Moral truth without substance




Previous entries in this series [parts I, II, III, IV, V, and VI] surveyed Parfit’s first-order normative views. In this final post, I’ll highlight some of Parfit’s key ideas and arguments in metaethics (esp. the nature of normativity).

Parfit’s moral realism: objectivity without ontology

J.L. Mackie famously objected that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities… of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Parfit seeks to defang such metaphysical qualms by denying that objective values (or normative properties more generally) would have to exist “in the universe” at all. Nor do they exist in some separate, ghostly Platonic realm. That is still to treat them too much on the model of concrete objects that exist in space and time. Instead, Parfit suggests, abstract entities like numbers and objective values exist in a “non-ontological” sense. True claims about numbers and values are as true as true can be, but—Parfit insists—these truths “have no positive ontological implications.” This is Parfit’s Non-Metaphysical Cognitivism in a nutshell.

Parfit thus hopes to secure the best of both worlds: the objectivity of robust non-naturalist normative realism, without the ontological costs. Whether this is a coherent position is, unfortunately, less clear. Parfit claims that abstract entities “are not a kind of entity about which it is a clear enough question whether, in some ontological sense, they exist, or are real, though they are not in space and time.” He seems to draw from this the conclusion that we can comfortably rely upon abstract objects at no theoretical cost. I wonder if a better conclusion would be that the theoretical costs of positing abstract objects are, as yet, unclear. But even this more moderate conclusion may be consoling in its own way. For it undermines the suggestion that there is anything obviously objectionable (or theoretically costly) about positing objective values.

Some skeptics have thought that objective values would be more problematic than other abstract objects. Mackie supposed that they must be imbued with a kind of magical motivating force, claiming that “[a]n objective good would be sought by anyone who was acquainted with it.” Parfit, by contrast, takes great care to distinguish motivating and normative reasons. We are substantively irrational when we fail to be moved by (known) normative reasons. But there is no force in the universe that prevents us from being irrational. Normativity is causally inert: it marks what truly ought to be done, but it cannot push us to do it. Their causal inefficacy makes Parfit’s non-natural properties more metaphysically innocent (being compatible with the principle that physical effects can only stem from physical causes), but perhaps more epistemically puzzling.

Moral epistemology

If abstract objects cannot causally influence physical objects such as our brains, how can we possibly know anything about them? Parfit suggests that causally-responsive perceptual faculties are only required for detecting contingent truths, which could have been otherwise. Following Sidgwick, Parfit suggests that the necessary truths of logic, mathematics, and philosophy are self-evident in the sense that full rational understanding of the claim in question gives one sufficient justification for believing it: no causal interaction or external evidence is required.

To appreciate that 2+2=4, or that pain is bad, you don’t need to run a scientific experiment to better reveal the causal structure of the world (and indeed, doing so wouldn’t help). Once you’ve acquired the relevant concepts, you just need to think clearly. Not all self-evident truths are so obvious as these examples, and we are all fallible, imperfectly rational beings. So people may disagree about what is truly self-evident, and sometimes get it wrong. But the core suggestion is nonetheless that careful thinking may see us right, and at any rate is the only hope we have, so we might as well give it our best shot.

Parfit further argues:

[T]hough it is hard to explain how we can recognize these necessary, non-empirical truths, that does not show either that there are no such truths, or that we cannot justifiably believe any of these truths. For any such skeptical argument to succeed, this argument must have premises which are more plausible than the beliefs which this argument claims to undermine. Two such beliefs are:

(U) No statement or proposition could be both wholly true and wholly false,


(V) Two plus two must equal four, and could not possibly equal three or five.

Such skeptical arguments must assume that

(W) we have no way of knowing whether such beliefs are true.

This claim is less plausible than (U) and (V). Though we don’t yet fully understand how we can know such truths, we do know that some of these beliefs are true.

Parfit’s Objections to Metaethical Naturalism

Metaethical naturalists claim that normative properties like rightness are metaphysically reducible to natural properties like maximizing happiness. Parfit’s central objection to this view is that it trivializes ethical disputes. When utilitarians and their critics disagree about what’s right, they’re not disagreeing about which acts maximize happiness. And if utilitarians merely claimed that happiness-maximizing acts have the property of maximizing happiness, that wouldn’t be a very interesting view. To make informative claims, we need to relate distinct properties.

Of course, philosophers have long been interested in informative identity claims. It can be informative to learn that Superman is Clark Kent, or that water is H2O. So, the naturalist asks, why not assume that normative-natural identities could be like that? Parfit’s response is that identity claims are informative just when they tell us that two distinct properties are co-instantiated by a single object.

For example, the cognitive significance of ‘water’ may be given by a certain complex functional property: roughly, being the clear drinkable liquid found in lakes and rivers around here.  This differs from the cognitive significance of ‘H2O’, which is instead given by a certain chemical property.  The claim ‘water is H2O’ is informative rather than trivial because it relates these two distinct properties.  This is possible because the concept water is “gappy”: it refers to whatever actually fills the associated functional role.  This functional role could, for all we know a priori, be filled by all sorts of things.  Hence it is informative to learn that H2O is the particular chemical property of the watery stuff of our acquaintance.

This analysis provides the basis of Parfit’s attack on non-analytical normative naturalism.  To begin with, our concept of a normative reason, unlike water, does not seem to be “gappy” in the way required to give rise to informative identity claims.  (There’s no reference-fixing functional description of “reasony stuff” for a Kripkean to rigidify.)

More generally, Parfit challenges the naturalist to specify just what further information is imparted when they identify natural and normative properties.  For naturalism to be true, the further information must be a natural fact (rather than an irreducibly normative fact), but then we seem left with the “Hard Naturalist” view that normative concepts are (in principle) dispensable.  Parfit takes this to be a mere terminological variant of nihilism, the view that there are no normative truths. (Much as a hard naturalist “theist” who identifies God with love is really just a terminologically-confused atheist.)

Parfit’s Objection to Non-Cognitivism

Non-cognitivists hold that our moral judgments express (something like) desires rather than beliefs. The early emotivists claimed that “murder is wrong” meant, roughly, “Boo to murder!” Contemporary expressivists and quasi-realists are more sophisticated, but Parfit notoriously dismissed their developments as mere window-dressing for a “bleak view” that is ultimately “close to Nihilism”. For Parfit, it is crucial that there are normative truths out there for us to discover.

It can be difficult to pin down the disagreement between realists and expressivists, however. For expressivists can affirm normative truths (given a minimalist theory of truth, on which “it’s true that murder is wrong” is just to affirm that murder is wrong). And they can even affirm objective, stance-independent normative truths, for they can affirm norms opposing murder without condition. The affirmed norm thus negatively evaluates murder even in those possible worlds in which the expressivist comes to adopt pro-murder norms.

So we cannot straightforwardly assert that only realists can hold murder to be objectively wrong, independently of their attitudes. Expressivists may endorse that same norm. They, too, can disapprove of their pro-murder counterpart. And of course even the moral realist could have counterparts that believe murder to be good. So: what’s the difference? Parfit insists that moral truths are true in a way that goes beyond minimalism. He isn’t just re-affirming his preferred moral norms, but claims that some norms are right in a way that goes beyond merely affirming them. Of course, if expressivists insist on reinterpreting this claim as just yet another norm affirmation, then I’m not sure how to stop them. But it does seem clear enough that there’s a distinctive claim here that the rest of us can grasp, even if they refuse to admit it!

A Metaethical Triple Theory?

In volume 3 of On What Matters, Parfit intriguingly claims to have resolved his major disagreements with arch-naturalist Peter Railton and arch-expressivist Allan Gibbard.

Parfit’s Naturalism

As Railton puts it:

Here is the translation: when Parfit would speak of a ‘non-ontological, non-natural fact’, I would speak of a ‘true, positive claim or proposition essentially involving a normative, non-natural concept’. With this in place, there is no disagreement between us over the existence of non-natural facts, or their status as objective yet non-objectual.

Both agree that there are irreducibly normative truths, yet only natural ontology. They just differ in their use of fact- and property-talk. Railton uses fact- and property-talk in a way that is “ontological or extensional or objectual”, whereas Parfit’s use is “description-fitting” and “non-ontological”, something that, supposedly, comes along for free as what’s attributed by any meaningful concept or claim.

If naturalists allow for irreducibly normative truths, and non-naturalists refrain from imbuing their non-natural properties with any ontological weight, it seems that they may end up holding the same view.

Parfit’s Expressivism?

I find it much less clear how much agreement there is between Parfit and Gibbard. Parfit writes:

On my cognitivist account,

when we say that some fact is a reason to act in some way, we are saying that this fact counts in favour of this act.

On Gibbard’s purely expressivist account,

when we say that some fact is a reason to act in some way, we are saying ‘Weigh this fact in favour of this act!’

… On what I call this expressivist cognitivist account,

when we say that some fact is a reason to act in some way, we are saying ‘Weigh this fact in favour of this act!’, and we are also claiming that, in expressing this imperative, we are getting it right.

But I’m not sure whether Gibbard would grant Parfit’s intended interpretation of the ‘getting it right’ clause. After all, in his commentary, Gibbard insists that “holding that a normative claim is true independently of our beliefs, desires, and proclivities amounts to accepting an imperative that is unconditional on what we are like.” Gibbard might similarly claim that holding that we are getting it right amounts to accepting the previously-expressed imperative.

It would be a major revision for an expressivist to allow for a kind of “getting it right” that involved there being a robust truth of the matter. If expressivists were willing to make this major revision, it would by comparison be a very small revision for cognitivists to add to their own view that, in asserting normative truths, they are also endorsing a norm or imperative. So I think this is not so much a compromise as an invitation from Parfit to Gibbard to abandon the core of his expressivism and instead embrace the cognitivist’s view of normativity as something “out there” waiting to be discovered.


I share Parfit’s conviction that there are robust, irreducibly normative truths. I’m less confident that one can get all this at no ontological cost, or that one can still be a “metaphysical naturalist” in any meaningful sense by simply insisting that all the non-natural properties one relies upon somehow lack “ontological weight” (whatever that means). I suspect that talk of a “ghostly Platonic realm” is uncharitable to Platonists, and wonder what conciliatory steps Parfit might have accepted had he also been in dialogue with metaphysical non-naturalists. Apart from denying their ontological commitments, it’s not really clear to me how his view differs from theirs. Hopefully future work in metaethics will get clearer on the nature of ontological commitment, and what (if anything) we are committed to when we accept that there are robust, irreducibly normative truths. It would be interesting to know.

Originally appeared on Good Thoughts Read More