Moral judgments are always false
Ultimate moral judgments are always false—not like “Santa Claus exists” is false but like “Green grows” is: it is false because it is illogical, due to using concepts outside their range of application. As to “Green grows,” only particular things, not properties of things, can grow; and analogously, something is “good” only with respect to some purpose. A good hammer is good for hammering; a good move in a game is good for winning; but nothing is simply “good.” What is a good man or a good deed? Good for what?
At the turn of the 20th century, G. E. Moore developed Hume’s conclusion: what’s good or what's obligatory—ought to be done—can’t be derived from is. Moore made the reasoning behind Hume’s discovery intuitive and showed that moral claimants commit a logical confusion, although Moore didn’t regard his argument as refuting moral realism, the objective existence of moral facts. Moore argued that moral judgments, claims about what one ought to do, can’t be restated as factual. Take any moral platitude—you ought not kill, you ought to treat others as you want them to treat you—you can always ask the further question: why is it true, but the question has no meaningful answer. No facts can ground moral ultimates, since, if they did, the moral platitude wouldn’t be ultimate: it would surrender its ultimacy to whatever moral principle links the platitude to factual truth.
The higher reaches of ethical philosophy (meta-ethics) preoccupies itself with finding a naturalistic response to Moore’s demonstration. One proposed solution is to identify morality with a purportedly innate moral orientation, but this answer doesn’t rebut Moore; you can still ask why ought we to do what our instinctual impulses demand. This goes regardless of whether the innate morality is conceived as sparse—for example, starvation is bad; all-encompassing—human flourishing is good; or abstract—whatever complex function our brains “compute” in moral judgments. What we tend to do is no moral argument for what we ought to do; what we inevitably do is even more obviously irrelevant to the moral question.
Explicit morality is a tool for forming habits
An unrecognized problem in rejecting the existence of moral facts conduces to the overwhelming intellectual resistance to Moore’s almost obvious conclusion. If moral judgments are unnatural, are false just in that they can neither imply nor be implied by facts, how can moral beliefs play any role in directing behavior? People seem to accept moral realism because they think that morality plays a role in their natural lives—they donate to charity because they ought to—but why would someone do something merely because they think they ought to do it? The apparent answer is that they’re hypnotized by language; having learned they should do B to get A, they do B when they ought to, failing to notice they have misused “ought” by omitting any context for B’s efficacy, previously set by A, an error that would leave them without any way to decide how hard they’ll strive for B. If you do B because you should, due to its being a means to A, the effort you devote to B and the sacrifices you endure for it depend on how much you want A. If you do B simply because you ought to, how hard do you work at B? How much do you donate to charity because it’s what you simply ought to do? Their making these decisions suggests that people have some way to decide how much weight to give morality. A paradox then arises when the moral judgment gains its force from seeming like an instrumental judgment but is lacking in just what makes effort apportionment possible. Moral judgments must serve some natural function, some directive function; even moral hypocrisy works only because morality can have some directive effect, which, therefore, must be reconciled with rejecting moral facts.
The perplexity is rooted in a bias favoring belief and desire over habit in explaining behavior. In its basic function, explicit morality is a tool for using force of habit to resist the temptation of narrow self-interest. Consider a typical temptation: students in a packed room taking a multiple choice test, one student peeks at the answers of his neighbor, another doesn’t. Or friends tell one another “true” stories, where one embellishes the facts, another doesn’t. Much ethical behavior is automatic: often, people will avoid cheating or will tell the truth without any thought as to the options. If you want to be a person whose practical morality excludes cheating or telling false stories, you are best off forming the habit. Deciding to take a short-term loss is hard, energy consuming, and unpleasant, and it becomes harder, more energy consuming, and more unpleasant the more often you must decide. Honest people, whatever the lengths and limits of their honesty, are people who have made a habit of honesty. Their honesty is the habit of honesty. The terms of your explicit morality define the kind of person you want to become—the choice itself without moral foundation. (Which is not to say it is “freely” chosen.)
Different moral strokes for different moral folks
Regardless of its content, morality takes different forms. Explicit morality can consist of specific commands, usually negative, such as the Ten Commandments (deontology); it can consist of general goals, such as create the greatest happiness or welfare (consequentialism); or it can consist of virtue prescriptions, such as wisdom, honesty, and generosity (virtue ethics). Given that explicit morality is a species-specific self-control method, not in any sense a set of truths, we can ask what form of morality most effectively serves that purpose. Most people’s explicit morality contains a mixture of these forms. Someone might apply deontology to serious criminal acts, consequentialism to resolving conflicts, and virtue ethics to personal decisions. The advantage of a unitary system is avoiding uncertainty around the edges, from which the agent may suffer both longer decision time and more numerous opportunistic, rationalized judgments.
Which form of explicit morality should dominate to best realize morality’s function depends on one’s central life ambitions. One surrounded with self-endangering temptations to break the law might benefit from deontology; one whose life is involved in balancing the conflicting demands of others—say, a politician, at least of the conventional sort—may benefit from strengthening his consequentialist tendencies; one oriented toward a largely internalized standard of excellence—an academic or, even more so, an artist—may be served best by virtue ethics.
The personal cost of moral realism is inflexibility in choice of moral framework. The inculcation of deontology often accompanies social oppression, one of the reasons religion can serve as the “opium of the people.” Pressures stifling intellectuals may be imbued with consequentialism. Wage earners indoctrinated in virtue ethics may seek to become model employees, despite better serving their greater interest with a morality focused on consequences. Since explicit morality is a tool, as with other tools, form follows function.