IT IS A COMMON IDEA THAT MORALITY, or moral truths, if there are any, must have some sort of source. if it is wrong to break a promise, or if our fundamental moral obligation is to maximize happiness, these facts must come from somewhere--perhaps from human nature, or our agreements, or God. Such facts cannot be ungrounded, floating free.
I not only deny this, I believe its opposite. If we look more closely at the moral theories that are supposed to be paradigm examples of theories under which morality has a source, we will see that these theories, too, posit ungrounded moral truths. This is not only interesting in its own right, it is important because it is sometimes thought to be an unacceptable feature of moral realism that, according to it, morality has no source, and so if we are moral realists, we must believe in brute, inexplicable moral truths. Since, as I will try to show, anyone who believes in moral truths at all must believe that there are brute and inexplicable ones, this is no objection to moral realism. (1)
Moral realism is here the view that (i) some things have moral properties (properties such as being morally wrong or being intrinsically good) and (ii) when something has a moral property, that property is not had in virtue of the attitudes that any observers (actual or hypothetical) have towards the thing, or in virtue of the practices they engage in concerning it. In other words, these moral properties are objective, or "stance independent." (2) Moral constructivism is the view that things do have their moral properties in virtue of such attitudes or practices.
Surely the most popular answer, historically speaking, to the question, "Where do moral truths come from?" has been, "God." As Locke wrote, the "true ground of morality ... can only be the will and law of God" (1690, I.III.6). Some writers still find the theistic answer compelling. William Lane Craig, for instance, holds that "moral values cannot exist without God," and complains that "Atheistic moral realists seem to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values, but just leave them floating in an unintelligible way" (2004: 18, 19). Craig is here making the argument against realism to which I just alluded.
Other philosophical traditions appeal to other sources. Sentimentalists claim to "ground morality in human nature," in particular, in our tendency to approve and disapprove of certain kinds of behavior and character. (3) Lara Denis (2008: [section] 2) uses this and similar expressions in her characterization of Hume's theory:
Hume takes morality to be independent of religion. In his ethical works, he clearly tries to ground morality in human nature, and to make a case for morality that stands just as well "without a theistic underpinning as "with one.... [B]y basing morality in sentiment, he excludes God as a moral assessor.
Contractarians agree that morality is grounded in some way in us, but not in our nature; rather, our moral obligations derive from the agreements we have made, or would make, with each other. For example, according to Ronald Milo (1995: 184),
It is true (or is a fact) that a certain kind of act is wrong, for example, just in case a social order prohibiting such acts would be chosen by rational contractors under suitably idealized conditions.
Ideal observer theories hold that the truths of morality come from the attitudes of an ideal observer (Firth 1952). For some Kantians, "our autonomy is the source of obligation" (Korsgaard 1996: 104). Each of these views, including the divine-based theory, is a form of constructivism about morality. (4)
By contrast, "the realist must," as Russ Shafer-Landau puts it, "say of the moral standards she favors that they just are correct--not in virtue of their being selected or created by anyone, but simply correct" (2003: 46). Shafer-Landau, himself a realist, presents our related argument against realism as follows:
[One] anti-realist argument relies on what is meant to be an embarrassing question for realists: what makes moral judgments true? ... Realists don't have any general answer to this question. Constructivists do. They can point to some person(s), actual or idealized, whose attitudes are responsible for fixing the truth.... It might be an ideal observer, or one's social group, or oneself (2003: 45).
The objection is not the epistemological one concerning how the realist could come to know moral facts or principles, given that they are not constructed. It is a metaphysical objection concerning where these facts and principles come from, or what makes them correct, given that they are not constructed.
These issues arise for a related topic in ethics as well: the internalism/externalism debate about normative reasons. Reasons internalism, which corresponds to constructivism, is roughly the view that whenever a person has a reason to do something, this is grounded in her (possibly idealized) desires (Brandt 1979, Williams 1981). Reasons externalism, which corresponds to realism, is the view that at least some of our reasons are grounded in external states of the world, such as objective evaluative facts, rather than in our desires (Quinn 1993, Parfit 2001). One argument against internalism claims that, given internalism, reasons have an objectionably arbitrary foundation, since the desires that ultimately explain our reasons are, on this view, desires that we have no reason to have. Alan Goldman, a reasons internalist, counters that externalism faces a corresponding problem--exactly the problem that Shafer-Landau and Craig allege for moral realism:
To be fair, we must compare the fact that the internalist can provide no reasons for having the fundamental concerns that we do ... with the fact that the externalist can provide no explanation of objective values (they are simply brute normative facts) (Goldman 2006: 484).
Shafer-Landau's response to the objection is to admit that constructivists do deliver the goods here while realists do not, but to point to other domains in which we accept that there are laws without lawmakers, such as logic, math and physics (2003: 45). But this "companions in guilt" response may be unpersuasive to those who believe that there are too many disanalogies between ethics on the one hand and logic, math and physics on the other.
My response relies on no such analogies. It is that constructivists do not deliver the goods in the first place. They, too, must accept some moral facts as brute. (5) My first thesis is thus that, concerning the question of whether morality has a source, constructivists have no advantage over realists.
My second thesis is that morality in fact couldn't have a source. This second thesis might seem to fail if reductionism in ethics is true. So I will explain why it seems that even if reductionism is true, not all moral truths will have a ground. Thus, both constructivism and reductionism are on a par with nonreductive realism concerning the question of whether morality has a source. Assuming that there are moral facts at all, then, even if reductionism or constructivism is true, some of them must go unexplained.
1. What is the issue?
When I speak of the question of where morality comes from, I of course do not mean to be talking about the causal, sociological question of the origin of the moral code that prevails in our culture, nor of the fact (if it is a fact) that human cultures everywhere subscribe to some moral scheme or other. Nor are we talking about morality's epistemological ground, or the question of how we can know moral facts. I instead mean to be inquiring into the following noncausal, philosophical question: Assuming some moral claims are true, what makes them true? What grounds them? In virtue of what are they true? This grounding relation is an explanatory relation in that when one fact is grounded in another, or made true by it, the latter explains the former--in at least one way of explaining. To clarify further, I am not asking which concrete things or stuff in the world makes these truths true, but rather which other truths make these truths true. The claim that some moral truth has no propositional grounding (our issue here) is compatible with the idea that it has some concrete grounding (such as in the form of some concrete event, fact, or state of affairs in the world). (6)