Are there ‘moral facts’?

THE FAMOUS SCOTTISH PHILOSOPHER David Hume (1711-1776) claimed that if we examine wicked actions—“willful murder, for instance”—we will find nomatter of fact” corresponding to the wickedness. This view, which was adopted by many contemporary evolutionists and atheists like Richard Dawkins, suggests that the universe, apart from our attitudes, contains no such [moral] facts.

Philosophy professor James Rachels in his bookThe Elements of Moral Philosophy (USA:McGraw-Hill College, 3rd ed., 1999) outlines the mode of thinking of those who deny the existence of ‘moral facts’:

1.      There are moral facts, in the same way that there are facts about stars and planets; or

2.      Our “values” are nothing more than the expression of our subjective feelings.

          As if to state that Hume and his believers commit the fallacy of ‘black or white,’ Rachels explains that they overlook a crucial third possibility: “People have not only feelings but reason, and that makes a big difference. It may be that:

3. To say one thing about moral truths, they are truths of reason; that is, a moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than the alternatives.”

           Rachels thus rightly concludes: “Thus, if we want to understand the nature of ethics, we must consider reasons. A truth of ethics is a conclusion that is backed by reasons: The “correct” answer to a moral question is simply the answer that has the weight of reason on its side. Such truths are objective in the sense that they are true independently of what we might want or think. We cannot make something good or bad just by wishing it to be so because we cannot merely will that the weight of reason be on its side or against it. And this also explains our infallibility: We can be wrong about what is good or bad because we can be wrong about what reason commends. Reason says what it says, regardless of our opinions or desires.”

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