Ethical Realism

February 3, 2010

A Moral Realist Point of View Part 1

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 that I have not discussed sufficiently. We need to know how these concepts relate to intrinsic values (moral realism). I do not have a fully developed account of our moral vocabulary, but I can discuss my current thoughts on these concepts. I will start my discussion of moral concepts with the following:

  1. Good & Bad
  2. Oughts
  3. Right & Wrong

1. Good/Bad

Good and bad refer to positive and negative value. I have discussed the difference between intrinsic value, final ends, and instrumental value in my essay, “What Does ‘Meaning of Life’ Mean?” but I will introduce the main concepts once again:

Intrinsic value

The most relevant sort of value to moral realism is intrinsic value—The idea that something really matters. If something is intrinsically good, then (a) all things equal, it is justified to promote that value; (b) it is better for that thing to exist than not to; and (c) we ought to promote that value. For example, it is justified to give someone an aspirin who has a headache because the pain is intrinsically bad (unless there is a countervailing reason not to).

Intrinsic values relate to moral realism in the sense that they seem to constitute moral realism. Moral realism is the view that there are moral facts that are not entirely constituted by our attitudes and beliefs. We didn’t just make up our values, and they aren’t just part of our instincts. Intrinsic values are moral facts that are not constituted by our attitudes or beliefs.

Instrumental value

However, instrumental value (usefulness) is also relevant to moral realism. Once we know that we are justified to help people avoid pain because pain is intrinsically bad, we still need to know the most effective way to accomplish our goal. These values are known as instrumental values. (The best means to an end is considered instrumentally valuable.) It is instrumentally valuable to use aspirin to get rid of headaches, so taking aspirin has some moral significance.

Notice that there are morally irrelevant instrumental values and morally relevant instrumental values. It can be effective to use a gun to murder someone, so using a gun to murder someone is what one should do in order to accomplish that goal, but the goal is immoral. Instrumental values are only morally good when they lead to promoting intrinsic value.

2. Oughts

The idea that we “ought” to do something is known as “prescriptivity” or “normativity.” For example, “All things equal, you ought not kill people” is an example of a normative or prescriptive statement. There are nonmoral and moral oughts. One ought to use a knife to cut bread, but that’s just a nonmoral instrumental ought. You ought to use an aspirin to get rid of a headache could be somewhat morally relevant, so it could be considered to be a moral ought.

One simple understanding of “ought” and how it relates to intrinsic value is that (a) if we morally ought to do something, then we are justified to do it; (b) it is better for you to do it than not to do it (it leads to more positive intrinsic value); and (c) it makes sense to hope that it is done. You morally ought to give an aspirin to someone with a headache because it is justified, it is better to do it than not do it, and it makes sense to hope you do it.

Some people see moral (ought) judgments as propositional attitudes similar to John Searle’s view of desire. Searle says that beliefs are “satisfied” (or “fulfilled”) when the belief is made to match the world; and desires are “satisfied” when the world is made to match our desire. Ought judgments look a little bit like Searle’s view of desire because we want the world to match our moral judgments. However, desires are personal and ought judgments are not as personal. We morally ought to do something (somewhat) irrespective of our desires. For example, I morally ought to give someone an aspirin who has a headache whether or not I desire that the person’s pain is avoided. (Desires can be relevant to what we ought to do, but it is merely one consideration. Intrinsic values can exist, even if desires do not.)

Subjective & Objective Oughts

Also note that there is a potential subjective and objective version of “ought” judgments:

Subjective oughts: What you ought to do based on your personal knowledge and ability. For example, you subjectively ought to teach math if that is the most productive moral action you can think of taking.

Objective oughts: What you ought to do based on perfect knowledge and ability. For example, you ought to cure AIDS, save maximal lives, prevent the most pain, etc.

Although we can only deal with subjective oughts in day to day life, intrinsic values could be used to develop a sort of infinite ideal. We ought to save lives, prevent pain, cause pleasure, and so forth. These general moral rules could be improved upon indefinitely. There might never be a “best” objective point reached. You might think saving 100 lives is “best” until you find out that omniscience would have enabled you to save 1,000 lives or more.


The word “ought” is often taken to be synonymous with “obligation,” but we sometimes contrast “obligation” with “supererogatory” oughts, “advised” oughts, “unadvised” oughts, “permissible” behavior, and “impermissible” behavior:

Obligation: We are morally obligated to do something when (a) a great deal of intrinsic value is at risk and (b) no exceedingly difficult behavior is required. For example, we are obligated to save a drowning child when doing so will cost ourselves very little because a human life is at risk (assuming saving the child wouldn’t be too difficult). Horrible things can happen if we don’t take action. A human life could be lost.

Some people seem to think “moral obligations” are things required in order to be a good person (or avoid being a bad person). This is a different use of the term and it requires a far greater understanding of morality in order to make sense because it might be difficult or impossible to know what a “good person” is.

Advised: If you morally ought to do something without a great deal of intrinsic value at risk, then we might merely say that the behavior is advised or preferable (or encouraged). Giving someone an aspirin to help them alleviate a headache isn’t a big deal, but it is advised.

Unadvised: If you morally ought not do something without a great deal of intrinsic value at risk. For example, pinching a friend.

Permissible: If an action is permissible, then we aren’t morally forbidden from doing it. Permissible actions include unadvised, advised, and obligated actions.

Impermissible: Impermissible actions are “forbidden.” They are also a form of obligation.  An action is impermissible when a significant amount of intrinsic value would be lost (or when negative intrinsic value would be caused). For example, killing people is impermissible when it leads to a significant loss of value. (It might be permissible to kill someone when it is necessary to save hundreds of lives.)

Many people seem to think that actions are forbidden (or impermissible) when doing the action would make you a bad person, but this understanding requires a great deal of moral knowledge. We don’t need to know what makes someone a bad person to know that killing people is generally impermissible (leads to a significant loss of value).

Supererogatory: Supererogatory action requires that (a) a significant amount of value is at risk and (b) exceedingly difficult actions are required. For example, to devote one’s life to charity while demonstrating an ingenious amount of skill difficult to emulate, and while demonstrating an unusual amount of effort (that would be unreasonable to demand of others).

People tend to define supererogatory actions as being significantly above the call of duty. Such actions are heroic or saint-like, such as committing one’s life to charity or sacrificing oneself to save lives. Note that some people use the word “supererogatory” in a less strict sense and what I call “advised” behavior could be considered to be supererogatory.

Many people might say that supererogatory action is also “not required” to be a good person, but this definition will require significant moral knowledge that we tend not to demand of an everyday use of the word.

What is significant intrinsic value?

I have said that an action is an obligation if a great deal of intrinsic value is at risk. I have also said that an action is an obligation if it doesn’t require exceedingly difficult behavior. We might wonder where to draw the line. How exactly do we know if a great deal of intrinsic value is at risk, and how do we know for sure that the behavior is too difficult to be an obligation? My answer: We don’t need to. Ordinary language allows us to say that headaches aren’t significantly important but a human life is. Saving a baby drowning in a small pool of water could be quite easy, but saving a child drowning in a raging river could be exceedingly difficult.

It is quite possible that anti-realists are correct that our use of the term “moral obligation” is based on convention and/or instinct. However, a moral realist does not need the words to mean anything precise. As long as intrinsic values are relevant to our everyday understanding of “moral obligation,” that is enough to help us understand everyday moral behavior.

Why don’t we need to define what a “good person” is?

I admit that people sometimes use the word “obligation” as a requirement to be a good person, but I deny that this definition is feasible because (a) it is too difficult to know what a good person is and (b) we don’t know if our understanding of “good person” reflects anything “real.” Anti-realists might be correct that our idea of a “good person” is based on nothing other than a shared convention and/or instinct.

Although our ordinary use of the word “obligation” does not require a rich understanding of the “good person,” I do think we can talk about what it means to be a good person in an abstract sense that could be useful. A “good person” is one we view as worthy of emulation or worthy as a teacher. This practical understanding of a good person could be quite helpful for our personal moral growth even though it doesn’t seem to be necessary for our understanding of moral obligations in general.

3. Right/Wrong

Right and wrong concerns appropriate behavior. Right and wrong refers to little more than obligations and impermissible behavior. It is right if it’s obligated (or supererogatory) and wrong if it is impermissible.

There are also subjective and objective sorts of right and wrong to match the respective objective and subjective obligations (or supererogatory or impermissible behavior). John Stuart Mill said that it is right to “maximize happiness” and wrong not to. This would be an objective sort of ought. However, we might subjectively merely ought to do what we can to make people happy given a reasonable amount of effort. (We could cure AIDS, but that doesn’t sound very realistic as a goal for every living person.)

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