are there some objective moral truths?

Ard: Show me an example of something that you cannot explain in terms of scientific theories.

JC: Well, consider morality, which is a very important part of our human experience. Can the truths of morality, for example, that compassion is required of us, that cruelty is wrong, can those be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the laws of physics? Pretty clearly not. I mean, that’s obvious.

But can they then be explained in terms, perhaps, of biological drives, which would be explicable by biology, perhaps, and therefore ultimately through physics? Well, again, I think not, because there’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us, whether we like it or not, almost irrespective of how we feel and what we would like to do. This is what philosophers rather unhelpfully call normativity. It’s the idea that moral truths have an authoritative force: they exert a requirement on us to which we must respond.

Now, either you explain those away as illusory in some way, or you have to acknowledge that there’s a part of reality which isn’t just configurations of particles interacting.

Ard: But wouldn’t one explanation of that be, well, that’s because it gives us better survival? Or maybe our group will survive better if we behave in this way?

JC: Well, this is a really interesting core issue, I think. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re, I guess, a ragbag of conflicting desires, inclinations and dispositions that have evolved in various ways. But had our history – our social or biological history – gone slightly differently, we would have different ones. So compassion might not be right: cruelty might be right. Or cruelty might not be wrong had things gone a bit differently. Now, that seems, at least to me, strongly counterintuitive.

David: Are you sort of saying that there is a moral compass? That just like there is a north, whether you’re headed north or not, it’s still there. You’re saying that there’s, sort of, a moral compass where there’s good and bad, and even if you like the bad, you’re aware of the good.

JC: Precisely.

David: Okay.

JC: So, even if I incline to be cruel, or incline to be destructive, or selfish, I’m, as it were, pulled. I think the compass analogy is a very good one. I’m not, of course, forced, because we often do turn away from the good, unfortunately.

David: But you know it’s there.

JC: But we know it’s there, and it would be hard to live as a human being, I think, if one didn’t have that sense that there was something more to morality than merely a set of contingent desires and inclinations.There’s an analogy, I think, here, with mathematical reasoning: that we often do go wrong, we often make mistakes, but we have a strong sense that there is something that’s the right answer, in principle, and that our reasoning, however faulty and shoddy, ought to be conforming to that. And I think it’s exactly the same in morality.

Ard: So moral truths are like mathematical truths? Or they could be?

JC: Yes, I mean Descartes held a view which I think many people would now regard as unfashionable: namely that we have a natural light – a light of reason which orients us towards mathematical truths and moral truths. Provided we focus on them accurately, they’re so clear that they compel our assent. So his mathematical example, things like 2+3=5, he thought as long as you focus on that, you cannot but assent to its truth. But I think he would have said the same about the wrongness of cruelty, or the goodness of compassion.

Ard: So how about people who say, well, you know, these things are just socially constructed?

JC: But, of course, that just begs the question, or demands the question, if I got morality from the previous generation, where did they get it from? Now, if you say it’s just a set of contingent factors that have led a certain society to have certain beliefs about what they should do, right and wrong, then you're back with that problem of the contingency: the radical contingency of the ethical. Had society developed slightly differently, we’d have to say then cruelty might not be wrong. You know, oppressing the weak might be good. And that just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Ard: Yes, it does sound wrong.

David: But between you, you’ve just made a much stronger claim. I mean, it’s one thing to say… You mathematicians or physicists are always saying that mathematics is there. Like your 2+3 was always going to be 5. It was 5 when there were only dinosaurs around and we weren’t here. It was still 5.

Ard: Yes.

David: And you’re suggesting that maybe moral truths are woven into the fabric of the universe, like mathematical ones?

JC: Well, I think I would say that. That is to say, there’s something in the nature of reality which makes these truths necessary. Not, of course, in exactly the same sense as logic and mathematics, but I would say about them what Frege, the German logician Gottlob Frege, said about the basic truths of logic and arithmetic and so on: that they are like boundary stones which our thought can overflow, but not shift.

And then you have to ask what makes them true. You could just say, ‘Well, they’re just true and nothing makes them true.’ If you don’t go that route, I think one is drawn… I’m certainly drawn to saying they’re somehow grounded in the way the cosmos is, and that leads to a more religious interpretation perhaps.

Ard: So this is something that you and I probably share, which is that we think morals are grounded in some way and something that transcend outside of ourselves: God, you might call that. Whereas David doesn’t believe in God, but he does want to hold on to there being moral truths that are independent of ourselves.

David: Yes, I mean, I do have the sense that there are things which were true before we imagined them.

JC: I think we are then agreed that there are these truths: they’re not just subjective inclinations.

David: They’re things we discover; I don’t think we’re making them up.

JC: Okay, we’re not inventing. So, then, I don’t think you have that many options in describing or accounting…
David: You’re ganging up on me, aren’t you?

JC: It’s just that either you’ve got to give a deflationary account and say, ‘Well, they seem like impressive, authoritative truths, but really they’re just disguised preferences’ – something like that – or you have to go a kind of Platonist route, I guess, and say they’re just wafting around in some abstract realm.

David: I’m guessing you don’t like that ‘wafting around’ option.

Ard: I think you like ‘wafting’, don’t you?

David: No, no, that’s not fair, I don’t.

JC: Or they are grounded in some ultimate reality.

David: Are you sure those are my only choices?

JC: Well, philosophers have come up with all sorts of labels. You know, ‘non-natural moral truths’.

David: Oh, never mind the labels; they don’t work for me. I just chafe at only being able to have these three choices, because none of those three options seem terribly appealing. I don't know… I don't know, yet.