What Makes Moral Statements True?

By Jamie Dreier 

Gareth Evans, like Paul Horwich in his comments here, is skeptical of Strawson’s suggestion that there might be a primary sense of ‘true’, in which empirical statements are true, and then some extended sense in which statements in ethics and mathematics are true. So am I. I think it’s the facts that are different sorts of facts, so naturally the truth of the statements will seem different.Compare Quine’s remark, in On what there is, that when we say a cube root exists, we’re not using a special sense of ‘exists’ in which space and time are uninvolved, but rather saying the same thing about something that isn’t spatiotemporal as we say about a star when we say that it exists.

Evans and Strawson both want it to turn out that moral statements can be true, but that there are no moral facts. Why don’t they like deflated ‘facts’? Isn’t the fact that p just a nominalization? isn’t ‘fact’ just another device, like ‘true’, for dealing with quantificational expressive shortcomings of our language? Both philosophers think not. They think of the facts as the explainers of truths.

Evans says,

I]t seems difficult to find things in the world which would make...mathematical [or some logical or moral] statements true...because it doesn't seem that there are things whose relations and dispositions make “two and two are four” true.

And Strawson says, about his ‘primary’ sense of ‘true’:

One who says something true in this sense, says how things are in the world, and what he says is true because things are in the world as he says they are.

And Evans sums up what’s distinctive about the secondary sense:

We don't need objects whose states and relations [those statements are] true in virtue of.

The reason they don’t want deflated facts is that they want the facts to be makingthe primary-true sentences true (I’ve highlighted the ‘making’ words), and they think that is not what happens with moral and mathematical facts.

Simon Blackburn in his comments here seems skeptical, to say the least, about truthmaking:

Groundings, truth-makers, and other strange essences inhabit the imaginations of many philosophers, even though those are the only places they are to be found.

I think there is a perfectly intelligible notion of making-true, but when I interpret Evans and Strawson to be talking about that notion, what they say seems wrong.

Evans asks in virtue of what relation that John stands in to his mother is it true that John ought to look after his mother. Isn’t the answer: she’s his mother? (And presumably some other important facts: she cannot care for herself, for example.) We do often ask, in ethics ‘why’ questions, calling for ‘because’ answers, where the ‘because’ is not causal but a synonym for ‘in virtue of’. (This is the ‘queer “because”’ in John Mackie’s skeptical argument in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.)

Why ought we wear face coverings in public? Because wearing them will suppress the spread of coronavirus and keep others safer. The point is that these are moral questions and answers: that’s why different moral theorists will give different answers to the question, “Why is it wrong for John to break his promise to his mother?” (Matthew Kramer develops this point to great effect in Moral Realism as a Moral Doctrine.)

Some will not be satisfied. (Probably the same people whose imaginations Blackburn had in mind.) Suppose a utilitarian tells us that what makes it true that John ought to lie to his mother is the fact that lying to his mother will have happier consequences, in the long run, than refraining from lying to her. The complaint is that some who agree about this fact may yet disagree about whether John ought to lie to his mother. So there must be more truthmakers for the moral claim. (This seems to be what Derek Parfit thought, in the anti-naturalist parts of On What Matters.)

But I think this is a confusion. Compare: someone might think that besides all of the facts about dates, there are also some temporally indexical facts, like the fact that it is very hot in Rhode Island today. That’s not right. The fact that July 21st, 2020 is a hot day in Rhode Island is the only fact needed to make it true that today is a hot day in Rhode Island. (Facts about the time of composition of the previous sentence are important in determining whichfacts make it true, but that’s because they determine the content of that sentence.) The indexical claim has extra significance, but not because of a difference in the facts that make it true. I am suggesting that the same distinction holds for ethical thoughts and claims. That John ought not to lie to his mother does have an extra significance, beyond the facts about happiness in the consequences, but that significance isn’t a matter of extra facts needed to make it true.

Where does this leave us? The idea that moral statements are different from scientific ones, popular in 1973, is of course still popular. But let’s not follow Evans and Strawson down the path of thinking that what’s different is that scientific truths, but not moral ones, are made true by the facts.


Jamie Dreier is a philosopher at Brown University, who works mostly on metaethics and the structure of normative theory.