22 October 2006

The fact of the matter

Is there such a thing as a moral fact?

There are facts that prove things to be true – at least as we know them now. For instance, all things fall due to gravity. The Earth is round and not flat as it was once thought to be. A liquid takes the shape of the container it is held in. There are 60 minutes to the hour. Sugar is sweet to taste. Men are different from women in their physical appearance.

Evidence can be provided as proof of such facts; and rational people accept such evidence, proof and facts in their daily lives. For, these facts guide our actions.

However, when it comes to morals, life becomes complicated. Facts are no longer facts – measurable quantities or proven axioms – but issues guided, or influenced, by our personal interest, our appetite for or aversion to risk, and strategic considerations with a view to a larger or long-term goal.

Therein lies the rub. For example, even if we know that causing intentional harm to others is morally wrong, we may still decide to act upon it.

Although a child knows he should not tell a lie, he may still do so to protect himself or a friend from punishment. Although an adult knows that he should not tell a lie, he may still do so in order to avoid hurting others, or to avoid creating an ugly scene at a specific moment, or to take advantage of a situation.

How does the child or the adult take such decisions – sometimes instantaneous, almost instinctive, decisions – on morality and stray away from, or even violate, social or parental teaching, knowing full well the facts of the matter?

Faced with a moral question, people, both young and old, apply their minds from the point of view of what they believe is the nature of the situation at hand – in other words, the facts of the matter – and make up their minds, sometimes instantly, to act in a specific manner.

The process of making up their minds – and, in turn, the moral outcome – is, of course, guided, or influenced, by their personal interest, their appetite for or aversion to risk, and strategic considerations with a view to a larger or long-term goal.

Then there’s the issue of human instinct, as well as the theory of moral grammar that Harvard professor Marc Hauser talks about.

The fact of the matter about what is right or wrong, about what morally ought or ought not to be done, or how people will act in a given situation, are not easy to determine, nor explain.


[Citation: ‘Moral Realism and Cross-Cultural Normative Diversity’ – a paper by Edouard Machery, Daniel Kelly, Stephen P. Stich]

No comments: