Folk Moral Relativism

Folk Moral Intutions and Moral Philosophy


An increasing number of philosophers, who both defend and criticise moral realism, are recognising that meta-ethical debates are constrained and can be informed by empirical work in the domain of the natural sciences, such as those of neuroscience, psychology, and evolution.

However, a large number of philosophers are still content to make empirically loaded assumptions independently of such empirical work. For instance both moral realists and their anit-realist opponents have been content to make empirically loaded assumptions about the nature of moral discourse (moral intuitions, moral language, moral phenomenology) by armchair intuition without recourse to empirical studies. For instance moral realists such as Peter Railton (1986) and David Brink (1984) and their anti-realist opponents such as J.L.Mackie (1977), Michael Smith (1995), and Simon Blackburn (1994) have asserted that ordinary moral discourse presupposes that moral realism is true i.e. that there are objective moral facts just as there are objective natural facts in the natural sciences.  Hence a moral realist like Geoffrey Sayre-Mcord (2009) can write in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Moral Realism: “By all accounts, moral realism can fairly claim to have common sense and initial appearances on its side.”

Whether moral realism has common sense on its side is one thing, whether having common sense on its side is a virtue or a vice of a moral theory is another. As Anthony Appiah (2008) notes, from our present perspective, it is a merit of past moral reformers, such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and others, that they criticised prevailing common intuitions about slavery, the subjection of women, homosexuality, and showed them to be in need of revision. On the other hand it is a point in criticism of Bentham’s fellow utilitarian William Goodwin’s claim that if faced between a choice of saving the archbishop or one’s own father from the flames that we should let our father perish and save the archbishop because more utility would accrue that way. Moral theory can both make us revise our intuitions and be the basis on which to reject moral theory and it is no easy matter to say what the relationship between common sense intuitions and moral theory is.

David Brink has claimed that the meta-ethical theory known as ‘moral realism’ can be defended by recourse to common sense moral intuitions but his view has come under recent criticism by experimental philosophers for assuming that common sense is on the side of moral realism. It is to Brink’s views and the criticism of his views that I now turn to.

David Brink’s Burden of Proof Argument for Moral Realism

David Brink’s polemic ‘Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics’ is an attempt vindicate the meta-ethical position known as ‘moral realism’ on our common sense moral practice.

Moral realism which is ‘roughly the view that there are moral facts and true moral claims whose existence and nature are independent of our beliefs about what is right and wrong’ [P.7] according to Brink forms part of our commonsense moral view. This view of the moral world is taken to be analogous to our view of the natural world. So, just as the natural and social sciences are taken to study ‘real objects and events whose existence and nature is largely independent of our theorizing about them, that they exhibit progress and convergence over time, and they contain at least some approximate knowledge…’ [P.6] so to our common sense view of morality is that it is about real objects and events whose existence and nature is largely independent of our theorising about them.

Brink tells us that his primary concern is “with the parity of ethics and the sciences” [P11]. He argues that moral facts are on a par with scientific facts in providing the best explanations for our beliefs. Hence just as the physical fact that a proton passed through a cloud chamber is the best explanation for why scientists see a vapour trail in the cloud chamber, so to does the moral fact that torturing kittens is wrong provide us with ‘the best explanation of the non-moral fact that appraisers almost unanimously agree that pouring gasoline over a kitten and igniting it is wrong’ [p169]. So for Brink moral facts are on a par epistemologically and metaphysically with the facts of the natural and social sciences.[1] In both cases they have exhibited progress and convergence over time e.g., most societies have converged in the recognition that torturing infants is morally wrong, that enslaving others is morally wrong, and that such views constitute at least approximate moral knowledge and in both cases this is best explained by our having a better understanding of the natural and moral facts.

Brink then claims that just as we should be realists about the natural and social sciences so to we should be realists with regards to morality and this position should only be given up if there are serious arguments to the contrary. “Moral realism should be our metaphysical starting point, and we should give it up only if it does involve unacceptable metaphysical and epistemological commitments.” [P.24]. This puts the onus on the moral anti-realist to come up with serious metaphysical and epistemological objections to moral realism and the failure to do so leave us vindicated in believing that moral realism is true.

Interestingly, Brink is well aware that moral realism is the ‘black sheep within the realist metaphysical family.’ [P11] He accepts that doubts about moral realism remain even amongst those who accept a realist view of the sciences and must surely be aware that it is widely rejected amongst the folk. Yet, Brink still maintains that moral realism is the metaphysical starting point because it is reflected in our features of commonsense moral discourse and because this theory provides the best explanation and justification of such discourse.

We can offer a reconstruction of Brink’s burden of proof argument in the following terms:

1: Certain features of our common sense moral discourse presuppose the existence of objective moral facts, such as the phenomena of being under a moral obligation, the declarative form of moral statements, the acceptance of some moral beliefs as true, the refusal to accept two apparently contradictory judgments as true, and the existence of false moral beliefs.

2: The best explanation of these features of our common sense moral discourse, such as our belief that torturing animals is morally wrong, is that there really are moral facts that make torturing animals morally wrong.

3: Since the best explanation of certain features of our common sense moral discourse is the theory that there really are objective moral facts which make our moral judgments true or false then we are justified in holding that there really are objective moral facts until evidence to the contrary is provided.

In making this claim Brink must be holding that the presumptions of common sense discourse constitute evidence for those presumptions being true. Positing objective moral facts then explains how these other facts about our moral psychology could be correct. So what explains why the person believes that setting fire to cats for fun is wrong is best explained by the fact that setting fire to cats is actually wrong – not just wrong for me, but objectively wrong for anyone in my situation. If the best explanation is the one that fits with our common sense intuitions, then absent serious metaphysical or epistemological reasons to doubt the existence of objective moral facts, we are warranted in believing in such facts.

A Problem with Brink’s Argument

The claim that moral realism is a theory that is reflected in commonsense moral discourse coupled with the recognition that many people have intuitions that are anti-realist ultimately results in a fissure between the intuitions of common sense and the discourse of common sense that is take to support moral realism.

Brink lists a number of considerations from common sense morality to defend this claim that moral realism is our natural metaphysical starting point. One of the claims that is most salient in his work is a claim concerning the form and content of our moral judgments which he takes to be reflected in commonsense discourse.

The Form and Content of Moral Judgment.

Brink writes that moral judgments are expressed in the declarative mood or as assertions, and they have as their subject, people, institutions, policies without including relativising clauses. They refer to moral properties, facts, and knowledge. For instance we say the following sorts of things and assume that they are true [T]:

A: The laws pertaining to how women are treated in Afghanistan are unfair. [T]

B: Torturing cats for fun is morally wrong.  [T]

C: One should not be held responsible for actions one could not have known were wrong. [T]

D: The turpitude of a crime should determine the severity of punishment. [T]

The above judgements have the form of being assertions that are truth apt. They have no relativising clauses, and so appear to make statements that are if true, true for everyone regardless of what their beliefs are. [2] Further, Brink holds that where there is moral disagreement even when all the non-moral facts are agreed on, we would regard at least one party to the dispute as being morally mistaken


Brink’s claim about the form and content of moral discourse, and what people mean when they engage in relativising discourse rests uneasily with is acknowledgement that moral realism is the ‘black sheep’ in the metaphysical family and that many people reject moral realism. For we might naturally assume that if many people reject moral realism then this rejection would display itself in the way that they talked about moral issues and what they intended to convey i.e., we should expect that they do really mean that the truth or falsity of moral issues is really relative to what people believe.

In contrast to Brink’s analysis we might think that if people were moral relativists then we would expect them to treat the truth or falsity of moral judgments as relative to what people believed. Moral statements if expressed properly to reveal their underlying form should contain a relativising clause (Cook 1999). The implication being that were this relativising clause to change then the truth value of the moral statement would also change. Hence according to relativism moral judgments should look something like:

R: For Westerners, the laws pertaining to how women are treated in Afghanistan are unfair. [T]

S: For the Taliban, the laws pertaining to how women are treated in Afghanistan are fair. [T]

T: For Europeans, one should not be held responsible for actions one could not have known were wrong. [T]

U: For Amazonians, one should be held responsible for actions one could not have known were wrong. [T]

There may be structures of morality that are common to different cultures. For instance all cultures may embrace (D) the claim that the turpitude of a crime should determine the severity of punishment for that crime but disagree on what counts as a crime and how severe the punishment should be for the same act. For instance the Taliban may agree with D but think that same sex relationships are a crime and should be punished by beheading.

Whether universal structures that are common to all cultures are in conflict with the spirit of relativism depends on how we think of the truth conditions for claims like D. The realist thinks of these claims as discoveries that are independent of our believing, hence were someone to disagree with D they would be mistaken. However the relativist thinks of these universals as human creations that are not independent of our beliefs, such that were a group of people to refuse to endorse D they would not be mistaken.

It is important to note that Brink does not deny that there is such relativistic talk amongst the folk or that the folk may have relativistic intuitions. However, he boldly claims that when we talk in such relativised ways, we do not actually mean that the moral statement is made true or false depending on who is uttering it, but instead we only mean to say that this is what certain people believe “We do not say that murder is wrong for Spike, unless by this we mean to imply only the non-relativistic claim that Spike believes murder is wrong…” [Brink (1989) P 26]

In order for Brink’s view to be correct then there would have to be a cleavage between people’s moral intuitions and the presumptions about the way they use language. In addition we would have to take their use of language to be more revealing about what they ‘really’ believed than the folk’s explicit claims about what they believe. It is unlikely this could be supported by an appeal to commonsense beliefs.[3]

Sarkissian et al (forthcoming 2011) have recently given empirical support that reveals that there is this cleavage in common sense intuitions about morality. They found that, in certain conditions, such as when someone from their own college class was imagined to be disagreeing with another that the folk treat apparently contradictory moral judgments as not allowing for both statements to be true. However in other conditions, such as when the person imagined to be disagreeing with them was from another culture, the folk do not treat moral judgments as if there were objective moral facts but instead approximately 50% will treat moral judgments as if they were made true by facts relative to a subject’s moral framework and hence allow for two apparently contradictory moral judgments to be correct. What explains the behaviour in both cases is a commitment to some kind of moral cultural relativism whereby the moral framework within a culture makes moral judgments true or false.

So it looks like Brink’s first assertion is false – the folk are not really moral realists in any deep sense and their use of moral language reflects this.

[1] Whilst the facts of the natural and social sciences are unified epistemologically by not being constituted by our beliefs about such facts, they are not unified metaphysically given that the facts of psychology are obviously mind dependent (although not dependent on the mind of any single speaker) whereas physical

facts are mind independent.

[2] The commitment to objective  moral facts does not conflict with the claim that in different societies, which place moral agents in different circumstances, different moral rules may apply so that the same action might be permissible in one society and impermissible in another. It does commit one to holding that in cases of moral disagreement there can be at most one correct answer and that the moral facts do not change with a change in people’s moral beliefs whereas relativism denies these claims.

[3] Brink’s argument against non-cognitivism  might be stronger than his argument against relativism here. This is because the non-cognitivist has to treat putative assertions that are declarative in form as disguised imperatives, or just expressions of approval or recommendations to an appraiser’s audience and this claim is likely to go against both commonsense intuitions and the surface structure of moral discourse.


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