Ethical Realism

February 6, 2010

A Moral Realist Point of View Part 4

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 2:00 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

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

  1. Unconditionality
  2. Ideals
  3. Praise & Blame
  4. Reward & Punishment
  5. Guilt
  6. Moral Rules
  7. Equality


Morality is unconditional (or “categorical”) because it is “overriding.” Nothing can be more important that what we morally ought to do. You can’t say that you have an overriding reason to kill someone because you feel like it. The fact that morality is unconditional has everything to do with intrinsic values. Nothing “really matters” except intrinsic values, so we can’t have anything better to do than what morality requires.

What is unconditional about morality is up to debate. I believe moral obligations are unconditional, but some people think moral rules are. Either way, there might be more than one action that equally promotes intrinsic values. “Unconditional” doesn’t mean that there is only one moral course of action open to us at all times.


Ideals are often thought of as perfections. An ideal is “perfect.” I think this is actually a confusion because perfection implies a best state, but there need not be any best state.  Instead, ideals could be seen to be limitless.

There are abstract ideals and concrete ideals.

Abstract Ideals

An abstract ideal is a limitless ideal that seems to be implied by right action and intrinsic values. We should ultimately want to do the best thing possible, and that “best thing” is the ideal. We should want to help everyone attain knowledge, for example. However, we need not suppose any such “best thing.” Instead, we can admit that an ideal could be limitless. We might be able to teach 100 people math only to find out that we could have taught 1,000 people math.

No one is willing or able to promote abstract ideals in an ultimate sense. That would be impossible considering how limitless they are. Only an omnipotent being could be demanded to promote such an ideal.

Concrete Ideals

Concrete ideals are personal goals to promote intrinsic values better than we have been. We often realize that our behavior could be improved upon and we decide how we can modify our behavior for the better. These goals are concrete because there is a specific way that we can behave involved. Concrete ideals allow us to improve upon ourselves with realistic goals. We can improve ourselves a little every day and never be done.

Praise & Blame

Praise & Blame is the means in which we make our moral judgments known to others. People are appropriately praised when we judge that they have acted beyond the call of duty, and they are appropriately blamed when they fail to live up to their obligations.

Praise and blame is often used to psychologically reward or punish people. (See below.) Some people also praise and blame to make it known that someone has been judged as evil or as “someone who deserves suffering.” This kind of blame seems to be little more than an expression of resentment and the desire for revenge.

Reward & Punishment

Reward & Punishment are non-rational ways of trying to control people’s behavior. Reward is a kind of bribe (supposedly) for good behavior and punishment is a form of coercion to (supposedly) keep people from doing bad things. Some people also see punishment as a sort of revenge, which is little more than an expression of resentment.

Reward and punishment could be morally justified insofar as they promote intrinsic value. Punishment does something usually prohibited because it harms people, but punishment might be necessary to keep some people from harming others.

Punishment is believed to be justified for promoting intrinsic values in various ways. A prison sentence could be hoped to protect society from criminals, to reform and educate criminals, or to deter people from committing crimes.


Guilt refers to (a) an emotion of regret, (b) the judgment that someone has failed to live up to their obligations, and (c) the cause of a wrong action.

The Emotion of Guilt

For most people the realization of failing to live up to their obligations (and causing harm) leads to suffering in the form of guilt. This emotion makes sense as a form of coercion. We feel bad when we harm others, so we should try our best not to harm others in order to avoid suffering.

It might be possible to stop feeling guilt but to still be a good person. We might simply want to live meaningful lives. In that case we might prefer to stop feeling guilt. We might be able to find a way to achieve inner peace and stop being judgmental towards our own mistakes.

Failed Obligations

To be guilty in the sense of failing to perform obligations is merely to be blameworthy.

Some people think someone is “guilty” only when they are sinful or evil. To be blameworthy would then make it seem that such a person deserves to suffer, but a moral realist has little reason to agree to this view. To think that someone “deserves suffering” seems overly vindictive.


To perform a wrong action is to be the cause of that action. We say that person is guilty of that action, just like a person can be guilty of a crime in the court of law. This meaning of “guilt” has nothing to do with personal virtue because we might make an unintentional mistake and still be guilty of a wrong action. However, this might require that we accept “objective oughts” because a person who does what he or she believes to be best given the current information is not doing anything wrong from the subjective viewpoint.

Moral Rules

What is right or wrong can be extremely complex and dependent on the situation, but moral rules are general and simple, such as “don’t kill people.” These are merely a kind of “rules of thumb” and do not always reflect the indefinite complexity of right and wrong. However, moral rules are relevant to moral realism because they should tell us how to “generally” promote intrinsic values.

Some people use “moral rules” to merely refer to “right behavior.” However, the two terms are separate in general conversation and I see no reason to equivocate the two.


Many people seem to find equality to be central to morality. It is true that right and wrong is the same for everyone, and the same moral rules should apply to everyone because morality is “universal.” In this sense morality requires equality before the moral law because intrinsic values exist for everyone. Pain isn’t bad when you feel it, but not bad when I feel it.

Some people seem to think everyone has “equal” worth or intrinsic value. This is not an essential position for moral realists, but it seems like an important rule of thumb. If one person is more important than another, then it might be very difficult to know that for sure.

Certainly moral realism would not require that all living beings have equal worth. We seem to assume that some animals have more intrinsic value than others. Humans, elephants, and chimpanzees all seem to have more worth than goldfish, tarantulas, and lobsters.


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