Ethical Realism

August 25, 2009

Chapter 3.12 “Moral Reality” by Mark Platts

Mark Platts is mostly concerned with defending moral realism from various objections, but he also endorses a specific form of moral realism, intuitionism, in order to make his defense of moral realism more specific. He makes it clear that he is interested in a form of moral realism in which moral facts are not reducible to nonmoral facts (283). He agrees that moral facts supervene (are dependent on) on nonmoral facts, but moral facts do not merely consist in the nonmoral facts (283). He lists three main aspects of intuitionism: First, intuitionism makes it clear that moral facts are not reducible to nonmoral facts. Two, intuitionism is compatible with a moral realist use of language. Three, intuitionism can admit that genuine moral dilemmas are possible.

Mark Platts then considers various challenges to moral realism. One, different people have different conceptions of goods, so there is probably nothing those conceptions refer to. Two, there’s no way to determine who’s moral beliefs are true, so probably no one’s moral beliefs are true. Three, realism neglects moral discussion and reasoning. Four, realism neglects moral choice and responsibility. Five, supervenience leads to moral reductionism. Six, moral facts can’t be reasons for action without referring to a person’s desires.

What is intuitinism?

Intuitionism is moral realist theory that states that there are moral facts that are not reducible to nonmoral facts. It does not suggest that we have a special faculty of the mind to detect moral facts (285). We detect moral facts through observation.

Moral Facts are not reducible to nonmoral facts

If moral facts were reducible to nonmoral facts, then we could dispense with moral facts. We might even say, “We thought there were moral facts, but we found out that we were just talking about something else.” Some utilitarians reduce moral facts to facts about pleasure, pain, desire-satisfaction, and so forth. Intuitionists don’t.

Moral realist use of language

We tend to have a realist view of scientific and moral language. We often use sentences we expect to be true or false even if we aren’t certain. We can speak about “the truth-conditions of moral sentences even if those truth-conditions are beyond his (present) recognitional abilities” (284).

Moral dilemmas are possible

Although moral facts refer indirectly to “the good,” more specific virtues and values are more relevant to our moral judgments, such as “sincere,’ ‘loyal,’ ‘compassionate'” (285). These goods might be mutually reinforcing in many situations, but they might also be able to conflict. It might not be possible to determine what course of action is “best” when each course of action promotes different goods.

Platts believes that moral dilemmas will allow us to embrace moral pluralism and reject the view of ethics as a decision procedure. “[T]here is certainly no reason to believe that there is one kind of decision-procedure, some one golden rule (Do the best!), that will determine, in any given state of affairs, what we should do. Pluralistic intuitionism, unlike utilitarianism, requires the abandonment of the false hope for such a procedure” (285).

Objections to moral realism

Different conceptions of goods

People have different criteria when using words, so they have different conceptions of concepts. People tend to think of water as a clear wet liquid, but others might think of water as a hard cold stone-like substance, and others might think of water as H2O. All of these people have a different conception of one thing. In the same way people can have a different conception of a word like “courage.” Some might understand courage as a fearlessness, but someone else might understand it to be acting despite fear.

The anti-realist can suggest that courage, unlike water, doesn’t actually exist. Different groups of people have different conceptions of made up values and virtues. We might think two groups of people are discussing “courage,” but they are actually just talking about similar virtues with different criteria. We have no reason to believe such a conception has any relation to reality because there would be no way for people with different moral conceptions to resolve moral disputes and come to an agreement.

Even if we can roughly translate the terms he uses in morally describing his action, that translation cannot be a good one, our grasp upon the relevant concept must be lacking, if we cannot see how that characterization makes that action even prima facie morally desirable, let alone morally praiseworthy tout court. But there is no way of resolving such moral ‘disputes’, no way of ensuring that we can first be led to see things as the Sicilian sees them (or that he be led to see them as we see them), and no way of then deciding, externally from any such system of moral perception, which is the correct one. (286)

Platts is not convinced by this objection for five reasons. One, differences in moral judgments does not necessarily imply the falsity of moral realism, just like differences in scientific judgments doesn’t imply the falsity of scientific realism (287). People’s moral beliefs can be false.

Two, our false beliefs can sometimes be corrected. “Given reflection upon our own experiences and psychological characteristics, we can come to see the error of our moral views; we can come to change our moral views in an intelligibly nonarbitrary manner” (287).

Three, a moral realist would expect differences in moral beliefs and conceptions, just like scientific beliefs and conceptions. We can learn that water is H2O. We can find out that some of our moral conceptions are inadequate. Science tries to use a limited language and understanding of physical reality to understand something that is indefinitely complex. In a similar way, we grapple with ethics because it relates to something indefinitely complex (287).

Four, the fact that people have different moral conceptions does not mean that they have different moral concepts. People might try to detect instances of a moral concept in different ways, but that doesn’t mean they are talking about different concepts. (We might differ in how we decide what counts as generous, for example.) If people completely misunderstand what the word “generous” means, then we are pretty good at figuring out that they aren’t talking about the concept of generosity. We might not yet know how far off someone’s conception of generosity must be in order to be thinking about a concept other than generosity, but it is quite possible for us to have somewhat different conceptions of generosity while talking about the same concept (288).

Five, the fact that some people lack moral concepts that we have doesn’t indicate antirealism about ethics any more than the fact that some people lack scientific concepts (e.g. electrons) indicates scientific antirealism (288). (That there is no such thing as electrons.)

There is no way to determine who’s moral beliefs are true

This is basically the old idea, “Who’s to say?” Every culture has different moral conceptions and we have no way of understanding them. Even if we did, we would have no way of knowing which conception is true (or the most accurate) (288).

Platts finds this objection to be unconvincing and assures us that we can try to bring someone’s attention to the part of reality that we are dealing with. If someone doesn’t know the difference between red and pink, we would try to show them things of each color until they notice a difference.

People often have a hard time noticing the gray areas of things, and morality is no different. The fact that someone doesn’t notice the subtle difference between courage and fearlessness doesn’t convince us that there is no ambiguity to be seen.  “[T]here are many ways in which we might attempt to draw somebody’s attention to that ambiguity” (289).

Some people’s moral conceptions might be radically different or entirely absent. In this case it would be like teaching someone what color is rather than the difference between pink and red. How is color different from anything else? If someone didn’t know what color was, we wouldn’t decide there’s no such thing. We would try to bring their attention to what they have been overlooking. In a similar way, we could try to bring their attention to what courage is and how it differs from everything else, as well as any other moral concept.

The procedure for understanding another’s moral view is that of leaving oneself open to his efforts to draw our attention to the (distinctive) features he claims to detect, perhaps by his engaging us in the practices he engages in. Usually, we shall come to see the difference as non-radical, as a difference of conceptions, not of concepts; but if that difference is radical–if we just cannot see what he is talking about–then the tentative conclusion is tat he is in radical error–or that we are. (289)

Platts does not discuss what happens if we learn new moral conceptions that we lacked. I think we can do this quite often, and it often does involve subtle differences.  For example, must of us understand the difference between supererogatory (above the call of duty), obligatory, and morally neutral actions, but there is no word for the opposite of supererogatory: Something that is wrong, but not forbidden. It’s not exactly beyond the call of duty to refrain from being obnoxious or rude. It’s not exactly forbidden to be obnoxious or rude. Still, this moral category could be useful and it could reflect a part of reality that we generally ignore due to it currently lacking a place in our language.

Realism neglects moral discussion and reasoning

Antirealists might argue that for an intuitionist, “you either see it or you don’t” (290). On the contrary, Platts argues that discussion can be necessary to draw people’s attention to the situation at hand and to the subtleties of the moral aspects involved. Also, we might need to consider the various irrelevant attitudes that might cloud our judgment.

Realism neglects moral choice and responsibility

The objection amounts to saying that realism can’t account for the desirability of multiple moral perspectives because only one person can be right.

Platts replies by arguing that everyone should believe whatever is true about ethics, just like in science, but we generally have a very imperfect understanding of reality. It can be beneficial to have competing perspectives and theories in ethics, just like in science. It is often the case that no one view has yet been established as being true, and that is a good reason to construct various hypotheses (290).

Platts admits that he doesn’t understand how a moral realist avoids responsibility. Anyone who asserts something is true and tries to persuade others that it is true, that person will have to live with the consequences. This is true about science and ethics alike (291).

Supervenience leads to moral reductionism

Any difference in moral facts requires a difference in nonmoral facts. If nonmoral facts are the same, then moral facts are the same. If moral facts depend on nonmoral facts, then we can simply reduce moral facts to nonmoral facts.

Platts gives two replies to this worry. One, moral concepts must be applied to the nonmoral facts in order to determine the moral facts involved. (Helping others in a fearful situation can be found to involve courage when we understand the concept of courage and the values it can promote.) We are able to give reasons for our moral judgments based on our understanding of moral concepts and theories, which are not nonmoral facts (292).

Two, we are sometimes able to reduce moral reality to a set of rules in which moral reality could be reduced to nonmoral reality, but this is just out of laziness. These rules neglect the indefinite complexity of the situation.

In ordinary moral life, the problem is not that of squaring our present judgments with our previous judgments, but hat of attending to the full, unobvious moral complexity of the present case… determining our moral judgment about a particular case by means of some rule seizing upon non-moral aspects of that case will simply mean that we neglect the full complexity of that particular case. (292-293)

Actually, Platts admits that we can also understand moral rules to be indispensable “rules of thumb” to help us make decisions (293). It can be too difficult to attend to the full complexity of the situation.

Moral facts can’t be reasons for action without referring to a person’s desires.

We expect moral facts to be reasons for actions, and our actions are often said to show the sincerity of our moral beliefs, but the antirealist will argue that moral realism can’t account for the fact that nothing can be a reason for action unless it involves our desires. So, being hungry is a reason to eat because it involves your desire for food. Ethics must then be something personal and it can’t be universalized. “Whether a moral ‘description’ of a case is ‘true’ or not depends upon the desires of the person considering it” (293).

Platts suggests that we often do something because we find it desirable, even if we don’t desire it. He admits that someone might again object to this response by saying, But if you find it desirable, then it is desired!” However, he argues that this is “phenomenologically false… or utterly vacuous” (294). We don’t feel the desire mentioned, so the word “desire” here might just be referring to a “mental-catch-all” (294). Whatever we are motivated to do, by definition, we might say we have desire for.

Platts then considers a related objection involving Anscombe’s analysis of beliefs and desires. Beliefs are meant to be the same as the facts of the world. False beliefs should be changed. Desires ask us to change the facts of the world. Unsatisfied desires do not ask to be changed. Given this analysis, morality does not fit into the belief area because we want our moral beliefs to guide our actions to change the facts in the world. “If thinking something desirable is to be a reason for doing it, then that notion cannot, contrary to the realist’s view, be assimilated to pure factual beliefs. Such an assimilation divorces moral judgments from reasons for action (294).

Mark Platts offers various replies to this objection, but he admits that they aren’t conclusive. One, some factual beliefs indirectly also express “other mental attitudes of a less cognitive kind, of moral sentiments” (295). However, moral sentiments do not determine the truth of moral facts. Platts admits that this answer is unsatisfying because it implies that the realist has an obligation to describe how moral sentiments come about and how they are tied to moral beliefs.

Two, the realist can demand an argument that justifies the fact that reasons for action must be desires rather than beliefs. (Can be used to motivate us to change the world, but they shouldn’t be changed when they fail to describe reality.) Perhaps moral reasons are facts that also motivate action, so Anscombe’s analysis might be wrong about there only being beliefs and desires. Moral beliefs might be a different category that has elements of both.

Our understanding of moral sincerity supports the view that belief and desire are not easily separable when concerning ethics. A person who acts on their moral beliefs because of the beliefs are acting sincerely. Such people are sincere because they are motivated by the moral belief and because such a motivation implies that they think the moral belief is true (296). Additionally, in order to show sincerity with a moral belief, we must act in accordance with that belief. This kind of moral belief can be one about reality, so the belief is only approximately true if it approximates reality. At the same time it is important that the belief is partly the cause of the person’s action or their action would not show sincerity (an attitude towards a moral fact) (296-297).

An example of moral sincerity might be when people save a child’s life because they think the child’s life is valuable. They are motivated to save the child’s life because they believe that it is true that the child’s life has value.

(Platts admits that a person can be quite sincere about a moral belief and still not act in accordance with their moral belief, which is often attributed to “weakness of will”) (297-298).

My Objections

Why call it intuitionism?

First, I don’t know why he calls it “intuitionism.” There seems to be no intuition involved.

How do we identify intrinsic values?

Second, Mark Platts neglects the issue of identifying intrinsic values. He speaks of goods like any virtue would do, but virtues are generally not taken to be intrinsically valuable. Courage can be indispensable in accomplishing goals, but it is generally not taken to be a goal worthy for its own sake. He says that our goods might conflict, which sounds like he believes them to have intrinsic value. When we want to promote one intrinsic value, it might be at the detriment of another.

Platts says,

Wittgenstein says that we only call a picture ‘beautiful’ when we cannot be bothered to think of anything more specific (or interesting) to say about it. The same is true of calling something ‘good’. The interesting, basic terms of moral description are things like: ‘sincere’, ‘loyal’, ‘compassionate’, and so on… The version of intuitionism I want to consider does admit of [moral] dilemmas by being pluralistic. For this version, there are many distinct ethical properties whose occurrence can be detected–sincerity, loyalty, honesty, and so on–and there is no reason a priori to assume that they cannot conflict. (285)

Here he is implying that there are more than one kind of good, such as sincerity. All of the goods mentioned are virtues. But it isn’t clear that any of the virtues are meant to be intrinsically valuable. If they aren’t, then there might be no interesting moral conflict because nothing really matters. If they are intrinsically valuable, then how do we know that? How can we identify intrinsic value? He says that we can do so through observation, but it isn’t clear how that can happen. Examples would be helpful.

Why do we need to desire what is moral? (Updated September 1, 2009)

Third, I don’t quite understand the reason versus desire debate involving motivation. I do suspect that we are always motivated to do what is right if we do it, and I don’t find Platts’s argument convincing. He says that this is just seeing desire as a mental catch-all. Maybe desire is a mental catch-all, but not necessarily by definition. We might have evidence that we are always motivated to do whatever we end up doing.

As far as I can tell we don’t need to be motivated to do what is good. If something has intrinsic value, whether or not we desire it is irrelevant. Perhaps we could find out that we have no reason to do whatever promotes that which has intrinsic value. This seems false considering what “intrinsic value” means, but we probably have different ideas about what “reason for action” means. We might have a kind of objective idea of reason for action and a subjective one. The objective meaning of “reason for action” could include promoting intrinsic value because it is in some sense “good” to do so. Promoting intrinsic values imply that there are certain goals worth accomplishing for everyone. The subjective idea of reason for action sounds like it relates to little more than desire-satisfaction. We have a reason to to try to accomplish our personal goals.

Objective and subjective reasons might relate to different meanings of the word “ought” or “should.” You “should” use a gun to shoot someone you want to kill in the sense that it is an effective way to accomplish that goal, but we also have a moral reason to refrain from doing so. We “shouldn’t” use a gun to shoot someone in the sense that human life has intrinsic value. Accomplishing personal goals is a kind of subjective reason for action and promoting intrinsic value is a kind of objective reason for action.

I admit that both objective and subjective reasons for actions are worthy of consideration. It might be that objective reasons for action make no difference. It is possible that we are never motivated to promote intrinsic value. How can this dilemma be solved? We might simply desire to promote intrinsic value. Anyone who desires to promote intrinsic value could be a fully moral person, and those who don’t desire to satisfy intrinsic value can’t be fully moral. It might be that there is a psychological prerequisite to being a moral person. That isn’t too surprising to me. Children, the insane, and other primates all seem incapable of being moral in the sense that mature adults can be moral.

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: