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The Existence Of Moral Disagreement Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2957 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Arguably, morality can be seen as little more than cultural traditions and “less of a human invention than the device of giving promises” (Blackburn, 2001:47). Whether an action is to be considered right or wrong depends on one’s personal circumstances. The concept of a ‘moral fact’ could be considered as merely a fabrication by those who wish to advocate individual moral theories. This essay will examine the problems posed by these anti-realist views, questioning the validity of their claim in an attempt to show that although this ‘argument from relativity’ cannot disprove the existence of moral facts alone, it does provide a solid base from which to expand upon anti-realist theories. In doing so, this essay will explore the different forms of moral disagreement that need to be considered, including an examination of Nietzsche’s argument from disagreement, before focusing mainly on Mackie’s ‘argument from relativity’ and the problems posed by its link to non-moral disagreement. This essay will conclude that the anti-realist argument, casting doubt on the existence of moral facts, is more convincing than the realist argument; therefore moral disagreement can be seen as fundamental, giving us good reason to believe that there are no moral facts.

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For motivational internalists, in making a moral judgement one will feel motivated to act in a way which is in accordance with that judgement, proving “a necessary or internal connection between morally judging and moral motivation” (Fisher and Kirchin, 2006:15). Motivational externalists however, believe that one can make a moral judgement without feeling any compulsion to act, an amoralist. Despite any disagreements with internalists on the truth of the judgement, externalists debate over “what an agent believes is right and what motivation she should feel” (Fisher and Kirchin, 2006:16).

It is important to clarify what is meant by the term moral facts, a meaning which can often become lost out of context creating confusion. Moral facts are, or at least should be, objective and universal truths about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of an action. In the natural sciences, we are often faced with objective truths or facts, but it is far more difficult to find evidence for any such properties in the study of ethics. Moral sceptics, most notably Mackie and Nietzsche, point to the ‘queerness’ of these properties, questioning how it is that we are able to detect moral facts, or raise the question of widespread moral disagreement as proof of the non-existence of them.

Perhaps the fact that all religions have somewhat of a common moral and ethical base does prove that there are moral facts and that it is through time that moral disagreement has occurred. For those who wrote Holy Scriptures, or Confucius, or Plato, “the central concern was the state of one’s soul, meaning some personal state of justice or harmony” (Blackburn, 2001:4), showing this common morality. Because human beings are “ethical animals”, we are able to “grade and evaluate, and compare and admire, and claim and justify” (Blackburn, 2001:4), making our own decisions on the right or wrong of a moral action. This shows that moral disagreement between cultures can arise, but that man have made their own personal judgements on them, and as “ethical animals” there can be no right or wrong, as there is no way of differentiating which culture is the ideal and which is not morally correct.

McNaughton has claimed that people may feel that morality can be seen as an “area of personal decision; a realm in which each of us has the right to make up his or her own mind about what to do” (McNaughton, 1988:3). This shows how moral disagreement could lead us to believe that there are no moral facts, as everyone has the capability to make up their own mind. Additionally, as there is “no authority to tell us how to live our lives [nor] moral experts” (McNaughton, 1988:3), everyone’s opinion is equal. He goes on to say that, in considering the important ethical topic of abortion, that each woman should have the right to make a moral choice for herself. However, McNaughton also questions “who is to determine what is the right decision?…Each of us has to decide what values he is to live by and the rest of us should respect the sincerity of those choices” (McNaughton, 1988:4). This shows that moral disagreement is likely, but should be valued because there are no moral facts and as such, individuals should be able to make their own moral decisions. The view of ‘moral choice’ should not necessarily lead to one, correct answer, as it is ‘moral opinions’ that determine whether or not something is right, which can lead to moral disagreement.

On the other hand, moral thinking can be viewed as “a method for deciding what values we should place on things…finding a value that is already there” (McNaughton, 1988:4), as Mackie believed in his ‘Inventing Right and Wrong’ (1990). By leaving everyone to decide their own moral views for themselves, different views would become exempt from criticism. In this case, the existence of moral facts would again be refuted and it could not be said that a certain moral position was better founded than another. If we consider the example of honour killings in the Middle East, where the moral view offered would be seen by the majority of society as ‘wrong’, this would clearly create moral disagreement.

The arguments regarding ‘moral disagreement’ often centre on the widespread diversity of opinion on morality among different societies. Nietzsche takes this basic idea, but he concentrates his argument on the persistent moral disagreement among professional philosophers:

“For what he calls attention to is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘folk’ moral disagreement, but rather what seems to me the single most important and embarrassing fact about the history of moral theorising by philosophers over the last two millennia: namely that no rational consensus has been secured on any substantive, foundational proposition about morality.” (Leiter, 2009:8)

Nietzsche’s argument can be summarised as follows: If any moral theory is true, then we would probably have found it by now; we haven’t found the true moral theory yet; so, it is likely that no moral theory is true; if no moral theory is true, then moral realism is false; therefore, moral realism is probably false (Gray, 2010). Although even ardent supporters of Nietzsche wouldn’t argue that this argument gives us solid grounds to definitively reject the claims of the moral realists, it seems a logical argument asserting moral realism is probably false. This is a key failing in Nietzsche’s argument, as it allows for the possibility of his premises being incorrect. It can be argued that his first two premises are particularly weak, and the falsity of either of these arguments instantly nullifies his argument. We certainly have yet to reach the pinnacle of philosophical thought, indeed “after thousands of years, we only recently developed Kantianism and utilitarianism” (Gray, 2010), and despite the progress in ethics recently there is no real reason to accept that we should have found the true moral theory yet. Furthermore, even if we currently have a variety of plausible arguments but are unable to determine which is the correct moral theory, the jump to man not having found the true moral yet is, at least in philosophically logical terms, colossal, and is a major assumption that fails to stand up to philosophical investigation.

It has been proven that Nietzsche’s argument fails to provide any solid reason to reject the existence of moral facts. So now let us turn to the alternative view of moral disagreement, Mackie’s argument from relativity, which considers the widespread differences in moral opinion that can be found across a variety of societies, both past and present. There is plenty of empirical evidence to support this view on a wide range of moral issues, from the torture of others to monogamy and promiscuity. Mackie argues that “disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life” (Mackie, 1991:36), hence objective, universal moral facts cannot exist by definition.

This argument seems much more plausible, although it is not without objections, which generally come in one of two forms. Some objectors deny the extent of the empirical evidence, defending moral realism by claiming that “moral disagreement is not really as widespread as it is often made out to be…much of the conspicuous disagreement masks extensive moral agreement at a deeper level (a level pertaining to more fundamental moral principles)” (SEP, 2007). Moreover, even if we accept that moral disagreement exists, does anti-realism really provide the best explanation for this? Individual’s moral views can be blurred and altered by experience, “general principles, when coupled with the circumstances and social patterns of different cultures, create the variations in moral codes we see in society” (Salas, 2010:34). In reality however, even the most ardent moral realists have to accept that “fundamental moral disagreement, [more specifically] persisting diversity under idealized conditions entails, or at least strongly suggests, that moral realism is false” (Stich, 2007).

Clearly therefore, if we are to accept that moral disagreement provides a good reason to believe that there are no moral facts, we need to once again look at the form of the moral disagreement we are referring to, this time not in terms of differing moral theories against societal disagreements, but instead fundamental against non-fundamental disagreement. If we can show that moral disagreement would still exist in idealised circumstances, that is to say total rationality and equality within a society, the disagreement could be said to be fundamental, and we would be forced to reject moral realism completely. This would therefore corroborate the anti-realist view of the doubt over the existence of moral facts.

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Realists often argue “careful philosophical examination will reveal…that agreement on non-moral issues would eliminate almost all disagreement about the sorts of issues which arise in ordinary moral practice” (Boyd, 1988:213). More specifically, all moral disagreement arises as a result of non-moral differences including culture and tradition. This means that moral disagreement could be said to be non-fundamental and therefore fail to provide solid grounds for dismissing the existence of moral facts.

With this in mind, let us now look for any empirical evidence of fundamental moral disagreement; it is far easier if we assume that all moral disagreement is non-fundamental and look for any exceptions as examples moral disagreement being fundamental. This would be enough to disprove moral realism, but this is not true for non-fundamental disagreement. Unfortunately, while there is plenty of empirical evidence of radically divergent moral outlooks in different cultures and eras, for example slavery was considered acceptable in previous cultures, but nowadays, it is far from generally acceptable in modern societies; traditional ethnography gives little guidance about what people’s moral attitudes would be under idealised circumstances.

Richard Brandt, “a pioneer in the effort to integrate ethical theory and the social sciences”, looked primarily to anthropology to help determine the answer to the philosophical question of “whether moral attitudes can be expected to converge under idealised circumstances” (Doris, 2005). He set out to shed some light on this question of moral disagreement. Studying the Hopi people of the American southwest, Brandt found several examples of moral disagreements to contemporary beliefs that did not have any clear link to moral differences. Most famous, is the example of the treatment of animals:

“[Hopi children] sometimes catch birds and make ‘pets’ of them. They may be tied to a string, to be taken out and ‘played’ with. This play is rough, and birds seldom survive long. [According to one informant:] “Sometimes they get tired and die. Nobody objects to this.” (Brandt, 1954:213)

Clearly, this is completely contradictory to modern morality in western society, where the torture of animals is considered a violation of natural laws. However, Brandt searched for evidence that the difference could be traced to non-moral disagreement, but found none. There was no non-moral belief or failure of imagination, for example that animals don’t feel pain, and thus Brandt concluded that they reflect a basic difference of attitude, which would not disappear under idealised conditions (Brandt, 1954). These results, surprising considering that Brandt began his research as a moral realist, seem to overwhelmingly point towards moral anti-realism. However, realists continue to argue that there is some sort of undetected systematic difference in belief, but the burden of this argument now falls on those who wish to deny the fundamentality of the differences.


Realists who attempt to prove the existence of moral facts by appealing to God or the laws of nature cannot be sure of the existence of them. From a realist perspective, moral disagreement does not prove that facts do not exist, as it could just be that different cultures and groups of people are not accessing moral beliefs, comprised of moral truths in the right way, hence their apparent differences in morality. An example of this continued from one given earlier, shows how it could be claimed by realists that Middle Eastern people who agree with honour killings may not be accessing the correct moral beliefs and moral truths properly, as it is easy for a society to imprint its cultural views onto its people. However, for realists to revere moral facts solely because they believe them to be moral would be “moral fetishism” (Smith, 1995:75-6) as instead of virtues, they could be vices and there is no real way of proving which category a moral fact should be classed as. Instead, as Smith advocates, a truly good moral agent would be someone who takes morality non-instrumentally, to its own end. Taking into account the deontological argument, if a moral agent was genuinely repulsed by a particular immoral fact, surely this would mean that this moral agent’s view coincided with those which are seen as moral facts and therefore they would be a morally good person. Realists should also consider whether, if moral facts do exist, perhaps they only exist in very small numbers. Indeed, if most people believe that killing the innocent is morally wrong, but our definitions of innocent differ from society to society, from culture to culture, then it is only what one’s society deems as morally wrong which is what one morally agrees with. (Hare, 1981: 49).

Additionally, if we take the aim of morality being to govern conduct, if we as people as well as moral agents are not supposed to know explicitly what moral facts comprise of, surely the point of morality is compromised.

Moral disagreement cannot, on its own, prove that moral facts do not exist, as it is perhaps so that some people are capable of knowing moral facts while others are morally wrong. A realist might argue that there is often disagreement in science and other pioneering subjects where factual answers are unknown; when the answer is discovered, there is certainly one hypothesis which must become proven wrong, for example when it was hypothesised that the world was flat. It can be argued that the only difference is that it is unlikely that we will ever know whether or not moral facts do exist. However, this moral disagreement is able to provoke further analysis which has cast doubt on realism, thereby showing the strengths of anti-realism. It is through this mere casting of metaphysical doubt that it can be proved that the existence of moral disagreement does give good reason to believe that there are no moral facts.

As has been demonstrated, there are examples of fundamental moral disagreement that give us good reason to reject the existence of moral facts. Moral disagreement remains to be controversial, but the more powerful position has switched as a result of the insights of Brandt as well as others after him, most notably Nesbitt’s findings. Moral realism now finds itself needing to answer questions about its veracity instead of posing them, and currently it seems to be struggling. This essay has shown that although the argument from moral disagreement is not necessarily valid in its most basic iterations, by narrowing the type of moral disagreement relevant to their argument, moral anti-realists can build up an extremely strong case against the existence of moral facts. The impetus is now with moral realists to defend their views, but, at least for the time being, we have very good reason to believe that the existence of moral disagreement does indeed give us good reason to believe that there are no moral facts.


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