Do People Actually Believe in Objective Moral Truths?

Imagine two people discussing a question in mathematics. One of them says “7,497 is a prime number,” while the other says, “7,497 is not a prime number.” In a case like this one, we would probably conclude that there is a single right answer and that anyone who says otherwise must be mistaken. The question under discussion here, we might say, is perfectly objective.

But now suppose we switch to a different topic. Two people are talking about food. One of them says “Don’t even think about eating caterpillars! They are totally disgusting and not tasty at all,” while the other says “Caterpillars are a special delicacy — one of the tastiest, most delectable foods a person can ever have occasion to eat.” In this second case, we might have a very different reaction. We might think that there isn’t any single right answer. Maybe caterpillars are just tasty for some people but not for others. This latter question, we might think, should be understood as relative.

Now that we’ve got at least a basic sense for these two categories, we can turn to a more controversial case. Suppose that the two people are talking about morality. One of them says “That action is deeply morally wrong,” while the other is speaking about the very same action and says “That action is completely fine — not the slightest thing to worry about.” In a case like this, one might wonder what reaction would be most appropriate. Should we say that there is a single right answer here, or should we say that different answers could be right for different people? In other words, should we say that morality is something objective or something relative?

This question lies at the center of a long and complex philosophical debate. The usual assumption is that ordinary people treat moral judgments as getting at something objective, but there is a lot of disagreement about how to make sense of this ordinary practice within a broader theory about the nature of morality. Is people’s ordinary practice fundamentally correct? Or is it founded on some sort of error? Or might there be some third possible view one could adopt here? The debate over these questions has been a wonderfully sophisticated one, filled with dazzling arguments, objections and replies.

There is just one snag. No real evidence is offered for the initial assumption that ordinary people treat moral claims as getting at something objective. Instead, the traditional approach is just to start out with the assumption that people look at morality in this way and then begin arguing from there.

With the growing interest in experimental philosophy and empirical moral psychology, there has been a surge of recent attempts to go after these questions in a more systematic way. Researchers have taken the conceptual insights developed in the existing philosophical literature and used these insights to generate controlled experimental studies. But a funny thing happened when people started taking these questions into the lab. Again and again, when researchers took up these questions experimentally, they did not end up confirming the traditional view. They did not find that people overwhelmingly favored objectivism. Instead, the results consistently point to a more complex picture. There seems to be a striking degree of conflict even in the intuitions of ordinary folks, with some people under some circumstances offering objectivist answers, while other people under other circumstances offer more relativist views.

For a nice example from recent research, consider a study by Adam Feltz and Edward Cokely. They were interested in the relationship between belief in moral relativism and the personality trait openness to experience. Accordingly, they conducted a study in which they measured both openness to experience and belief in moral relativism. To get at people’s degree of openness to experience, they used a standard measure designed by researchers in personality psychology. To get at people’s agreement with moral relativism, they told participants about two characters — John and Fred — who held opposite opinions about whether some given act was morally bad. Participants were then asked whether one of these two characters had to be wrong (the objectivist answer) or whether it could be that neither of them was wrong (the relativist answer). The result was a surprising one. It just wasn’t the case that participants overwhelmingly favored the objectivist answer. Instead, people’s answers were correlated with their personality traits. The higher a participant was in openness to experience, the more likely that participant was to give a relativist answer.

Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley pursued a similar approach, this time looking at the relationship between people’s belief in moral relativism and their tendency to approach questions by considering a whole variety of possibilities. They proceeded by giving participants mathematical puzzles that could only be solved by looking at multiple different possibilities. Thus, participants who considered all these possibilities would tend to get these problems right, whereas those who failed to consider all the possibilities would tend to get the problems wrong. Now comes the surprising result: those participants who got these problems right were significantly more inclined to offer relativist answers than were those participants who got the problems wrong.

Taking a slightly different approach, Shaun Nichols and Tricia Folds-Bennett looked at how people’s moral conceptions develop as they grow older. Research in developmental psychology has shown that as children grow up, they develop different understandings of the physical world, of numbers, of other people’s minds. So what about morality? Do people have a different understanding of morality when they are twenty years old than they do when they are only four years old? What the results revealed was a systematic developmental difference. Young children show a strong preference for objectivism, but as they grow older, they become more inclined to adopt relativist views. In other words, there appears to be a developmental shift toward increasing relativism as children mature. (In an exciting new twist on this approach, James Beebe and David Sackris have shown that this pattern eventually reverses, with middle-aged people showing less inclination toward relativism than college students do.)

So there we have it. People are more inclined to be relativists when they are high in openness to experience, when they have an especially good ability to consider multiple possibilities, when they have matured past childhood (but not when they get to be middle-aged). Looking at these various effects, my collaborators and I thought that it might be possible to offer a single unifying account that explained them all. Specifically, our hypothesis was that people are drawn to relativism to the extent that they open their minds to alternative perspectives. There might be all sorts of different factors that lead people to open their minds in this way (personality traits, cognitive dispositions, age), but regardless of the instigating factor, researchers seem always to be finding the same basic effect. The more people have a capacity to truly engage with other perspectives, the more they seem to turn toward moral relativism.

To really put this hypothesis to the test, Hagop Sarkissian, Jennifer Wright, John Park, David Tien and I teamed up to run a series of new studies. Our aim was to actually manipulate the degree to which people considered alternative perspectives. That is, we wanted to randomly assign people to different conditions in which they would end up thinking in different ways, so that we could then examine the impact of these different conditions on their intuitions about moral relativism.

Participants in one condition got more or less the same sort of question used in earlier studies. First, they were asked to imagine a man named Sam. They were told that Sam was a pretty ordinary guy, who enjoyed watching college football and hanging out with his friends. Then they were given the usual sort of question to see whether they thought about Sam’s moral judgments in a more objectivist or relativist framework.

Consider the following case:

  • Horace finds his youngest child extremely unattractive and therefore kills him.

a classmateSuppose one of your classmates hears this case and thinks what Horace did was morally wrong.


SamNow suppose Sam hears this case and thinks what Horace did was morally permissible.


Participants were then asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement:
Since your classmate and Sam have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.

So far, all of this is pretty much the same as what one finds in earlier studies on the topic, but then we introduced a new twist. Participants in the other conditions received questions aimed at moving their thinking in a different direction.

Participants who had been assigned to the “other culture” condition were told to imagine an Amazonian tribe, the Mamilons, that had a very different way of life from our own. They were given a vivid description of this tribe’s values, their coming-of-age rituals, the vow they all take to uphold the Mamilon way of life. Then came the corresponding question:

Consider the following case:

  • Horace finds his youngest child extremely unattractive and therefore kills him.

a classmateSuppose one of your classmates hears this case and thinks what Horace did was morally wrong.


a MamilonNow suppose a Mamilon hears this case and thinks what Horace did was morally permissible.


Participants were then asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement:
Since your classmate and the Mamilon have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.

Finally, participants in the “extraterrestrial” condition were told about a culture that was just about as different from our own as can possibly be conceived. They were asked to imagine a race of extraterrestrial beings, the Pentars, who have no interest in friendship, love or happiness. Instead, the Pentars’ only goal is to maximize the total number of equilateral pentagons in the universe, and they move through space doing everything in their power to achieve this goal. (If a Pentar becomes too old to work, she is immediately killed and transformed into a pentagon herself.) As you might guess, these participants then got the corresponding question:

Consider the following case:

  • Horace finds his youngest child extremely unattractive and therefore kills him.

a classmateSuppose one of your classmates hears this case and thinks what Horace did was morally wrong.


a PentarNow suppose a Pentar hears this case and thinks what Horace did was morally permissible.


After which they were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the usual statement:
Since your classmate and the Pentar have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.

results graph

Participants in each condition were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a particular statement. In each case, agreement was scored on a scale from 1 to 7 (with 1 being the most ‘relativist’ answer and 7 being the most ‘objectivist’).

Now that we have seen the three conditions of the experimental design, it is time to take a look at the results. Remember that participants in each condition were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a particular statement. In each case, agreement was scored on a scale from 1 to 7 (with 1 being the most ‘relativist’ answer and 7 being the most ‘objectivist’). At right are the results for each condition.

Looking first at the results in the same-culture condition, we find that participants there are giving a mean rating that falls above 5. So if we only had access to the information about that one condition, we might well be drawn to the view that people are moral objectivists.

But now suppose we look at all three conditions and examine the pattern as a whole. What we see then is a systematic shift in people’s responses. They might be giving apparently objectivist answers in the same-culture condition, but they are right around the midpoint in the other-culture condition, and by the time we get to the extraterrestrial condition, they are giving answers that are pretty strongly relativist.

Results like these point to a new and somewhat different understanding of people’s ordinary way of thinking about morality. It does not appear that people start out with some kind of metaphysical position and then apply that position to whatever question they receive. Rather, it seems that people’s answers depend in some essential way on an imaginative engagement with the question at hand.

Perhaps we can see this sort of effect even more clearly if we turn to claims that have nothing to do with morality. Consider the claim that there are twenty-four hours in a day. Now ask yourself: Is this claim objectively true, or is it only true for us? Presumably, you did not answer this question by simply applying some already established view about the metaphysical status of days. Instead, you answer it by applying your imaginative capacity to certain possible situations. Your answer then depends on the limits of your imagination. If you think only of people living on the planet Earth in the present century, you will tend to conclude that the claim is an objective truth. But suppose instead you take a broader view and turn your attention to other planets as well. You might then find yourself thinking: ‘There just happen to be twenty-four hours in a day around here, but if we had lived on a planet that took more than twenty-four hours to revolve around its axis, we might well have had quite a few more hours in our day.’

The very same sort of effect can then arise when we turn to questions about morality. We do not typically come to these questions with any kind of pre-established view about the nature of moral truths. Rather, we look at a moral claim and just try to imagine any way in which it could be true for some people and false for others. If we have spent our whole lives in a small community of like-minded others, it will often prove impossible to imagine any such possibility, and we will immediately conclude that the claim is objectively true. But modern life is moving increasingly in a different direction. We are gaining ever more access to other perspectives, other ways of life. With this access comes an ever greater ability to imagine alternatives — and an ever greater inclination toward moral relativism.

35 comments to Do People Actually Believe in Objective Moral Truths?

  • Kevin DeLapp

    Thank you for such a stimulating essay, Professor Knobe! This is an important and much-needed corrective to the armchair attributions frequently presupposed by realists and relativists alike.

    While I’m persuaded that ‘ordinary people’ are not default realists (not all of them anyway), I’m worried in general that folk metaethical intuitions may not be reliable in principle since the field of metaethics itself is rather esoteric. Genuinely useful folk intuitions in metaethics must be informed by often very subtle distinctions between, for example, descriptive versus prescriptive varieties of relativism, notions of ‘objectivity’ that are metaphysical versus those which are more epistemological, and the difference between a kind of normative relativism based on refusals to judge/condemn (or worries about being unable to provide universally persuasive reasons for or against a certain judgment) versus relativism about truth-conditions for moral claims. Once these nuances are presented, however, it’s doubtful whether the ‘folk’ will retain their untutored innocence any longer. For example, in a similar study about undergraduate metaethical intuitions at the College of Charleston, Nichols (2004) sets up his experiment with an option that allows respondents (students in this case) to select ‘objectivism’ as a possible explanation of a hypothetical moral disagreement; but Nichols builds into his definition of ‘objectivism’ all manner of questionable metaethical baggage, including motivational internalism, i.e., the view that moral judgments are intrinsically motivating. (This definition, by the way, Nichols explicitly credits to J.L. Mackie… who is definitely not one of the folk!) In a similar vein, ‘openness to new experiences’ seems to be a primarily epistemic virtue, which might be thought to trigger intuitions about whether a respondent can know or justify what’s morally true, rather than any metaethical intuitions about the existence (or non-existence) of moral truths.

    Also, it seems debatable whether philosophy undergraduates are the most reliable or representative spokespersons for folk metaethics. (Note that Lawrence Kohlberg himself also recognized the phase of undergraduate ‘relativism’ propounded by Beebe and Sackris, and theorized a transitional period in his account of the development of moral reasoning to accommodate this.) The methodology of focusing on undergraduate intuitions is particularly worrisome when the scenarios designed to pump their intuitions involve examples of questionable ecological validity, namely, Mamilons, Pentars, and pentagrams (oh my!). The worry here is that, although these examples are surely engaging, they might inadvertently trigger responses of playfulness or absurdity in students. Even the scenario of killing a child for its ugliness might be thought too silly to pin down serious responses. I would be extremely interested in running a similar study using realistic examples of, say, rape or genocide to probe more emotionally authentic intuitions.

    For these reasons, if the conclusion of experimentally examining folk metaethics is that relativism is better supported, I’d need to see more evidence that it is truly metaethical relativism that is being elicited, and not instead epistemological humility or some sort of hesitancy about the ability to give reasons to a culture as exotic as extraterrestrials. On the other hand, the conclusion might not be to support relativism or realism, but rather to serve as a reality-check against armchair theorists who would blithely attribute all sorts of views to ‘most people.’ I heartily agree with this latter conclusion, although it would seem to raise a tough question about what the method of metaethics should be: if we shouldn’t look to folk intuitions as starting points for theories, how else are intractable metaethical debates to be adjudicated? At any rate, I’m energized by Professor Knobe’s important contribution to this issue and I hope it will stimulate even further conversation about the relationship, if any, between intuitions and theories.

  • Myranda

    These studies of how people process morality are fascinating and enormously helpful in understanding the psychology of moral beliefs and behavior. However, I would caution against using these findings as clear-cut evidence for or against objective morality. For one thing, the existence of an objective moral code is not primarily dependent on whether or not people believe in it or not. For an objective morality to be considered truly “objective” it must exist independently of our beliefs and perceptions of it. Ironically, the argument also stands for the existence of relative morality. Even if every person believed in an objective morality, it would still be possible that they are all mistaken and that we have only (albeit unanimously) made up the idea of objective morals.

    However, the above argument is neither satisfying nor useful in determining whether morality is relative or objective. (After all, what is the point of an objective morality if no one can conclusively discover what it is or if it even exists?). What is useful about this study, is bringing out the idea that human morality does not operate in a vacuum. Morality is a complex interaction of intentions, consequences, social standards, and cultural beliefs. Consider, for example, the statement “Killing a human being is morally wrong.” In some situations, such as murder, this statement obviously applies. However, if you consider other possible scenarios like self-defense, a soldier’s actions in battle, an automobile accident, euthanasia, or capital punishment the morality of “killing” becomes much more complex.

    I am encouraged that many people recognize this complexity. However, I wonder what responses would have been if the questions had been more open ended. Did they perceive either the classmate or Mamilon/Pentar as being more right or wrong than the other in varying degrees? Would their responses have changed if the nationality/species of Horace were known? I may be speaking only from my own perspective, but I would judge an individual’s action by a combination of their cultural experiences and a universal code of ethics. It would be an atrocity for someone in our society to kill their youngest child due to lack of attractiveness. It would be at least understandable for someone living in a cultural system that supported killing unattractive children to do so. It would be almost admirable for a parent to kill their unattractive child in a society which brutally tortured unattractive individuals – as such killing would be an act of mercy.

    In this case, perhaps it is good that people with more open personalities can understand morality as something closer to literature or art than mathematics. There can be more than one right answer, some answers are more “right” than others, but not every answer is right. And for those who continue to think of morality like a mathematical problem, it would be good to realize that not all moral problems are as simple as 2+2.

  • Of all the experimental philosophy studies to date, I find the main one cited here involving Hagop Sarkissian, Jennifer Wright, John Park, David Tien and Joshua Knobe to be among my favorites. The experimental design is philosophically subtle and the implications should be of great interest to meta-ethicists who take seriously ordinary moral practice, as well as people generally interested in moral psychology. And although there has been a lot of research on “folk” first-order moral judgments, there has been a lot less work on “folk” meta-ethics. I can only hope this research inspires more work in this direction.

    I would like to simply point to a couple of things about the connection between moral relativism and the experiments cited here. First, “relativism” has been used in a variety of ways in philosophy. On one construal, Agent Relativism, the moral worth of an action will depend on the moral standards of the agent of that action. This is the sort of relativism in which a “bad” action (by the lights of decent people) might turn out to be morally acceptable if it was perpetrated by an “evil” person. On another construal of relativism, critic or speaker relativism, the moral standard relevant for assessing the moral worth of an action will not be that of the agent of the action, but will instead depend on the person assessing the action (though the standards invoked need not be her own standards). Now, I think what this study shows is that insofar as the folk are moral relativists, they are not relativists of the first sort. This is because on that view, there would be an “objective” fact of the matter as to whether Horace’s action was wrong (it would just depend on Horace’s moral standards). But we saw that the participants were not attracted to that response.

    Second, I think that the “imaginative engagement” hypothesis Knobe proposes might be problematic. Wouldn’t it predict that people who deny relativism are less likely to be good at think of possibilities (and so on)? But most philosophers seem to deny relativism (at least in the anglophone tradition), but philosophers are pretty good at thinking of possibilities and so on. It is an important philosophical skill.

    I think, perhaps, we should look at the role of emotions to help explain the results. Talk of relativism gets people riled up. Tim Scanlon notes that moral relativism is often feared and that it gives rise to passionate responses. It is not hard to see why. Relativism can be seen as adding legitimacy to moral views we may find dangerous and upsetting. Now if this is right, then experiments which probe relativistic reactions might also give rise to emotions, but to varying degrees. Concerning the main experiment mentioned above, the situation where a regular guy who likes football thinks its ok to kill a young child for ridiculous reasons may give rise to stronger emotions (fear) than one where an extra-terrestrial thinks the same thing. If so, then the different reactions recorded across the vignettes might be partially caused by differences in affective strength. In short, I think we should consider whether folk non-relativistic intuitions are partially caused by fear. Although the role of emotions in first order moral judgments has gotten a lot of attention in both philosophy and psychology, I am not aware of many studies that try to connect up emotions with meta-ethical judgments. It would not be surprising if there was such a connection and that it could help explain this fascinating data.

  • Brian Leiter

    Four worries about Joshua Knobe’s characteristically provocative and creative research:

    1. Joshua complains that, “No real evidence is offered for the initial assumption [by philosophers] that ordinary people treat moral claims as getting at something objective.” Often armchair confidence about what the folk think is suspect, as the experimental philosophers have shown more than once. But in this case, the confidence seems quite warranted by evidence. The evidence that the “folk” think moral claims are objective follows from the conjunction of (a) the “folk” tend to be religious believers, and (b) almost every major religious tradition is committed to the objectivity of moral judgments. (b) can’t seriously be disputed, so the only question would be about (a). A large number of European “folk” aren’t religious believers (God bless them!), and it would be interesting to know how that affects their view of the objectivity of morality. But a large number of the American, and Indian, and Indonesian, and Egyptian, and Iranian, and Mexican, and Brazilian folk are religious believers, and their religions are pretty clear about the objectivity of morality. God and Allah, for example, tend not to be moral relativists, so it would be surprising if their adherents were.

    2. Joshua says, “our hypothesis was that people are drawn to relaitivism to the extent that they open their minds to alternative perspectives.” This might well be right, but it’s a non-sequitur if we’re trying to show philosophers are wrong to think “that ordinary people treat moral claims as getting at something objective,” unless we have evidence that ordinary people “open their minds to alternative perspectives.” But without more details, I do not see the evidence that ordinary people in fact, “open their minds to alternative perspectives.”

    3. I would like to hear more about the characteristics of the subjects who responded to the hypothetical problems. I worry that they were probably overwhelmingly Western college students, a group notorious, I think it is fair to say, for its unreflective relativism—and probably also notable for its lack of religiosity, at least if the students surveyed are at place like Yale. If we are interested in what the “folk” think, the survey sample matters.

    4. I would also like to hear more details about the survey questions with respect to the “other culture” conditions. Here is why. Herodotus reports that the Greeks were morally appalled by the discovery that the Egyptians ate their dead. (I do not have the Herodotus in front of me, so may be mangling the story—apologies to Herodotus, but the analytical point stands.) Herodotus thinks the story supports moral relativism, but, in fact, it supports nothing of the kind. It turned out that the Greeks and Egyptians agreed that the living have an obligation to assist the souls of the dead in their migration to the afterlife. But they had a “factual” disagreement about what was required to bring about the morally obligatory end: the Egyptians thought that unless the body of the dead was consumed, the soul could not get free to make its journey, while the Greeks accepted no such belief. So I worry that the “otherness” of the Mamilon and extraterrestrial cultures might have been described in such a way that would have made them into Egyptians to our Greeks. After all, a Greek objectivist about morality could agree that the Egyptians were not morally wrong in thinking they should eat the dead, they were just factually wrong about the means required to discharge their moral obligations to the dead.

  • The results of these experiments by Joshua Knobe and others are quite intriguing. I agree that focusing on the relationship between meta-ethics and meta-cognition is an especially fruitful line of inquiry, and have myself been running some experiments along those lines. But I wonder about the best explanation of the present results, and whether there are some follow-up experiments that might clarify things further.

    Building off some of the previous comments, it seems like there might be something importantly different about the Mamilon and extraterrestrial cases. If we take the perspective that moral norms serve social functions (as Jon Haidt has said, “moral thinking is for social doing”), then the perceived objectivity of moral norms should have some function as well. John Mackie has speculated that people objectify moral norms as a means of enforcement: people will be more likely to follow moral rules if they believe those rules to be objectively true and universally binding. One extension of this idea, which might speak to the present findings, is that people are more concerned with enforcing moral norms locally: it might be more important for my neighbor to be accurate about moral rules than it is for a Mamilon or an extraterrestrial. Given the quite low likelihood of interacting with isolated cultural groups or alien beings on an everyday basis, belief in the objectivity of moral norms might be less pressing. So one way of interpreting these results is that when moral norms are most likely to be relevant — in discussion with someone with whom you might actually interact — they will be objectified.

    There are a few empirical ways to explore this possibility. For instance, you could be the one making the moral judgment, and then someone disagrees with you. This by itself should increase the affective charge of the vignettes. The experiment would then vary who disagrees with you — for instance, the person might be of a different race or political orientation — but equate them on the possibility of local interaction. I’m just as likely to interact with a conservative as a liberal on a daily basis, but our opinions about moral norms are likely to differ wildly. There is prior research indicating that local moral diversity is affectively polarizing, and that it might only amplify beliefs in the objectivity of one’s own moral perspective.

    Another modification of Knobe’s design might make the scenarios involve actual contact between the groups who are making the moral judgments. So for instance, your classmate and an alien might be discussing the morality of hostile alien invasion and slaughtering of humans. Stipulate that your classmate thinks it’s wrong, the alien thinks it’s peachy. With this possibility for actual interaction broached, I bet that participants would be much more likely to indicate that the alien’s belief is mistaken.

    I also wonder what would happen if you presented Knobe’s scenarios within-subjects, rather than between-subjects. Beliefs about objectivity might become more consistent if participants saw all scenarios, because they would correct against discrepancies between their different judgments. In any case, I find these results very intriguing, and look forward to more research on the psychology of meta-ethics.

  • In British English, “The chair tabled the motion” means that the chairperson put the motion forward for immediate discussion. In American English, “The chair tabled the motion” means the opposite: that the chairperson postponed discussion of the motion until later. Therefore, referring to the very same incident, (British) Charlotte might think to herself, “The chair tabled the motion” and (American) Taylor might think to herself, “The chair did not table the motion”. Yet we should all agree that they might both have been correct, even though both of them are thinking about a perfectly objective truth.

    This kind of example highlights a problem for the methodology of studies such as Sarkissian et al.’s that purport to show that the (imaginative) folk are moral relativists. It might rather be that the folk, in searching for charitable interpretations of the apparently conflicting thoughts put to them, treat one or more of the words in one of the thoughts as homographic with English (that is, as spelled like English), but as in fact a word in a different language, meaning something different from what the English word would mean. This allows thoughts which appear at first sight to contradict each other to be interpreted as non-contradictory, irrespective of the objectivity of the subject matter.

    It’s more natural to attribute a character with such a “different language” thought, expressed homographically in a different language, when the character comes from a different, unfamiliar culture. Moreover, such a possibility is likely to come to you more naturally the more imaginative and open to alternative possibilities you are. So the hypothesis that the folk are making such attributions seems to be supported by the experimental data at least as strongly as the hypothesis that the folk are generally relativists about moral truths, or that ability to imagine alternatives produces an inclination toward moral relativism.

    In order to try to show that the folk’s relativist-sounding answers were especially prevalent in the moral realm, Sarkissian et al. did use some control questions about non-moral objective-seeming matters in their experiments and later follow-ups. Unfortunately, each of these control questions that I know of was such, or was presented in such a way as to make it such, that the “different language” interpretation is less natural than it is in the types of moral scenarios that the experimenters used.

    It should be possible to easily run a control question that would allow us to rule out the non-relativist interpretation of the folk’s responses in the moral cases. Here’s one of a kind I’ve suggested elsewhere:

    On the Pentar’s planet, the only kind of rocks they have are giant translucent crystals. Your classmate Sam thinks this [picture of a typical dull, large, rough pebble] is a rock, but the Pentar thinks it is not a rock. Given that Sam and the Pentar have differing judgments about this object, do you think at least one of them must be wrong or could both of them be correct?

    The above scenario seems (to me at least) to naturally invite the “different language” interpretation of the Pentar’s thought just as much as the moral scenarios do. If the folk were found not to give relativist-sounding answers to this question as often as they do in the moral cases, then I would be more persuaded that some of the folk (or Western college students, anyway) are imaginative moral relativists, rather than imaginative interpreters. This research is both innovative and interesting, and I look forward to seeing the results of follow-up studies that distinguish between the possibilities I’ve outlined.

    On a related note, I don’t think there’s a correct answer to Joshua Knobe’s question: “Is the claim that there are twenty four hours in a day objectively true, or true only for us?”. This is related to problems of interpretation that arise when we imagine people on other planets. If we must interpret the claim in question as “There are 24 Earth-hours in an Earth-day”, then it does seem objectively true. If we are allowed to interpret it (for someone on Pluto) as “There are 24 Pluto-hours in a Pluto-day”, then it seems either to come out true for them (if an hour is simply defined as 1/24 of a day) or else impossible for us to answer, for how long is a Pluto-hour? If we are allowed to interpret it as “There are 24 Earth-hours in a Pluto-day”, then it seems false (for them), and thus relative. But how are we to know which of these possible interpretations of the claim we should consider in order to answer the question, at least without further information about what the interrogator expects of us? Note, moreover, that the choice to be made here is not a choice between metaphysical relativism and objectivism about the subject matter. It is rather a choice about how liberally we should interpret the meaning of the words in the question. The question “Is the claim that the prime minister is a man objectively true, or true only for us?” raises a similar problem. But the problem has nothing to do with the metaphysics of gender, nor with whether we think there are objective truths about gender — it is merely a problem with determining whom the words “the prime minister” are supposed to refer to.

  • Tim Maudlin

    I find the initial description of the philosophical situation presented in this article inaccurate. Professor Knobe begins with nice examples claims that have objective answers and claims that are properly understood as only have truth conditions relative to a specified individual:caterpillars might be tasty to you but not to me, but 7,497 cannot be prime to you and not prime to me. The question then arises whether questions of morality are more like the former or the latter. That question does, indeed, “lie at the center of a long and complex philosophical debate”.

    But the next claim, viz. “The usual assumption is that ordinary people treat moral judgments as getting at something objective” is either wildly misleading or flatly false. That is, that assumption plays no role at all in the long and complex philosophical debate. Why should it? It is a sociological claim, and philosophers are generally not engaged in sociology. They may have off-hand views about sociological matters (what “the folk” believe), but there would be no reason to take those views seriously, and they generally play no role at all in any philosophical discussion.

    What the philosophical debate is about is whether moral claims have objective truth conditions. What “the folk” think about the matter is neither here nor there. If one in interested in that sociological question, that’s fine, but presenting this issue as pertinent to the “long and complex philosophical debate” obscures the nature of the research being done.

    • Hi Tim,

      I think there are some ways that judgments from the “folk” could be relevant to the question of whether moral claims have objective truth conditions. Here’s one of them. I think that if the word “[moral] wrong” in our language turns out to be context sensitive (and sensitive to a parameter of moral standards), then this would be some evidence that moral claims do not have objective truth conditions in the relevant sense. But the behavior of competent language users (including non-philosophers) is often taken to be relevant to determining whether expressions in their language are context sensitive. We note certain patterns of usage with ‘I’, ‘this’, ‘tall’, ‘knows’ ‘tasty’ etc. and conclude that they are context sensitive (or not) in particular ways. It doesn’t seem crazy to think that the sort of data cited in the study above is some new evidence that moral expressions are context sensitive (I am using “context sensitive” to cover a family of variantist views here), and hence some indirect evidence against the objectivity claim. Of course, we are a far way of establishing the claim, but I think the data is still relevant.

      • Tim Maudlin

        Hi Angel,

        My comment was about the presentation of the connection between this research and the question of ethical realism. For example, the sentence

        “There is just one snag. No real evidence is offered for the initial assumption that ordinary people treat moral claims as getting at something objective”

        suggests that the supposed moral realism of “ordinary people” is an assumption from which philosophers have drawn consequences. This just strikes me as false.

        If the issue is a linguistic one, then there is a dreadful problem: there is so little agreement among respondents that there could not possibly be a fact about the relevant structure of the language. That is, I would only be inclined to say that there is, say, a fact about what is grammatically correct in a language if there was pretty overwhelming agreement among the language users on the matter. Similarly, whether a term has (say) contextually-supplied parameters. But if that is the question at issue, this particular question cannot be shedding light on it. There is just too much disagreement about what answer to give for the answer itself to be a function of linguistic form.

        Apparently, “the folk” do not have any settled view on meta-ethcial questions, just as they don’t have on, say, political questions. How can the particular details of the statistics of these divergent views shed light even on context-sensitivity?

        And even if the views of “the folk” turned out to be highly context sensitive, how is that supposed to move an ethical realist? Bow to the common view?

      • Hi Tim,

        “the supposed moral realism of ‘ordinary people’ is an assumption from which philosophers have drawn consequences. This just strikes me as false.”

        The claim that strikes you as false is an empirical claim about what sorts of arguments philosophers have actually given. I agree that you probably won’t find arguments of this form “people are non-relativists therefore….”. But I think the appeal to ordinary usage is more subtle and not that hard to find in the literature. Let me quote J.L. Mackie from The Subjectivity of Values:

        “…ordinary moral judgments include a claim to objectivity, an assumption that there are objective values…And I do not think it is going too far to say that this assumption has been incorporated in the basic , conventional MEANING of moral terms. Any analysis of the meanings of moral terms which omits this claim to objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity is to that extent incomplete..” pg 266 (my emphasis)

        So this looks to me like a claim about the semantics of moral terms (and famously, it was used by Mackie to make a substantive claim about the nature of morality). Now, if Mackie is making a claim about meaning (he says this much, so I take him at his word), it is plausible to think that his claim would make predictions about ordinary usage. I think it is good then that experimental philosophers actually go out and see whether these predictions hold.

        Now, I really appreciate your second point about the numbers not being robust enough to support a claim about meaning (or conceptual structure etc). I think this is a real issue that people don’t usually bring up when discussing experimental philosophy. My attitude about this, however, has been to investigate the issue further (as opposed to dismissing the data). One possibility that is under-explored is that we have different idiolects and there is no single moral concept “wrong”, “good”. In fact, this is the sort of conclusion we sometimes draw when we see variance in grammatical judgments among “English” speakers. Another possibility is performance error or affective encroachment (see my point above about emotions perhaps playing a role) in one of the groups (not to say that affect should be connected to performance error). Now maybe these suggestions won’t pan out and you might be vindicated, but I personally don’t feel like we know enough either about the data or even philosophical methodology to make a strong ruling about these cases at this point.

      • Bernard W. Kobes

        Angel says, “Now, if Mackie is making a claim about meaning (he says this much, so I take him at his word), it is plausible to think that his claim would make predictions about ordinary usage.” It’s not clear to me that claims about linguistic or conceptual meaning would make predictions about ordinary usage that would be revealed by standard X-phi paradigms. Putnam’s old notion of a stereotype was an aspect of linguistic meaning that might contain actual falsehoods. Putnam also argued that competent users of a term might have incompletely mastered their semantics. Burge argued that a competent user of a term might have fully mastered its conventional linguistic meaning but doubt it (e.g., “I know that it’s part of the conventional meaning of ‘sofa’ that sofas are made or meant for sitting, but I doubt that sofas actually are made or meant for sitting.”). Such considerations complicate, to say the least, any effort to learn about the metaphysics of morality or the semantics of moral terms via standard X-phi paradigms. – Bernie

      • Hi Bernie,

        I agree that the “externalist” issues you raise create problems for using paradigm x-phi results to inform semantics and metaphysics [although the extension of ‘paradigm x-phi’ is a moving target: work here is becoming more sophisticated by the day—see Chandra Sripada’s recent work for an example]. Let me add a further consideration which bolsters your point. I have argued in print that there may be cases in which whether a term is context sensitive or relative is an external matter in the sense of Burge and Putnam (Juhani Yli-Vakkuri is also exploring this idea). This will also create serious complications for accounts that try to read the context sensitivity of certain terms from ordinary use.

        I think, however, it is unfair to single out some x-phi methods as special targets of these worries. The problems arise just as much for standard armchair semantic methodology. A leading method in semantics is judging (from the armchair) that some linguistic construction is a natural (or awkward) reaction or response to some previously displayed discourse. This sort of method is certainly subject to some of the same worries you mentioned above. Same thing can be said about the growing area of experimental semantics and pragmatics. There, we see appeal to non-expert language use through corpus-based research, eye tracking tests, timed responses and other methods similar to x-phi methods. I would think that all of these approaches are subject to the worries you mentioned above. BTW: here’s a syllabus for an experimental semantics and pragmatics class offered by a linguist at the University of Chicago (Chris Kennedy):

        I find that experimental philosophy methods are totally appropriate as a complement to traditional semantic methods. If ordinary people grasp the meaning of their words, then it makes sense to study their judgments and reactions to get at the meaning of those words.

  • Enoch Lambert

    It is possible to accept Brian Leiter’s conjunction and reject the inferred conclusion. In the United States, at least, it is not surprising at all to find “religious believers” who do not accept many of the tenets of their religion, including objective morality. The “this works for me, but…..” phenomenon is quite common. There’s also the phenomenon of people claiming to be religious but not really involved or committed–they say they are for comfort or tradition’s sake. I don’t claim to know how widespread these phenomena are, just that it would take more empirical data to establish Brian Leiter’s conclusion.

  • Tad Brennan

    Cool study, and great work as always, Joshua.

    “Since your classmate and Sam have different judgments about this case, at least one of them must be wrong.”

    This (or variants on it) is the final prompt in each scenario, offered to the subject for their agreement or disagreement.

    I worry that the word “wrong” may be causing some false readings here, because that word itself is ambiguous between claims of falsity and claims of moral error.

    It is very hard for English speakers to hear “that is wrong” or “you are wrong” without feeling that some degree of disapprobation has been conveyed. The phrase is often used as one of strong, emphatic condemnation, where the grounds for condemnation can be moral, aesthetic, or social, but still convey extreme emotional force. It also tends to impute responsibility to the person who is said to be wrong. It is one of the most “judgmental” phrases one can use (“judgmental” in the sense of censorious, opinionated, priggish, and puritanical) and for that reason, people who wish not to sound judgmental (e.g. college students) are reluctant to use it or assent to its use.

    (A full-dress version of those last claims would dwell more on differences between “is wrong”, “is in the wrong”, “did wrong”, “did it wrong”, “wronged someone”, “has it wrong”, and so on. But I think my main claim — that the word “wrong” has strong and nearly indefeasible connotations of moral disapproval plus attribution of blame — would survive that botanizing.)

    So when you ask people whether one of the two parties to the disagreement “is wrong”, they may think you are asking them to assign blame and condemnation to one of the parties, and be reluctant to do so for that reason. In the Mamilon case, for instance, the subject may well think that there is a moral fact of the matter, and think that the Mamilon’s moral judgments are factually mistaken in this case, but be reluctant to say that the Mamilon “is wrong”, for extraneous reasons. E.g., they may not want to sound as though they are condemning members of another culture; they may think that the Mamilon did not do anything wrong in acquiring the belief that they have (false though it is), and so on.

    So my question is: what results would you get if you reworded the prompt? E.g., “…at least one of them is mistaken,” “…at least one of them has a false belief,” “…both of them cannot be true,” etc.? What if you used prompts that, if anything, tended to skew the matter towards the objective: “…at least one of them has made a factual error”?

    I imagine you gave some attention to this question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  • Billy Junker

    I’m confused about what the findings are supposed to show. If they are supposed to show that “ordinary people” in the developed late capitalist liberal West are “more inclined to be relativists when they are high in openness to experience, when they have an especially good ability to consider multiple possibilities, when they have matured past childhood (but not when they get to be middle-aged), etc.” then they seem trivially true and not of any real philosophical interest. If they are supposed to show that “ordinary people” simpliciter behave in this way, then I find the claim to be philosophically interesting but unwarranted on the basis of the evidence provided. The most this experiment can demonstrate is that, in *our* society, the intuitions of “ordinary people” function in this way.

  • J. Edward Hackett

    I wonder if the study of alternate conditions could suggest the very thing that is trying to be denied — that is, morality ought to be considered objective and perhaps, impartially demanding (though I recognize this latter part not in the range of the study). My primary worry is that the study really only concludes how bad the folk are at being moral. If that is only what these studies largely can be said to prove, then does it follow that even if moral realism is not metaphysically true (if such a thing can be definitively settled), then perhaps we ought to treat morality as if it were objective in order for morality to function the way it does for people cognizing same cultural conditions.

    Apart from the study, morality is to generate action-guidance for situations we might not be too sure about, or at least still have the resources to facilitate finding what we might do. Call this the conceptual function of morality. If it is true that people become increasingly relativist as you introduce varying levels of other conditions, then this might mean when people are forced to deliberate about other conditions they might face in a globalized world they will suck at it. In that case, the study is silent on whether the conceptual function of morality is true.

    My next concern takes its cue from Leiter’s worry about the samples. If you sampled people who were reflective about their ties to a community and not openness to experience, I’d predict you’d find more agreement about morality than disagreement. Think about the tons of public health officials, social workers and non-profit workers in your local community. They have a comportment quite distinct than perhaps those surveyed for the initial study, and in some sense, these people are in positions steeped in the murky-muck of normativity.

    Framing the study with a series of questions that force the same sample to be reflective about their ties to the community might reveal how the framing of the question also affects research outcomes.

  • Michael Kremer

    Do the respondents have the option of questioning the intelligibility of the scenarios presented? It is not clear to me that the Pentars would even be in a position to make judgments of moral permissibility — that they could even have the concepts required to make such judgments.

    Also, Tim Maudlin is exactly right: the question at the heart of the philosophical debate is whether morality is objective or relative, and the question the study addresses is orthogonal to that question.

    • Brian Leiter

      Michael and Tim: Strictly speaking, Joshua’s question is orthogonal to the question whether or not morality is objective or relative. However, it is quite common for moral realists, in particular, to appeal to the “ordinary” conception of morality (as objective) as a burden-shifting move, and Joshua’s study could (subject to the worries noted) be relevant to the soundness of that move.

      • Tim Maudlin

        Brian: I’m no expert in this field, but I know of no arguments for moral realism that start from a claim about what “ordinary people” believe. Curiously, while you suggest that appeal to the “ordinary conception” is made by moral realists, Angel above cites as his only example Mackie, who is just the opposite. Can you supply some examples?

        I also wonder (ironically enough!) whether there is any data to suggest that philosophers believe the “ordinary people” to be moral realists. My own experience in the classroom is that students are much more often committed relativists.

        There also seems to be some confusion between relativism and contextuality. One might be a moral realist and think some actions are always wrong (like Kant thinking lying is always wrong) or a moral realist who is a consequentialist, and will take context into account. And the society one lives in might be relevant context. I don’t see how the data here could tease these views apart.

      • Brian Leiter

        I’m out of the office at the moment, so without the pertinent books. But my recollection is that the 1989 Brink book makes precisely this burden-shifting move. I’ll double-check it early next week. To be sure, it is not the primary argument for moral realism, but it is a way of suggest that moral realism should be the default position. (In a different vein, Dworkin’s admittedly confused foray into this topic is quite explicit that we are ordinarily committed to the objectivity of our moral judgments, which he takes to count against any epistemological principle that would raise doubts about their epistemic standing. But this is a different kind of move than the one I am attributing to the 1989 Brink book.)

      • Patrick Fleming

        In Morality without Foundations (11-12) Mark Timmons describes metaethical inquiry as aiming to complete two accommodation projects. On the one hand, the metaethicist attempts to accommodate the common sense assumptions of ordinary moral discourse. On the other hand, one attempts to accommodate one’s own more general metaphysical and epistemological commitments. What the folk believe is relevant for the first project. If the folk are realists then, that supports realism. (Timmons is no realist though.) The sort of argument that Knobe has in mind does sound familiar to me, but I cannot think of a clear example of it at the moment.

        For some skepticism about this project see Michael Gill’s paper “Indeterminacy and Variability in Meta-Ethics” in Philosophical Studies 2009.

      • Tim Maudlin

        But if that’s the move, the proper response is simply to deny that the views of hoi polloi on the matter create a burden. We do not accept this in other areas of philosophy. To attack the premise (what ordinary folk believe) tacitly endorses the inference. And if the inference is bad (it is), then we don’t need to worry about the statistics.

      • Chandra Sekhar Sripada

        Hi Tim,

        I agree with Brian that many realist moral philosophers do indeed appeal to common sense as a way of supporting their position. These realists usually don’t claim the folk have explicit beliefs about metaethics. Rather, they claim that objectivity is implicit or ‘presupposed’ in the ordinary moral discourse and practice. And to be fair to these thinkers, they don’t rest their case for moral realism on claims about common sense. Rather, they argue that preserving features of common sense is one consideration among many counting in favor of realist views. In terms of specific references to places where philosophers appeal to common sense to support moral realism, look at Brink page 25 of Moral Realism, Michael Smith page 5 of The Moral Problem, and Shafer-Landau page 23 of Moral Realism. The preceding are moral realists but of course error theorists make precisely the same claim about the objectivist presuppositions of common sense, e.g., J. L. Mackie Part 1 of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong and Richard Joyce page 70 of Evolution of Morality.

        Josh’s results, again assuming the methodological challenges can be met, would have some bite against this ‘argument from common sense’ used by these moral realists (and error theorists). But I am sure Josh would agree that his results themselves do not settle the issue against moral realism, since there are a large number of other arguments in favor of moral realism that would need to be addressed.

      • Brad Cokelet

        After a quick google-books skim through, I conclude that when most of these authors are discussing whether common moral discourse supports realism, they appeal to two considerations: that is apparently “fact stating” and that we proceed as if there are right answers to disputes. The main opponent of realism in all these discussions seems to be emotivism/expressivism, not relativism. This is unsurprising as relativists can more easily claim to account for the two features mentioned than emotivists or expressivists.

        Brink does claim that crude relativism would be revisionary and Smith mentions a common sense belief in the possibility or eventual probability of consensus. But I think it is a big stretch to say that the realist tradition of appealing to common sense moral discourse and practice has taken relativism as its target.

      • Brad Cokelet

        Hi All,

        I think most of the prominent appeals to common sense moral experience are made in support of realism (or circular response dependence theories like Wiggins and McDowell) in a debate with expressivists or emotivists. I am not seeing how this study, and the relativist reading of it, bear on that debate.

        If you want to find a tradition of people appealing to common sense in order to reject (sophisticated, Harman-style) relativism, you need to distinguish them from people targeting emotivists, quasi-realists, etc.

        Second, it is interesting that in the passage cited above Mackie suggests that “objectivity” or “realism” is packed into the meaning of moral terms. I find it surprising because I do not think most appeals to common sense moral experience (by realists) take that form. Is that what Brink, Smith, Shafer-Landau, etc do. (books at office!)?

        Third, insofar as realists want to appeal to some aspect of our ordinary linguistic practice and to claim that it indicates a commitment to realism, they should and do appeal to the inferential practices discussed under the heading of ‘the frege-geach’ problem.

  • Brad Cokelet

    Professor Knobe seeks to raise doubts about an assumption he thinks many meta-ethicists make — namely “that ordinary people treat moral judgments as getting at something objective”.

    (1) Like previous commentators I think there are various explanations of the data and I look forward to hearing what Knobe says about them (and the others mentioned above).

    First, there is Knobe’s prefered “openmindedness” hypothesis — that the folk lean towards endorsing relativist claims about disagreements to the extent that they open their minds to alternative viewpoints. Second, there is the “level of engagement” hypothesis that folk’s endorsements shift from objectivist to relativist claims depending on how close (practically or emotionally) the relevant disagreement is to their personal life. Third, there is the “tolerance/fairness” hypothesis that the shift in endorsement reflects some sort of commitment to tolerance or fair expressions of blame. Finally, fourth, there is the “dialectical” hypothesis that the shift is a result of increasing doubts about their ability to rationally vindicate the superiority of one view or persuade the disputants to adopt a single view.

    The study thus encourages us to devise experiments that will test these various hypotheses (or their combinations) about what explains the subjects’ shifting tendencies to endorse relativist and objectivist claims. It will be interesting to hear which of these Knobe has investigated and how.

    (2) But even once we explore these hypotheses, I doubt that the results will provide strong evidence about whether the subjects believe that meta-ethical relativism or objectivism is true.

    Perhaps when asked questions in an experimental setting the people will respond as someone with a belief in meta-ethical relativism would. But perhaps in other contexts they respond (e.g. verbally, emotionally, or behaviorally) as an objectivist would. And perhaps this inconsistent pattern of attitudes and behavior reflects the folks’ (or western undergraduates’) confusion or ignorance about meta-ethical matters. This is broadly consonant with my experience, and I think that, in cases like this, we should hesitate to ascribe any beliefs on the relevant philosophical issues to the subjects (even if, as Leiter suggests, they are committed to having certain meta-ethical beliefs).

    Although it might get them in trouble, perhaps philosophers should start with the assumption that their interlocutors don’t really have full-fledged beliefs about important philosophic issues and, acting as midwives, they should help their listeners aspire to knowledge — or at least to form philosophical attitudes that are articulate, stable, coherent, and resilient enough to count as beliefs.

  • Cihan Baran

    Hello… Thanks for the provoking studies.

    I’d like to propose an alternative way of interpreting Knobe’s results.

    I wonder whether these studies, rather than indicating people’s meta-ethical views, indicate people’s willingness to forgive/blame someone based on certain mitigating factors.

    That is to say, people may want to excuse Mamilon and Pentar for their harmful acts (since they grew up in a different culture, they may not know better) and therefore be unwilling to describe their acts as morally wrong or mistakes. The survey fillers may have had the idea that Mamilon and Pentar were under great social pressure or didn’t have proper upbringing. (See also Susan Wolf’s JoJo case.)

    The more different the individual is from us, more room for excusing them.

    But the fact that people excuse these harmful acts doesn’t mean that they endorse relativist meta-ethics. On the contrary, if they are engaging in some sort of excusing, then they do have a realist meta-ethics.

  • J. Jeffers

    Very interesting and cool findings. But, could we ask more questions, to see just how much confusion those questioned are suffering from?

    Proposal One:

    Among those who answer consistently that there is a real disagreement in each hypothetical, they really do appear to be consistent in their belief about the objectivity of moral judgments (they can be either realists or skeptics, but they’re clearly cognitivists). On the other end, those that say each time that there’s no disagreement in each hypothetical, they really are consistent (what shall we call them, emotivists?). What I have in mind is probing the ones that answer differently depending on whether the classmate’s disagreement is with Sam, or the Mamolin, or the Pentar. They can only be moral relativists if they answer correctly. What I mean by “correctly” is that their answers must reflect that they understand the word “moral” to refer to a particular culture’s ideas of appropriate behavior, and nothing more beyond that. If some people do answer this way, then we have moral objectivists, moral skeptics, and moral relativists. But I fear that it wouldn’t end there. What I fear is that we would end up with some people being moral objectivists on Mondays and Wednesdays, and relativists on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and who knows, maybe emotivists on Saturdays nights). The confusion (that I fear) could be revealed by people saying that the disagreement between Sam and the classmate is more than a matter of reporting what the culture thinks. In other words, Bernard Williams would pass the test with flying colors, but I doubt everyone would. This doesn’t show that people are as unreflectively objectivist as armchair philosophy has traditionally presumed, but I for one hesitate to call them relativists until the full battery of questioning is complete. In order for my suspicions to be put to rest, people would have to be consistent objectivists, skeptics (we see for sure that some already are both), and relativists. I’m not convinced that we wouldn’t uncover any confusion when people attempt to explain why there is real disagreement in one case but not in another. I’m not asking that people have a command of meta-ethical jargon, only that people very well might gesture in different directions when answering different kinds of questions.

    Proposal Two:

    In the test case, Horace kills his child, but what if Horace is from some unnamed other culture (Earthly or otherwise) and the child is from the same culture as those questioned?

    Seems like the relativist folk have no reason to say there’s a matter of fact in this case. Unless of course there’s some rule about crossing cultural or galactic boundaries to hurt people (which as the only absolute rule, would be weird, and seemingly not relativistic). In the case where Horace (who is from another culture) kills a child from the same culture as the test participant, we could say that Horace and your classmate disagree; Horace says the action was morally permissible, your classmate says it was morally wrong. They disagree; is one wrong?

    Unless the relativistic option wins in a rout, we have reason to think that many people are not necessarily completely relativistic or objectivist.

  • J. Jeffers

    In my above comment, I shouldn’t have used the word skeptic as if it’s necessarily independent of objectivism. That occurred to me before I posted and I (wrongly) thought I went back and caught the times I did that. Read skeptic as “emotivist.”

  • J. Jeffers

    I’ll try to articulate my concern a little better and then I’ll stop with the posting for now.

    My concern is that like a democracy, many people hold many positions that are irreconcilable, rather than positions that are stable and/or coherent enough to count as relativistic. In the very interesting and intriguing study that we’re all responding to, you get participants answering questions about whether a moral disagreement is present based on whether the disputants are from the same culture, from a different culture, or from a different planet all together. But what if we could ask the participants if they think the disagreement between the classmate and Sam is more or less of a disagreement on the correct cultural report?

    So, I don’t think it’s acceptable if the relativist appearing folk believe that when the classmate and Sam disagree, they believe there is a disagreement over anything other than what the correct report is on the prevailing cultural attitude. In other words, they can’t be robust realists on intra-cultural moral disagreements, and relativists when someone from another culture (or planet) disagrees with the classmate. If this is the case, then there’s some fundamental confusion going on. Of course a moral disagreement between a relativist and a realist would function the way any other disagreement would; no one would necessarily notice the parties hold divergent meta-ethical views.

    However, to a realist, (A) moral facts are somehow robust facts about the world that go beyond merely what people happen to approve of, and to a relativist, (B) moral facts are merely what a particular group (they can argue over what counts as the relevant kind of group) takes to be right. So everyday moral disagreements, though as by-standers we won’t necessarily be able to tell, can happen between,

    1) a realist and a realist (one party holds meta-ethical view A and the other holds meta-ethical view A)

    2) a relativist and a relativist (one party holds meta-ethical view B and the other holds meta-ethical view B)

    3) a realist and a relativist (one party holds meta-ethical view A and the other holds meta-ethical view B)

    In 1, the argument is between two people who believe there is an objective answer that can’t be reduced to merely what the culture thinks (or if it can, the culture just happens to be right, even from a larger perspective). In 2, the argument is over the correct report of the prevailing attitude of the culture. In 3, the argument is between someone who asserts that there is a fact of the matter going beyond culture on the one hand, and on the other a person who believes the question can be answered completely by searching the culture, (and the relativist believes that such a method is exhaustive). If the relativist-appearing people from these kinds of studies get caught being realists on Mondays and Wednesdays, then I think we would have to seriously consider whether that favors cognitivist interpretations. It could plausibly mean that people are realists, (which favors the cognitive interpretation) just holding much fewer expected moral beliefs and/or holding them in fewer expected contexts. Of course maybe it would just mean that people are confused, in which case perhaps this would be sufficient to show that traditional cognitive-realist assumptions have been accepted too uncritically.

    Incidentally, I have seen the burden shifting move by moral realists, but I don’t buy it. In other words, if most people are realists, that favors cognitivism, but not necessarily realist versions of cognitivism.

  • AJ Durwin

    Josh, as many have said previously, thank you for your post. Also, as previous commentators have, I would like to offer an alternative hypothesis for your findings (along with Goodwin and Darely’s). I wonder if varying degrees of epistemic confidence or controversy explain the varying degrees of relativistic responses. For example, when they used scientific facts as controls, a relatively large percentage of Goodwin and Darely’s respondents reported that there is no right answers to controversial scientific claims; that beliefs in such claims are mere opinion. Specifically, comparing the studies Goodwin and Darely present, roughly 30% – 15% of respondents think that beliefs about human evolution are mere opinion. This suggests that participants answer objectively given greater epistemic confidence and less controversy.

    Applying this hypothesis to the study you present, Josh, it seems as though one thing which might vary from condition to condition is how confident a participant is about the consequences (social, psychological…etc) of the moral act in question. For example, participants may feel confident, in a familiar cultural context, that killing one’s youngest child due to unattractiveness will cause a lot of psychological and social harm. However, participants may feel less confident about these ill effects if the moral act occurs in an unfamiliar context like in a different culture (or in an extraterrestrial context).

    To test this alternative explanation one could run the same experiment you ran except include some addition details about the varying contexts. For example, one might explain to the participants the effects of killing an unattractive child, specifically in the Mamilon or Pentar contexts with which participants have no experience. Specifically, include details about any emotional and physical suffering involved, how the societies would react to the acts…etc. If such a new study were conducted I would expect the added details (elucidating the psychological and social effects of the act) to mitigate people’s relativism. However, if participants’ increased epistemic confidence in the effects of the moral act did not decrease participants’ relativistic answers then the new study would falsify my hypothesis.

    Thanks again for your thought provoking essay and I look forward to your response.

  • Thanks so much for all of these very helpful comments. There are so many interesting ideas here that I fear I won’t be able to address all of them at once, but I’ll try to address some of these issues today and then turn to others tomorrow.

    One important question coming out the recent comments concerns the philosophical significance of these empirical findings about people’s intuitions. Obviously, the empirical findings could have a certain kind of relevance in and of themselves (considered as a contribution to cognitive science), but a number of commenters have asked about whether they might also have relevance for issues in metaethics.

    There are really two distinct issues arising there — one about whether empirical claims about folk morality in fact do play a role in metaethical debate, the other about whether these empirical claims should play such a role.

    With regard to the question as to whether they do play a role, a number of commenters already pointed to evidence that they do. For an additional example, consider this passage from Frank Jackson:

    “I take it that it is part of current folk morality that convergence will or would occur. We have some kind of commitment to the idea that moral disagreements can be resolved by sufficient critical reflection — which is why we bother to engage in moral debate. To that extent, some sort of objectivism is part of current folk morality.”

    Or this one from Michael Smith:

    “we seem to think moral questions have correct answers; that the correct answers are made correct by objective moral facts; that moral facts are wholly determined by circumstances and that, by engaging in moral conversation and argument, we can discover what these objective moral facts determined by the circumstances are.”

    But, of course, regardless of what people have in fact been doing in metaethics, one might think that there is a further question here — a question about what people should be doing in metaethics — and there one might have doubts about whether existing work is using the right sort of method.

    In my view, metaethicists are completely right to think that facts about folk morality are relevant here. I’ll say a little bit more about that issue in a separate post.

  • A number of commenters have addressed the question as to whether claims about folk morality actually should play any role in metaethics. Angel helpfully points out that facts about people’s use of words can be deeply important in assessing semantic theories (contextualism, relativism, etc.), but Tim rightly notes that there is a tremendous amount of disagreement between different participants in our studies, and it might therefore seem odd to suggest that the mean responses to these questions could somehow settle the semantic issue here.

    My own sense is that the empirical facts can be relevant in a slightly different way. It doesn’t seem right to say that people as a whole are adopting either relativism or objectivism. Rather, people seem in some way to be torn, feeling the pull of one view but also being drawn toward the other. (I myself feel torn in these different directions in exactly that same way.)

    Now, when we find ourselves feeling torn between different options, it seems that all sorts of different forms of evidence could be helpful in enabling us to figure out which option is right, but one form of evidence would be information about the actual psychological processes that are pulling us one way or another. Once we get a better sense for the nature of these processes, we will be in a better position to know whether we should put our trust in them.

    I offered a specific hypothesis here, along with some preliminary evidence in favor of it, but other commentators have argued for other hypotheses: Simon for a hypothesis about meaning, Angel for a hypothesis about emotion, Brad for a number of other interesting possibilities. Depending on which of these turns out to be correct, we would end up with very different conclusions about which of our inclinations to put more trust in.

    On this sort of approach, it is again the case that the empirical data provide only a certain kind of defeasible reason to adopt a particular view, but this time the defeasible reason comes from a different source. It is not that the mere fact that a view is commonly held gives us some reason to adopt it; it is that facts about the cognitive processes underlying our intuitions can give us reason to think that these intuitions are either trustworthy or untrustworthy.

  • A number of commenters asked for very specific information about the specific studies conducted here. You can find all of that information in our actual paper:

    But I wanted to address two issues in particular. First, a number of commenters asked whether this phenomenon might arise only among American college students. To address that question, we ran the study in Singapore as well and got the same pattern of results.

    Second, Tad rightly points out that the word ‘wrong’ seems to imply much more than just that a specific belief is incorrect. To address that worry, we conducted a study in which participants were asked whether one of the people’s beliefs had to be ‘incorrect,’ and that follow-up study showed exactly the same key result.

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