I believe that there are moral facts.
When I say this, I sometimes run up against the counter-claim that those who believe in moral facts are necessarily arrogant and intolerant. The position some of these people take states something like, "If you believe that something is wrong, then it is wrong, and you cannot tolerate any other view."
I want to offer some criticism of this response to those who accept moral facts while, at the same time, argue for the morality of respect for different opinions. Note: I have posted a more thorough defense of moral facts on my web site in the article, “Defending Moral Realism from ‘Error Theory’”
I would like to explain a little about what I mean by 'moral facts'. Some people who deny the existence of an 'objective morality' do so on the basis that it must refer to some strange sort of entity that cannot be measured by scientific means.
Just as I do not believe in God, I have no tendency to believe in strange moral entities. My statement that there are moral facts comes from recognizing that statements like "Jimmy likes chocolate ice-cream" can represent a fact in the world. It is not a moral statement. However, it still is either a fact, or it is fiction.
Moral statements are statements like this, except they look at what all people like or dislike. A moral statement, like "Harming children is wrong" is a way of saying, "Hey, everybody, we would tend to be a lot better off if nobody liked to harm children." Even a person who likes to harm children can find value in a society where nobody likes to harm children.
I cannot hope to offer a complete defense of the idea of moral facts in a few short paragraphs. I have presented only a rough idea of what I mean by ‘moral facts’ for reference in the argument that follows.
Statements that condemn those who believe in moral facts of intolerance and arrogance are actually incoherent. The person making such a claim is asserting a moral fact. Specifically, such a person asserts that intolerance is bad (immoral) and, since those people who believe in moral facts are intolerant, they are immoral.
However, the claim that intolerance is bad is a moral statement. As such, the person making the statement is asking others to accept his claim that those who accept moral facts are intolerance, and that this is morally bad, as a moral fact. Ultimately, what such a person is saying, “It is a moral fact that those who assert that there is something morally wrong with those who assert the existence of moral facts.”
In fact, it is very easy for a person who believes in moral facts to say that, "We ought to be tolerant of different views" is one of those moral facts.
Saying that there are moral facts -- that there is a right or wrong answer to moral questions -- does not imply that the person making the statement knows what those moral facts are in all circumstances.
There are chemistry facts. Yet, if somebody were to ask me for the chemical formula for polyethylene, I would have to say, "I do not know." I say that there are chemistry facts, but I do not know what all of them are. In some cases -- many, in fact -- I have to consult somebody who is a specialist in that area.
There are some questions that even the specialists in a particular area do not know the answer to, just yet. "How were the first living cells created?" Here, the experts do not know. There may be some theories as to what is involved, and some theories may be more likely true than others, but nobody yet has a clear right answer to question.
Here we have a situation where a group of people admit that there is a fact of the matter. Each may have their own theory. Yet, none of them asserts, "I am right and anybody who disagrees with me should be put to death." Well, some of them might. But, it is quite possible to hold that there is a right answer, while at the same time advocating tolerance for different theories as to what that right answer may be.
In previous blog entries, I have spoken about a moral issue in just this way.
In the post on "Capital Punishment", I said that the evidence seems to suggest that we would have fewer murders if we, as a society, did not cheer or celebrate any killings, including the killing of murderers. However, I said that I could not prove this and suggested that more research be done.
In the post on "Physician Assisted Suicide" I said that allowing this created two dangers. First, it might weaken the psychological barriers against killing and result in more murders. Second, health-insurance companies might find it in their financial best interest to vigorously market death when medical treatment becomes expensive. I do not know if a society can organize its institutions in such a way that those who are suffering can obtain the benefit of physician assisted suicide, while avoiding these dangers. Therefore, I suggested that a "states rights" approach be used so that different options can be tested.
In both of these cases, I spoke in a way that was consistent with the view that there was a moral fact of the matter – better and worse ways for organizing a society. At the same time, I admitted that I did not know what the moral facts were.
Tolerance for different views comes from recognizing that may not yet have all of the information I need to be certain about any particular conclusion. An individual can say, “The evidence seems to suggest that we would be better off if we, as a society, did not celebrate any killings; however, since we do not know this, let different societies try out different systems.”
Moral Fact: Intolerance is Bad
The person who believes in moral facts does not face these difficulties when he claims that tolerance is good and intolerance is bad.
First, only the person who believes in moral facts can coherently assert that it is a moral fact that intolerance is bad. Those who assert that morality is merely a matter of personal opinion has nothing to say against the person who adopts the personal opinion that he will not be tolerant of other views.
Second, the idea that morality concerns facts to be discovered immediately raises the possibility that, “What I think is wrong, might not be wrong in fact.” Those who base morality on personal feelings or opinion support a system that does not even allow for the possibility of error. The person who has a dislike for interracial relationships and sees them as ‘wrong’, cannot be mistaken about the fact that he sees them as ‘wrong’. We cannot say that he is mistaken unless we can say that there is a fact of the matter that he can be mistaken about.
I agree that belief in moral facts combined with a certain amount of arrogance is a dangerous combination. People like this are more willing to force their morality on others and, to the degree that they are mistaken about what is in fact wrong, to that degree they will do real harm.
In fact, arrogant people have a tendency to not listen to others. This makes it harder to correct any mistakes they may have made.
It is their tendency to act in ways that are harmful to others that makes it the case that society would be better off if people tended to be less arrogant. This, in turn, gives society a reason to meet arrogance with condemnation and contempt. This gives society a reason to insist that its members be mindful of the fact of their own infallibility. They exhibit this appreciation of their own fallibility by being tolerant of others.
There is nothing about the belief in moral facts that gives rise to an arrogant intolerance of other positions. In fact, a belief in moral facts provides a foundation for an argument in favor of tolerance. Intolerance requires not only a belief in moral facts but an arrogant assumption as to one’s own infallibility. The moral failing of intolerance rests with this arrogant assumption of infallibility, not with the belief in moral facts.
However, tolerance, like all other moral principles, is not absolute. The more certain it is that an action is wrong (the more certain it is that an aversion to a particular act-type will help people to lead fulfilling lives), the less reason there is to be tolerant. This essay does not suggest tolerance for rapists, murderers, malicious liars, thieves, and others whose actions are clearly wrong.