I. What are moral judgments?

Prior to considering the case of moral judgment, it can be helpful to glean something of the character of ‘judgment’ in general by looking very briefly at two seemingly quite different interpretations. Immanuel Kant (1987 [1790]) defined ‘judgment in general’ as ‘the ability to think the particular as contained under the universal’. In Kant’s eyes human judgment in any context needs to find a universal law or principle which can then inform the decision to be made about a particular case. For the philosophical reasons leading Kant to insist on the transcendent character of ultimate principles (i.e., they could not be subject to prior causation) Kant maintained that the universal informing principle(s) could not be derived empirically, but the particular judgment itself can be confirmed or invalidated by empirical observation. So, for example, if we are judging the aesthetic quality of a work of art, we will need some universal principle to guide us but from there we focus on the particular case in hand and make a judgment from our observations on it.

Coming from a standpoint of practical experience rather than philosophy, Vickers (1965) offered the following definition of judgment:

‘a mental activity…exercised…[by] the individual [as] controller of an individual life, managing through the years a bundle of interlocking and partly inconsistent roles, as husband, father, employee, citizen, and so on [through] the serial acts of conscious choice which punctuate and seem to modify his course’. (1965: 13)

This definition is not so different from Kant’s as it appears from its explicit focus entirely on particular cases where a person may be called upon to make a judgment. It can be expected that on each occasion when a particular judgment is to be made, the individual will be attempting to draw upon some kind of universal, or at least broader, principle, perhaps coming from social roles such as husband or citizen, which can inform each particular decision, even if the individual is not consciously aware of it. Such a process is suggested by the way we commonly assess a person’s judgment in specific cases according to her ability to recognise some more general requirement, principle, or standard when making particular decisions, as when we say ‘She has good judgement of ability’ or ‘The driver has a problem with judgment of distance’. Again, it is expected that particular judgments of a court of law will apply a law or certain legal principles to the particular case at hand.

It is, however, the very question of universal principles which provides a first clue to problems involved with moral judgment which may not in practice apply to other kinds of judgment. In contexts ranging from aesthetic judgment of a pianist’s performance of a piece of music to judgment about the most effective way of using a budget allocated for health care, cases commonly arise where different people, including different people sharing professional expertise, can take the universal or fundamental principles for granted when making their specific judgments. Indeed, the rules, principles, or standards they are to use as the basis for judgment will frequently be explicitly stated in their instructions or professional terms of reference. Even in legal judgment such guiding principles can be fairly precisely stated in terms of the relative standing of statute, case, or common law, and the applicability of principles like equity or doctrines like caveat emptor. Commonly, there will be at least some element of individual discretion, and the uncertain or subjective can never be eliminated entirely. But even if the general principles are hardly understood as ‘transcendent’ in the Kantian sense, they are certainly being used to inform particular judgments by individuals. That is to say, even if exercise of choice between alternatives is integral to judgment in general, the degree of individual choice may be, and often is, strictly limited.

When attention shifts from what are often termed ‘instrumental’ judgments to moral ones, however, we find that it is in the nature of moral judgment that it is more likely in fact to be left to work independently of the kind of agreed objectives, standards, or even principles which can narrow down the task of making judgments of a more instrumental nature – such as determining the best method of carrying out a given action or choosing the best person to be allocated a given task. The instance of legal judgments, which are not purely instrumental but typically involve deciding between conflicting positions or objectives, already gives a hint of the difference through the greater discretion likely to be given to a court in making such judgments. With moral judgments the matter of discretion, or personal choice, can perforce go much farther. Kant had envisaged the universal perspective providing the individual with a tool for assessing the correct principles to be followed in moral judgments, but only too often contemporary moral questions generate not only opposed viewpoints on particular cases, but also opposed universal principles, or ways of applying principles like a right to life which may be agreed in broad terms but appear too vague to inform all specific cases.

This essay will support Pinker's (2018: 429) confidence that ethics can rely on reason and human interests, but will argue that what is known as 'moral realism' is better replaced by assessing moral judgments according to whether they are wise rather than true. Moral realism is generally understood to include the thesis that, as Blackburn (1971: 101) puts it: ‘…it is correct to reply to a moral utterance by saying “That’s true” or “That’s not true”’. Smith (1991: 402) defines (moral) realism as ‘the metaphysical (or ontological) view that there exist moral facts’. Sayre-McCord (1988: 5) sees moral realism as characterised by two theses: 1) that moral claims, when literally construed, are literally true or false (what is known as ‘cognitivism’), and 2) that at least some of these moral claims are literally true. For such a theory to hold both theses must be sound but the relationship between them is not symmetrical. If thesis 1) does not hold then thesis 2) cannot either, but the converse does not apply. It is possible for thesis 1) to be correct even if 2) is not, for then it would simply be the case that all the moral claims which had been made are false, i.e., they are all moral mistakes which is one possible form of what Sayre-McCord terms an ‘error theory’ of moral beliefs.1 But even in that form the error theory in effect means a rejection of moral realism, since the existence of moral claims which are true as statements of fact which we must accommodate is left as only an abstract possibility of which there are no actual examples. In Sayre-McCord’s (1988: 4) view a metaethical theory which takes the error theory in its stronger form by rejecting thesis 1) and holding that evaluative language like ‘good’ and ‘evil’, etc., makes recommendations and shows approval or condemns and shows disapproval, but does not report facts about the properties of certain people, actions or practices, ‘robs morality of its importance and renders unintelligible the idea that we might make fundamental moral mistakes’. Brink (1989: 14ff) holds that: ‘Metaethical views can be seen as special cases of more general metaphysical views. Thus, we might view moral realism as a special case of metaphysical realism. Realism about a discipline typically claims that there are facts of a certain kind that are in some way mind-independent or independent of human thought’. He explains this independence is not causal, since ‘…realists about such things as artifacts will admit that the existence of things like tables and chairs is causally dependent on their creator’s mental states, such as beliefs and desires’. Indeed, if we are to have a realist theory about psychology the psychological facts must surely be mind-dependent. But, Brink says, whatever else realists might claim about any particular discipline they usually agree on the metaphysical claim that there are facts of a certain kind x which are ‘independent of our evidence for them’. These facts or truths of the kind x are metaphysically or conceptually independent of beliefs or propositions which are our evidence that those facts obtain. Brink contrasts this position with ‘constructivism’ which holds in part the opposite, viz., that there are facts or truths of that kind x, but that they are constituted by the evidence for them. So, moral realism specifically would be the thesis that there are moral facts or truths of this general kind x, and these are not constituted by our evidence for them (in the sense that Brink interprets the term ‘evidence’).2

Smith (2003:399) already points up a basic problem with trying to employ, as moral realism seeks to do, the concepts of truth and then ‘fact’ understood as displaying truth, for purposes of assessing moral judgments. He states a simple case for moral realism; i.e., including moral facts among the objective (non-mind dependent) facts we can find around us begins from the observation that we commonly appraise attitudes and behaviour from the moral point of view as right or wrong. However, Smith himself suggests this is too simplistic because we have yet to show that our desires and attitudes really do converge on reflection and moral argument as that simple interpretation would suggest.3 Now, there are several possible ways of considering the question of whether there are moral facts or truths which are similar to facts or truths which may be discovered (and observed) in other areas of knowledge. Although Blackburn rejected moral realism on the grounds that there are features of the claim that a moral judgment is true which prevent that being taken as a claim that it corresponds in any way with a state of affairs, he (1971:122-3) argued that the conception of moral errors or mistakes is still valid. Blackburn himself proceeded with the idea that moral facts are supervenient on naturalistic facts by which he meant that moral properties cannot change without a change in one or more of the naturalistic facts, but moral properties are not to be identified with any of these naturalistic facts or their truth functions. Further, he considered that it is still more commonly believed that ‘…possession of moral worth is not entailed by possession of any set of naturalistic properties whatever, in any degree whatsoever’. It may be that these points do not necessarily hold with respect to moral ideas, and that shame cultures in particular do treat moral worth as dependent upon certain naturalistic properties or perhaps even certain moral values as identical with particular naturalistic states and not merely supervenient upon them. But that is clearly an unusual position in ethical theory, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to debate the question of whether social status or other naturalistic properties of persons can still maintain a moral structure which is both practically viable and logically valid on its own terms. Another route might be to argue that Brink’s notion in particular of evidence is misconceived, and that even if we accept that there are moral (or other) facts which do not depend upon any beliefs we may hold or propositions we may endorse, that (as Smith implies) does not mean that they are independent of facts or truths we may observe prior to forming any beliefs or propositions about them. For, it is possible that there are naturalistic facts which are capable of being collected and collated as evidence for or against certain beliefs or propositions, without it being in fact the case that our beliefs about them are correct or, indeed, the only beliefs or propositions about them which it may be reasonable to hold. Although from a metaphysical standpoint that still leaves the possibility that there are facts which are independent of any evidence, it certainly does not establish that we are capable of finding them out.

Another possibility, broached especially by Lynch (2001), is that there might be different kinds of truth. What would make that suggestion a very difficult one to apply to an idea of moral truth is not so much the simple point that the various theories of truth advanced by philosophers are normally seen as mutually exclusive – that is, truth is argued to be a matter of correspondence, or coherence, or semantics, and so on – but that moral ideas are usually seen as applicable to humans in general, if not also the rest of the natural world. On some interpretations divine revelation can be seen as a case of a special truth, but the idea of ‘higher’ truths beyond what ordinary experience can yield is certainly not seen by believers as part of a plural pattern of forms of truth which might leave religious ethics to run alongside other moral forms. The divine personhood in monotheistic religion is presumably expected to impinge on all kinds of facts, including naturalistic ones.

However, following from this issue, the question I wish to ask is one implicit in Brink’s own formulation, i.e., what kinds of facts are there and are moral facts in particular similar to any other kinds of facts? One way to begin to answer that question is to reflect that the category which such terms as ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’ and ‘moral’ refer to is in some sense typically a part of human affairs and relationships, leading on to such conceptions as obligation, right, virtue and goodness. These concepts are applied in a ‘moral’ sense when they concern human affairs, relationships and objectives or aims rather than when applied in an instrumental sense relating to carrying out some already determined function or objective which may or may not require or receive moral approval, often with different people responding differently to any moral dimension. This point connects to the fact that human affairs can be observed and described as well as any other naturalistic facts and so also human affairs, relationships and objectives can be evaluated according to certain particular standards as well as any achievement or non-achievement of instrumental goals or targets can be evaluated according to certain particular standards. But in cases of human affairs repeatable testing or experiment is usually impossible whereas in cases relevant to many instrumental objectives or targets it is normal practice to carry out repeated and repeatable tests to see whether goals or standards of performance are being reliably achieved. It is certainly possible in social science and history to put forward an empirical hypothesis about whether (say) Puritan moral values were important in developing the American economy after the seventeenth century, but it not possible to test that hypothesis ‘scientifically’ by rerunning American history with Puritan moral values excluded from the scene, and finding whether the American economy developed any differently as a result, and if so, how. Comparisons with other societies may be possible to some extent, but these could not isolate the factor of Puritan moral values from many other variables like natural resources, foreign relations, business organisation, language and so on. Further, standards of evaluation used for assessing achievement of instrumental goals are specific to each one with particular scoring systems for each game, particular units of measurement or standards of aesthetic judgment for each activity and so on, and any are distinct from standards of moral evaluation. Although the latter may be supervenient upon the former they are not identical with them.

These points suggest a wider theme. Repeatable testing is possible in cases where the subject(s) of testing and experiment can be assumed (i) not to have changed in any fundamental respect between one test and the next, and (ii) not to respond in any unpredictable way to experimentation and information (be it accurate or inaccurate) about the results. Some naturalistic facts, notably at the sub-atomic level, do not fit those criteria but in general the kinds of naturalistic facts we have to deal with in everyday life do fit them. However, human activities may or may not do so. For instance, a sports personality may be assumed to respond to failing to meet certain fitness targets by trying to speed up performance but that depends upon the precondition that she is committed to continuing with the sport in the first place. If not, she might respond to the unsatisfactory test result by deciding not to continue and changing career. This simple example draws attention to a third class of facts beyond either random unpredictability at the quantum level or repeatable predictability at other levels which seem to apply to the two classes of naturalistic facts.

This third class might be characterised as facts involving presence of conscious action and free choice. The nature of morality as being connected to this class of facts rather than others is illustrated in the above example by the way we would not consider response to an unsatisfactory fitness test result to be morally significant unless the prior commitment to the sport is so in the first place. That could come about in various ways, e.g., desire to continue so as to raise money for a charity or, by contrast, if the protagonist were being subjected to controversial commercial or political pressures – for instance, to play or not play against representatives of countries with oppressive regimes. Such cases would result in one of two possibilities. Either the person has a clearly free choice which cannot be determined in advance or is being subjected to pressures or limits on that choice which are themselves disputed as to whether they are proper or legitimate – so that a moral issue surrounds these pressures or limits themselves. In either event the moral facts, and any varying ideas as to what they should be, relate to facts which involve conscious or deliberate choice, including any varying ideas as to how far that should be allowed. Where a purely personal career decision is at stake we may suppose there is no dispute about the moral facts and what the person’s free choice should be, but in the contentious cases there clearly is.

Detailed examination of different kinds of naturalistic facts goes beyond the scope of this essay, but the above reasoning at least provides a case for making a distinction between facts about conscious agents – at least when consciousness is active – and other kinds of facts about the universe. The latter can include facts about humans when acting unconsciously. This distinction may be shown just in terms of a capability for conscious action, which unlike other properties such as height, hair colour or even sexual inclination, allows me to act in ways which cannot necessarily be predicted simply through knowledge of the causes of my actions. To say that I am capable of conscious action, i.e., that I am conscious at least when awake, is to state a naturalistic fact, but, except perhaps in cases where sheer survival is at stake and I might be said to have no choice at all so that my conscious awareness becomes simply awareness of that fact, my conscious actions cannot be predicted with certainty as a result. Even survival is not always a predictor, as illustrated by a hostage who asks relatives not to pay ransom even if she is then to be killed. Accordingly, even if it can be proper to refer to ‘moral’ facts, such would be facts with a major difference in character from naturalistic facts about non-conscious phenomena. This point about choice as to how to act consciously will be discussed further below as it bears upon the relation between values, which conscious agents may have and wish to apply, and naturalistic facts. It is the aspect of consciousness, and also of moral motivation discussed later, which especially makes it hard to make a realist epistemology4 holding that ‘elements, processes, and systems of experience…are independent of experience’ as Holt et al (1912) put it, applicable to moral realities. That claim appears not to be always true even of scientific facts from the natural world which some moral realists have taken as their model, let alone cases where conscious action in response to experience is possible.

II. Are there moral facts?

A related theme comes through the work of Philippa Foot (1968). Foot has not been not directly cited as an advocate of moral realism but is one of those philosophers who have attempted to show that the notion of a strict logical distinction between facts and values, leaving any attempt to derive the one from the other as a fallacy (‘the naturalistic fallacy’), is too rigid. Arguing that it is possible to advance (factual) evidence to support moral judgments – that is, judgments about which are the correct moral beliefs for anyone to act upon, Foot proceeds from the position that:

‘Anyone who uses moral terms at all, whether to assert or deny a moral proposition, must abide by the rules for their use, including the rules about what shall count as evidence for or against the moral judgment concerned… How exactly the concepts of harm, advantage, benefit, importance, etc., are related to different moral concepts, such as rightness, obligation, goodness, duty, and virtue, is something that needs the most patient investigation, but that they are so related seems undeniable, and it follows that a man cannot make his own personal decision about the considerations which are to count as evidence in morals.’ (1968: 17-18)

Now, the linguistic example of etiquette which Foot uses does mirror the process of judgment in moral cases and yet still need not show what she hoped it would. Generally speaking, it is true to say as regards etiquette that it is not open to me to describe as ‘rude’ a particular sort of behaviour which is not seen as rude by others because it does not offend them, and likewise they will be offended by behaviour which they regard as rude. So it is not open to me simply to assert that I will describe any particular action as ‘polite’ or ‘rude’ according to my own personal whims. However, rapid and far-reaching changes in etiquette during the past half century have had comparatively little to do with any eccentric individuals trying to change the sense of the words ‘rude’ or ‘polite’, and more to do with people in general in the society treating some rules of etiquette (such as that a man should stand up when a woman – lady – enters the room) as no longer important, and others (such as avoiding use of terms deemed insulting to particular cultures) as now important. Such changes mean precisely that breaking the older rules no longer offends or insults most people, whilst breaking the new rules does indeed offend a substantial number of people – sometimes even amongst the same (say) ethnic groups which were not previously offended. The significance of such changes is emphasised by each of the differing rules for etiquette being associated with particular social groups during the period – approximately the second half of the twentieth century – during which the change was taking place. Fluidity and particularism are more generic to etiquette than to morality, but the same point that Blackburn makes with regard to Searle (1964) about institutional facts applies also to both. Foot rightly rejects any notion that I can just declare that codes of morality have all been changed, because people can continue to feel (and to be) aggrieved and harmed by breaches in the codes as they were, and not to feel aggrieved or harmed by any breach of my newly proclaimed codes. But as with institutions and etiquette, fissures and changes in morality such as an uneasy fading of the indissolubility of marriage and correspondingly uneasy growth in the importance of rights of privacy, can and do occur, and may lead to changes in positive law. As a result moral judgment can still be involved not only with assessing what may be accepted practice(s) within the community but sometimes also with deciding between these customary practices and any possible alternatives. In any situation where that arises, even if a general change does not also occur, moral judgment would have to become a conscious activity both for individual persons and at a social level. Since it is always possible for that to happen a complete understanding of moral judgment would have to include treating it as a conscious activity when necessary.

With regard to Foot’s arguments (1968: 7-21, 239-260), I would agree that logical constraints on use of moral terms would be sufficient to exclude the (very rare) case of some eccentric individual trying to declare her own private and idiosyncratic use for the moral terms. What is not so clear, however, is that they can exclude distortion of language, including moral language, on Orwellian lines if that can be done on a sufficiently large scale to twist an entire language (linguistic community) in its planned direction. Big Brother was not interested in creating a private language, but in manipulating the public one.5 Even in a commercial context we find it is perfectly feasible to market various products as ‘wicked’, thereby purloining the traditional sense of that word into an encouragement. It is important to recognise not only what impossibility of a private language excludes, given that a private language is impossible, but also what it does not exclude. The fact that it may be impossible for someone, using Foot’s own example, to declare that we are morally obliged to turn and clap our hands so many times a day when no one else feels so obliged does not prevent conflicts between different standards for evaluation, especially when these form points of issue between or within societies. That is to say, it remains perfectly feasible for people, whether acting individually or as members of a society, to be faced with choices between moral values and making a decision between them without the question of a private terminology arising. For instance, each side in the argument over the morality of human embryo research can say its position is the (morally) right one, without there being any difference in the way the word ‘right’ is being used in each case. In both cases the words ‘good’ or ‘right’ express approval, with ‘right’ containing also a notion of obligation to act in a particular way whilst approval is in the moral sense of relating to basic aims or ends rather than purely instrumental objectives. Similarly, ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ express disapproval, with ‘wrong’ containing the notion of obligation not to act in a particular way whilst disapproval is again in the moral sense of relating to basic aims or ends rather than purely instrumental objectives. On each side of political arguments such usages with moral charge are indeed a commonplace. But then we also find disagreement on the specifics of which basic aims or ends are to be given approval or disapproval. When it comes to moral questions for the person, as well as for communities, it is the specific issues which count.

A simpler alternative to linguistic argument for the existence of moral facts might be found in recognising a class of facts which can be supposed to give rise to linguistic practice in the moral or ethical field in the first place; i.e., the moral values and commitments of people other than myself. Looking directly at moral motivation both places the argument in the setting of psychological facts that can be seen as more basic than practice of moral language itself and links moral argument not only to the self but to others also. For instance, moral beliefs can be completely implausible, but one of the reasons why Scanlon (1982: 115-7) is right to point out that moral philosophy has to take account of moral motivation is that lack of motivation is one of the things that can render a moral belief implausible. The basic reason why Foot could dismiss a claim that we should turn and clap our hands so many times each day as a moral duty is not just that no one describes such a claim as ‘moral’, but, further, that no one could find any kind of motive – be it selfish, altruistic or religious, for making such a claim anyway. Turning and clapping our hands so many times would be a duty neither in accord with nor at variance with our needs and desires, but simply irrelevant to them. Motives arising from human sources leading to valuations (including moral values when they conflict with some of the desires we have, so that we then have to give up some things in order to have those values)6 connect in with possibilites to fulfil our motivations. At the same time each has to take account of the motivations of others, presuming that they are not to be forcibly excluded, which then points towards taking decisions which may extend a person’s responsibility for moral belief (and argument) beyond responsibility for factual accuracy in reportage.

The aspect of motivation can introduce an answer to the challenge which Mark Platt (1988: 291) throws down to a relativist to say why there needs to be a further role for the conception of a person’s responsibility for her moral beliefs beyond a responsibility Platt finds attaching to any beliefs, namely, that of ‘attending to evidence and [not] allowing considerations other than evidence to intrude’ when presenting a claim ‘as to how the world is’. I do not intend or expect to be classified as a relativist, but I would say that relating moral belief to motivation and then to choices between alternatives which people may find to be both available and to be relevant to their motivations and which can therefore inform decisions about action, leads to why there does need to be, in Platt’s words, a further role for the conception of a person’s responsibility for her moral beliefs beyond a general responsibility of attending to factual evidence for one’s beliefs.

In terms of the history of ideas a notable answer to Platt’s challenge can be found in existentialism rather than relativism. For instance, Kierkegaard’s doctrine of ‘subjective truth’ set the individual’s responsibility for her subjective beliefs (or faith) on a different level from the responsibility someone has to report their factual observations accurately. It might be possible for someone to misunderstand their innermost thoughts and feelings and so make a mistake, including a moral mistake, in that sense. But any correction process would be fundamentally different – perhaps involving therapy or counselling – from the process of correcting a mistake in observed facts in the ordinary sense, and the person’s responsibility as Kierkegaard might see it for making correction to herself and to others is different in nature. In that sort of case recognition of motivations can provide a path through the correction process, but sheer subjectivism affords no way of assessing one’s motives themselves. However, working out a distinction between holding moral values and holding beliefs about matters of fact whatever sort of facts may be subject of a belief, offers a route to a fuller answer to Platt’s challenge than motivation alone offers. This distinction can be shown up through looking at the differences in the position of other people with regard to the value- or commitment-holder from the position of other people with regard to the factual believer.

Now, those differences are shown up by the way our beliefs about the motives of other people can be mistaken as any other factual beliefs can be mistaken, without that in itself establishing the corollary sought by Sayre-McCord and others that our values and commitments can be assessed according to the same criteria as those which allocation of the truth values ‘correct’ or ‘mistaken’ would provide. (This point leads to the root of objection to any notion of ‘political correctness’ or ‘ideologically correct thinking’.) For, it is quite normal for people to hold to particular moral values knowing full well that others, and perhaps a majority of them, disagree. This does not mean they are necessarily ignoring the different positions taken by other people, or their motives for them. They may regard opposing positions and motives as misguided or as an obstacle to be overcome, or simply as viable alternatives to their own position. But however anyone may see the the motivations and values of others the relevance of motivation for moral facts simply does not apply to naturalistic facts in general – indeed to facts about anything other than a conscious agent. Non-conscious agents, even inanimate ones, may be treated for certain purposes as if they had goals or motivations, but then such treatment becomes purely a metaphor used for the observer’s convenience – for instance, in explaining physical processes to a non-technical audience. Hence, the presence of motivation as part of the sense behind a concept of morality sharpens the distinction between any moral facts and facts about the natural world in general.

The deeper point arising is that, even if we could accept moral claims and beliefs as observable facts which definitely exist in our world, that sheer existence does not by itself establish their moral force as setting obligations or standards for any particular person. But does this lead back to those obligations or standards being left as subject simply to personal inclination or ‘sentiment’ as Hume had originally said, and that values and facts inhabit logically separate worlds making it a fallacy to try to combine them or derive one from the other, as many philosophers still insist? Would that conclusion not seem strange if my argument is sound that we should treat facts about conscious agents, who may then be capable of making moral choices, differently from naturalistic facts? If there is any significant difference between the kinds of facts should that mean that facts about conscious agents, perhaps with some degree of moral responsibility if they are not subject to coercion or desperate need for survival, are more likely to link to values – including moral values – than are naturalistic facts? But if that is so, then does that mean the moral realist position outlined above must be endorsed after all?

III Facts and values

Answering this last question can help with answering the preceding ones. No moral realist would suggest that all moral claims must be true, and therefore to be accepted as in some sense setting our standards or else binding upon us, but the moral realist position does hold that there are some moral claims of that nature and so, presumably, sound moral judgment would involve making efforts to find which they are. Given that it is possible to ascertain which moral claims are true, it may be held that those which are should be treated as (moral) facts holding just the opposite relation to our values from that which the naturalistic fallacy thesis imputes naturalistic facts hold. That is, these true moral facts have to be treated as determining our values in complete contrast to the thesis that naturalistic facts have no relation at all to our values.

However, to say that facts about conscious agents have distinctive features may not require us to look for a strictly determinative relation between moral facts and (moral) values, with the only alternative being to assume there is no relation at all between values, including moral values, and naturalistic facts. It may be observed that facts about conscious agents include their knowledge, such as it is, about naturalistic facts. So the distinction between facts about conscious agents – which will include the naturalistic fact that they possess something called ‘consciousness’ which enables them to do things they could not do without it – and naturalistic facts becomes a distinction between facts about anyone (or anything) capable of acting deliberately, including upon naturalistic facts of their surroundings, and facts about anything which cannot. But it is plainly not the case that a conscious agent can do absolutely anything it chooses with its natural surroundings: I would like to jump off the top floor of my flat and fly across to mainland Europe, but I know I cannot do that. So my knowledge of naturalistic facts may not restrict my values in any way, but it plainly restricts how I may act upon them. Does that not limit the range of my values which may have moral significance? At the same time, in cases where the naturalistic facts do permit me an effective choice between doing A and not doing A, can I guarantee to be sure that a given moral claim which purports to show me whether I should do A1 or not do it, is really absolutely reliable? The indication from contentious moral issues is that I cannot guarantee this in a free society – the most that I can do is to join a group or society of like-minded people who would support me in whichever decision I make. So, in case of either moral or naturalistic facts what may be available is not either a strict determination, or else total lack of connection, but something in between as regards conscious agents only. If I am unconscious I have no control whatever over naturalistic facts of my surroundings, so that while undergoing surgery with general anaesthetic I rely entirely on the medical staff to see that even my unconscious processes such as breathing and blood flow are maintained, but then how can moral facts have any relevance for me? Yet when I am conscious I have some degree of choice about the naturalistic facts I encounter, and moral matters may also be of interest to me.

This argument implies that a middle route is needed between the notion of rigid separation between the realms of fact and value, and any claim that certain facts which may have moral import – be they social and customary facts of particular communities or else facts of the nature of the universe in which we have our being – can be relied upon to bridge the separation for each case. Such a middle route can lead to the position that a logical distinction between values and facts can and should be made, but that need not be a total separation. Related terms in a statement are logically distinct one from another, but they also have a bearing on each other which depends upon the specific type of relation indicated in the statement – so that terms in the statement 1) ‘Julie is sitting behind Leonard’ bear upon one another in a different way from those in the statement 2) ‘Madrid is usually warmer than London’ and yet in neither case do we imply a necessary and determinative connection. Is it reasonable to treat statements about specific facts and values in a similar manner?

Both 1) and 2) can be described as statements about naturalistic facts of certain kinds, whereas 3) ‘Charity ought to be free of government control’ can be described as a statement about some kind of moral fact. But in all three cases judgment on the facts, including about how to act upon them, involves certain further facts which have not been stated. Amongst these further facts can be included a person’s needs, desires or values which will lead her to respond in particular ways. With 1) the further statement that ‘Julie is no friend of mine’ carries a very different implication from the further statement that ‘Leonard can fit in with both of us’. Likewise, with 2) the further statement ‘Madrid is a beautiful place’ carries a different implication from the further statement ‘I don’t like the heat’. But the same general way of thinking may be applied to 3), so that a further statement ‘I’m fighting to make the case for abolishing state regulation of charities’ implies a very different moral position from the further statement ‘I have never given any thought to the matter’. Moreover, in all cases – 1), 2), and 3) alike – it is the case that we have only the speaker’s testimony for the further facts as well as for the original statement unless other evidence is forthcoming. Accordingly, it would be quite natural where the statement of moral fact 3) is concerned as well as the statements of naturalistic facts 1) and 2) are concerned, for judgment about the facts to be used in the way judgment is used when making a decision as to which is the better or best (or worse or worst) choice or alternative available.

In these cases the relation between fact and decision is not certain and determinate, partly because the intermediate step of judgment (as to which decision is best in light of the facts as known) is not infallible, as Hume himself had observed.7 But the indeterminacy is not just a matter of fallibility; even if human judgment ever could be perfect it would still not only be judgment of observed truth (or falsehood). There is also the aspect of judging what options or possibilities the observed facts may leave open, for it is likely that in cases where there is no choice at all the person is confronted with a matter of survival or subject to coercion – situations which are usually considered not to involve moral responsibility (although they may still involve decision).

Once a problem emerges as to reconciling disputed moral claims, such as might happen with regard to state or public regulation of charities, factual investigation will often be a stage on the journey to reconciliation but more is needed. A legal as well as moral dispute may be settled by reference to precedent, common law or case law, which are all devices for expressing communal guidelines for judgment in particular cases, i.e., arranging institutional facts which can then guide value judgments. But the more contentious the issue, including in a political sense, the less likely that such institutional facts and precedents will suffice. It is a common feature of moral arguments that when both factual statements and moral judgments are included, the significance of the factual statement(s) will turn out to depend upon the subsequent moral judgment(s), whatever the truth of the factual statement(s). So, the claim that it is right to accept people in a disadvantaged position like members of ethnic minorities into courses or jobs with lower qualifications than might be required of others is often made on the grounds that the disadvantaged position does not allow them to show their abilities to the extent that others can. That latter statement of fact may indeed be investigated to test its accuracy, but even if it is found to be correct the significance of the disadvantage in social circumstances as a guide for action (that is, for how we should act upon the facts as we understand them to be) depends upon the prior moral judgment implied in the claim as a whole that offsetting this disadvantage is most important in terms of applying the moral (and legal) concepts of justice, fairness or equity that can be expected to be relevant for the case. Those supporting that sort of ‘affirmative action’ would endorse that judgment about the priority due to countering the social disadvantages but opponents would object that it is still unfair and contrary to natural justice to refuse others a job or place on a course if they have earned suitable qualifications when someone offered the job or place had not, even if it were true to say that the person offered the job or place came from a disadvantaged group. Both parties to the dispute might agree on both factual claims: (a) That the ethnic minority candidates in fact suffered from cultural, economic, or educational disadvantages which would make it more difficult for them to obtain any given standard of qualifications than candidates from the majority and (b) that one or more of the ethnic minority candidates offered a university place did in fact have inferior qualifications to one or more candidates from the majority group(s) who were not offered a place. But just because that leaves them disagreeing about the question of values or, rather, of priority between the values which the facts perforce leave undecided, the question of the relative significance of these facts remains unresolved. There may be a conflict of moral language on one point here. The moral terms ‘equality’, ‘justice’, ‘fairness’ would all be used, but advocates of affirmative action may claim equality (or equal opportunities) is a generic component of justice and fairness whereas the opponents may say it is not.8 But once again it is not necessary for there to be disagreement of that kind for there to be, first, an issue of priorities between the values even if equality is to be included among them and then, second, a consequent issue of which of the undisputed facts a) and b) should be held most significant in relation to the relevant moral concepts.

Such examples indicate that we need to look for an interactive model to give a full account of the relation between facts and values, and one without logical entailment in either direction. It might be said that according to values, or how the issue of values and priority between them is decided (for instance politically or judicially), the significance of the facts is assessed and then a decision taken on what action should be taken, an action which then itself becomes part of the facts surrounding an issue such as affirmative action, and will influence the social opportunities of different ethnic groups. Clearly the facts and values involved in the issue are connected to one another, but the connections are neither logical ones nor do they mean a single necessary relationship. Therefore, it can still be said that when we move from a question of fact to a question of value, we do move from one sort of question to another. But we do not burst from one hermetically sealed world into another but move either (i) from observing what the facts of a case like that of candidates for a job or place on a course are to a decision on what is the appropriate action to be taken, allowing for the facts as we understand them to be, or (ii) in light of moral priorities for justice, fairness and so on to a decision on what is the appropriate action to be taken, including whether to aim at changing the facts of relative advantages and disadvantages (this will again involve observation and assessment of what changes are in fact possible). With decisions of this kind where action is not immediately obvious and necessary there is still a choice of some kind between alternatives to be decided upon, and, as in the case of economic value so also with moral value there will be a cost attaching to the alternative value chosen, i.e., to the decision made, in the form of the other value(s) given up thereby. An essential part of the role which facts play in such decisions is helping to determine what the costs are, but commonly with moral value that role is limited when costs cannot be measured.9

If this idea of an interactive, but not certain or determinative, relation between facts and values can be applied to what might be called moral facts in particular, then it would be possible to accept a moral realist case that there are some ‘moral facts’ which are true or false (or perhaps possess some degree of truth or falsity) without that necessarily being decisive for any given individuals P and Q who disagree on a moral question. Many thinkers of various outlooks, and of different faiths or none, have endorsed the notion that even if it is true to say, for example, that ‘Most people would agree that X is wrong’, a person who holds, as a matter of principle, that X is right may do so. Such is sometimes justified in terms of individual conscience and integrity, perhaps including a religious conscience. But utilitarian ethics, which appear to depend upon counting a majority opinion, have an ambiguous message for this problem since they depend upon judgments of value for individual persons (rather than communities) and it is certainly legitimate from a utilitarian standpoint to try to persuade others to change their moral opinions. The common implication is that, even if we accept that it is possible – and familiar in everyday life – to understand certain propositions made about ethics or the moral world in which we live to be factual statements which can be true or false, the facts which we may obtain thereby may very well need to be taken into account in our moral judgments but they do not have to decide them without regard to any other considerations. That is the problem with any claim (which moral realism does not necessarily make) that any person’s declaration of moral commitment represents a fact about anything other than herself, since to claim further than that is to restrict anyone else’s ability to declare any other moral commitment. That problem does not, of course, prevent people from looking for ways to reconcile their differing moral outlooks or, indeed, from finding such ways. What it does indicate is that that process requires them to go beyond stating facts, including about themselves, toward working out how to respond to them.

Thinking in terms of an interactive relationship between facts and values opens up the possibility of a different way of looking at the notion of moral mistake. Sayre-McCord (1988: 4) considers one of the strengths of a moral realist case to be that it enables us to make sense of saying that someone’s moral position or belief is mistaken, rather than simply that certain people do not accept it. But where mistake is concerned Blackburn (1971: 122-3) is able to raise the same problem of ascribing moral force to particular facts by drawing attention to the possibility that not only might I be mistaken about someone being kind, but I could also be mistaken in my standards, i.e., in thinking that X is kind means accepting that X is a good person. The phrase ‘killing with kindness’ displays the relevance of such an issue in the everyday world. Yet that very example implies a connection further back behind the moral virtue of kindliness to an objection to the supposition that kindness will necessarily benefit the recipients; that is, to a question of non-moral fact. What emerges here, and probably in most cases that might appear to be cases of moral mistake, is that the case begins with imputing a non-moral mistake about what kind of action will in fact benefit those it is intended to help and that first mistake then leads in turn to a flawed moral judgment. Although the idea of moral mistake clearly appeals to certain philosophers, it remains more natural in terms of our understanding of ‘fact’ and the notion of truth lying behind it to find mistakes – as distinct from what I would prefer to see as unwise or foolish judgment – on matters which are not in themselves moral.

Where straight factual judgment is concerned possible involvement of other persons in the process is twofold: (i) They may act as witnesses as to the truth or falsity of my interpretation of this observation or the claim I am making as to this fact about the universe around me, or (ii) act as judges as to how believable my statement of the alleged facts is. The latter subdivides into two elements. As in legal cases others may be judges of how reliable or credible I am as a witness (together with anyone else supporting my claim) but, as Hume (1963: Part I, 209) pointed out, we habitually set limits to our belief based on the facts claimed themselves, so that some claims to fact may be dismissed as incredible whoever makes them. But when I make a moral judgment, even if I refer to observed facts in support of it, the role of other persons may be more extensive. There is always the possibility that I may act upon my moral judgment alone without regard to facts, whereas I would act upon on a judgment of fact only if other conditions have already determined its relevance to my action. Hence other persons can be involved as interested parties by the moral judgment itself. They may not be merely witnesses or ‘impartial’ judges of my factual observations and statement of them, but be affected either through their interests or through values of their own (or both) by how my moral judgment(s) itself prompts me to act. The nature of moral judgment as a possible motive for action in itself, unlike factual judgment which will provide a motive for action only at second-hand if I judge that my interests, desires or values are affected by the facts I observe, gives me a more direct responsibility to others for my moral judgments than applies to my factual judgments. In addition, their concern with any error of judgment I may make is of a different kind also. In the case of factual judgment others may decide I am mistaken (that is, that my judgment is false or mistaken) and, if they are interested, point out their reasons for that view. But if I make a moral judgment which others believe to be wrong or to be mistaken (i.e., false in their terms) as to whatever generally required obligations may exist, they will be more likely to have reason to fear how I may act in any situation where I hold my judgment obliges me to act in particular ways. Fear of how I might act on an erroneous factual judgment could apply to someone like a parent or agent who is responsible for me in some way, but fear of my moral judgment will apply more readily also to people who are not personally responsible for me in any way but may simply be affected by what I do. Just because my moral judgments affect my actions directly as well as indirectly through any effect they may have on my other motives, they affect my actions more regularly than do my factual judgments, which will sometimes (when the facts as I understand them do not impinge on my aims, values, etc.) not affect my actions at all. Hence the issue of moral judgment extends beyond the question of whether my judgment is true or false to whether it prompts me to act in ways others can accept, without any intermediary. This leaves the case of moral judgment different from that of factual judgment, even in a case where there is a factual content behind the moral judgment – as when I claim that most people agree with me, or that positive law supports my case.

The aspect of motivation does mean that, even if it can make sense to speak of ‘moral’ mistakes, there is still a difference from mistakes about naturalistic facts; a difference which moral education should not ignore. That difference is illustrated by cases of opposition between moral positions or claims, sometimes promoted by societies with opposed positions on matters of moral significance. The very ordinariness of an individual’s right to freedom of association, including the right to decide whether or not to take out an annual subscription for membership of a society or political party, or to renew it when next due, can obscure the fact that this right extends to cases where the society (or party) has morally significant goals like support for the family, social equality, controls on medical research, abolition of nuclear weapons, animal rights and so on, and indeed where it holds spiritual and religious ideas and values. In such cases societies with mutually antagonistic aims themselves tend not to think in terms of opponents making a ‘mistake’ but as representing a morally reprehensible position in a sense which is not carried by any notion of mistake. It is certainly the case that supporters of each cause hold their answers to the questions to be true and incontrovertible, but the most any form of moral realism itself claims to be able to do is to show that each group might be right in their belief, which none would find adequate. That, of course, leaves open a possibility that opponents might, after all, be right which is not likely to be acceptable to the committed moral partisan. Part of the reason for that is that the opponent is not seen as simply mistaken, and therefore unfortunate or perhaps merely in intellectual error, but as making a morally false commitment, which is always apt to carry the sense of wilful evil or neglect.

Now, the presence of a freedom of association, which includes an individual right to join and leave societies which may sport a moral standard that others within the same state or society oppose, does not leave moral disagreement in a similar position to that of disagreement about naturalistic facts. This freedom, not only included in standard listings of human rights but also now upheld within many existing societies, is not readily amenable to moral realist treatment. From the point of view of moral realism it is perfectly intelligible that someone might: (i) Learn some fact or facts which demonstrated that the aims of the society she belongs to are wrong in a moral sense, in which case the society itself would be making a moral mistake by continuing to exist, or (ii) find that some other needs now have to take precedence – for instance, she has lost her job and can no longer afford the membership subscription. Clearly case (ii) is a commonplace situation and creates no problems for realist analysis. Case (i), which is also common enough, raises no problem for moral realism from the point of view of the individual member. However, it raises the problem of reconciling a claim that disagreement about moral values can in some sense be treated like disagreement about factual observations, so that each party to a dispute can refer to information which will be expected to correct any mistakes or misapprehensions, with the ability – not to say the (moral or legal) right – of a society or political party to continue to exist when any one of its members has lost confidence in those of its aims which may have moral significance unless the party or society is able in its turn show that the departing member was wrong, i.e., making a moral mistake, to leave. As moral realism claims only that each party to such a dispute might be making a claim which is true (i.e., expresses moral facts), it accepts that it cannot adjudicate between the rival moral claims and thereby resolve the conflict. When such situations become commonplace it is natural that the only restriction law will place upon the rights of either society or member relates to illegal, as distinct from immoral, aims or practices such as terrorism (which some might see as heroic, or martyrdom, i.e., as morally justified). Questions of moral judgment are then left to the individual members, both the one who left and others who chose to stay in the society. This illustrates how positive law can supply facts in cases where morality cannot, but its ability to thereby determine judgments is strictly limited. Another way of expressing the point is to say that no communal solution to moral disagreements is available, or that the community does not supply a certain way of correcting moral ‘mistakes’, unless the notion of moral ‘community’ is narrowed to each particular group or society whose members are committed to its particular aims.

IV. Can moral judgments be judged wise or foolish?

Such thoughts may accompany a reflection compatible with realism in its metaphysical or epistemological sense: that truth is not in itself a moral category, but our way to find and to understand what conditions everyday life and therefore morality, so needing to be taken account of in moral thought. They then lead in the direction of saying that a different, or perhaps more complete, standard is needed for assessing moral judgments from the standard of truth appropriate for assessing factual judgments. If such a standard for assessing moral judgment can be found there would be no reason to suppose that abandoning a claim that moral judgments can be true means that we have to accept a moral ‘relativism’ whereby no conceivable moral judgment could be ruled unacceptable. I will argue that the ancient idea of wisdom, leading to the descriptive standard of a wise rather than of a correct or accurate judgment, lends itself to consideration for moral judgments. The complex character of moral judgment, and the frequency of moral disagreement, suggest that a holistic concept which seeks to integrate different varieties of knowledge would be especially suitable.

The holistic nature of wisdom has been interpreted in different ways: for instance, Baltes and Smith (1990: 90-1) point to the ‘wisdom tree’ used in the Middle Ages in which the seven ‘liberal arts’ of astronomy, geometry, music, arithmetic, grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics were seen as arranged like branches of a tree with wisdom at the top. Joining these liberal arts together into a coherent new whole of knowledge constituted ‘wisdom’. Labouvie-Vief (1990: 52-83) has tried to characterise wisdom as integrating the two modes of thinking denoted by the Greek terms mythos and logos. In mythos thought there is a close identification between self and object of thought, leading to an integrated narrative experience, whereas in logos thought knowledge is arguable and subject to explanation, demonstration, and definition with precision and agreement and meaning is related to stable systems of categorisation. Whether these or other possible interpretations of wisdom’s holistic character are the most useful is a separate question, but the general point that a more holistic approach to knowledge on which judgments might be based can be helpful for moral judgment is probably best made by thinking of wisdom’s negation. The negation of ‘true’ emerges as ‘false’, ‘untrue’ or ‘mistaken’, which presumes a clear objective standard of judging statements and propositions under which they can be found to ‘fail’ without regard to the special situation of other persons that obtains where moral judgment is involved. Even if, or rather especially if, we adopt a radical Kiekegaardian notion of subjective truth the standard of truth still depends upon my condition and not that of others. But the negation of wisdom being folly or stupidity, and leading to the descriptive form of foolish judgment, there is no automatic presumption that any belief or idea, or any statement or proposition resulting from it, is bound to be rejected regardless of the situation of either the person offering it or others she may have to deal with. Instead, there is a challenge to anyone holding a belief that if she then acts upon it, the action should not be foolish; a condition which takes account very strongly of that extension in the involvement of others which moral, as distinct from factual, judgment implies. A wise judgment and/or decision implies understanding of particular situations, and perhaps of the feelings and motives of others in ways that correct judgment or truthful statement of facts does not. Likewise a foolish (mis)judgment and/or decision implies neglect of particular situations, and where relevant the feelings and motives of others to an extent which incorrect judgment or mistaken statement of facts does not. As we have seen, motives and feelings are an unavoidable and essential element for moral evaluations.

Employing the concept of ‘wisdom’ is not without problems of its own – like most abstract concepts wisdom is complex and can be ‘fuzzy’ in its content. No one can compel a linguistic community to avoid complications and obscurities in their speech and writing and the most analysis can do is, first to make us aware of the difficulties and then attempt to draw out common ideas which may be found underneath each of the different usages of a particular term or concept. Like many other concepts, wisdom carries varied implications within abstract and philosophical thought as well as at the level of popular usage. It will be helpful to look at both levels here.

One divergence amongst philosophers that deserves to be noticed begins with the way Plato and the Stoics characterised ‘wisdom’ as a kind of skill or knowledge which could be developed by training. In the Platonic vision the element of skill would be provided by control of personal desires and impulses under rational guidance while the element of knowledge is built up with the inquiring mind reason requires, and both can be fostered by suitable education. By contrast Montaigne insisted that wisdom does not depend on education, and is often to be found in people who are ignorant in terms of formal knowledge or training. The opposition between Platonists and Montaigne is, however, chiefly about how wisdom may best be developed and given opportunity to be effective – notably because Montaigne’s (1927: 142-78) view of education places a greater emphasis on individual judgment, including as regards matters on which people disagree. This need not mean any great difference about what the qualities ‘wisdom’ indicates may actually be. Kant (1881 [1781]: 51) held that ‘it is a great and necessary proof of wisdom and sagacity to know what questions may reasonably be asked’.10 Kant’s statement hints at a theme present throughout – the wise person does not merely have knowledge of certain kinds, but both actively pursues truth and understanding and possesses a sense of how best to find them. Aristotle had identified a purely intellectual virtue of wisdom – separate from practical wisdom – which pursues truth for its own sake. Here is another dimension to the holistic character of wisdom; it can include knowledge of certain things, perhaps to be understood more as broad principles than as specific facts, but also essentially includes an ability to apprehend this knowledge and make use of it.

Probably the first development of an idea of wisdom could be seen as an essentially practical concept involving guidance on the conduct of life. What Blanshard (1967) calls ‘wisdom literatures’ (the Egyptian ‘Wisdom of Ptah-hotep’ (c. 2500 BC) being the first we have record of) consisted largely of proverbs handed down the generations as crystallised results of experience. Such were prominent in the early history of Eastern spiritual thought, which has, however, retained a central attention on what is called wisdom throughout its history, including a common core of ideas which are thought to embody it. But although the idea is more mystical than that sketched above, there are some profound similarities to the concept in Western thought. Saher says:

‘….Eastern wisdom is not a religion. It can best be described as the mechanism or internal machinery of any and every religion. And even if a person does not believe in any religion or any God, it makes no difference to a wisdom which takes its stand on the fundamental and transcendent value of the ego-eliminated state…with yoga. No matter what god, goal, or deity a religion posits, yoga is only concerned with showing an individual how to approach the god, goal, or deity which he happens to worship. As far as interreligious controversy is concerned, wisdom is as objective as mathematics’

(Soher, 1969, Eastern Wisdom and Western Thought: 240).
Despite denying that Eastern wisdom is any form of concealed ‘dogmatic theology’, Saher accepts that it holds the only purpose of human life to be to attain what leads to unvarying (timeless) satisfaction or self-realisation. But whether or not one agrees about this fundamental purpose and any spiritual or theological principles linked with it, the point remains that many people outside the cultures within which Eastern wisdom grew up can find the mental and physical practices it teaches helpful in their own lives. In the Buddhist conception wisdom is the final goal of meditation, which is that which ‘sees things as they really are’. Again, even if one does not hold to all the metaphysical implications of that idea, or to Kantian-Schopenhauerian conceptions – recognised by Schopenhauer himself as resembling Buddhist and yogic ideas – of a noumenal world of ‘things in themselves’, Buddhist meditation retains the aspect of mental skill, peace, and keeping good health together with of opening the mind to a wider range of experience. Owing to connections between practice of Vedic, yogic and Buddhist wisdom with mental and physical health as well as receptivity, it may be found valuable by people who would not accept the metaphysical view that there is another kind of reality apart from the empirical world we can observe and analyse, together with the idea that this other reality may be approached with certain kinds of spiritual effort. The wisdom itself can have a place within the empirical world and therefore can be found valuable even by those who hold that to be the only reality which exists, or at least which we may access in our lives.

Again, within Eastern traditions moral teaching tends to appear as a means to the spiritual end of wisdom, rather than the ground of wisdom itself. Accordingly, ethics is left within the envelope of the empirical world in any case. So, for a different reason there is a parallel result with ethics to that with metaphysics: namely, that anyone who wishes to consider employing wisdom, for instance as a criterion for assessing judgments even in everyday life, may do so without having first to swallow a preset package of doctrine, be it metaphysical, moral or any other, that judgment may not challenge.

However much emphasis Eastern wisdom places on training and practice, two points would help to counter any tendency toward creating a body of incontrovertible dogma. First, training teaches methods of practice like meditation rather than specific principles and ideas to be accepted by the faithful, so that it is left open to people with other beliefs to take part (hence Buddhist retreats, for example, will accept entrants of any religion or none). Second, however strenuous the effort needed to achieve spiritual goals it is open to anyone prepared to make the effort to take part – there is no pre-selection process depending upon some (elite) body of examiners. Failure is self-selecting. (There is, of course, no pretence that we cannot fail.) These conditions leave less danger of training turning into indoctrination than might apply with the Platonic model of education, although Montaigne’s notion of ordinary untrained people being capable of wisdom would be accepted only in the sense that they may already be capable of making the effort required to achieve it.

At first sight, there would appear to be little connection between any of the philosophical notions of wisdom discussed above and at least some recent popular usage. In particular there is the use of the adjective ‘wise’ to mean something like ‘smart’ or ‘cunning’; especially in slang expressions like ‘streetwise’, ‘get wise to’, or ‘wise boy’. However, these usages can be seen as successors to a far older notion of ‘worldly wisdom’ or ‘worldly wise’ which conveyed a broadly similar meaning and was associated with concentrating on the life of this world and succeeding in it in a purely self-regarding sense rather than the values and life of a transcendent or religious world – in older language someone who is worldly wise is concerned with the Kingdom of Man and not with the Kingdom of God. Thus in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress Mr. Worldly Wise appears as the plausible man of the world whose advice leads the pilgrim away from his true path. Now, there were always those who believed (in opposition to a Puritan such as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress) that to follow worldly wisdom is simply to be realistic. But in recent times even that sort of limited compliment is replaced by outright irony when the noun ‘wisdom’ forms part of the expression ‘conventional wisdom’ which implies a lazily accepted orthodoxy that is probably wrong – including erroneous in a worldly sense.

Yet it is precisely the slang usages which, after all, bear upon capacity for judgment – even if not a much respected kind of judgment – without demanding acceptance of particular ideas and doctrines in order to be wise. Of course, Bunyan holds that the pilgrim needs to find (spiritual) wisdom himself rather than simply being taught it by rote, but in fact he is likely to need to have come to believe much already in order to set out on the road, including forsaking his family. Further, there even has to be a limited awareness on the part of those who are ‘worldly wise’ or ‘streetwise’ of the motivations and position of others beside the self, if only so as to be able to manipulate those others, but which would go beyond simple knowledge of facts. Generally the sort of people who would draw such epithets as ‘worldly wise’ or ‘streetwise’ can be supposed not to be much concerned with making moral judgments, let alone interested in principles or standards that might be adopted to support them. Yet popular usage, both in literature and ordinary speech, also provides a more extensive and demanding notion of a ‘wise person’ as someone who is sensitive to the needs of particular situations and of both themselves and other people in those situations; a notion which makes a correspondingly greater demand on the judgment. Most significant for the argument here is that moral judgment is then clearly included. Although not regularly extended to intellectual thinking, nonetheless this idea of the wise person would resemble Kant’s idea of someone who understands what to look for when investigating a problem, even when the facts may be not entirely clear beforehand.

None of these ideas suggests that wisdom or wise judgment will neglect facts. On the contrary, it is generally supposed that the abilities and skills which we gather under the headings of ‘wisdom’ and ‘wise’ would enable a person to recognise facts which are most important for making a judgment, including ones which may not be obvious to a superficial examination (or, indeed, facts which are obvious but are unpalatable for other reasons). At first sight, any idea of applying such a concept to moral judgment would appear to fit in with the moral realist case that at least some moral propositions are true, on the traditional notion that the wise thinker seeks truth and is capable of setting about finding it. On that basis, a wise person will accept that there are moral truths and will be able to judge more accurately than others which moral propositions are true and which are not. However, such a conclusion may not pay sufficient attention to the other side, so to speak, of wisdom and wise judgment – that is, refusal of dogma and willingness to pause and reflect before accepting what may appear to be obvious or even natural. Even if the wise person could come to accept that there are certain moral facts, i.e., that certain moral propositions are true, she may insist on being cautious before doing so. One ground for such caution can be need to take into account certain other facts, which, although not in themselves moral, may be argued to be relevant for assessing the possibility of moral truth. The fact which I would argue demands special attention in this context is the presence of moral disagreements and conflicts between people or groups of people, each of whom holds their claim to be the right one in a moral sense.

In that context it can be recognised that the notions of wisdom and wise judgment, unlike the notions of truth and factual accuracy, lead us on from the realm of thought to the realm of action. A simple recognition that a given belief or statement is true, or ‘fits with the facts’, need not of itself tell us how we should act in response to that recognition. Such is simply another way of stating the absence of any direct logical connection between fact and value – not only moral value but any kind of value – without the intercession of further practical considerations. But, to begin with, we can describe an action, as well as a belief, statment or proposition, as ‘wise’ – to call an action ‘true’ is poetic licence at best. Further, it will be understood that calling a belief or statement wise can be meant as a guide for how we should act upon it, albeit not a very precise one. Although himself very interested in wisdom and wise judgment, Kant had proposed that we could work out laws for action by ‘synthetic’ (informative) reasoning, so that the practical element comes from applying the (universal) rules themselves rather than from experience and observation prior to deciding how to act. The problem with such an approach to ethics in particular is shown up by moral conflicts like the question of ‘assisted suicide’ where each party to the argument holds their principle to be one which they envisage as applicable to everyone, and not just to their own personal inclinations or convenience, so that in effect we are being asked to decide between alternative Kantian moral laws. It is here that the effort to ascertain the moral facts of the case seems to fail unless one party is obviously bereft of other arguments to support their moral judgments. In the case of assisted suicide where one party to the dispute draws attention to the risks to vulnerable people if assisted suicide is permitted and the other draws attention to, for example, the plight of terminal illness, both sides can clearly draw upon practical supports for their respective moral judgments and proposed universal moral laws. In such cases a further criterion beyond that of truth as regards the facts of the case is called for just because the parties dispute on what the moral facts are, and in respect of those facts no ‘impartial’ authority is available, so that truth alone cannot provide the instruction for judgment as to how to act upon the facts. For all its imprecision a criterion of wisdom does refer us beyond facts to the actual process of judgment and action itself.


  1. In Sayre-McCord’s (1988: 10-11) view the commonest ‘error’ theory of moral beliefs from Spinoza onward is some form of argument that good and evil (as standards of moral judgment) ‘are nothing but nodes in which the imagination is affected in different ways’ – what is now described as ‘emotivism’ – perhaps combined with emphasis on effective socialisation.
  2. In discussing realism and constructivism Brink (1989: 15-6) describes the relevant beliefs or propositions as ‘our evidence that facts [of a certain kind] obtain’, and refers to constructivists who accept a coherence theory of evidence or justification claiming that ‘facts are constituted by coherent beliefs’. These statements seem to imply a peculiar notion of evidence which is quite different from that which is employed in scientific or judicial investigation, for instance. However, Brink (Ibid: 35) subsequently makes the point that evidence must be evidence for something – for ‘believing that such and such is the case’ – which would appear to fit much more with the conventional idea.
  3. Smith hopes that reflection and moral argument when we are, so to speak, ‘cool, calm, and collected’ might achieve the result of a convergence between initially diverse moral views and claims. The problem with that way of looking at moral thought is that people are often ‘cool, calm, and collected’ in course of immoral behaviour, for instance in organised crime.
  4. Grayling (1997: 293ff) argues that anti-realism, and therefore realism, in its philosophical sense should be understood as an epistemological thesis and not as a metaphysical one. As Grayling sees it, realism does not represent a case about what exists but rather the case that objects which exist are independent of our knowledge or investigation of them. Accordingly, anti-realism, which holds that our knowledge of things is not merely contingently related to them, is a distinct thesis from the metaphysical thesis of idealism which holds that the nature of the universe is mental. Moral realism, then, emerges as an application of realism in general to moral realities and holds that moral claims and beliefs exist as facts which are independent of our knowledge or investigation of them.
  5. O. R. Jones (O. R. Jones ed., The Private Language Argument, St. Martins’ Press, 1971) presents the importance of Wittgenstein’s argument as being that it challenges Cartesian or empiricist notions that we can have words for private objects and experiences others cannot share like my own toothache, just as we have words for public objects and experiences. But this again probably has no bearing on political oppression; even while dissidents are being isolated they are simply prevented from communicating their experiences to others in any language, so even if the older notions were valid that would not help them. If the oppression is ethnic then, of course, it can take the form of trying to eliminate other natural languages.
  6. The pattern of limiting satisfaction of certain desires in order to achieve moral values would be highly relevant for a project like that of Anderson (1993), who has attempted to integrate economic value under a wider framework of social (and hence moral) norms which would not simply endorse market valuations.
  7. An aspect of Hume’s contribution to thinking on uncertainty which perhaps does not receive the attention it deserves is that in effect he adjusted the concept of wisdom to uncertainty. When he identified the ‘wise man’ as someone who ‘proportions his belief to the evidence’ (Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, I) Hume moved away from the Platonic and Stoic tradition that wisdom depends on pursuit of the highest (or, as we might now say, ‘higher order’) truths, even if these are imperfectly grasped.
  8. In point of fact, it may be said that the history of philosophy from Aristotle onward displays a recurrent theme in which justice, which is always a normative concept, frames arguments for justifiable inequality such as reward for desert or Rawls’ conception of benefit to the least advantaged in terms of limits to inequality rather than achievement of equality as such.
  9. In regard to economic or environmental costs which frequently have moral implications, Ronald G. Ridler (Economic Costs of Air Pollution, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1967) has attempted to deal with the problem of assessing costs from damage to personal health and to materials, property values, etc., from air pollution. Thus, his work presents an opposed view to that of James Buchanan (Cost and Choice, Markham Publishing Company, Chicago, 1969, 46, 72-3) who argued that such costs cannot be measured because they are not tradable.
  10. In The Critique of Practical Reason (Part II) Kant argues that moral education should concentrate on presenting moral principles in as simple and undiluted a form as possible: ‘…morality must have more power over the human heart the more purely it is presented…if [the] law of morals and the image of holiness and virtue are to exercise any influence at all on our soul, they can do so only in so far as they are laid to heart in their purity as incentives, unmixed with any view to one’s welfare, for it is in suffering that they show themselves most excellently.’


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