Moral Relativism and Godwin’s Law

In 1934, Hitler became Germany's president und...
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Previously I’ve written that I am not a moral realist (one who believes that objective moral laws exist) or, more specifically, a naturalist (one who believes that objective moral laws can be unveiled through empirical observation). That being said, I find moral relativism deeply unsatisfying. Part of the reason for that, I’ll freely admit, is intuition: I’m just not comfortable with drawing that sort of conclusion. But a large part of it is the following thought experiment, courtesy of philosopher Nicholas Sturgeon:

We start with the premise (which I hope we can all universally agree on) that Adolf Hitler was morally depraved. The question is if that moral depravity caused, or at least played a causal role in, the Holocaust. If you think that there are no such thing as moral facts, then you would have to argue that moral depravity can’t cause anything. So the challenge for someone who is a non-realist is to see if it’s possible to conceive of a world in which all the physical facts up to and including the Holocaust are the same, but one thing is different: Hitler is not morally depraved. Could one of the most horrific events of the 20th century have occurred without that one ingredient?

I don’t think so, and neither does Sturgeon.

So the implication, at least according to Sturgeon, is that moral judgments have causal force, just like physical facts about the world. To me, this seems like a relatively potent argument for non-reductive naturalism, or the belief that morality roughly correlates to natural properties, but isn’t totally reducible to them (If you want another example of a property like that, think of the word “healthy”; that’s something that’s sort of a natural property, but if you were asked to describe the objective measurements that exhaust the definition of the word, you would be hard pressed to do so).

On the other hand, if pressed, I’m not sure I would sign totally onboard with the conclusion of the thought experiment. Something about it doesn’t quite sit with me, though I’m not sure I can articulate it. So I guess I’ll open it up to you guys.

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