Thanks again to everyone (particularly the new followers!) who responded to my post last week. Bob and I are both delighted with the discussions so far, but feel that a whole week might be a bit too long to leave things between these posts. So we’ve decided that I’ll post something to continue the discussion every Monday and Thursday.
Tomorrow will be the first Monday post. Its contents should be a little unsettling: they certainly were to me! And that’s good, because it should lead to a great discussion. To be sure that the difficulties raised aren’t lost, though, I’d like to summarize the main picture that emerged in the discussion from Wednesday. It seemed that the various commenters have more or less agreed for now that the following picture — which for convenience I’ll call the ‘straightforward view’ — is the correct model of persistent moral disagreement:
The Straightforward View
There are some objective moral facts — facts that are true regardless of what people or cultures happen to think about them — facts like ‘It’s highly immoral to beat up random senior citizens for a joke or for gangs of bullies to beat up young, helpless people who have done nothing wrong’ or ‘It’s morally praiseworthy to risk your own safety to step in and help innocent people from such beatings.’ Moreover, we can sometimes know these moral facts (for example, we know the facts just mentioned).
While different cultures, or different people in the same culture, sometimes disagree even after long and careful reflection on the moral status of particular acts or institutions that seem to be paradigm cases of rightness or wrongness, that disagreement should not cause us to doubt objective morality or our ability to know it. The reason is that every particular moral judgment consists of two lesser judgments: a purely moral judgment, and an nonmoral judgment about the way the world is.
For instance, as uscbalum says, some Africans believe that FGM (female genital mutilation) is morally required, while more or less all Canadians believe that it is morally impermissible. However, all these people agree on the purely moral view that children should be helped in living happy and fulfilling lives. The disagreement lies in the nonmoral beliefs of both groups: the Africans in uscbalum’s story believe that girls who don’t undergo FGM will develop penises, which will make their lives less happy; the Canadians do not believe this. And once these empirical facts are settled, it’s possible for the disagreement to be resolved. Similarly, many Christians are against abortion even a day or less after conception because they believe that zygotes already contain souls and are therefore already persons (and have various other relevant metaphysical views), while materialists have different beliefs about the way the world is; but everyone agrees that it is wrong to harm or kill an innocent person needlessly. And so on.
To put it more succinctly: Disagreements on non-moral matters conceal the fact that we all share a common set of purely moral beliefs. If we could resolve all the non-moral disagreements, we would thereby resolve all the moral disagreements, since the disagreements always lie in the non-moral side of particular moral judgments.
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All that is the statement of a rather persuasive metaethical view. Up to a couple of years ago, I held it as well. Tomorrow, I’ll start to present the evidence that convinced me otherwise.