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This chapter proposes that ethical statements or judgements are ‘capable of truth’.

It outlines the three formal


properties of truth and argues that although truth may be ascertained differently in ethics, and the obstacles to
obtaining it may be greater or of a different dimension, its formal properties are the same regardless. It
concludes that truth in ethics is what it is elsewhere in its formal properties; that is, in its essential respects.

Keywords: moral truth, ethics, moral principles, ethical judgements, moral judgements, rational morality

In the previous chapter I sketched an account of how moral principles can be proved, and said something also
about how they can be used, as well as their limitations. But why, one might wonder, so much emphasis on the
proof of moral principles? Well, a principle that is proved, or shown capable of proof, is assuredly rational; and
if there is a kind or sense of morality whose first principles are shown capable of proof, that is rational morality,
and such an argument helps fill out our sketch of the idea of rational morality by providing us with more than
just a glimpse of it. Further, if proofs can occur within morality, as in the proof of subordinate principles—moral
laws—that adds to the claim, and the identity, of rationality. Finally, if it is shown that these principles, and
genuine moral judgements in general, are also capable of truth, we have the two requisites, proof and truth,
sufficient for the rationality of morality.

On the matter of moral truth, the truth of moral judgement sor value judgements and normative claims, we
touch on a knotty topic, the long-standing question ‘What is Truth’?, which cannot be dealt with adequately
short of a full-scale enquiry into the nature of truth. Something, however, can be said about it in short compass,
sufficient, in my judgement, for filling out the idea, and the ideal, of a rational morality.

A considerable number of philosophers have expressed doubts about whether moral judgements—claims, rules,
principles, standards, precepts, statements—can be true or false. Bertrand Russell is only one of these, though
undoubtedly one of the most prominent. And, not surprisingly, he has put the matter in a way that is especially
perspicuous and that can be fairly taken as representative. ‘A judgment of fact’, Russell said, ‘is capable of a
Property called “truth”, which it has or does not have quite independently of what any one may think about it…
But…I see no property, analogous to “truth”, that belongs or does not belong to an ethical judgment. This, it
must be admitted, puts ethics in a different category from science.’1 But (p.35) while it may be admitted that
ethics is in a different category from science, it is not for this reason.
One property that ‘ethical judgments’ can have that is ‘analogous to truth’—indeed, is a hallmark of it—is
actually mentioned in the passage. There are innumerable moral principles or propositions that are true
independently of what any one may think about then. Here are just some examples; it would be tedious to
provide many. It is true that rape is wrong, no matter what anyone thinks about it; the fact would not be altered
if the victim should later come to think it right; for it was still rape when it occurred, and rape is always wrong
and it is wrong irrespective of the intentions or the moral beliefs or the later claims of the perpetrator. And I am
not begging any genuine question here. Does anyone seriously doubt this? Torture for the sake of torture is
always wrong, and the proposition that it is always wrong is another moral proposition true independently of
what anyone may think about it. (It is true that I have provided no argument yet. Though I think argument is
really unnecessary on these points, it is actually easy to provide. Read on.) Now I seriously doubt that Russell
was thinking about such obvious matters when he set down what he did; he was, more likely, thinking of
controversial matters. I will get to these shortly, but it needs emphasizing—apparently over and over again—that
not all moral judgements are controversial; some are so obvious that we tend to ignore then, especially when we
are theorizing about morality. No one denies that rape is wrong. The accused rapist only denies that what he did
was rape or that it was he that raped. It is also dubious that Russell in the passage quoted was intending to
bring out sane differences between ethical judgements of specific cases and ethical principles of greater
generality, but the point would hold even so.

These examples, incidentally, show also that there are ‘universal absolute rules of conduct’,2 something else
Russell thought was false, a stance on which he has had a lot of non-sceptical company. Thus, Carl Wellman,
hardly an ethical sceptic, has said: ‘I find myself unable to formulate any ethical generalizations that seem to
me true universally, and I can always think of exceptions to principles asserted by my friends.’3 It is true that
there are a great many ethical generalizations that are not exceptionless, but I think my friend Carl Wellman
was simply not thinking of examples of the right sort. ‘Torture for the sake of torture is always wrong’ is true
universally, without (p.36) exception, and the same is true of ‘Cruelty for the sake of cruelty is always wrong’,
and these are representative of a large class, which can be obtained by a recipe not difficult to formulate. Thus:
(1) take any moral rule to the effect that some kind of action is generally wrong (such as the rule that lying is
generally wrong—which, curiously, is, as it is stated, exceptionless); apply now the principle that any breach of
a moral rule requires justification, and (3) apply also the principle that one is never justified in breaching a
moral rule, or in doing something that is generally wrong, by the fact that one wants to; (4) notice now that
doing something simply because one wants to is identical with doing it for its own sake (so that, in our
example, lying simply because one wants to is identical with lying for the sake of lying); and (5) it follows,
without exception, that it is always wrong to do for its own sake, or simply because one wants to, something
that is generally wrong, so that it follows that it is always wrong to lie for the sake of lying—whether it causes
much or even any harm is irrelevant—always wrong to steal for the sake of stealing, always wrong to torture for
the sake of torture, and so on, indefinitely.4 We thus have a number of examples of ‘universal absolute rules of
conduct’.
Russell was attempting to distinguish judgements of fact, as he called them, from ethical judgements, and I
should not deny, as it is now fashionable to do, that there is a distinction, only it does not lie in the source
claimed, namely that ethical judgements are not true or false independently of what any one thinks about them.
However, the analogy between these kinds of judgements may not be something simply overlooked but rather
something actually denied. So let us proceed to another argument, in my judgement more significant. In a paper
of a number of years ago I argued that there are certain formal properties of truth essential for deduction,
implication, and logical relations generally. My target then was the pragmatic conception of truth as satisfaction
or effectiveness, which fails to preserve these essential formal properties and hence can make no official sense of
deductive relationships, which nonetheless it presupposes and makes use of.5 My object now is to bring out that
ethical statements or judgements are ‘capable of truth’ in this sense as well.

Three formal properties of truth are these:

1. (p.37) (i) Deduction, or entailment, is truth-preserving—from true propositions only true


propositions are deducible. No true proposition entails a false proposition. This is an interesting and
important respect in which truth and falsity are not parallel, and provides a way of distinguishing
between truth and falsity. Entailment is not falsity-preserving; it is not the case that from false
propositions only false propositions follow. And this distinction between truth and falsity is just as
applicable to moral claims as to statements of fact.
2. (ii) Where P is any proposition (whether factual or moral), if it is true that P then P, and if P then it is
true that P.
3. (iii) Truth is timeless—if a proposition is true then it is always true, and it makes no difference whether
the proposition is one of fact or of logic or of morality.6
Although truth may be ascertained differently in ethics, and the obstacles to obtaining it may be greater or of a
different dimension, its formal properties are the same regardless. From the proposition that rape is wrong,
which is true, only true propositions follow; since it is true that it is always wrong to inflict pain for the sake of
doing so, it follows that it is always wrong to inflict pain for the sake of doing so, and conversely; and the truth
that wanton torture is always wrong is timeless, even if there was a time when it was not recognized and even if
there are people who do not recognize it now, as, unfortunately, there are. It is true ‘independently of what any
one may think about it’.

This condition of timelessness, however, is subject to the constraint that it applies only to beings who are
capable of being tortured or of feeling pain. But this is only to say that it must be applicable. If human beings or
living organisms were incapable of being tortured or terrorized or of being killed or of feeling pain, then there
would be no occasion for the proposition ever to be uttered or appealed to. But if the beings we are imagining
were capable of having a conception of pain, then the proposition would still be true, only conditionally.
Analogously, in a world in which there was no light at all, colour propositions would not be false, only
inapplicable, and almost certainly unknowable.

(p.38) I conclude that truth in ethics is what it is elsewhere in its formal properties; that is, in its essential
respects. It is irrelevant to this point, though still an interesting question, to ask what if anything true moral
propositions correspond to or what they are true of. Even if their truth does not consist in their correspondence
to anything, it would not follow that they are incapable of truth. Truth in logic does not consist in
correspondence either; that is, correspondence to facts of this world, but this does not show that logical
propositions are incapable of being true, and it would be self-defeating to suppose it did. And if we postulate a
world of logical facts that true logical propositions are to correspond to, we can just as readily postulate a world
of moral facts that true moral propositions correspond to. The procedure is otiose, since there is no means of
access to this world except through these very propositions themselves. Now, this might seem to mark off a
difference between facts, on the one hand, and ‘logical necessities’ and morality on the other. But it is far from
settling the matter. As Sidgwick pointed out in dealing with this very same question:
even in the case of our thought about ‘what is’, though error may lie in want of correspondence
between Thought and Fact, it can only be ascertained and exposed by showing inconsistency
between Thought and Thought, i.e. precisely as error is disclosed in the case of our Thought about
‘what ought to be’.7

This, however, merely opens another line of enquiry, and I am willing to concede that truth in ethics is
ascertained differently from the ways in which truth is ascertained in other areas, such as the sciences, everyday
life, and logic. This would not show that there is no such thing as truth in ethics, or that moral propositions are
neither true nor false. We should beware also of supposing, as is too often done, that truth is identical with
knowledge of the truth, so that if we do not know or cannot know (or cannot be certain) whether some
proposition is true, then it is not true. This is outright nonsense. All that follows is the trivial proposition that we
do not know it to be true. There can be, there almost certainly are, unknowable truths. And even though what is
taken as known at one time is later, on the basis of some new theory or discovery, judged not to be true, this
does not show—and has no tendency to show—that ‘truth is relative’, as some easygoing relativists apparently
suppose.

One of the reasons Russell espoused scepticism about truth in ethics is that there is so much controversy about
(certain) ethical and of course political matters. (Another is that he was never able to answer the
objections(p.39) brought to bear by Santayana on Russell’s early ethical view expressed in his 1910 essay on
‘The Elements of Ethics’, in which Russell was presenting in his own elegant way a version of the ethical theory
he had acquired from Moore.8) But that there are differences of opinion on some matter does not show that the
matter is incapable of truth or falsity; and that the differences of opinion may be ineradicable has no such
tendency either. It is true that on many moral matters there are deep-seated differences of opinion. This does
not show that the differences of opinion are on matters incapable of truth, hence really matters of preference,
not opinion. There is a tendency, it is true, in the moral area as in the political area, for such differences to be
settled by a process that amounts more to terminating or getting over them than it does to proving anything—a
vote, a court decision, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, a shift of interest to something else (and sometimes,
as Russell neatly put it, ‘by rhetoric, brass bands, and broken heads’9). This shows only that the ways in which
such differences of opinion are and have been settled can vary from those that have, ostensibly, proved most
effective in the physical and biological sciences. But this establishes no distinctive difference between ethical
and other matters. There are controversies in the sciences that get settled by shifts of interest or the
disappearance of an older generation or a shift in the climate of opinion, and not by the rational procedures of
disinterested sifting of evidence so extolled—and rightfully so—by philosophers, at least rational philosophers,
and scientists alike.
There are, indeed, many questions of fact that we can be certain will never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction,
though there is a fact of the matter and also no doubt that of a pair of contradictory propositions one is true
and the other false. One reason this occurs is that as time goes on evidence gets so difficult to obtain; in other
cases the matter becomes politicized. ‘Who killed President John F. Kennedy?’ is a prime example of such a
politicized question. Was it Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone (the official answer), or were there several killers
operating independently of one another, or was there a conspiracy of some kind? It is now impossible to tell
with certainty, and the number of nuts as well as sane investigators with pet theories shouting their certitudes
adds only to the general clamour and (p.40) not to the general enlightenment. This question has been
thoroughly politicized, hence thoroughly obscured. The chance that there will ever be a non-controversial and
certain answer established by scientific means is now practically nil. Yet there is a right answer, even if we
don’t know what it is, and one of the propositions about the matter is true and the others false. Though if
something is known it must be true, something can be true without being known or even knowable.
The question about John Kennedy is one of an enormous class of politicized questions of fact which have right
answers that will almost certainly never be known. Yet in the folklore of human society such questions will after
a time come to be regarded as ‘settled’, simply because there is an accepted answer that is taught in the schools
and imbibed in the culture, and thus what ‘everyone’ believes—despite the fact that at an earlier time they were
the subjects of intense controversy; yet it would be fatuous to suppose that this accepted in the sense of received
answer has been established in the sense of being proved true.

Now the situation with respect to controversial moral matters is in no essential respect different from this.
There is only some tendency to think, perhaps through the influence of Hume and possibly also Kant, that
provability is an essential and unbridgeable difference between questions of fact and questions of morals.

Yet I am not maintaining that truth means the same thing in application to moral judgements and judgements
or claims of other kinds. Whatever the meaning of ‘what truth means’, it may indeed be the case that truth
means something different (identity of formal properties being taken for granted) in application to
moral principles, which are abstract and general, from what it means in application to moral judgements about
specific cases. If we take seriously the character of moral judgements, as distinct from statements of fact
(though the distinction is certainly not crystal clear nor is the line unbreachable), we may come to see that such
judgements have a different logic. I shall merely suggest here what I mean by this. What I have in mind is that
the ordinary distinction between truth and probability, between truth and justifiable belief, which is absolute
with respect to ordinary statements, tends to break down in application to moral judgements, especially those
with a future reference. There is no clear distinction between the claim that someone’s action is justified and
the claim that it is right, as there is a clear distinction between the claim that sane proposition is probable—or
that one is justified in believing it—and the claim that it is true. As a proposition can be both probable and
false, so one can be justified in believing something that is false. But a similar distinction tends to (p.41)break
down in application to moral judgements. If one is justified in doing something then one acts rightly in doing it,
though this does not entail that the action will ‘turn out right’ or is the action hindsight would have chosen. To
put it shortly, truth is independent of evidence, while justified belief is not; on the other hand, both acting
justifiably and acting rightly are dependent, not on evidence (which is the wrong word in the context of moral
judgement) but on the reasons available at the time of acting. This difference, however, has no tendency to
show that truth is not applicable to moral judgements.
There is one curious fact here, which I mention without yet being fully cognizant of its implications. Moral
judgements of complex particular cases seem to have a different logic from abstract moral principles, and even
though relations of deducibility hold (as I argued earlier), in a complex case what ought to be done is not
something simply deducible from general principles. In such situations application is not deduction, and
judgements—sound or sensible judgements—are not deducible. They can be supported, argued about, rejected,
or affirmed, but not deduced. For what is deduced is not itself a judgement. If you deduce your ‘judgement’, you
have performed a deduction, not formed a judgement. Yet none of this goes to show that the judgement made or
that one is searching for cannot be true. It relates only to how one can discover or determine whether it is true
and how one can establish its truth.

I mention just one more analogy between facts and morals in relation to truth. Peirce maintained that the trait
most vital to science is ‘the sincere desire to find out the truth, whatever it may be’. But this is also the trait
most vital to ethics. P. G. Hamerton termed this trait disinterestedness and maintained that it is the highest
intellectual virtue. By disinterestedness Hamerton meant the disposition ‘to be ready to accept the truth even
when it is most unfavorable to ourselves’; and he argued that ‘the endeavor to attain it…is a great virtue, and of
all the virtues the one most indispensable to the intellectual life’.10 But it is also the virtue most indispensable
to the ethical life and to ethical enquiry, which is postulated on the possibility of attaining the truth, even when
the truth does not correspond to our desires. And with this we come full circle. (p.42)