When it comes to value theory (ethics and aesthetics) one has a binary choice. Either such value judgments as "This is good/bad" or "That is beautiful/not beautiful" are true or they are not. But clearly they aren't facts in the sense that "Water freezes at 32F/0C" is a fact or "My microwave oven is to the left of my refrigerator" are facts. They aren't facts about the world of things. Clearly, they express opinions. Whatever truth applies to them is the truth of whether or not you really believe what you are saying.

So, how can an opinion become a fact? The only way the ingenuity of man has ever come up with is that there must be some standard or standard-setter independent of the world of stuff and things according to which such statements become factual.

Throughout most of recorded history, the guarantor has been a deity. What is true is what accords with his mind.

We skeptics and free thinkers typically don't believe in deities which means they come up short when trying to claim that an ethical or aesthetic judgment qualifies as factual.

In the clip above, Richard Dawkins was asked how, without making the sort of leap of faith atheists are known to abhor, could there be moral certainty? After recounting many of the abhorrent things one finds in The Bible and Koran, he basically says that, by contrast with the past when such things were decided by scriptural authority and other nonsense, we today discuss and debate and reason and arrive at more rational and humane views.In other words, better opinions and attitudes. Notice, curiously, that he doesn't make any factual claims about ethics or morality. All he says, basically, is that today we're doing our opinions better than they used to in the past because today we have better intellectual tools and we leave religion out of the pictures.

But, of course, even that view is an opinion and not a fact.

And yet, such views as we arrive at by such methods are still not absolutes just as science knows no absolutes other than very basic facts and measurements. No matter how established a theory or law is, it's never out of bounds to question whether it is true or precisely enough stated, and in that sense they really are not facts. Unlike facts, theories and laws are attempts at description. Even if they work every time and in every way possible so far, and even if we treat them much like facts, they are still tentative.

Consensus or majority vote doesn't establish certainty any more than rolling one's eyes at something we disagree with proves it is false.

People believe what people in their day believe, or to be a bit more precise, people tend to believe pretty close to what those in their social or intellectual circle believe. That's the way it is and the way it's always been, and it's obviously true. People in the United States are far more likely to be Christian than Hindu whereas in India the opposite is the case, to take an obvious example.

This is why ethical judgments, just like aesthetic ones, are not factual, much as we may agree with them, and much as we may want them to be true. They are beliefs, attitudes, and opinions which are compelling, and sometimes compelling enough for people to act on, whether the action might be an act of heroism or an act of condemnation. This is what ethics actually amounts to. It involves caring about a belief, attitude, or opinion enough to treat it AS THOUGH it's a fact and feel a need to act upon it.

This may be distressing enough, but it becomes really distressing for many of us when we realize that things we believe in our heart of hearts to be true are still basically just beliefs, attitudes, or opinions. They may be better informed and supported than those other persons or groups hold—and they are comforting (or distressing)—but not even that makes them true, and certainly not absolutely true.

Do slavery, lynchings, The Holocaust have to be absolutely and objectively wrong to be abhorrent to us? No! The concept of a fact is really poorly crafted to be applied to morality and ethics. And thinking they have to be absolutely and objectively wrong rather than abhorrent and disgusting is a kind of category error, which tricks us into wishing for absolutism.

However, even perfect objectivity can't turn an opinion into a fact. That may be distressing and depressing, but it's good to know.

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From a self-interested point of view, it's rational - optimal - always to keep the $100.  But most people's instincts are to give the money back as well as to keep it.  So from the point of view of immediate self-interest, our instincts can be irrational. 

I believe the mismatch comes because the instinct for honesty made perfect self-interested sense at the time when it evolved, when we lived and survived together in small groups.  To help another group member, or another member of your own species who would probably have been pleased to make a long-lasting alliance, was to help oneself.  Also - there probably wasn't any private property at that time, since we weren't even human yet. 

This is what I mean about a morality based on reality.  We're designed to work closely together with other people, to make cooperative alliances in small groups.  Honesty worked well for our ancestors when their lives depended on it and it set our modern characteristics into the genome.  We can profit by taking advantage of the natural strengths of human beings. 

Things are always a trillion times more complicated than it ever seems.

If you live in a shared apartment...when you cook you are using up shared kitchen time and kitchen space (when you use it you are taking up a resource someone else might need). You are also using electricity and or gas when you prepare and bake the brownies which your other roommates have to pay for whether you share those brownies or not. Perhaps it is your turn to make dessert for your kids and their friends for their weekly Friday get together. You are debating whether to add a lot of sugar or not (as it supposedly isn't good for children...not just your children but other people's children). Perhaps you are worried about adding nuts. Perhaps you want to add chocolate chips because you love them that way even though everyone else hates it. When you bake the brownies are you doing so because you want to or because your family puts pressure on you to do and make the things they want. Are you baking brownies in the oven to make the house smell nice when people come visit a house that you are trying to sell? Are you making them to impress your mother-in-law just to appease your husband or wife? Could you use your money and effort towards more noble causes than making a luxury product that will just add a pound to your hips?

Not a single event is ever remotely neutral. Not even close.

"How much do I need my moral system when making brownies? The same as when I see someone drop a $100 bill and have to choose whether to pick it up and give it to them, pick it up and keep it, or walk away?"  - in the moral system I have in mind, perhaps surprisingly, you use the one moral system all the time, in everything you do.  If making brownies, make the most delicious brownies you can.  If you see someone drop a $100 bill, do the best thing you see fit.  This means, do what pleases you. 

Actually, religionists are moral/ethical relativists to a large degree, too. They just deny it:

  • Cafeteria style selection of the best scriptural passages
  • Various interpretations of scripture (and all other interpretations are wrong!)
  • Relying on authority for interpretation, e.g. there is NO scripture that directly address modern day abortion or use of condoms, so it's up to the latest Pope to decree
  • Versions/subversions of one sacred scripture edited into its own brand of sacred scripture

Where the rubber hits the road, everyone is a relativist, even when they try to justify their choices by referring to absolutist ethics.

In the international phonetic alphabet it is rendered in both American and British English as:


The definition is also the same in both dialects.

If someone uses a "moral system" in making a moral choice, it is weighed RELATVE to their wants and desires and their feelings about the impact following that system would have on their wants, needs, and desires. 

In my opinion you would call that a natural morality, in the sense of a strategy to produce optimum flourishing that is easy to understand and implement because it takes into account the evolved mechanisms we have for helping us achieve this. 

What is your definition of relativist, Unseen?  I take relativist versus absolutist to mean that there's no objective, non-human, mathematical standard of right and wrong, like a measurable quality such as wavelength or gravitational strength. 

What we do is have a standard of goodness that 1) is a successful strategy for promoting human flourishing and 2) is arbitrary as a definition of "good".  The reason that this is the one most of us chooses for our version of "right" is that we generally want to flourish and survive more than anything, and because it's so built into the fabric of life that we tend not to even question its morality. 

If that's what you mean by "relativist", then I agree with you. 

That's true, they do, and they don't seem to realise it. 

@Davis: "shatter your bones", "break into your house and steal all your money" - 

I would be prepared to do questionable things, but not as bad as the examples you gave.  By forgiveable, I mean things that can fairly easily be repaired and don't do too much damage to individual people.  I believe that stealing from the charity would fall into the latter category. 

"Its answers are not high quality ones .. They aren't the answers you want to hear. The answers that will reassure what you already think is right."  -

It is possible to base a moral system on reality, at some point making a bridge between fact and value - defining "this means good" - and Kant's system is not based anything like on reality.  The situation it is based on does not happen in the real world.  It never will, it has nothing to do with the way we live our lives.  In this sense, Kant's system is one of the most artificial there is.  That's why there's no point trying to rely on it.  We live in the real world, it doesn't. 

By forgiveable, I mean things that can fairly easily be repaired and don't do too much damage to individual people. 

Well there you go. You have already framed a reasoned imperative that you can stand by.

What do you mean by easy to repair? What do you mean by not doing too much damage? You don't have to be ultra specific but try to give at least an outline of what you mean...perhaps with an example at each extreme such as "won't disrupt the persons life so that they can no longer work or that they go below the poverty line" for example.


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