Could Morality Have a Source?

By Heathwood, Chris | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, April 2012 | Go to article overview
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Could Morality Have a Source?


Heathwood, Chris, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


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? 

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