all accept, but if the thing is a piece of wood and the circumstance is under water, it will move up.

    • March 8, 2015 at 7:45 pm

      That particular case is of something falling down, namely the water – one though one byproduct of the falling is that the wood gets pushed out of the way.

      Natural laws have a universality that moral laws lack. The only circumstances of things following natural laws are the particular values that one enters into the equation, or the additional laws that one needs to take into account in order to explain a complex motion. But circumstances in moral actions are different than this, since they can remove or impose the obligation of the law.

  2. March 9, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Stoicism? Seems a fair description of the climate.

    We generally don’t think of ourselves – let alone cheating undergrads or parakeet-deniers – as particularly stoic, but there are reasons for the stoic revival in the academy. Obligation and sentiment can be at home where social order is given, even if the natural order is not (either because it is inaccessible or not there).

    The historical stoics were expressly hercliteans. Germane to this, concepts like fact, opinion, proof, transcendental schema etc., don’t count on there being a ‘there’ there, so we can have them in our ethics without committing ourselves to any truth, or a moral fact that amounts to a human statement of truth. Replace the Greco-roman piety of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius with the modern equivalent (consensus?), and you have a non-realist moralism that is at least relatively stable.

    Even though the historical arc of stoic civilization is unhappily well-established, your chicken sandwich is safe as long as we all pay due reverence to the household gods of property rights.

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