A Counterfactual Theory of Morality


A Counterfactual Theory of Morality



It is frequently maintained that moral sentences are logically misleading: they look like straightforward fact-stating descriptive statements but actually they are not. Their underlying logical form differs from their surface grammatical form. Thus the emotive theory treats them as expressions of emotion (exclamations); the prescriptive theory takes them to be recommendations (imperatives); the anti-categorical-imperative theory interprets them as hypotheticals about desire; the existentialist philosophy condemns them as dispensable symptoms of bad faith not eternal truths. The thought is that the surface form of moral sentences (e.g. “Stealing is wrong”) invites errors of reification and that a paraphrase away from that form will reveal their logical nature to be other than it seems (compare Russell’s theory of descriptions, always the paradigm). We thus rid ourselves of entities and facts that offend our ontological sensibilities. In roughly this spirit I will suggest a new theory of the logical form of moral sentences, though I doubt that it has the liberating ontological significance boasted by other theories; I am concerned more with semantic accuracy than metaphysical purity.[1]

The theory can be simply stated: A moral proposition is a statement about what should be done in certain circumstances. To say that stealing is wrong, for example, is to say that if an occasion for stealing arises you should not take it. To say that generosity is right (or good) is to say that if an occasion for generosity arises you should so act. The idea is that if an opportunity to do a certain something arises you should act in a certain way and not in other ways. Life presents us with occasions of possible action (to steal or not to steal, to be generous or not to be) and morality directs us to act in one way rather than another. Thus the theory is a counterfactual theory in roughly the sense in which we have counterfactual theories of causation: to say that a causes b is to say that if an event like a were to occur an event like b would occur.[2] Causal statements look like simple categorical statements, but logically they have a counterfactual form—they are conditionals of a certain sort. There is no more to them than what such conditionals assert—nothing over and above the meaning of the counterfactual itself. Similarly, we say nothing more in saying that stealing is wrong than that you should not steal in situations in which stealing is an option. When a mother is instructing her child in the wrongness of stealing she is saying that stealing should not be done when the opportunity to steal arises. We might put it by saying that certain actions should not be performed when one might be tempted to perform the actions in question. If you feel like stealing and you think you can get away with it, don’t do it! Or better, you shouldn’t do it—it would be wrong. Likewise, if an opportunity to be kind presents itself, you should take that opportunity and act kindly. The logical form of a moral utterance is thus conditional: it says what should be done if certain possible conditions obtain. If no such conditions could ever arise, the statement would be pointless (ought implying can); the point of morality is to regulate possible action.

We can note three things about this analysis. First, it is irreducibly normative: it says what should be done in certain circumstances, not what is done or could be done or would be done. So it is not intended as a theory that attempts to leverage the normative from the non-normative, still less a theory that rejects the normative on metaphysical grounds. The normative is present there in full force. Second, the theory directly relates morality to action: morality is all about regulating actions—not about emotions or desires or Platonic forms or aggregates of happiness. It is also about actions as they might occur in the real world—situations an agent might actually confront. It is practical in that sense. It says that you should do this and you shouldn’t do that if such and such a predictable situation should arise. Third, it discourages overly fanciful metaphysical ideas—the Form of the Good, indefinable non-natural moral qualities, some heavy-duty forms of moral realism. It doesn’t, however, endorse forms of moral anti-realism or reductionism, since it explicitly builds in a normative condition in the shape of “should”; it merely advises against taking moral sentences as logically analogous to such sentences as “Gravity is proportional to mass” or “London is populous”, which are not logically conditional. To say that stealing is wrong is not to categorically ascribe a property to an object, as those sentences do, but to make a statement about what should be done in certain circumstances. Moral propositions are thus like dispositional propositions (e.g. “salt is soluble in water”): superficially they seem like simple categorical statements, but deep down they are conditional in form. They function to abbreviate a more complex-looking counterfactual conditional. That didactic mother might pedantically remark, “Stealing is wrong, i.e. you shouldn’t steal if an occasion arises where you might be tempted to”. She is not attempting to dispense with the moral concept of wrongness—indeed, she invokes it when employing the word “should”—but merely spelling out the formal content of the original sentence. She might even try to avoid all possible confusion by saying explicitly, “You morally shouldn’t do it”. She isn’t attempting to get outside the moral circle, just to articulate the thrust of a moral affirmation—it’s about what should and shouldn’t be done in certain possible circumstances.

Does this theory avoid moral “queerness”? There are all sorts of metaphysical assumptions about that question that I would dispute, but we can quickly respond as follows: no in one way, but yes in another. No, in that we are still invoking an irreducibly normative notion in the shape of “should”; but yes, in that we are not postulating something that transcends constraints on action—as arguably Plato’s Form the Good does (as it might be interpreted anyway). We are not invoking an entity that is fit to be gazed at and adulated, like some sort of radiant god, but rather enunciating principles governing human action. There are metaphysical extravagances that might be discouraged by the down-to-earth proposal to paraphrase moral statements in the manner suggested, but theorists looking for naturalistic reduction or elimination will be disappointed. The proposal is metaphysically modest, being merely an attempt to get the semantics straight. The proper form of objection to the theory would be that it fails to capture the entailments of moral sentences, or generates unacceptable entailments, but no such objection has hitherto been offered; and the theory seems on solid ground in that respect. Of course, we can go on to ask what justifies such a conditional should-statement—that is, what makes such a statement true—and here we may expect the usual array of theories to offer themselves, e.g. divine command theory, moral relativism, utilitarianism, deontology, social contract theory, etc. But that is to go beyond what the theory set out to accomplish, namely an account of logical form. If the child asks her mother why she shouldn’t do such-and-such, the mother might reply by sketching her favored moral theory; or she might loftily respond by observing that she is merely informing her child of what moral statements mean. If her daughter is precocious enough, she might further comment, “Moral propositions are logically analogous to causal propositions according to the counterfactual theory”. Here we can imagine the clever child replying, “If that’s all you are saying I quite agree, though there is still much work in moral theory to be done once questions of logical form are out of the way”.

An intuitive way to put the theory is as follows: morality is fundamentally about making the correct moral decisions as the occasion arises. Decisions are made in concrete circumstances. Abstract moral propositions don’t always make this clear (“Humility is a virtue”, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”), but it is close to the surface of moral discourse. We may say grandly that stealing is wrong and generosity is right, but what we mean is that you shouldn’t decide to steal something when it is in front of your nose and you fancy having it, and you should decide to act generously to someone who needs help even if you have other things to do. Moral propositions are essentially about what decisions to make in what circumstances—hence conditionals about what should and shouldn’t be done when certain situations arise. We might call this theory the “normative hypothetical” theory: “if it is the case that p, you should/shouldn’t do X”—a conditional with a descriptive antecedent and a normative consequent.[3]



[1] I say “new” but it is entirely possible that the theory has been enunciated elsewhere; it is certainly commonsensical. Still, it is far from orthodox.

[2] I won’t fuss with exact formulation, types and tokens, etc. I am merely making a comparison. (I am also not endorsing counterfactual theories of causation.)

[3] The same kind of account is attractive for statements of prudence, e.g. “Eating in moderation is good”. What this says is that when you are presented with food you should not stuff yourself—if food is placed in front of you, you should consume it in moderation. The prudent person is one who does what he (prudentially) should when negotiating the conditions if life.

2 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    If ‘stealing is wrong’ (for example) bears the same meaning as ‘in a situation where an occasion for stealing arises, you should not take it’, then how is it that the former appears to be an appropriate and non-trivial answer to the question ‘why?’ asked of the latter?

    Also, statements of the form ‘you should not do X in any situation where X is possible’ are not distinctively moral, which it seems they should be, if this is the proper analysis of statements of the form ‘X is (morally) wrong’. For example, ‘you should not under any circumstances spend the entirety of your hard-earned savings in a frenzied night of gambling’ is not essentially a moral statement, it’s a normative statement based about what would be contrary to self-interest to do.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Note that I made it explicit that the “should” is the “should” of morality, so that we could say “morally should” if the context doesn’t make it clear that we are talking about morality. Then it is no answer to that why-question to say “Because it’s morally wrong” since that is already implied.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.