Ethical Realism

January 3, 2009

Book I: Metaethics Part 1 (What is Metaethics?)

Ethics is the philosophy of morality and values. Parts of ethics includes the following:

  • Moral theory: How do we determine what is morally permissible, impermissible, obligatory, heroic, etc.?
  • Applied ethics: Is abortion/the death penalty/self-defense permissible?
  • Metaethics: Is any moral statement true? What does “value” mean? What is a meaningful life? Does anything have intrinsic value?

What I am most interested in right now is whether or not anything really matters (metaethics). Is there real goodness? This is understood by philosophers as being “intrinsic value.” Something that is intrinsically good should be promoted and will be related to our motivation to promote it. (If pleasure is intrinsically good, then we should help people experience pleasure and this knowledge will make us want to do so.)

I will argue that in order for ethical philosophy to be seen as “important” we will have be “moral realists.” As moral realists we will agree that there are moral facts, ethical statements can be true or false, and we can make progress at identifying which ethical statements are true or false. Moral realists agree to the following points:

  • Moral facts are not reducible to nonmoral facts. If we found out that moral truth was just whatever a culture believed to be true, then it isn’t true in the right sense. In fact, that kind of thinking might lead us to the conclusion that “morality isn’t real.” Instead, we should just talk about what cultures want people to do.
  • Intrinsic value is real. Something really matters.

Ethical Skepticism

Skepticism of ethical philosophy is a barrier to finding the importance of philosophy and using philosophy to improve our lives. Consider the various kinds of ethical skepticism:

  • Moral Relativism: What a person or culture believes is good or bad is true because of the belief. Moral relativism is a very confusing ethical position.
  • Nihilism: Many people (including philosophy professors) are nihilists in the sense of denying that there are moral facts. Nothing “really matters.” A nihilist doesn’t believe anything has intrinsic value. (Your existence matters to you, but it doesn’t make the world “better” in any way.)
  • Noncognitivism: Moral statements don’t have a truth value. It isn’t actually true that “murder is wrong.” When we think we say ethical truths, we are actually doing something else. (Saying “murder is wrong” might be like saying “murder!” in a very emotive and angry way.)
  • Ethical agnosticism: We can’t know whether or not there are ethical facts. (We can’t know if human life has intrinsic value.)
  • Qusasi-Agnosticism of ethics: Although there are moral facts, we can’t know them. (We don’t even know if or when killing people is wrong.)

Consider how these positions might harm the view that philosophy is important:

Moral relativism comes in many forms. The most undeveloped form could simply insist that whatever a person or culture believes is right or wrong is true just because they believe it is. The more sophisticated forms of moral relativism are generally identical to the other forms of moral skepticism (nihilism, noncognitivism, or agnosticism).

The reason that a nihilist might be a moral relativist is because he might think the question, “Is murder wrong?” is merely asking something like, “Do you believe in murder?” or “Does your culture believe in murder?” In other words, “moral truth” might be nothing more than moral beliefs.

Although some moral rules might be relative to a culture (such as the fact that we should drive on the right side of the road in the USA), these rules are often in respects not grounded in cultural values. Instead, they are ultimately grounded in the true worth of things beyond our beliefs, such as our value of human life. (We don’t want to get into a car crash.) Moral relativism is not supposed to merely say that culture (or the individual) has a partial influence on moral rules. Instead, it claims that culture (or the individual) entirely determines what has value.

Some forms of moral relativism might say that moral truths require us to talk about the individual or person in question. The fact that “human beings have value” might be true about America, but not true about some other country. It would not be true that “human beings have value” unless it is about a certain culture. Instead, we would have to say, “Human beings have value for Americans,” or at least imply something like that. It might also be true that “human beings have value” universally (for all cultures), but it will only be true when referring to the culture (and because of the culture). It might be universally true for a time, but it is a contingent fact.

Although I found moral relativism to be absurd, it might be true that beliefs do have some relevance to ethics. For example, it might be true that we should “do what we believe is best based on careful consideration.” If the evidence points to the fact that it is wrong to kill people, then it will be wrong to kill someone regardless of the truth. We might be deceived, but we will still be justified in thinking that it is wrong to kill people. Therefore, if the evidence points to the fact that we shouldn’t kill people, then it is true that we shouldn’t kill people. We can admit that ideally we would know all moral truths and we would promote whatever factually has value, but we cannot be expected to always act on what is true when it is impossible to do so. (“Ought” implies “can.” If you “ought” to do it, then you “can” do it.) This view of belief-dependence is not really a form of moral relativism because it isn’t really beliefs and culture that determines what has value. It is simply the evidence and a sincere attempt to attain evidence that determines right and wrong, which is independent from our beliefs in some sense. (Hopefully the evidence is attained from reality itself.)

Nihilism will deny the possibility that our understanding of ethics can improve because there simply aren’t any intrinsic values for us to discover. We can’t find out what moral statements are true because they are all false. “X is wrong” is always false because nothing is wrong.

A nihilist could admit that we can use something like ethical philosophy to promote our personal interests, but even this possibility will be disheartening. Psychologically, we are most interested in doing something that truly matters. Our personal interests tend to be based on what we believe to have intrinsic value. Watching movies might be for nothing more than our personal pleasure, but what kind of a life would we have devoid of intrinsic value? We want to help other people and create something of real importance.

Noncognitivism is even more destructive towards the belief that philosophy is important. Noncognitivism will argue that ethical philosophy is not only fruitless—it is meaningless. If moral statements have no truth-value, then arguments concerning moral facts are meaningless. Of course, we can share our personal feelings concerning various activities. We can also work with other people on agreed goals. But just like nihilism, nothing really matters. Philosophy might help us achieve our personal interests, but it would be disheartening to find out that our interests don’t matter.

Ethical agnosticism and quasi-agnosticism of ethics can both agree that philosophizing about ethics is fruitless. We can never find out if or when killing people is wrong, so why try? Of course, there can be sophisticated agnostics who do believe that progress can be made. Perhaps we cannot arrive at ethical “truths,” but perhaps we can find out which moral statements are the most plausible. Just like we can never be sure what scientific theories are true, we might never be sure what moral theories are true. We might never even know how much each theory approximates the truth. Nevertheless, progress can be made and any amount of progress could be seen as important. We might never know if anything matters, but we can still weigh the evidence concerning if or when something might matter.

The most famous ethical agnostic philosopher is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said of ethics and metaphysics, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” This is the most extreme kind of ethical agnosticism that would require us to have no opinions about ethics despite the fact that there could be moral facts. This form of agnosticism makes it quite clear that ethical philosophy is impossible and for that very reason it is also in some sense “unimportant.” (Wittgenstein thought we can’t have an opinion about the “most important things,” such as ethics.)

One sophisticated form of ethical agnosticism is “ethical instrumentalism.” This can be better understood when we relate it to “instrumentalists” in the philosophy of science. In the philosophy of science there is a debate about whether or not unobservable theoretical entities actually exist. (Theoretical entities include electrons, photons, quarks, super strings, DNA, etc.) Some philosophers called “instrumentalists” have argued that we don’t know if they actually exist, and scientists in fact only require that the theoretical entities are “useful.” For example, they might be involved with a causal process or prediction, but we might not know for sure that “electron” (or whatever) is the correct description of the actual entity that exists. In exactly this same way we can be agnostic about whether or not “ethical entities” (or ethical properties, such as “goodness”) actually exist, or if our descriptions of moral reality falls short of what “actually exists.” This is a kind of ethical agnosticism could claim that we have no idea whether or not there is any ethical reality at all and ethical judgments are best justified using pragmatic consideration, or ethical instrumentalists could be quasi-agnostics and agree that some kind of moral reality exists, but we don’t know which moral statements are true in particular. Instead, we just side with whatever ethical statements have the most pragmatic support.

How would an instrumentalist decide whether to be strongly agnostic or only quasi-agnostic? Scientific instrumentalists tend to only be quasi-agnostic about scientific entities because some kind of causal process is involved in the world quite separate from our opinions of that reality. Some kind of entity or property does exist, but we might lack the means to fully describe it. In a similar way a moral instrumentalist might have to admit that we somehow know of a moral reality quite separate from our opinions of it. At the same time we might lack the means necessary to fully describe that moral reality.

Agnosticism concerning ethics is a greatly neglected topic in contemporary ethics. The possibility that someone is an “agnostic” rather than a “realist” or “antirealist” is often ignored. For example, David Hume and Frederiech Nietzsche are often argued to be antirealists. I see some reason to believe that they agree to some sort of agnosticism, but I have never read anyone who considered this (and refuted it.)

To repeat: We face a dilemma about whether or not ethical philosophy is important. In order to see it as important, we will have to believe we can make progress. Moral skepticism is a challenge by giving us various reasons that we cannot make progress for understanding ethical truths. Nihilism and noncognitivism are the most severe forms of ethical skepticism that give us no hope of progress. However, sophisticated forms of agnosticism concerning ethics might escape this problem.

Metaethical Positions

The positions of metaethics include anti-realism (including nihilism and noncognitivism) and realism. A sophisticated agnostic could still side with either of these positions. (Although we don’t know for sure what is true, the most evidence might point to one or the other.)

The belief that ethical philosophy is worthwhile will require us to be moral realists: A moral realist believes that there are moral facts and that language can give true and false statements about moral reality. Moreover, we will have to believe that progress can be made. We will have to be able to give evidence concerning which moral statements are among the most plausible (or approximately true).

Since realism is required in order to believe that ethical philosophy is important, an argument that ethical philosophy is important will first have to prove that ethical philosophy can make progress. This would require us to prove that moral antirealism is less plausible than realism.



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  9. As an ethical instrumentalist myself, I am curious where you obtained your definition of one. My position is not “that which has the most pragmatic support is that which ought to be done,” at least not of logical necessity. My instrumentalist position is firstly a denial that ethical concepts carry cognitive value, and secondly that ethical (and philosophical) concepts, beliefs, etc. are instruments by which people justify our instincts, urges, developed preferences, and self interests.

    I just wanted to point out the general distinction. My understanding comes from here:

    Comment by Cheesy Mac — January 13, 2015 @ 3:03 am | Reply

    • I wrote this some years ago back in 2009, so I can’t really remember where I got the ideas from. I might have just thought of it as an option based on my understanding of instrumentalism in philosophy of science. I don’t really remember even writing this anymore. The type of instrumentalism I mention could very well be quite different from what someone else calls “instrumentalism.” Language is not always used in consistent ways among philosophers.

      What would it mean to deny that moral language has cognitive value?

      What would you as an instrumentalist say about protecting the interests of animals? I think it’s important that we protect their interests, even though it might come at a cost to ourselves.

      Comment by JW Gray — January 13, 2015 @ 3:50 am | Reply

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