Ethical Realism

May 24, 2009

Chapter 3.9 “How to be a Moral Realist” by Richard N Boyd Part 2

Objections to Moral Realism

In order to show that moral realism can be appealing, Boyd must first show why moral realism isn’t unappealing.

Right now moral antirealism is popular and there are many objections people give to moral realism in order to prove that realism is implausible. Boyd considers several objections and shows how the same kinds of objections could be used against scientific realism, but would fail. Boyd will argue that these objections fail against moral realism for the same reason that they would fail against scientific realism.

This section will only discuss the objections to moral realism. The next section will be Boyd’s response to the objections.

1. Moral intuitions and empirical observation

In science we have empirical observation, which is reliable, but ethics relies on “intuition,” which is too spooky (184). We can see if a scientific theory is true because it has to conform to our observations. In the same way we test moral theories based on whether or not they confirm to our moral intuition. However, moral intuition could merely be a cultural prejudice or a set of baseless assumptions.

2. The role of “reflective equilibrium” in moral reasoning

Science requires that we accept all observational facts. However, moral reasoning often requires that we reject some of our moral intuitions in order to reduce the number our contradictory ethical beliefs. This is often necessary to achieve ethical coherence or “reflective equilibrium” (185). “Reflective equilibrium” is a coherence theory of justification. In other words, it is impossible for two contradictory ethical beliefs to be true, so one of those contradictory beliefs must be rejected (despite the fact that we have evidence that both are true). If ethics concerns facts independent of our theorizing, then we need a way to confirm which intuitions are true instead of requiring us to arbitrarily keep some moral assumptions and discard others.

3. Moral progress and cultural variability

Scientific progress is undeniable, but moral progress is dubious. Science requires objective observation that is irrelevant to culture, but ethical intuitions appear to be altered by culture. If ethics concerns a reality independent from its own theorizing, then we would expect that moral progress would be possible, and culture should not have such a strong influence over ethical claims (185).

4. Hard Cases

There are some ethical questions that appear to be unanswerable. If ethics concerns objective properties, then we should be able to answer all ethical questions. Scientific questions are sometimes “temporarily rather than permanently unanswerable” (186).

5. Naturalism and naturalistic definitions

“If goodness, for example, is a real property, then wouldn’t it be a natural property? If not, then isn’t moral realism committed to some unscientific and superstitious belief in the existence of non-natural properties?” If goodness would be a natural property, then isn’t moral realism committed to the extremely implausible claim that moral terms like ‘good’ possess naturalistic definitions (186)? Ethics seems to require some dubious moral entities, like Platonic forms. Platonic forms are non-natural, but are generally believed to be implausible for that very reason.

6. Morality, motivation, and rationality

Scientific facts provide us reasons for action because of our desires, but moral facts are supposed to give us reasons for action independently to our desires. If you find out that science claims that drinking more water will be healthy and you already desire health, then you will desire to drink more water. Moral facts are supposed to motivate you whether or not you desire it. Your duty to protect children should motivate you to do so whether or not you desire the children’s safety. But if moral facts are natural facts, like science provides, then it should motivate us in the same way (186).

7. The semantics of moral terms.

If ethics concerns objective facts, then we can all mean the same thing when we use moral terminology, like “good.” But each person’s moral terminology is unique (186-187). We might as well give up on the word “good” entirely because everyone means something else by it.

8. Verificationism and anti-realism in ethics.

We can reject both scientific realism and moral realism because they require us to accept unverifiable facts. Scientific entities can’t be accepted when they are unobservable, and moral facts can’t be accepted when they require us to accept unobservable facts.

Boyd’s Reply to the Objections

1. Moral semantics and disagreement

The fact that people disagree about moral truths (or semantics) need not indicate that there aren’t real moral facts that our beliefs refer to. Different people might disagree about scientific facts, but we still accept that there is something real that science refers to (199). Disagreement only indicates that someone is wrong. We can all be causally related to moral facts, just like scientific facts. We might not observe electrons directly, but we can observe a causal impact that electrons have. Therefore, we can refer to electrons based on its causal impact.

2. Moral intuitions

Scientists have unconscious beliefs that are generally approximately true, which are called “scientific intuitions.” It is possible that we have moral intuitions in the same way (206). We might have a hard time verbalizing or even identifying moral intuitions, but they can be approximately true when they are based on a strong understanding of ethics in general.

3. Reflective equilibrium

Scientists also use “reflective equilibrium” in order to justify scientific facts (199-200). We will ideally hope to be able to eliminate all incoherent (contradictory) beliefs. A coherence theory of justification is used in science. Scientists use observations in order to justify their theories, but theories are also necessary in order to have observations in the first place.  Observations without assumptions are meaningless. Observation is known to be “theory-laden” because it requires us to accept certain theories as assumptions.

Imagine observing a human being without any assumptions. You have no idea of solidity or an outside world. You see nothing but blotches. Only with the assumptions of solidity and an outside world (and our ability to see these things) can we observe a human being or a car.

Our beliefs of an outside world, solidity, and our ability to see these things are all confirmed by our observations. Our observations confirm our beliefs of an outside world, solidity, and our ability to see these things. This is a form of circular reasoning, but it is part of a coherence theory of justification.

A second challenge to reflective equilibrium: We can only reliably make use of scientific intuitions and scientific reflective equilibrium when we have approximately true scientific theories that cohere with causally relevant parts of reality. Do we have approximately true moral theories that must cohere with causally relevant parts of reality? If not, then for the same reason, we can’t reliably make use of moral intuitions and moral reflective equilibrium (200).

If we do have causally relevant moral beliefs, then what justifies them in this causal way? Observation. What serves the role of observation in ethics?

Boyd’s answer to the second challenge: Observation plays a causal role in ethical beliefs, just like scientific beliefs (206). Boyd believes that moral properties (good and bad) are ordinary natural (homeostatic cluster) properties. However, Boyd has a liberal concept of “observation” and thinks that introspection is a kind of observation. Also, Boyd believes that sympathy can play a role in our observations. (We are motivated to be moral because with sympathize with others and we dislike when others get hurt.)

4. Hard cases

We might have difficulty defining moral terms and finding moral facts because they refer to homeostatic cluster concepts (198). We can’t give a simple definition to all concepts. For example, we can’t simply say that the meaning of “bad” is “pain” because the word “bad” refers to five or six general requirements that need not all be present. Pain itself doesn’t prove that something is bad. In order for pain to be bad, it must also be seen as unnecessary in some important regard. Things other than pain might also be bad, such as unnecessary loss of human life. This is no different than scientific concepts, such as “health,” as Boyd already pointed out.

The fact that we can’t give a simple definition to a concept leads us to difficulty when we scientifically or ethically make use of the concept.

5. Morality, motivation, and rationality

The naturalistic moral realist (Boyd, for example), must reject that “moral judgments necessarily provide reasons for action” (214). Sociopaths and aliens might not be motivated the way that other people are to do the right thing. (And therefore lack reason to do what is right, assuming a reason for action has to be motivational.)

The reason that motivation and moral facts seem to have an intimate connection is because “the natural property moral goodness is one such that for psychologically normal humans, the fact that one of two choices is morally preferable will in fact provide some reason [motivation] for preferring it” (215). When we find out a child is in danger, we want to help. That is the kind of people we are based on our psychology. It isn’t a metaphysical property of the child’s value that forces us to be motivated, it is just a psychological fact about some or most people.

Homeostatic Consequentialism

What could moral realism look like, according to Boyd? He suggests that a consequentialist might satisfy moral realism in the following way:

  1. We will take certain goods as valuable, such as things that are required to satisfy human needs. (Satisfaction is intrinsically good) (203).
  2. Human goods are homeostatically clustered. They can be mutually supporting when balanced properly.
  3. Moral goodness is defined by this cluster of goods and the homeostatic mechanisms that unify them.
  4. Ethics can help us realize and maximize our goods, so we have a concern for ethics. We want to strengthen and maintain moral homeostasis.

Another Objection to Moral Naturalism

Richard Boyd is a moral naturalist, which means that he thinks that ethics concerns the ordinary natural world. The “ordinary natural world” could refer to atoms and energy (what some view as the ultimate truth about reality), but some naturalists, like Boyd, believe that there might be irreducible parts of reality. Atoms and energy might not be “the truth about reality” after all. Psychological facts (thoughts and experiences) might be just as real as (other) physical facts.

To say that ethics is natural usually means that the ultimate truth about reality is nonmoral. We can derive moral facts from nonmoral facts. (It is possible to say that moral reality is natural but not reducible to nonmoral reality, but that is not a popular viewpoint.)

A pretty common objection to moral naturalism is that if moral naturalism is true, then we wouldn’t need ethics anymore. What we know of as ethics could just be part of psychology and sociology, for example. Ethics would just be one more empirical science. This in and of itself might sound great, but morality seems to be something more than that. In particular, it seems to tell us what objectively matters. What is truly important. If we think it is important to save children from drowning, that is because the child’s life really matters.

Boyd would probably say that we say something is important just because we are emotionally driven. To say that it is important to save a child from drowning would just mean that (a) it satisfies a need and (b) we will get very upset if the child drowns. But the question remains: Do we get upset when a child will drown because the child really is important, or do we just say that it is important because of our own personal emotional attachments?

Notice that the word “need” itself is very questionable here. A human “need” is something that makes us happy (we need something to be happy) or it’s something we require in order to live (we need something to live). “Human needs” don’t really exist. What exists is our interest in happiness and survival. The question still remains: Is happiness or survival important? If not, we are just psychologically interested in these things. Boyd suggests that a sociopath has the wrong psychology to have an interest in other people’s survival and happiness, and that such a person would be “lacking” in some sense. This would be a “cognitive deficit.” But it’s only a cognitive deficit in the sense that we have already defined morality and importance based on promoting survival and happiness.

We could say that a person is morally wrong by definition because such a person wouldn’t promote survival or happiness. However, their wrong doing isn’t really important or evil in any sense. Their wrongdoing wouldn’t imply that they deserve punishment or blame. Importance, and deserving punishment and reward are all tied to a belief that morality is about something more than just a part of psychology.

Another reason that it might be worth considering morality as nonnatural is because if morality is natural (reducible to the natural world), then there would be no difference between realism and antirealism. We would behave and study ethics the same way as if we were antirealists. An antirealist could easily have a psychological or sociological study of ethics. We can use psychology and sociology to answer the relevant questions whether or not we are moral realists: How do people behave concerning ethics? What do people believe is important? How could we maximize our happiness and survival?


  1. […] Chapter 3.9.2: How to be a Moral Realist by Richard N Boyd Part 2 […]

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