The Enquirer decides to doubt whether any actions, situations, events, and persons can be really good or bad, right or wrong, morally permissible or morally impermissible.
I seem to belong to a highly judgemental species, and it is hard to refrain from judging and evaluating, praising and blaming. All around me, people are rating, reviewing, giving stars, thumbs up and down to films, hotels, household appliances, and life events. They write restaurant reviews that say ‘The fish was underdone and the staff were rude,’ as though the fish and the staff actually had those qualities, and they expect others to make use of the ‘information.’ They gossip about one another’s personal lives and decisions, admiring and disapproving of their friends’ actions. Human beings slap fines on one another and cart others of their species off to jail. They also award them medals, badges, and diplomas for achievements deemed meritorious. I find myself constantly judging my food and drink for its tastiness and value for money. I cannot seem to help judging some kinds of people for what I take to be their moral qualities, as well as for their nonmoral qualities of being politically savvy or hilarious, or displaying athletic prowess or artistic ability.
To help me to determine whether there are any moral truths that I can come to know, I will try to adopt an objective, strictly value-free perspective on the world. I will suppose not only that nothing is morally right or morally wrong, but also that nothing is really beautiful or ugly, good or bad, worth pursuing or pointless. Further, I will suppose that when the world changes, or anything changes in the world, it is never better or worse than it was before.
Everything is what it is on my new assumption. The spotted toadstool and the warty toad are no uglier than the peacock or the racehorse; the worm is not inferior to the human species that has its Mozarts, Newtons, and Lauren Bacalls. All cultural forms—laws, governments, styles of dress, conventions—are neither good nor bad; they too are as they are. They arise and perish as conditions change. Events that I used to consider as terrible disasters and moral horrors, such as the Holocaust or Napoleon’s assault on Russia, are no worse or more unfortunate on my new supposition than ample harvests and peace treaties. Disease and death are no worse than health and recovery. There is nothing to celebrate or regret. It is simply a fact that things happen. I have my preferences, to be sure. I admire and deplore, I rejoice in certain events that I perceive as having personal importance, and I regard with deep dismay certain political events. I understand words like ‘atrocity,’ ‘tragedy,’ and ‘benefit.’ But when people rejoice over the birth of a child or some prize that comes their way, I shall not suppose that there is anything intrinsically good in this event, only that it is the sort of event that induces ‘happy’ words and gestures in people who are related to the event in a particular way.
It is difficult for me to keep this neutral picture in mind. It is hard for me not to consider the feathers of the peacock more beautiful than the warts on the toad, to refuse to admit that some people are genuinely annoying, and to deny that the maggots in the rubbish bin are really disgusting. I cannot help but judge some houses and flats nicer and better located than others. My habits of evaluation keep overwhelming me even while I try to keep them at bay. This knife is terrible! I think; it mashes the tomato I am trying to slice. This soup is delicious; the hint of basil makes it so. I have stipulated that evaluative properties and relations of better-and-worse do not exist, but I have difficulty believing the world to be value-free insofar as I do not experience it as such.6
I might however conceive the world as free of values by considering the following. All that really exists are the unperceivable atoms or subatomic particles and the forces described by physics that are the building blocks of the physical world, including everything from stars and planets to human beings and their brains. The world of animals, people, features of the landscape, and manufactured objects is simply an appearance conditioned by my brain. The ‘scientific image’ of a value-free world seems to lie ‘behind’ the image of nature carried about with me in my mind. At the subatomic level, science tries to account for matter, force, gravity, and also time and space. At the atomic level, it explains chemical reactions. At the level of physics and physiology, science tries to explain how molecules and physical and chemical processes generate all the various worlds of experience in all conscious creatures, including birds and mammals and perhaps fish and insects too. The sciences give me a representation of the world that is unaffected by people’s neurological idiosyncrasies and cultural upbringing. A physicist can be colour-blind and tone deaf and still make discoveries. Physicists in Japan share a common scientific image of the fundamental particles and forces with physicists in Nigeria.
I am confident that there is no good or evil amongst the particles and forces that are the basis of everything that exists. Nothing they do is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than anything else. So values are not to be found in the world as physics—or physics and chemistry—describes it. The same is true, I think, of the world as the biologist describes it. He or she may note that a certain gene confers resistance to a certain virus, while another gene predisposes one to malaria. It is ‘good for’ organisms to be resistant to viruses and ‘bad for’ them to catch malaria, but it is hard to see the world as better or worse off with one less or one more sick animal, except insofar as we care about the flourishing of the animal more than the flourishing of viruses and bacteria. I feel sorry for the young antelope caught in the jaws of the crocodile, but to the scientist this is just another event of the sort that sometimes happens: a crocodile is nourished, there is one young antelope less in the world, but this is neither fortunate nor unfortunate in itself. The growth of a cancer is a misfortune from the human point of view, but considered abstractly, it is just a physiological process that is what it is.
Now, however, it occurs to me to wonder why I should accept accounts of the world given by physics, chemistry, and biology as true, as constituting knowledge—indeed as being paradigmatic of what knowledge is.
I accept this image, I think, in part because I value the understanding, power, and enjoyment that it gives me. I perceive its body of descriptions as having an especially valuable property—the value of being useful. I see it as better than the common-sense account of the world, insofar as science permits us to predict what is going to happen, to advance our interests in light of our expectations, and to exercise control over nature and direct nature to ends we consider (mistakenly or not) to be good. At the same time, I may fear science—or fear its effects. The technological mastery of nature is not without terrible by-products: weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, pollution, and perhaps certain unpleasant psychological effects that arise from living in an advanced technological age. I also admire science as an institution, an institution with a track record, not only of technological products, but of self-refinement. As an enterprise, science is not only a way of learning about nature, but a way of learning how to learn about nature—through the development of instruments and methods, including experimental protocols and mathematical and statistical techniques. It can uproot and supplant harmful and idle superstition.
So the acceptance of the value-free scientific image of the world itself reflects a number of my values and my attitudes of approval and disapproval. This leads me to wonder whether the vocabulary of physics, chemistry, and biology is the only one in which we can express our knowledge of the facts. Surely there are ‘unscientific facts’—matters of common sense and statements that are just as true as the statements of science. For example, I think I know that stoplights are red and that bread is nourishing to humans, though stoplights and bread do not belong to the ontology of physics and chemistry. And now the following idea occurs to me. Perhaps there are many types or levels of ‘real things’ described by various ontologies, or theories of what exists. One kind of reality is possessed by the subatomic particles that we will never be able to see or describe in sensory terms. Some of these entities do not even interact with us in a causal way—their existence is postulated on the basis of very good evidence. Our best science tells us they must exist and be the foundations of everything. In the middle of the range are the perceptible, stable, middle-sized objects we see, name, and interact with, such as animals, people, plants, stones, and bones. These do not exist for all possible sorts of perceivers—not for worms and fish—though they may exist for birds and apes. In any case, all humans recognise these as real entities. Socks and clocks are perhaps not quite as real; not all cultures can identify them, name them, or see ‘what they are.’ Socks and clocks are more dependent on, more relative to cultural practices, than are stones and bones, and far more dependent on and relative to cultural practices than subatomic particles and fundamental forces.
Even further away from the ‘ultimate reality’ of the subatomic level are the imperceptible things wholly dependent on human interests and practices,7 such as ‘the prevailing rate of interest,’ which do exist, and postulated ‘things’ whose existence may be in doubt—such as the ‘business cycle.’ Belief in these ‘social constructions’ is surely causally potent—people make decisions and act on the basis of what they believe about the business cycle. But they also acted on the basis of their beliefs about witches in previous centuries. There is no causal potency ascribable to witches as opposed to belief in witches, and perhaps none to the business cycle either.
Another kind of reality is possessed by fleeting and intangible, but still intersubjectively perceptible things such as rainbows and reflections in still ponds. And yet another is possessed by entities that are fleeting, intangible, and private, such as dreams, fantasies, and afterimages. They really happen and may even possess causal powers—an afterimage might delight me, a dream might obsess me. Then there are fictional characters. Emma Bovary and Othello are really characters in a book and a play, though they do not exist in the same way that my next-door neighbours do. Thinking about them, or observing actors representing them, can have powerful effects—they may move me emotionally, or inspire me, or appal me.
I am willing to say not only that snow and plums exist, but also that I can know that snow is white and plums are purple, and that this is common knowledge. Agreement about such matters arises, I think, from a basic similarity in all human beings, perhaps because we all trace our ancestry back to a very small number of founders. Thus our sensory systems, our fears and our biological needs, are sufficiently alike for us to agree in many of our judgements. The exchanges between cultures of knowledge, technology, and material goods lead not to homogeneity, but to wide consensus and adoption of objects and practices. Socks and clocks, along with ‘the prevailing rate of interest,’ get to be known about and used by more and more people as time goes on.
The observation that the entities I take to be commonsensically ‘real’ vary from culture to culture and that the claims about them that I take to be commonsensically ‘true’ are those on which there is wide consensus in our culture gives me another opening into radical doubt about values. For precisely where there is insufficient similarity in people to support consensus on everyday judgements, I am apt to become doubtful whether the objects referred to really possess the properties I and others sometimes ascribe to them. For example, I hesitate to say that broccoli tastes good without adding the qualification ‘to me.’ The good taste of broccoli does not seem to reside in it in the same way as the whiteness of snow, which all normal perceivers agree it possesses. The wrongness of torture does not seem to reside in it in the same way as its painfulness, which all normal observers agree it possesses.
But what if every human being’s experience when they ate broccoli was pleasurable, if there were as much agreement about broccoli’s taste as there is about the colours of ripe tomatoes and snow? Would it be right to say that I and other human beings know that broccoli tastes good? If someone was born who, unlike everybody else in their world, did not like broccoli, would it not be reasonable to describe this person as ‘taste blind’ for the good taste of broccoli, on analogy with colour-blindness. If broccoli were the main nutritional staple in the human diet, I think we might have to describe the mutant as ‘taste-blind’ and as deficient in that regard. Indeed, we seem to think of young children that they ought to be taught to like things they don’t spontaneously like—including broccoli. This suggests that there really is some kind of value inherent in broccoli.
Yet I resist saying that everyone else in the imaginary society, apart from the mutant, knows that broccoli tastes good in exactly the same way that most people in our society know that ripe tomatoes are red. I think that this is because in my own world, I am aware of widespread disagreement about the good taste of broccoli. A substantial number of people do not like broccoli. I don’t judge them to be ‘taste blind’ because liking broccoli is not a very important asset for getting along in our society. Only in certain subcultures do we try to get our children to like it—elsewhere it does not matter whether they like it or not. Really, I am inclined to think, broccoli isn’t delicious or not delicious—some like it, some don’t. And I am beginning to suspect that moral qualities are matters of taste as well.
When I first began to assemble reasons for doubting that I could have any moral knowledge, I considered the possibility that my basic beliefs and reactions were wired into me by evolution or society. This suggested to me that they could not be true—they were just the beliefs and reactions I happened to have. Let me now venture a hypothesis about why I might experience the world as loaded with evaluative properties and relations when it is not. The hypothesis is that my habits of evaluation, and so all my evaluative beliefs, and all the evaluative properties and relations I seem to perceive in natural and artificial things and in people and situations arise in me as a result of my personal Neurological Constitution and my society’s Cultural Transmission. These two forces, I suppose, cause me to form beliefs about right and wrong and to ascribe evaluative properties to various objects of moral appraisal that they do not have. They induce me to believe, for example, that the world became morally better when women earned the right to vote in some countries, and that genocide is morally abhorrent. Both my own Neurological Constitution and my society’s Cultural Transmission are able to induce in me illusions of moral properties and relations and the misapprehension that moral entities like ‘vice’ and ‘justice’ actually exist and can be described.
Why should I accept the hypothesis that my Neurological Constitution and my society’s Cultural Transmission deceive me in this fashion?
I reflect first that how an animal (and I have no doubt that I am a member of a particular animal species) perceives the world depends on its sensory system. Evolution has given me a brain of a certain sort, hardwired in certain ways typical of my species, though it is also responsive to teaching and able to learn from experience and observation. My experiences arise from the interaction between light waves and my visual system, between sound waves and my auditory system, between chemicals and my olfactory system and taste buds, and from interactions between my skin and limbs and the forces responsible for the solidity of conglomerates of atoms and that move things around. Things that are colourless in themselves—waves or particles of light, atoms, molecules arranged in certain patterns—somehow interact so that some conscious creatures including myself see the world as composed of coloured objects. Different species of animals have different optical systems that make different colours or no colours appear to them—pigeons, for example, and other birds, are sensitive to portions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are invisible to humans and can see colours that we cannot. Humans themselves vary in the colours they can see. Many men are colour blind, and many women have enhanced colour vision.
A world in which there were no perceivers—neither animal nor human—would not be a colourful world because no particular colour would be assignable to any object. In such a world, there would only be dispositions on the part of objects to produce diverse colour experiences in differently endowed sensitive beings. Further, no two of us are exactly alike. The sizes and shapes of our limbs and organs, the various textures of our hair and colours of our eyes, make each of us a little different from all the rest. Although we physically resemble, for the most part, the people amongst whom we live, each of us is physically and psychologically a unique individual. Within the normal or typical range, two people can perceive the world differently, without either one representing the world correctly. So although there is a characteristically human way of seeing colours, shapes, and distances, within the typical, normal range we may each see and experience the world a little differently. Whose particular, unique way of seeing red and applying the term ‘red’ to objects in our common world is ‘right’ in that case? And why should I suppose that one person’s way of ‘seeing’ torture is right and another person’s is wrong?
The second force I suppose responsible for how I see the world is Cultural Transmission. The personality and character as well as the physical features of each person arise not only from their genetic make-up, but from their environment and its role in their development, from the things individuals do to themselves or that others have done to them, such as overeating or forcing them to play sports. So the living individual is a product of heredity, development, socialization, and self-fashioning.
Like everyone else, I have what I shall call a Normative Kit, a unique collection of beliefs—or whatever is expressed by my evaluative thoughts and judgements about actions, events, situations, and persons—along with dispositions to respond emotionally to them, and behavioural tendencies with respect to them. This Normative Kit has arisen through the interaction of Nature and Culture. This is simply a fact about me—a neutral, nonevaluative fact. The contents of my Normative Kit can be described in purely factual terms, though the contents are themselves values. My personal Normative Kit consists of a set of preferences (for example: I don’t like my scrambled eggs to be too runny); a set of emotional reactions to the thought of certain ways of doing things, or perceiving them being done (for example: I feel contempt at the thought of anyone’s cheating on their exams); and a set of tendencies to respond to certain pleasing or displeasing happenings and doings (for example: I usually like people who show that they like me). My Normative Kit, I shall suppose, is whatever it is and has only partial overlap with anyone else’s, insofar as it is conditioned by my unique Neurological Constitution and the particular Cultural Transmission to which I have been subjected.
Reminding myself of the role of my unique Neurological Constitution in determining my unique Normative Kit helps me to keep the hypothesis of a value-free world before my mind. The colours of things are not really in them—rather, they come into being when a particular Neurological Constitution encounters a visible object, and there are as many differently coloured worlds as there are observers. In the same way, the goodness and betterness of my targets of moral appraisal, I now suppose, are not really in them either. They too come into being when a particular Neurological Constitution encounters an action, event, situation, or person of a particular sort. As it is misleading to ask what the real colour of a thing is, independent of any observer, it is misleading to ask what the real moral quality of any such target is.
By reflecting on Cultural Transmission, I can reinforce this impression. As individuals differ from one another within a culture, so cultures differ from one another, each seeing the world and valuing things in somewhat different ways and each inculcating those values in its members. My culture has given me myths and stories about good and evil, right and wrong, and lectures about the permissible, the forbidden and the obligatory. The novels I have read, the films I have seen, the friends and relatives from whom I have sought advice, and with whom I have discussed and gossiped—all of these sources, together with the newspaper articles and editorials, and historical, sociological, anthropological, and philosophical books have shaped the contents of my Normative Kit. Relatives, friends, and other authorities have punished me for what they called my ‘bad’ deeds and praised me for what they called my ‘good’ deeds.8 The way I react to insults and oversights, or acts of kindness is conditioned by Cultural Transmission. So are my dispositions to act—to help others or to ignore them. As a result, my beliefs and practices are typical of educated Western Europeans of my age group and family background, and untypical of other populations. The Normative Kits of South Sea Islanders and the Inuit are accordingly different from mine, but mine is also different from my next-door neighbour’s.
So I am persuaded that my Neurological Constitution and the Cultural Transmission I have been subjected to explain my Normative Kit. They determine fully whether I see boxing as a shocking display of brutality or as a fun spectator sport, and whether I favour abortion or see it as baby-murder. This is not to say that my Normative Kit is fixed for all time. It changes in response to new experiences and developments in the surrounding culture. But reflection on the sources of my Normative Kit is beginning to persuade me that the moral qualities I am in the habit of ascribing to actions, events, situations, and persons and that I suppose I perceive in them could not really belong to them. I am on pretty firm ground in supposing that it is just true that coal is black and that water is liquid, even if these judgements depend on my having the sensory system I do, but only because I share the basic elements of my sensory system with almost everyone else in the world, no matter where they live and what their culture is like. But I manifestly do not share a moral appraisal system with almost everyone else in the world. And if evaluative properties are observer-dependent, and if observers vary a great deal, it is hard to see how one culture or one individual could come to see things as they really are, morally speaking, in the same way I see coal as black and water as liquid.
On the suppositions about my Normative Kit that I have just made, how should I now understand moral discourse—the voicing of moral judgements, disagreements, disputations, and reconciliations carried on live or in print? Is nobody actually ‘right’ or actually ‘wrong’? What is going on when people engage in moral argument and pronounce moral judgements if they are not describing the world, or at least attempting to describe the world, as it really is?
I can think of the human world as a collection of people who interact with one another linguistically, socially, and politically. Their minds, like mine, are stocked with ideas, attitudes, and emotions, which sometimes lead them to speak or write declarative sentences such as ‘Abortion is wrong,’ ‘Abortion is murder of the innocent,’ ‘Abortion ought to be prohibited by the state,’ or to issue imperatives such as ‘Ban abortion now!’ Others have in their Normative Kits the ideas expressed by sentences like ‘Abortion is every woman’s right’ and ‘A foetus is not a person with a right to life,’ and they are inclined to utter imperatives like ‘Hands off legal abortion!’ Perhaps they are, in effect, holding up placards or posting signs with these slogans written on them, and, as at a rally, they feel emotional about their cause and aim to change other people’s minds and behaviour. I need not suppose that their placards convey information or are susceptible of truth or falsity.
To be sure, posted signs like ‘Thin Ice’ and ‘Beware the Dog’ give information as to what is the case. If I read these signs, I may come to believe, correctly, that the ice is thin and that there is a savage dog on the premises. But for the signs to have their intended effect of deterring people, it is not necessary for the ice to be thin and a savage dog to be present.
A sign held up by someone on a placard or posted on a piece of property is normally intended to move others to some kind of action. Behind these warnings and commands, I now realise, lie the preferences of the sign-posters. Someone who posts the ‘Thin Ice’ warning wishes for people not to try the ice, and someone who posts the ‘Beware the Dog’ sign wants them to stay off their property. These signs function as a warning about what could happen if a person proceeds further. What could happen if the command is disobeyed or unheeded may be left to the imagination—which can conjure up for itself the spectacle of falling through the ice or being mauled. It is assumed by the sign-poster that the people who read these notices will prefer staying dry to trying to walk on the ice and remaining unbitten to venturing onto the property. When people ignore such signs it is because they want to go further, crossing the lake or robbing a house. They may think either that the sign maker has exaggerated the risk or that the potential reward negates the risk.
It seems to me that something similar could be going on when people utter or write the declarative anti-abortion sentences above. The vocalisations and statements express the desires of the speakers and writers who have a preference for abortions not happening or, alternatively, for their happening sometimes. They are also warnings to others. Something unspecified but bad will happen, the signs imply, if abortion is permitted (or banned). But where ‘Thin Ice’ or ‘Beware the Dog’ will deter all but a few hardy souls from proceeding further, the people who sport anti-abortion signs do not expect their signs to have this effect, though they hope, perhaps fervently, that they will. They likely believe that they are warning others of certain risks—the danger of moral harm—but they know that some who read their signs will either deny that there is any risk at all or will insist that the risk is worth taking.
Thus a defender of abortion might say: ‘Yes, I see that proceeding further with the practice of legalising abortion is risky. Harm might indeed be done. But we must save women from death in backroom alleys, and we must try to ensure that children are loved and wanted. Their placards will read ‘No interference with women’s lives!’ Their signs too convey a warning. They believe there is a risk of harm to women and children if the anti-abortion faction persuades too many people and succeeds in changing the law. They too want to warn that there is ‘thin ice here.’ Their opponents, the anti-abortion group, believe either that the risks to women and children are negligible, or that they can be minimised, or that the risks of moral harm to foetuses or even to society at large are more serious.
Accordingly, I suppose that people who utter the words ‘Abortion is wrong’ or ‘Property is theft’ desire that people neither perform nor undergo abortion or that people own no property. They also desire that their audiences adopt the same desires, the same view of the risks, and that they will in turn relay their preferences and risk assessments to others and attempt to prevent these performances, undergoings, and ownings. Our species argues and criticises, remonstrates and praises; we try to alter the Normative Kits of others and to defend or perhaps to improve our own. When I deliberate about whether some proposed course of action is right or wrong, I seem to hold up one sign at one moment, and another at another moment, and argue as though I were two people, with one or the other eventually dominating.
For centuries, I suppose, people have held up their placards and argued about them. The placards and the reasons people give for holding them up, or for being prepared to hold them up in discussion or debate, have effects on those who read them. They can change people’s emotional reactions to actions, events, situations, and persons, or result in new forms of legislation and punishment, or in the repeal of laws and the abandonment of punishment. There used to be more ‘Slavery is just’ placards around than there are today. This can be explained by the interaction between the world and our Neurological Constitutions and the effectiveness of Cultural Transmission.
Yet something prevents me from thinking that this could be all there is to say about moral language and moral ideas. I am dismayed to read some of the placards people in my society hold up, declaiming on the radio and on television talk shows, snarling their opinions in the ‘Comments’ section of the newspaper. Many of these people seem wrong and misguided in their ideas and emotions. I think that people thoroughly disgusted by the thought of two men having sexual intercourse, or a mother nursing a baby in public, or an interracial couple holding hands ought to react differently. Conversely, they ought to respond more disgustedly, I think, to images of combat helicopters gunning down villagers. Yet, I can often understand what it must be like to have those feelings of disgust and enthusiasm for their moral causes, and why others are motivated to hold up those placards. If by contrast, someone professed to feel joy whenever he spotted a picture hanging crookedly on his wall and disgusted whenever someone plucked an apple from a tree and ate it, I would not understand this at all. So I seem to experience ‘evaluative impressions,’ as I shall call them, both about actions, situations, events, and persons, and also about other people’s evaluative impressions of their targets of evaluation.
But maintaining my sceptical frame of mind, I shall continue to suppose that, regardless of anyone’s outrage or dissatisfaction, the distribution of feelings, opinions, and practices that now exists in the world is no better or worse in any objective respect than the distribution of a generation ago or a thousand years ago. It was what it was, is what it is, and in the future it will be whatever it will be. As populations have grown taller since the middle ages through their interaction with the environment, I shall suppose that the beliefs, attitudes, and preferences in their heads have changed through their interactions and experiences, but I shall also suppose that there is no basis for saying that there has been any improvement or deterioration in their Normative Kits. I shall continue to suppose that my own feelings and preferences have no special weight. Mine are mine and other people’s are theirs and no one’s are better or worse, more enlightened or more benighted.
My current hypothesis is that all values in a value-free universe are the product of my own mind, as determined by my constitution and my culture. I am supposing that there can be scientific and common-sense knowledge about the properties things actually possess or once possessed—knowledge about plants, animals, stars, human thought processes, human societies, history and prehistory, and even knowledge about what various people’s aesthetic and moral beliefs are, and how they were formed. But on my current hypothesis, there can be no moral knowledge, in the sense of knowing what one ought to do or what actions are morally impermissible or morally dubious. There are no moral truths that anyone knows, or could come to know.