Ethical Realism

September 18, 2009

A Moral Realist Perspective

In order to relate moral realism to everyday life, let’s take a look at how a moral realist can view moral knowledge, reality, and psychology. I am not going to argue that this is the best perspective of moral realism possible. It is merely an example of a perspective.

Moral Knowledge

Moral epistemology is the study of moral knowledge and justification. If we are right to believe that a moral statement is true, then it should be because of the truth of the statement itself. We believe that we have bodies because we really do have bodies. We believe that 1+1=2 because 1+1=2 is true. So, we need a way to discover moral facts. Many moral naturalists suggested that we can discover moral facts through observation, just like everything else. (Naturalists think we can make ethics into a natural science.) Although some people have argued that moral facts can’t cause anything to happen (unlike how our bodies can cause us to believe we have a body), I suggest that we can experience moral facts similar to how we can experience psychological facts.

We can’t directly observe psychological facts. We know we have desires and beliefs, but how can we be sure anyone else does? Through a tested hypothesis. We can test psychological theories against our psychological observations. We observe that people have desires despite the fact that we can’t know for sure. We can then hypothesize that various behavior or biological facts indicates psychological facts. Given desires and beliefs, we predict that people will behave in certain ways, and they won’t behave in other ways. If people feel hunger, they will eat. If people get tired, they will sleep. Of course, we also have a special access to our own psychological facts. We know when we have beliefs, desires, hunger, and so on because we experience it first hand. Psychological theories state that other people have similar psychological facts to our own.

We know about moral facts in a similar way to psychological facts. We can’t directly observe moral facts, but we can test moral theories against our moral observations. We observe that someone is doing something wrong and causing harm, and we can theorize that people are doing wrongdoing given various physical and psychological facts. (Is the person trying to harm others? If so, why?) Again, we have first hand experience with moral facts. We know when we are harmed. We know that pain is bad because of how it feels. Moral theories state that other people have similar moral experiences to our own. Intense pain is bad no matter who feels it.

It is our direct and personal experience with moral facts that contemporary moral naturalists tend to neglect, and it might be that it seems too obvious to talk about or it might be philosophically risky to admit that we can have personal experiences of moral facts.

Moral Reality

Moral ontology is the study of moral reality. What kind of relation does morality have to reality? Once we have confirmed moral facts, we can wonder what they consist of. Moral facts tend to rely on intrinsic value, but it isn’t entirely clear what metaphysical assumptions are required. For a moral realist, moral facts must be irreducible. If we can reduce moral facts to something else, then we can dispense with moral facts, and it won’t be clear that moral facts are important. I will discuss intrinsic value, the property of irreducibility, and how moral facts are based on reality itself.

Intrinsic value

Once we understand that good and bad things happen to us, we can try to figure out what exactly is required for it to be good or bad. Pleasure and pain are the easiest to understand. We have various experiences that “feel good” or “feel bad.” These feelings are then identified as being good or bad. This relates to Aristotle’s arguments about final ends. An intrinsic value is basically a way of understanding final ends that says that we not only treat certain ends as being justified for their own sake, but they really are justified.

We often confuse intrinsic value with instrumental value. Instrumental value is just something useful. You might go to college because it will help you get a job and make money. But even the goal of making money isn’t worthy of seeking for its own sake. You have to use money for something truly valuable for it to matter.

It is possible for something to be both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally valuable, but the point is that something can be merely instrumentally valuable without being intrinsically valuable. Knowledge might be both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable, but money is only instrumentally valuable.

A person who eats candy because it tastes good doesn’t need another reason to eat it. We can identify that the reason the person is justified for eating candy is because it causes pleasure. Eating candy isn’t usually useful to anything other than pleasure itself, but that is a good enough reason to enjoy eating it once in a while.

If anything really matters, then it has intrinsic value. We understand this as being equally important for each person. There are practical reasons to look out for our personal interests more than other people’s, but intrinsic value itself determines how much something really matters. If pain matters, then it matters no matter who has it. If human life matters, then it matters no matter who has it.

Moral facts are irreducible

If moral facts are irreducible, they might still be natural facts. In other words, they might be compatible with a materialistic ontology. A materialist does not have to strip the world of everything except physics (atoms, quarks, and so on). Materialists merely need a view of a unified reality that is causally connected with physics. It is not clear that psychology can be reduced to physics, but minds are causally connected to physical particles and biology. It could be that minds and morality are caused by physical events, but also involve irreducible emergent properties. A materialist can describe everything that exists in terms of being “physical” in the sense that everything that exists is causally connected and dependent on physics.

How are moral facts based on reality?

Some people have asked, “What makes moral facts true?” One possible answer is Platonic forms or God. However, it might be that moral facts are true based on the laws of the universe. Just like the laws of the universe make particles move in various ways, the laws of the universe also seem to give us minds and morality. Creatures with a certain biology get minds and morality based on causation. Once a creature can have pain that feels “bad” it seems like we have identified some kind of an intrinsic value. It could be said that pain has a property of intrinsic disvalue.

Moral Psychology

It is important as a moral realist to understand whether or not morality can make a difference. Animals might do something good or bad, but it’s not because of their beliefs concerning morality. I will suggest that morality makes a difference if we accept something like Stoic moral psychology. We have an interest in intrinsic value. First, we have a personal interest in benefiting ourselves. Second, we have an interest in benefiting others. “Benefiting” is best understood in terms of intrinsic value. We want to benefit ourselves and others in terms of something really important, not just in some superficial way.

One of the most powerful motivating forces is to gain the approval of others. People too concerned with the opinion of others might be insecure with themselves, but almost everyone is concerned with it to some extent. Criticism and disgust from others can ruin our day, but the love of others can elate us for days.

However, the approval of others can matter more when they are based on the truth, and people tend to want to display their approval of others based on the truth. If a person harms others in the sense of causing pain (something with intrinsic disvalue), that seems like the perfect reason to display our disapproval of their behavior. Such disapproval can make us feel bad not just because of our irrational social instincts, but also because of a personal realization that we did something wrong.

Stoic moral psychology basically states that our ethical beliefs give us a motivating emotion. True ethical beliefs give us appropriate emotions, which cause appropriate action. If I touch fire, I feel pain. I believe that something bad has happened because pain has intrinsic disvalue. I then feel the need to be more cautious around fire and know not to touch fire anymore, and I am motivated to do so. Not only that but many children who learn that fire can hurt them will then warn others not to touch it.

Our moral beliefs can cause many different emotions. If you believe someone has been wronged, it can cause anger, which can cause us to take appropriate action. If someone is being wronged, we will often be motivated to try to stop the wrongdoing from occurring.

If a person does, it makes us sad because something with intrinsic value has been lost. If someone is born, it makes us happy because something with intrinsic value has been gained. We can love people because that person has intrinsic value. We can love and hate someone at the same time because they have intrinsic value when they also cause others harm.

Inappropriate values can give rise to inappropriate emotions and actions. If someone steals your wallet and you think of money as having intrinsic value, then that can bring us into a rage that inspires vengeance. It can be true that money is essential to promote various intrinsic values, but it isn’t just the starving who tend to over-value money. It is possible that an inappropriate evaluation of money can cause the wealthy to display greed, political corruption, the willingness to commit murder.

So, if Stoic moral psychology is correct, morality can make a difference. We have the psychology that enables our beliefs in intrinsic values to motivate and guide our behavior. Some people thought that intrinsic values must somehow cause motivation on their own, but this is not necessary. All that matters is that our psychology allows us to choose to be moral.


  1. Thanx for posting this! Very interesting. A lot of new information for me.

    Comment by hilljimmy — September 18, 2009 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  2. […] on our desires, we can “discover moral facts,” in pretty much the same way we can for a moral realist. We experience ourselves as being benefited or harmed, which is among our strongest desires. Some […]

    Pingback by A Moral Anti-Realist Perspective « Ethical Realism — September 22, 2009 @ 7:54 am | Reply

  3. […] A Moral Realist Perspective […]

    Pingback by Book I: Metaethics Part 1 (What is Metaethics?) « Ethical Realism — November 7, 2009 @ 9:44 am | Reply

  4. […] moral realism, normativity, obligation, ought, prescriptivity I have given a general outline of a moral realist perspective, but there is much more to be said. We have many moral concepts that seem relevant for morality […]

    Pingback by A Moral Realist Point of View Part 1 « Ethical Realism — February 3, 2010 @ 11:04 am | Reply

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