Ethical Realism

September 22, 2009

A Moral Anti-Realist Perspective

There are many different moral anti-realist perspectives. On one extreme an anti-realist could just say that morality is entirely delusional. Nothing matters. Go ahead and do whatever you want. This perspective is not very satisfying and it certainly won’t satisfy anyone who finds moral realism to be worthy of consideration. On the other hand an anti-realist could try to preserve our ethical beliefs, intuitions, and experiences without claiming that morality is irreducible. Morality is part of our lives, but it might be reducible to our psychology and culture. This is a kind of constructivist perspective, and it is the kind of perspective that I will present here. Constructivists believe that morality is in some sense constructed (created) by people. We have moral rules because we tend to agree to them. (Constructivism can be compatible with cultural relativism, which states that moral statements are true when they are approved of within a culture.)

I will attempt to relate anti-realism to our everyday life and experiences by discussing how an anti-realist perspective will relate to moral knowledge, reality, and psychology.

Moral Knowledge

Constructivists believe that there are true and false moral statements, just like the realist. However, moral knowledge for a constructivist is not about an independent moral reality. Moral facts consist in our beliefs and behavior (or ideal beliefs and behavior). A moral fact is true because we agree it is true.

In other words, moral truth is just like truth involving fiction, games, money, tables, chairs, and cocktail parties. These things are real because we say so, and we know when a person says a true statement concerning them based on the agreed-upon meaning of the words. Sherlock Holmes is a detective based on our understanding of the fictional world he lives in. Chairs are just objects, but we have decided that some objects exist so we can sit on them alone with whatever other features chairs tend to have. Money allows you to buy stuff because we all agree that it does. And so on.

John Searle describes facts like these as “institutional facts” and says that we have created a “social reality.” Such facts are merely true because we say so.

Moral facts consist in our institutional facts related to our desires. We want to satisfy our desires and moral facts tell us how to do it. We want to avoid pain, and moral facts tell us how to avoid pain. We want to live fulfilling lives, and more facts tell us how to do it. The moral facts we agree on require that everyone’s desires are worthy of consideration. That is why moral facts help us avoid pain for everyone equally, and help us all live satisfying lives. I am not the only person who is worthy of consideration given our ethical facts, everyone matters.

Since moral facts are based on our desires, we can discover moral facts, in pretty much the same way as a moral realist. We experience ourselves as being benefited or harmed, and we have desires to avoid harm and attain benefits. Some objects or state of affairs are found to be worthy of attaining for their own sake. “Instrumental values” are not the most important values. However, there are no intrinsic values. We have final ends, just like Aristotle thought, but final ends are merely objects or state of affairs that are worthy of desiring for their own sake. We can argue about what we really desire, what is truly worthy of desiring for its own sake. We can admit that we aren’t completely sure what we really desire, so we can examine our experiences in order to discover what we really desire.

How could something be “worthy of desiring for its own sake?” Some constructivists might consider all of our desires equally, but that position could lead us to absurd positions, such as the view that money is a final end. Final ends are merely objects or states of affairs that we desire for their own sake after sufficient deliberation, or (ideally) given that we know all non-moral facts.

Constructivists can postulate that final ends are about what we would desire if we knew all nonmoral facts. In other words, what we desire is often bad for us, or misguided. Smoking cigarettes is something that shouldn’t be taken to be a worthy goal because the pleasure gained is not sufficient to justify the damage it does to us. Ideally, in order to know what is really a final end we need to be able to know all non-moral facts so that we can live maximally fulfilling lives. Being happy, or living a maximally fulfilling life might be the ultimate final end, but we don’t completely know how to do that yet, so knowing all nonmoral facts can give us the ideal moral facts that we hope to discover.

Moral Reality

For a constructivist, moral facts are merely institutional facts that aim to satisfy our desires or final ends. Instead of intrinsic values, moral facts can refer to final ends. I can’t dispute that if intrinsic values exist, then they are important. Intrinsic values are precisely the kind of property that seems to relate to true importance. The constructivist will have to explain how our view of importance relates to ethics.

Although constructivists believe that nothing is truly important in the sense of being an intrinsic value, they will argue that morality is important to us in the sense that we desire it and we feel that it is important. Of course, we have to wonder why ethics tends not to be egoistic. Why do we have to believe that we should help others avoid pain? Or why is it wrong to cause others pain? It makes perfect sense to develop a system to help us get the most out of life that we want, but why should we treat everyone’s final ends equally? One possible answer is that we have merely agreed to a non-egoistic ethical system within our culture. Other cultures might have a different ethical system. Another possible answer is that we care about other people (and animals), so achieving our own final ends require us to help others. (This could explain why all cultural ethical systems are non-egoistic, and people who don’t care about others would fail to have reason to be moral.)

It might be that no one is completely motivated to be moral, and everyone would decide that it is worth harming others to benefit themselves. This possibility might require a contract theory similar to Hobbes’s Leviathan. We can rationally accept that mutual respect is required to live the best lives we can, but we can’t trust each other, so we need someone to watch over us and punish anyone who breaks the rules.

Moral Psychology

Anti-realism is compatible with Stoic moral psychology and Humean moral psychology.

Stoic Moral Psychology

Stoic moral psychology can be compatible with moral realism and anti-realism alike. What we believe about ethics can give us an emotion that motivates certain behavior. The belief that pleasure is good can lead us to eat candy or give candy to others. However, it isn’t the belief in intrinsic value of things that give us our emotions. Instead, it is the belief in final ends. These evaluative beliefs could fail to motivate us to help others, but we tend to care about others. The opinion of others tends to be psychologically important to us, even if it is for irrational instinctual reasons.

Humean Psychology

Humean psychology is also compatible with anti-realism, which states that desires are motivating and beliefs aren’t. We can sometimes be motivated by a desire to do something irrational. Perhaps having a bad day could give us a desire to feel better, which could motivate us to eat. Attempting to satisfy desires without reason often leads to failure to do so, so ethics help us know how to satisfy our desires.

Certain desires are basic, such as the desire to avoid pain. A basic desire can also motivate us to do something instrumental to that basic desire. The desire to live can motivate us to eat food, even when we aren’t hungry. The desire to avoid pain can motivate us to go to the dentist, even though the dentist might have to pull a tooth considering that even more pain could be caused by not doing so.

Given Humean psychology, final ends would be our basic desires. We might often fail to identify or fully understand the implications to our basic desires, so reason (i.e. self-reflection and ethical philosophy) can help us discover our basic desires and know how to satisfy them.

Humean psychology is often believed to be opposed to moral realism because moral realists deny that ethics is only about desires. If we are expected for a moral belief to motivate us, then it should be a belief about how to satisfy our desires. Anti-realism can satisfy that condition, but moral realism can’t. A Humean would deny that moral beliefs referring to intrinsic values can motivate us unless we already desire that the intrinsically valuable object or state of affairs be promoted. However, if we already desire that the object or state of affairs be promoted, then it isn’t really our beliefs in intrinsic values that will motivate us. Therefore, moral realism will fail to motivate us to be moral. Morality would be pointless if it made no difference in determining our behavior, so Humeanism will find moral realism to give us a pointless view of morality.


  1. […] have already discussed how anti-realists are interested in final ends. For a Humean, all our desires are actually final ends. A final end is something we find to be of […]

    Pingback by Objections to Moral Realism Part 4: Beliefs Can’t Motivate « Ethical Realism — November 10, 2009 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  2. “Smoking cigarettes is something that shouldn’t be taken to be a worthy goal because the pleasure gained is not sufficient to justify the damage it does to us.”

    Could you please explain how this statement is at all justified? Is not the pleasure/pain calculus of cigarettes different depending on the situation? For example, a soldier in Iraq might smoke cigarettes to calm his nerves in war, because it helps him stay calm and survive on the battlefield, however, a wall street banker would not achieve nearly as much pleasure(or avoid as much pain) as the soldier, thus making the decision for him a bad one. In addition, some people never get cancer from cigarettes and live long, happy lives during which not smoking would have made them less happy.

    By the way James, I am not objecting to you for the sake of objecting, despite my persistent posting. I am genuinely interested in the moral realist perspective on things, and I raise objections to your ideas not because I am trying to undercut you, but rather, to see how a moral realist responds to what I see as major problems with the position. I appreciate the responses, they are all enlightening and although my position has not majorly changed, I feel much more knowledgeable on both sides of the realist/anti-realist debate due to your site.


    Comment by Evan — August 18, 2010 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

    • Evan,

      Feel free to offer objections and to raise questions. I love my views to be challenged with the best objections possible.

      “Smoking cigarettes is wrong” is a judgment to be used by particular individuals in particular situations. It is a general rule and there might be exceptions.

      I am not convinced that soldiers in Iraq should be smoking cigarettes, but I could imagine that it would be inappropriate to quit smoking on a really bad day.

      Comment by James Gray — August 18, 2010 @ 9:51 pm | Reply

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