Can moral statements be "true"?

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Can moral statements be "true"?

Postby Michael on January 27th, 2008, 6:36 pm 

When I consult my intuition, it seems evident that the "truth" or "falsity" of moral statements plays an important role in securing their normative force. For instance, take the statement "it is wrong to kill." It would stand to reason that a statement of this sort is morally binding, if and only if it is "true" that the act of killing is wrong. To give some traction to this view, I call a statement "true" if it is either (1) non-contradictory (i.e., analytic) or if it (2) expresses a proposition about some state-of-affairs that obtains in the world (i.e., descriptive). Since moral statements usually pertain to the assessment of acts, I will assume (2) is a more relevant criterion for assessing the supposed "truth" or "falsity" of moral statements.

According to (2), the statement that an act "x" was voluntary or intentional on the part of an Agent "A" is to make a causal statement that "x" was initiated by some act of "A's" mind that was an act of bare will -- a volition or an act of A's setting himself to do x, or an act of intending to do x, or the like. On the basis of (2), a causal statement of this sort expresses a proposition that can be checked against the world, and can therefore be assessed for truth-value. It is either 'true' that A intended to do x, or 'false' that A intended to do x.

But my question is: Is it really the case that moral statements describe causal states and therefore express propositions? If they do not, then moral statements cannot be regarded as "true" or "false." If this is the case, their normative force seems to evaporate. Hence the problem.

It is my view that moral statements do not express propositions and are (therefore) neither "true" nor "false." Take voluntariness or intentionality. To say an action "x" was voluntary on the part of agent "A" is NOT to describe the causal process whereby 'A' brings 'x' about. It is to ascribe 'x' to 'A'; that is, to hold 'A' responsible for it. Now, holding a man responsible is a moral or quasi-moral attitude; and so there is no question here of truth or falsehood, any more than there is for moral judgments. If "B" agrees or disagrees with "C's" ascription of an act to "A", "B" is him/herself taking up a quasi-moral attitude toward "A." Now, here's the ethical import: While facts may support or go against such a quasi-moral attitude (perhaps "A" never did "x" in the first place), they can never force us to adopt it. Hence, the normative weight of our moral statements seems to disappear.

Any thoughts? Can moral statements be true? Does the truth of moral statements determine their normative weight?
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Postby Vegetaryan on January 29th, 2008, 11:40 pm 

Morality is relative, not absolute. What may be moral in one context is clearly not in another.
There is for example ingroup morality which pertains to a particular people's behaviour amongst themselves that they see as right and proper that they would not extend to outsiders and rightly so.
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Postby Statesman on January 30th, 2008, 12:13 am 

I don't know if he even posts on the forum, but you should see if you can find Usyless in the chat room. He gave me an excellent primer on meta-ethics and could probably address this area far better than I.

As a starter, I would note that the statement "It is wrong to kill" could carry several quite different meanings:
1. Don't kill!
2. I feel bad when you kill.
3. There is a good reason for you not to kill.
4. Killing is evil.
5. Good people don't kill.

This list is pretty imprecise and I'm sure there are some gaps and overlaps, but you can see that out of the five, only #1 cannot be analyzed as true or false, because is it a command. The truth or falsity of #4 and #5 is perhaps unprovable.

As for your thought on personal responsibility, I don't believe I agree. When I say that I voluntarily ate a cookie, I am, in a very abbreviated way, describing a chain of cause and effect that put the cookie in my belly. I was hungry, I saw the cookie, I thought it would be a good idea to eat it, I picked it up, and I ate it. I don't think it's controversial to say that the statement "I voluntarily ate the cookie" is true. Maybe I was so hungry that it wasn't really voluntary, but this doesn't seem to be your line of thought. Rather I think you simply assume that voluntariness is a moral category and thus not amenable to truth or falsity - but this is precisely the question at issue.

Anyhow, as I tried to demonstrate above, you can interpret moral propositions as commands - in this case they are purely normative and really can't be true or false. Other meta-ethical formulations (supposing that the speaker has thought about these things at all) are more amenable to truth or falsity.
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Re: Can moral statements be "true"?

Postby farnaby on March 17th, 2008, 1:56 pm 

Michael wrote:When I consult my intuition, it seems evident that the "truth" or "falsity" of moral statements plays an important role in securing their normative force.

...

Any thoughts? Can moral statements be true? Does the truth of moral statements determine their normative weight?


Moral statements cannot be true in an objective, scientific sense. But it is facts that shape moral visions - for example the consequences of decisions or character traits and the emotional and psychological states experienced in our interactions with other humans and environment. These 'back up' facts are necessary to provide normative force - for example, "murder is wrong" is backed up by the facts of the physical pain of the victim, the loss of the victim's potential, the emotional loss to loved ones, the insecurity felt in wider society etc. Moral debate is rarely a simple statement of opposing principles - opponents seek to convince each other through the use of facts that they believe the other has to accept (even religious positions are presented as fact).
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Postby paleo on March 25th, 2008, 9:41 pm 

Any thoughts? Can moral statements be true? Does the truth of moral statements determine their normative weight?


I think moral statements become prescriptive in relation to pre-designated modes of action (i.e. "trying to better one's life" or "trying to survive") If such a moral agent has a specific nature and mode of action, then a constructed moral system is in a sense of type of optimizing equation for the given agent.

For example, if I wanted to die then there's no real advice a moral system can give me because virtually any sort of random chaotic action is more likely to be detrimental to my health than not. If my mode of action was to live well in a society (a nature virtually all social animals share) then that too would prescribe a set of behaviors or guidelines for achieving that end.

Since virtually everyone on the planet acts for their own survival by their own nature as living beings, then a code of ethics geared to the survival of a person would be prescriptive, because the nature of transforming "is" statements to "ought" statements is manifest in the law of non-contradiction (You want to eat a turducken? Then don't steal it because odds are you'll end up in jail for awhile and there are none there).

This system only holds insofar that an object has a specific and defined nature. It's unlikely there is a volitional being which demands turdukens by the specificity of its nature (unless one programmed a robot for amusement). But the fact that living beings act (and think to some extent) is more or less axiomatic, so ethics is fundamentally about an organism achieving its potential.

From this standpoint, morality and ethics is as scientific and objective as an optimization problem in calculus.

Morality is relative, not absolute. What may be moral in one context is clearly not in another.
There is for example ingroup morality which pertains to a particular people's behaviour amongst themselves that they see as right and proper that they would not extend to outsiders and rightly so.


Those sound more like edicts than morals. Can you provide more concrete examples? I'm not really sure what to make of your response, because it's somewhat vague to me.


As a starter, I would note that the statement "It is wrong to kill" could carry several quite different meanings:
1. Don't kill!
2. I feel bad when you kill.
3. There is a good reason for you not to kill.
4. Killing is evil.
5. Good people don't kill.

This list is pretty imprecise and I'm sure there are some gaps and overlaps, but you can see that out of the five, only #1 cannot be analyzed as true or false, because is it a command. The truth or falsity of #4 and #5 is perhaps unprovable.


Logically, 4 follows from 5, and 5 follows from either 2 or 3. As for 1, it assumes that a person is attempting to be 5, which means you are asking them to "feel" or "think" (2 or 3) properly about something.

What I think you're trying to get at is the question of whether prescription comes from emotion or logic. One can act emotionally or logically, but the former sometimes gives one the vague impression of being ruled by gut instinct, whim, demons, or other forces. Judge the validity of those things as guides for action however you like.

The second element from your question is also concerned with the jump from description to prescription. In your particular piece of writing, it is "why should I think or feel in this sort of way about something?"

Moral statements cannot be true in an objective, scientific sense. But it is facts that shape moral visions - for example the consequences of decisions or character traits and the emotional and psychological states experienced in our interactions with other humans and environment. These 'back up' facts are necessary to provide normative force - for example, "murder is wrong" is backed up by the facts of the physical pain of the victim, the loss of the victim's potential, the emotional loss to loved ones, the insecurity felt in wider society etc. Moral debate is rarely a simple statement of opposing principles - opponents seek to convince each other through the use of facts that they believe the other has to accept (even religious positions are presented as fact).


This sounds vaguely like an infinitely regressive argument. What criteria are you to use for determining the validity of 'back up' facts? The notion that non-pain is preferable to pain? That feeling secure in society is preferable to feeling insecure? What 'back up' facts support those prescriptions?

How do you judge whether a 'back-up' fact is valid or not without an objective, scientific evaluation? Why can't you say murder is wrong because the parasites in the victim's body will be cremated and unable to reach their new home? Or that murder is wrong because it would generate profit for funeral homes?
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Postby psionic11 on March 25th, 2008, 10:11 pm 

I question the validity of applying logical methods to any self-referential system that is largely independent of empirical methodology. Leibniz tried the same, applying logic to metaphysics, and we certainly do not today take his conclusions seriously.

Morals, language, abstract philosophy (including meta-ethics), art, opinion, tradition, religion, the stock market, et al. ad nauseam are not empirically independent systems to which logic can be applied.

In short, for a variety of reasons, moral statements cannot be totally "true"; that is a nonsensical and arbitrary statement given hard definitions of truth. Additionally, moral statements rely heavily on faulty normative arguments to continue their assertion on the behaviors of the many.

But you knew this already, didn't you? ;)
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Postby paleo on March 26th, 2008, 12:08 am 

(Apologies if it's not me you're speaking to, psionic11.)

Knew what? That it is erroneous to make broad prescriptive assertions to a group if some of its individuals do not share the same nature?

Of course. I do realize that this conundrum complicates the field of ethics, but why simply dismiss it as unsolvable?

Morals, language, abstract philosophy (including meta-ethics), art, opinion, tradition, religion, the stock market, et al. ad nauseam are not empirically independent systems to which logic can be applied.


Are you saying that all opinions are illogical? (I know you're not but bear with me.) Let's say that it's your opinion that a static-infested TV screen sounds more like noise than one of Mozart's concertos.
Would I be incorrect to say the following? proof?

[1] noise means random sound without structure or rhythm
[2] TV static has sound that is comparatively less structured and rhythmic than the sound found in Mozart's concerto
[3] therefore, TV static is more like noise than Mozart's concerto (from [1] and [2])

It seems logical to me.

You may argue that my deduction is not independent of empirical evidence on the grounds that I had to listen to each music sample first. You'd be right, but I never made the assertion that logic can tell us relevant truths about the world without observation.

The empiricism vs rationalism debate is a false dichotomy. It is impossible to make ethical statements about what a moral agent ought to do without observing and understanding both its nature and the character of its volition. This is the case with all things. But you already knew that ;)
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Postby william on March 26th, 2008, 12:47 pm 

Perhaps we are still defining what morality is. "To kill" if we define it as immoral, where would be live. To build a home we will surely have to kill a tree. When one human being takes the life of another the easy solution is revenge. That does not solve the problem. To eliminate the problem we must ask why, many times to get at it's root so we can "kill" it. If we have to define it, we must determine what "immorality" is. Now we have to judge. If morality is a truth, there would be no immorality. As we come closer to the truth, I think morality will define itself as it will be that on which all can agree. Until then we must still judge. Judging from our past, this may take a while. We can only hope it doesn't.
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Postby Statesman on March 26th, 2008, 9:15 pm 

Ahem - sorry, see next post.
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Postby Statesman on March 26th, 2008, 9:20 pm 

paleo wrote:
As a starter, I would note that the statement "It is wrong to kill" could carry several quite different meanings:
1. Don't kill!
2. I feel bad when you kill.
3. There is a good reason for you not to kill.
4. Killing is evil.
5. Good people don't kill.

This list is pretty imprecise and I'm sure there are some gaps and overlaps, but you can see that out of the five, only #1 cannot be analyzed as true or false, because is it a command. The truth or falsity of #4 and #5 is perhaps unprovable.


Logically, 4 follows from 5, and 5 follows from either 2 or 3.


I'll just observe that neither of these statements is true. If you want an explanation feel free to pm me.
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Postby HamerD on March 31st, 2008, 10:00 am 

psionic11 wrote:I question the validity of applying logical methods to any self-referential system that is largely independent of empirical methodology. Leibniz tried the same, applying logic to metaphysics, and we certainly do not today take his conclusions seriously.

Morals, language, abstract philosophy (including meta-ethics), art, opinion, tradition, religion, the stock market, et al. ad nauseam are not empirically independent systems to which logic can be applied.

In short, for a variety of reasons, moral statements cannot be totally "true"; that is a nonsensical and arbitrary statement given hard definitions of truth. Additionally, moral statements rely heavily on faulty normative arguments to continue their assertion on the behaviors of the many.

But you knew this already, didn't you? ;)


That explanation could have been negotiated with fewer complicated words lol, but you are definitely right; as are most of the people replying in this thread, who all seem to have generally correlative opinions.
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