Ethical Realism

September 16, 2009

What is Moral Realism?

(I wrote a new introduction to moral realism — “The Debate Over Moral Realism [5/20/2011])”

Before I create an argument that Moral Realism is plausible, I want to take a close look at what exactly Moral Realism and Anti-Realism entail. First, I will take a look at what moral realism and anti-realism mean. How do we know if someone is a moral realist or not? I will later take a look at what it would be like to adopt a moral realist or anti-realist perspective. We need to know how these perspectives relate to everyday life.

What is a moral realist?

A moral realist believes that there is at least one moral fact, and moral facts are not reducible to nonmoral facts. Moral statements are true or false, and at least one moral statement is true. An anti-realist merely disagrees with the moral realist in some respect. Moral realism in my view also requires us to accept intrinsic value (the view that some things are important).

Moral Cognitivism

Cognitivism is the theory that something is true or false. Statements are generally supposed to be cognitive. “I am a human being” is either true or false. “Boo!” Is an emotional expression that is not true or false. Moral cognitivism is the hypothesis that moral statements are true or false. “Murder is wrong” is either true or false, if moral cognitivism is true. However, noncognitivists will argue that “murder is wrong” is merely an emotional expression and means something like, “Boo!”

At least one moral statement is true.

Even if moral cognitivism is true, it might be that no moral statement is true. “Murder is wrong” would be false, and “murder is right” would also be false. How is that possible? Because “right” and “wrong” might both be nonsense. They might both involve a false theory (like Platonic forms). Let’s suppose unicorns aren’t real. In that case it would be true that I am not a unicorn, but false that I am a unicorn. An anti-realist could admit that “Murder is not right” is true in the same way. It is only false to say that a moral fact is true. Murder not being right is not necessarily a moral fact. It might just be saying that rightness is irrelevant to murder.

So “right” is a word similar to “unicorn” in that it never applies to the real world, and the same would be true with “wrong.” They are both like unicorns in that they never apply, if anti-realism is true.

A person who denies that at least one moral fact is true is known as an “error theorist” or “nihilist.” An error theorist can admit that we attempt to say moral facts, but they are always false because morality fails to describe the real world. An error theorist might admit that most people are moral realists, but they are wrong.

Another worry is that no moral statement is true because we merely misunderstand moral reality. It might be that we know moral realism is true though personal experience, but language is inadequate to describe a moral fact. This is why many philosophers say that a moral statement might “approximate the truth.”

One of the reasons that moral realism is appealing is because it seems obvious that we do know some moral facts. “Torturing babies is wrong” seems obvious. We certainly think we are saying something true here, and it seems like we are right to think that.

The difficulty at this point is knowing what “true” means. Aristotle thought that something is true if it matches reality, but we might also say it is true that Sherlock Holmes is a detective. In reality, Sherlock Holmes never existed. He’s a fictional character. An anti-realist known as a fictionalist (or relativist) might think moral statements can be true in this sense. They might be a kind of fiction that we say is true out of a communal agreement. A game, like chess, might be a better example. Only certain statements are allowed, and certain statements are true given the goals of the game. One move in chess is “right” considering that it will help you win. One action is “right” considering that it makes people happy (assuming that is a moral goal).

The main problem with fictionalism is that it doesn’t give morality its exalted status. Morality is about something important. It’s different from etiquette. If it’s just part of our tradition, then why do we think it’s important? Why would we think anything is important? (I will answer these questions when discussing an anti-realist perspective in more detail.)

Morality is irreducible

Many realist philosophers describe morality as being irreducible by saying it is sui generis. Many philosophers also argue that morality is objective, and that morality does not exclusively consist in our attitudes and beliefs. We want to make it clear that morality can’t be reduced to nonmoral facts. If moral facts could be reduced, then we could find out that morality is “really something else,” and descriptions of nonmoral facts should be enough to understand moral facts.

One reason to think morality is irreducible is because it seems to have a special kind of importance that no other area can have. Physics, chemistry, and biology don’t tell us what has the most value or how we should live our lives.

There could be some sense that morality is reducible, even for a moral realist. For example moral facts could be identical to nonmoral facts. However, most realists agree that even then morality must not be identical to some relation to our beliefs or desires because it would seem to suggest that morality is “just in our heads.”

Morality is objective

Although many philosophers have said that moral realists believe that morality is ontologically objective, this is false. Some philosophers believe that morality is subjective. There is ontological and epistemological objectivity. Ontology concerns reality itself, and epistemology concerns knowledge and justification.

Ontologically, something is supposed to be objective if it doesn’t just exist in someone’s mind, and something is subjective if it only exists in someone’s mind. In this view, minds are objectively real.

Epistemologically, something is objective if it can be confirmed though an agreed upon procedure, and it is subjective if it can’t be. Whether or not atoms exist is epistemolgically objective. Your experience of seeing something as green is subjective unless it can be consistently verified through a procedure. If something is just a matter of taste, then it is epistemologically subjective.

It is important for both moral realists and anti-realist fictionalists that morality is epistemically objective. If we can’t justify that a moral statement is true, then we are in trouble. Morality becomes meaningless at that point.

Philosophers were claiming that morality must be ontologically objective because they thought there is a problem if morality is “just in your head.” If it’s just in your head, then it sounds delusional. However, not everyone agrees that something “just in your head” is delusional. Classical utilitarians think that pleasure and pain have intrinsic value. Pleasure and pain are “just in our head,” but they don’t seem delusional. It’s the nature of pleasure and pain to be experienced.

There’s also the issue that we might worry that ontologically subjective entities, such as pleasure and pain, can’t be epistemologically objective. You know about your own experiences of pleasure and pain, but no one else can know about it. This is a general worry about psychology in general, and it is not currently endorsed by scientists. We believe we have methods to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, at least to some extent. This is partially by theorizing that physical manifestations of various sorts are connected to psychological events. Pain causes certain activity in the brain and behavior, for example.

Morality consists in our attitudes and beliefs

One view that morality consists in our attitudes and beliefs is known as fictionalism.” Morality is nothing other than our attitudes and beliefs.

We need to know how the view of “importance” enters the picture. An experience of pain, for example, might reveal to us that pain is bad.

Morality is irreducible

Some moral realists might argue that morality is reducible to non-moral facts. Perhaps morality is reducible to “maximizing happiness and minimizing misery.” To say something is “right” might mean nothing other than it maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering. I don’t agree that this is moral realism because once we can reduce morality to non-moral facts, we can say, “We thought morality was real, but now we know we were talking about something else.” Morality at that point can be dispensed with. Additionally, the reductionist will have difficulty in explaining why some things are “important.” Overall, reductionists have many of the same difficulties as constructionists, and constructionists are a kind of reductionist. They think morality is reducible to some kind of fiction or game. It’s reducible to our attitudes and beliefs.

The main challenge to the idea that morality is irreducible is the fact that the scientific perspective, which is so reliable, requires use of reductionism. Reductionism is an essential part of science, but morality can join our scientific perspective without being reduced to something else. We found out water is really H2O. We reduce everyday substances to atom configurations. But it isn’t clear that everything is reducible down to infinitely small parts, and it isn’t even clear that everything is reducible to physics. Chemistry might not even be reducible to physics. One reason we have chemistry is precisely because we are currently unable to reduce it to physics. Psychology might be an even better example. Understanding pain and pleasure seems like it has to involve something other than an understanding of particles.

Science has various levels of description: Physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, and so on. Some of these levels of description might be ontologically irreducible. Psychology might not be about physics. However, reductionists might want to reduce morality to one of these potentially irreducible scientific levels of description. Psychology in particular is essential for an understanding of morality. However, it is also possible that morality itself is one more irreducible level of description. It might not be ontologically reducible to sociology or psychology. This is the kind of possibility that moral realists are interested in.

The view that morality is irreducible goes back to Plato, who introduced an entirely new reality of Forms to account for morality. This might be going too far. Most philosophers are materialists and believe there is only one reality that is causally tied to physics. The view that there is more than one substance or reality leads to a problem where some things are unable to interact with other things. (For example, the view that the mind is an immaterial soul and the body is material leads to the problem that the mind and body can’t interact.)

One other reason that moral realists don’t want to reduce morality to something else is because morality is important and involves values (things that are important.) It isn’t easy to describe the idea of importance without reference to intrinsic value, which is another moral concept.

Intrinsic value

Intrinsic value is the view that some things are important. We say some things are important, meaningful, and such things matter, and they aren’t merely “useful.” Intrinsic value contrasts with extrinsic (instrumental) value. We say some things are important, valuable, or good insofar as they help us accomplish a goal, but this is merely instrumental value. A certain move in chess is a “good move” insofar as we want to win the game. Intrinsic values are not good just because they help us do something, like win a game of chess. Something with intrinsic value could be said to be good “for its own sake” without reference to any other goal.

Aristotle called important things “final ends.” He argued that we are often justified to demand of someone, “Why did you do that?” We want them to justify why doing something is good. We might want food, but why? Because we want to stay healthy? But why stay healthy? It makes sense to wonder why staying healthy matters. Eventually we might get to something that really matters. We might want to stay healthy to avoid pain. It makes sense to want to avoid pain without referring to any other goal. We have experienced pain and it hurt. Anyone who has experienced pain knows why we don’t like it. If this makes sense, then it is correct to describe pain (or avoiding pain) as a final end. Pain has intrinsic disvalue.

If I am right, the main problem with anti-realism is understanding intrinsic value. I will develop a possible answer to the challenge when I describe an anti-realist perspective.


  1. […] What is Moral Realism? […]

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  2. […] skepticism, morality, nihilism, philosophy — James Gray @ 7:51 am There are many different moral anti-realist perspectives. On one extreme an anti-realist could just say that morality is entirely delusional. […]

    Pingback by A Moral Anti-Realist Perspective « Ethical Realism — September 22, 2009 @ 7:57 am | Reply

  3. […] Objections to Moral Realism Part 4: Beliefs Can’t Motivate Filed under: ethics, metaethics, metaphysics, philosophy — James Gray @ 11:50 am Tags: argument, belief, classical model, desire, final ends, hume, humean psychology, intrinsic values, moral realism, morality, nihilism There is evidence that moral values involve desires. When we say “human life has intrinsic value,” we expect a desire to promote human life and a pro-attitude towards human life. The connection between moral beliefs and desires is not clear, and some people have argued that morality is only about desires. If morality is only about desires, then we should reject the existence of intrinsic values. Our intrinsic value beliefs would merely state our desires. These concerns reflect Humean psychology, which states that there are beliefs and desires, and beliefs can’t motivate. Mark Platts, John Searle, and others have disputed Humean psychology. Although not all philosophers agree with Humean psychology, I will not question it here. Instead, I will attempt to prove that Humean psychology is compatible with moral realism. […]

    Pingback by Objections to Moral Realism Part 4: Beliefs Can’t Motivate « Ethical Realism — November 10, 2009 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

  4. […] What is Moral Realism? […]

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  5. […] Filed under: ethics, metaethics, philosophy — James Gray @ 6:42 am Tags: tolerance Moral realism states that there are true moral statements that aren’t just a “matter of taste.” […]

    Pingback by Is Moral Realism Dangerous or Intolerant? « Ethical Realism — March 18, 2010 @ 6:42 am | Reply

  6. […] Many of my next posts will involve meta-ethics and moral realism. I define moral realism here. and moral realism is discussed in greater detail in my ebook, Is There A Meaning of […]

    Pingback by The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism by Terance Cuneo « Ethical Realism — July 1, 2010 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

  7. […] and feelings. The Philpapers survey found that 56.3% of philosophers “accept or lean toward moral realism” and only 27.7% “accept or lean towards anti-realism” despite the fact that only 14.6% […]

    Pingback by Is Atheism Immoral? « Ethical Realism — July 28, 2010 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  8. Thanks for this, JW.

    I’m new to philosophy but have a particular interest in ethics and am inclined to moral realism. However, I didn’t understand enough about =ethics to know whether moral realism could possibly be justified. After reading a lot of the material on this blog I am greatly encouraged. Thanks

    Comment by diefw — October 7, 2011 @ 11:22 am | Reply

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