Ethical Realism

February 5, 2010

A Moral Realist Point of View Part 3

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 7:43 am
Tags: , ,

In this installment, I will discuss how the following moral concepts can relate to moral realism:

  1. Virtue
  2. Justice
  3. Rights


In the most simple terms, to be virtuous is to be willing and able to do what is right. Virtuous people have to be good at making decisions, have the capacity to undergo difficult behavior, and willing to actually do what one believes to be good. Virtue relates to moral realism because it requires us to promote intrinsic value and to develop the skills necessary to promote intrinsic value.

Moral virtue was noted by Aristotle as being mostly unconscious. We seem to develop good habits through life experience. This can be correct. Moral realism does not require that we use abstract reasoning to make all our moral decisions, but abstract reasoning might be important for moral improvement now and then. I find that reflecting on my behavior allows me to prepare myself to correct my behavior given that I encounter a similar situation. I can think, “Next time I will behave differently” and this seems to help me actually behave differently by planning how to behave ahead of time.


Justice does not seem to be clearly defined, but some philosophers seem to think it concerns “the right” rather than “the good.” This sense of right is purposely distanced from intrinsic value. It is possible that justice is a separate real domain from realism of the good (intrinsic values), but moral realism does not require us to see justice in this way.

I suggest that we use “justice” to mean (a) the virtue of a group or (b) the agreeableness of society by ideal agents who have all non-moral knowledge. Plato used “justice” using the first definition in the Republic and it is relevant to moral realism considering that a virtuous group will promote intrinsic values.

The second definition is similar to John Rawls’s view of Justice (and justification of justice through reflective equilibrium.) I believe that it is meant to be practical: Society (and individuals) need to make moral decisions despite uncertainty concerning moral truth. Governments seem incapable of making good moral decisions, but it might be a good idea to demand that governments make moral decisions based on the agreeableness of the decision to fully rational people.


Rights tell us our entitlements. Other people’s rights restrict our behavior. Rights are little more than the opposite end of an obligation (or impermissible behavior). Rights tend to be simple, such as “the right to life.” The right to life means “all things equal, people are not allowed to kill you.”

Rights are relevant to moral realism for the same reason obligations are: All things equal, we should promote intrinsic goods and we shouldn’t destroy intrinsic goods. We generally have the right to things of intrinsic value and we generally don’t have the right to take away intrinsic value enjoyed by others.

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