Ethical Theory Spring 2022

Reply to Harman


Harman argues that moral facts do not explain anything. In particular, he maintains, they are not part of the best explanation of what he calls moral observations. If you see some hoodlums burning a cat and think “that’s wrong!,” the best explanation of why you have that thought is that you believe cruelty towards animals is wrong. There is no need to assume that it actually is wrong in order to explain why you have the thoughts about it that you do.

By contrast, Harman believes, we do need to assume there are facts about the natural world that explain why scientists make the observations that they do. That is the point of his example of the vapor trail in the cloud chamber. The best explanation of why the scientist observes the trail is that a proton went through the chamber.

Sturgeon disagrees with Harman’s assertion that the two cases are different. He argues that moral facts do explain things. Specifically, he thinks that moral facts explain both why people do the things they do and also why they have the thoughts (“observations”) that they do. Moral facts could not explain anything if they did not exist. Since they do explain things, they must exist. That’s the idea.

Sturgeon’s Examples

Here are three examples of moral facts that Sturgeon cites in support of his thesis.


Moral fact: Hitler was morally depraved

What it explains:

Midshipman Woodworth

Midshipman Woodworth was supposed to lead a rescue of the Donner Party, whose members were trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Moral fact: Woodworth was no damned good.

What it explains:


Moral fact: slavery in North America was “much worse than previous forms of slavery in Latin America” (Sturgeon 2006, 131).

What it explains (this encompasses both observations and actions):

why vigorous and reasonably widespread moral opposition to slavery arose for the first time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centures, even though slavery was a very old institution; and why this opposition arose primarily in Britain, France, and in French- and English-speaking North America, even though slavery existed throughout the New World. (Sturgeon 2006, 131)

Sturgeon on Harman

Sturgeon takes Harman to be saying this: you would have thought that cat burning was wrong even if it was not wrong (Sturgeon 2006, 133). Let me explain that.

Harman thinks that your psychology provides the complete explanation of why you think cat burning is wrong. Since he also thinks that it is not, in fact, wrong, he has to think that the facts about whether it is right or wrong play no role in explaining why you believe what you do. In other words, you would believe it is wrong even though it is not actually wrong.

After all, you do believe it even though, as he sees it, it is not actually wrong.

Sturgeon thinks that what makes the act wrong is that it is an act of gratuitous cruelty. If it were not wrong, then it would not be an act of gratuitous cruelty. Suppose, for instance, the children were petting the cat instead of lighting it on fire. If that is what they were doing, we wouldn’t think that it was wrong. When it’s wrong, we think it is wrong; when it is not wrong, we don’t think it is wrong. Harman’s assertion that we would think it is wrong even if it is not is unproven.

Sturgeon also thinks that moral facts are relevant to explaining what happened. For example, Hitler instigated the Holocaust because he was morally depraved.

He thinks Harman would reply that moral facts are irrelevant to the explanation. Hitler did what he did because of what he wanted and what he believed. Whether his mind was morally depraved or not is irrelevant to explaining his behavior (Sturgeon 2006, 135).

Sturgeon’s answer is that Hitler’s having the beliefs and desires that he did is what made him morally depraved. He thinks you can’t separate the natural facts from the moral ones in this case (Sturgeon 2006, 136).

Sturgeon’s discussion of Harman closes with some thoughts about how our moral theories could lead us astray. He concedes that this is possible but he maintains that the same is true of scientific theories. A false moral theory will lead to false observations about right and wrong but a false scientific theory will also lead to false observations about the natural world (Sturgeon 2006, 136–37).

Update about definitions

Kevin said something in class that I had to think about for several hours. Here is what I came up with.

As background, here is how I framed the disagreement between Harman and Sturgeon.

Harman sees it this way. You can explain why Midshipman Woodworth did the things he did by describing his personality: he was vain, indecisive, unwilling to follow through on his commitments, and indifferent to the fate of the people he was supposed to help. That’s all you need to explain why he did what he did. You don’t have to add “and he was a bad person” or, more colorfully, “and he was no damned good.” So moral facts are not needed to explain anything. This was JoJo’s point.

Sturgeon sees it this way. All of those features of Woodworth’s personality are what make him a bad person or, more colorfully, no damned good. If asked “why do you say he was no damned good?” your answer would be “he was vain, indecisive, unwilling to follow through on his commitments, and indifferent to the fate of the people he was supposed to help.” In other words, what Harman calls non-moral facts are actually moral facts. The two sets of facts are identical.

Kevin said that Sturgeon was arguing that the connection between the facts about Woodworth’s personality (vain, indecisive, etc.) and the allegedly moral facts (bad, no damned good) is “a priori,” a phrase that means “relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge which proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience.” The idea, I take it, is that if Sturgeon is saying that the relationship between the facts about Woodworth’s personality and the allegedly moral facts is a matter of definition for Sturgeon, it’s going to be hard to see how to dispute it. There might have also been a suggestion that Sturgeon’s position is not that interesting. You can define your terms however you like, but that does not prove anything that anyone else has to care about.

I said that Sturgeon wanted to resist the suggesting that he was engaging in a priori reasoning. Let me say a bit more about that.

Sturgeon thinks of a sentence like this “someone who is vain, indecisive, unwilling to follow through on commitments, and indifferent to the fate of the people he is supposed to help is no damned good” as being similar to “water is H2O.” These look like definitions because they each assert that one thing is another. But they are supposed to be things that are discovered using empirical means (that is, the senses). Furthermore, they could both be wrong. We might discover that our table of the elements is inaccurate and that there are more fundamental elements for water to be made up of than hydrogen and oxygen. I am not saying that is likely. Just that it is possible.

By the same token, the identity of Woodworth’s personality traits and being no damned good is also something that we discover and something that could be false, he believes. It’s not a definition that he stipulates.

That is what I was trying to say in response to Kevin’s excellent observation.

Finally, as I did say a couple times, Sturgeon faces a problem of explaining how we come to discover the things that he claims we discover about ethics and the damned goodness or badness of personality traits. It is not an easy thing to do.

Key Points

  1. Why Sturgeon thinks his examples show that moral facts are part of the best explanation of why things happen and why we make the moral observations that we do.

  2. How Sturgeon handles the “you would have believed it was wrong even if it was not wrong” argument.


Sturgeon, Nicholas L. 2006. “Moral Explanations.” In Arguing about Metaethics, edited by Andrew Fisher and Simon Kirchin, 117–44. New York: Routledge.