Ethical Realism

July 1, 2010

A Review of The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism by Terance Cuneo

Many of my next posts will involve meta-ethics and moral realism. I define moral realism here and moral realism is discussed in greater detail in my ebook, Is There A Meaning of Life?

Terence Cuneo wrote The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism back in 2007. Actual arguments that attempt to show moral realism to be true (or probably true) are not easy to find, but Cuneo is up to the challenge. I will describe and challenge Cuneo’s argument. I think his argument might be one of the best reasons to support moral realism, but there is much left unsaid and lingering questions.

Cueno argues that moral realism is analogous to epistemic realism, and moral realism is probably true because epistemic realism is probably true.1 Epistemic realism is the view that we can refer to facts involving what is rational, justified, knowledge, etc. (Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justification.) In particular, both ethics and epistemology can give us true categorical reasons (overriding reasons) for actions that refer to facts about the world.2 It is irrational to steal from the poor just to benefit oneself, and it is irrational to believe that aliens visit the earth just because people have seen UFO’s. Both morality and epistemology are normative (tell us what is rational and give us reasons to take action).

Cuneo’s main argument can be spelled out as the following:

  1. If irreducible moral facts do not exist, then irreducible epistemic facts do not exist.
  2. Irreducible Epistemic facts exist.
  3. So, irreducible moral facts exist.
  4. If irreducible moral facts exist, then moral realism is true.
  5. So, moral realism is true.

I will discuss the first two premises and provide objections to them.3 The objections will not prove the premises to be false or unjustified, but they will give us reason to give the issue further consideration. The third premise is a conclusion from the first two premises, and I will assume that Cuneo is correct that the existence of moral facts is sufficient to accept moral realism.4

My objections to Cuneo’s argument include the following:

  1. Cuneo suggests that the main reason to reject moral realism is that it might require us to accept strange entities (such as categorical reasons), but I’m not convinced that moral realism requires us to accept categorical reasons. Our understanding of categorical reasons might depend upon institutions unlike intrinsic values. If we can preserve our moral and epistemic intuitions and everyday practice without categorical reasons by a greater understanding of values, then then Cuneo has failed to prove that his version of epistemic realism is probably true.
  2. Cuneo suggests that moral constructivism can be a form of moral realism, but constructivism is a form of reductionism. If moral constructivism is true, then moral facts are nothing but the acceptance a community (or ideal people) have towards certain rules. If constructivism is a form of anti-realism as I argue, then Cuneo fails to tell us why this form of reductionism should be rejected.
  3. Cuneo argues that moral and epistemic realism are realist insofar as they require categorical reasons, but anti-realists can agree that categorical reasons exist as well. Cuneo does not talk about this sort of epistemic anti-realism, so he gives us no reason to reject it.

Premise 1: If moral facts do not exist, then epistemic facts do not exist.

The most enlightening part of Cuneo’s argument is his attempt to show that moral realism and epistemic realism are both very similar. He suggests that the main reason to reject moral realism is that it requires us to accept strange entities (i.e. categorical reasons), but epistemic realism also requires us to accept very similar strange entities (i.e. categorical reasons). If these so-called strange entities are a good reason to reject moral realism, then they will also give us a good reason to reject epistemic realism. (He argues that these strange entities are not a good reason to reject epistemic realism, so they aren’t a good reason to reject similar theories, such as moral realism.)

In order to justify premise 1, Cuneo must tell us how to define and describe moral realism and epistemic realism in order to demonstrate how similar they are. Cuneo discusses three ways in which moral and epistemic realism are similar: One, they have a similar structure involving our ability to make true claims about irreducible facts concerning categorical reasons. Two, they both can be categorized in similar ways. Morality and epistemology can give us general or particular facts and they can be evaluative or deontic.5 Three, the same entities are sometimes open to appraisal by both moral and epistemic realism, so something can be both a moral and epistemic fact simultaneously.

First Similarity: Both have irreducible facts about categorical reasons.

Both moral and epistemic realism are structurally similar in that they both endorse at least four similar features. These features can be combined to say that the truth of both moral and epistemic realism would make it possible for us to make true claims about irreducible facts involving categorical reasons. Both moral and epistemic realism endorse the four following similar features:

Moral Realism

  1. The moral realist’s speech act thesis: Some moral discourse is assertoric (21).6 (Some moral sentences attempt to represent a moral fact.)
  2. The moral realist’s alethic thesis: The contents of some predicative moral claims are true and, if the contents of such claims are true, then they are true in the realist sense (26).7 (Some moral sentences are true and they represent facts).
  3. The moral realist’s ontic thesis: There are irreducible moral facts (29).8 (Some moral facts are more than the sum of their parts. Moral facts can’t be fully described or understood in non-moral terms.)
  4. There are categorical moral reasons. (Moral statements can be prescriptive [reasons for actions] and authoritative [override other reasons for actions]) (36).

Cuneo argues for moral realism of a “paradigmatic sort.” His definition of moral realism is focused requires the idea that morality is rational in an irreducible sense:

In both of these respects, what I cam calling ‘moral realism of a paradigmatic sort’ differs markedly from other types of views that are called realist, but deny that moral reasons are authoritative in the sense just specified. For example, common to many so-called naturalist versions of moral realism is the claim that moral facts exist in a fairly ‘objective’ sense. Moral facts according to these views, are not the product of social convention or of our being disposed to react to the non-moral world in certain ways. Nonetheless, these philosophers maintain that moral facts generate reasons for agents to act as they direct only if acting in this way is conducive to satisfying desires those agents possess, such as living a long and flourishing life. While there may be perfectly respectable sense in which views such as this deserve to be called ‘realist’, they are not paradigmatic realist views as I use this phrase. For these views deny the categoricity of moral reasons. (39)

I believe that the main reason that Cuneo wants paradigmatic moral realism to require categorical reasons is because he believes (a) common sense everyday moral experience confirms the existence of categorical reasons and (b) one main reason to endorse moral realism in the first place is to preserve common sense everyday moral experiences. Consider that Cuneo states the following:

Definitive of moral realism of a paradigmatic sort is the thesis that there is a commonsensical conception of moral facts, fundamental to which are platitudes that concern the content and authority of such facts.9 Moral facts irreducibly exist just in case such facts exist that satisfy the content and authority platitudes fundamental to our commonsensical conception of moral facts. They cannot be reduced to the sorts of fact that lack these characteristics. (39)

Epistemic Realism

  1. The epistemic realist’s speech act thesis: Some epistemic discourse is assertoric (53). (Claims about rationality, justification, and knowledge attempt to represent epistemic facts.)
  2. The epistemic realist’s alethic thesis: the contents of some predicative epistemic claims are true and, if the contents of such claims are true, then they are true in the realist sense (55). (Some claims about rationality, justification, and knowledge are true and they successfully represent epistemic facts.)
  3. The epistemic realist’s ontic thesis: There are irreducible epistemic facts (55). (Facts about rationality, justification, and knowledge are more than the sum of their parts. Such facts can’t be fully understood or described in non-epistemic terms.)
  4. There are categorical epistemic reasons. (Epistemic facts can be prescriptive [reasons for beliefs] and authoritative [override other reasons for beliefs]) (58-59).

Second Similarity: Four Normative Categories

We can categorize both moral and epistemic facts as being general or particular; and evaluative or deontic (63-64).

Particular or General

Particular normative fact – A particular normative fact is a fact about a specific person in a specific situation. For example, it was wrong for Bill Clinton to lie when he said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and it was wrong for John to believe that aliens visit the Earth just because he saw a U.F.O.

General normative fact – A general normative fact is a fact concerning anyone in some state of affairs. For example, it is wrong for anyone to lie without having a good reason to do so, and it is wrong for anyone to believe that aliens visit the Earth just by seeing a U.F.O.

Evaluative or Deontic

Evaluative normative fact – Evaluative normative facts are facts about whether someone responds appropriately to a situation or is prone to respond appropriately. For example, many politicians are inappropriately dishonest, and many people are gullible and will believe in ghosts without sufficient evidence.

Deontic normative fact – Deontic normative facts are facts about whether or not an actual or ideal person would favor a response given by someone in a certain situation. For example, the president of the United States ought to only endorse war when necessary; and people ought to only believe in strange entities when they have a good reason to do so.

Third Similarity: The Same Entities Can be Appraised

Many people think that moral facts only refer to intentions and actions and epistemic facts only refer to beliefs, but Cuneo argues that they can refer to a wide variety of things, and they can both refer to the same things.

Both moral and epistemic norms apply to an extraordinarily wide array of entities. Institutions, persons, intentions, actions, propositional attitudes, (e.g. beliefs, acceptances, inquiries, and hopes), character traits, emotions, policies, ways of viewing things, ways of finding ou things, and so forth, are all plausibly thought to be subject to moral and epistemic norms. They are, as we might say, morally and epistemically appraisable entities. (71)

He doesn’t fully justify this suggestion, but it is partially based on the fact that there can be epistemic evaluative norms, which suggests that there can be epistemic virtues. For example, it is vicious to be gullible or arrogant (closed minded). Evaluative facts can involve just about anything as long as they are somehow connected to evaluative rationality.

Additionally, Cuneo provides us with the following examples:

  1. Believing someone is a liar can be unwarranted disrespect for another, so beliefs can be assessed in terms moral judgments because they can impair our ability to participate in human flourishing (74).
  2. Intending to asses evidence in favor of one belief while dismissing contradicting evidence can impair our ability to form reliable beliefs, so intentions can be assessed in terms of epistemic judgments (75).

Fourth Similarity: Both epistemic and moral facts can apply to the same entity.

Cuneo argues that a normative judgment can be both moral and epistemic, which he calls “hybrid norms.” A norm is a hybrid norm “if any such norm applies to an agent, and that agent fails to conform to that norm, then (all else being equal) she exhibits both a moral and an epistemic failing. Correlatively, if any such norm applies to such an agent, then (all else being equal) she displays both a moral and an epistemic merit (77-78).

What is an example of a hybrid norm? I think we can agree that, It is most rational and virtuous to form our moral beliefs cautiously without gullibility or arrogance. This statement can both concern moral and epistemic rationality. It is morally irrational and vicious to form our beliefs recklessly with gullibility or arrogance, and it is epistemically irrational and vicious to form our moral beliefs recklessly with gullibility or arrogance. People who form their moral beliefs the wrong way are dangerous and morally irresponsible, but they also display a tendency to form beliefs in a way that are likely to be false.


I agree with Cuneo that moral and epistemic rationality appear similar given our everyday moral and epistemic commitments, but I am not convinced that moral realists must accept that there are irreducible categorical reasons. The problem is that the endorsement of irreducible categorical reasons is supposed to be a requirement for both moral and epistemic realism and therefore a similarity between the two theories; but if it is not a requirement, then it might be that neither sort of realism requires it or one does and not the other.

I agree that morality must be irreducible and based on our everyday moral experiences, but I am not entirely convinced that such irreducibility and our strongest everyday moral experiences refer to the existence of categorical reasons. For me the most important common sense element of morality is that “something really matters” and therefore intrinsic values exist. If pain is intrinsically bad, then (all else equal) causing pain is not a good idea. There might be an overriding reason to cause pain, such as saving several lives, but causing pain could not be justified easily. Causing pain just because one enjoys causing pain would not justify the behavior.

It might be that moral categorical reasons can be reduced to facts involving intrinsic values. Let’s assume for a moment that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and pain is the only thing that’s intrinsically bad. Insofar as it is right to do good and wrong to do bad, stealing from the poor to benefit oneself is wrong would be wrong because it would cause more pain than pleasure. The idea that stealing from the poor is morally irrational is overriding (and therefore categorical) because my desires (and other nonmoral reasons) are irrelevant. Moral reasons are not just one reason among others because it is morally wrong to cause harm no matter what my desires are. Nothing could make it morally right to do what is morally wrong.

Additionally, if intrinsic values exist, then we know that moral rationality can override all other reasons because they really matter. It is really good to increase the existing amount of intrinsic value and it is really bad to decrease it. This helps explain why we should care and actually do what is morally rational.

Categorical epistemic reasons might also be reducible to facts about goods, such as the truth (representing facts). Behavior, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that are conducive to the truth are epistemically rational. That which promotes the truth is overriding on epistemic grounds insofar as non-epistemic facts are irrelevant. No matter how much I desire for something to be true, I will have an overriding reason to believe that which probably represents the truth. It is wrong (epistemically irrational) to believe something that is probably false just because I desire it to be true.

However, I must admit that I am not sure how to best explain why epistemic reasons seem to override all other reasons. It is more difficult to explain why we should care to be epistemically rational. We can ask, Something is probably true, but so what? I suppose we could find out that epistemology is only good insofar as it is moral. If that suggestion is right, then I must admit that epistemic reasons will only be truly overriding and categorical when they are also moral.

Premise 2: Epistemic facts exist.

Why should we agree that epistemic facts exist? Terence Cuneo argues that all possible meta-etpistemic alternatives to epistemic realism are implausible: Epistemic error theory, expressivism, and reductionism are all rejected by Cuneo. I will consider Cuneo’s main argument and provide my objections to it. My main objection to Cuneo’s argument is that it could be be incomplete. There could be plausible alternatives to epistemic realism that he doesn’t consider.

Epistemic Error Theory

Epistemic error theory (what Cuneo calls “epistemic nihilism”) is the view that our ordinary common sense understanding of epistemology requires epistemic facts, but there are no such facts. i.e. There is no such thing as justification or knowledge.

A major problem with epistemic error theory is that it can’t possibly be justified, or as Cuneo says, error theorists are committed to believing that, “Epistemic nihilism is true, but we have no reason to believe it” (118). (There is no such thing as justification, after all.)

Epistemic Expressivism

What Cuneo says about epistemic expressivism is very complecated and confusing, so I will explain what he has to say in the simplest terms I can, which will not fully represent what he has to say.

Epistemic expressivism requires that we accept our common sense understanding of epistemology, but such an understanding does not require us to accept that actual epistemic facts exist (and epistemic judgments are not meant to be true or false). Cuneo argues that epistemic expressivists must accept categorical reasons (because they are part of our common sense understanding of epistemology), but there is no way for a expressivist to make sense of categorical reasons.

One major problem is that a traditional epistemic expressivist does not believe that epistemic judgments can be true or false – instead we merely have a pro-attitude for some epistemic judgments – but our everyday common sense epistemic judgments are meant to be true or false and represent reality (137). We think it is true that the law of gravity is justified because we have good reason to believe that it accurately represents an element of reality, for example.

Another major problem with epistemic expressivism is that it can’t fully account for the fact that episteic reasons require an accurate representation of the world. If epistemic expressivism is true, then “Were I to say ‘I have explained and justified X’, I would not thereby have expressed the proposition that I have provided sufficient reason in favor of X. Rather, I would have done something else such as commend, accept certain norms that instruct us to embrace X, or the like,” but we can’t accept that this is what we really do while making epistemic judgments unless we can be sure that the epistemic expressivist’s theory is really justified (173).

Finally, I would reject epistemic expressivism because it doesn’t recognize that epsitemology can have a strong connection to truth. A belief can be justified, for example, if we can prove that it’s probably true. That is not possible under expressivism. Some expressivists accept that there are epistemic “quasi-facts,” but these facts are not part of reality as we ordinarily understand them to be, so these facts can’t be that “something is probably true” and so forth. Epistemic “quasi-facts” can’t have a strong connection to any truth or fact.

Epistemic Reductionism

Cuneo defines epistemic reductionism as the view that epistemic facts exist, but they can be reduced to non-categorical reasons. It is the view that if you want to describe the truth, then you should follow certain rules, but these rules can’t override non-epistemic reasons. There are true statements, but we might not care about the truth and we might have a reason to believe something false.

Reductionism seems to be much more sensitive to the fact that epistemology has a strong connection to the truth. It can be possible to justify the fact that something is probably true. For example, we could say that it is probably true that the law of gravity probably exists.

Reductionism with the “conditional condition.”

Cuneo actually says that a reducionist would have to reject that anything has an epistemic merit (constitutes justification, knowledge, etc.) unless it is motivated by cognitive goals, and this would imply that epistemic judgments have no connection to the truth unless we are motivated to know the truth (190). This is what he calls the conditional condition. However, I don’t know that reductionists would have to refer to any personal goals of the person. A person might have an epistemic reason insofar as it would lead to accurate beliefs even if the person has other competing non-epistemic reasons.

Cuneo argues that major problem with epistemic reductionism is that the conditional condition is incompatible with how we understand justification to function. For example, a woman with good eyesight who sees her hands in front of her has a good reason to believe she has hands even if she has no interest in the truth and wishes she didn’t have hands. However, reducionists who accept the conditional condition would have to find this belief to be unjustified because it doesn’t help her satisfy her desire. Cuneo has much more to say against the conditional condition, but the above consideration is enough for me to reject it.

Reductionism without the conditional condition.

I suggest that reductionism doesn’t need the conditional condition even in light of Cuneo’s definition (which is that epistemic facts don’t have categorical reasons).10 Something isn’t a justified belief just because it helps satisfy my desires or achieve my goals. Something is a justified belief because it probably accurately describes reality. I see no reason to think that a reductionist couldn’t say this.

The problem for reductionists of this sort is that they reject categorical reasons. A woman who sees her hands in front of her face and desires that she has no hands would only be epistemically justified to believe she has hands, but she could be motivated to reject that she has hands. The epistemic reason to believe that she has hands could be rejected because of the non-epistemic reason (goal) of not having hands. Worse, a reductionist could argue that her epistemic reason to believe that she has hands could be overridden by some non-epistemic reason. If she rejects that she has hands despite seeing them and commits herself to be deluded, that decision could be rational in a non-epistemic sense (and perhaps even rational all things considered) – but we seem to know that epistemic reasons always override all other reasons and it would be irrational for the woman to be delusional.

Epistemic Constructivism. (Reductionism with categorical epistemic reasons.)

It is possible for a reductionist to claim that categorical epistemic reasons exist in some reductionistic sense. For example, rationality can exist only as the acceptance of a community (or our conception of what ideal people would agree to). This is a form of epistemic constructivism, which is similar to the idea that money is constructed and only has value insofar as we all believe and accept that money has value. Epistemic reasons would be epistemic rules that we must follow insofar as we define (as a community) all rationality to require us to follow epistemic rules.

One problem with epistemic constructivism (if anything) seems to be that it doesn’t explain why epistemology really matters and must override all non-epistemic reasons. It seems arbitrary that we as a community would accept such an idea; and if fully informed ideal people would also accept that epistemic reasons are categorical, it isn’t clear why it has to be so.


There are two potentially plausible forms of epistemic anti-realism that Cuneo does not mention:

  1. Epistemic constructivism
  2. Anti-realism that supports categorical reasons.

Objection 1: Epistemic Constructivism is anti-realist and is not considered.

Cuneo believes that constructivism can be a form of realism, but I disagree. Once we accept that constructivism is not a form of moral or epistemic realism, we can demand to know why we should reject epistemic constructivism. Cuneo told us why we should reject several forms of epistemic anti-realism, but he didn’t tell us why we should reject epistemic constructivism. If epistemic constructivism is true, then Cuneo has failed to prove that epistemic facts exist.

Cuneo refers to moral constructivism when he argues that moral realism does not require us to accept that morality is mind-independent and he argues,

I maintain that there is in principle no incompatibility between accepting paradigmatic realism on the one hand, and the claim that moral facts are a function of the attitudes we have toward non-moral reality, on the other. As far as I can see, there is no reason to believe that every position that affirms mind-dependance of this sort thereby fails to capture the platitudes with respect to the content and authority of moral facts… My strong suspicion is that constructivist vies of this variety are not the best type of realist position to adopt. But this is a weaker thesis than the claim that any such position is not a realist view in the first place. (49)

Moral constructivism, as far as I can tell, is the idea that morality is constituted by our moral beliefs and attitudes. In other words morality is true only insofar as people (or ideal people) agree to them (in the appropriate circumstances). Moral facts are nothing but actual beliefs and attitudes people have concerning morality. This is much like what John Searle calls institutional facts. Money, for example, exists only insofar as people believe it does and treat money as though it has value.

First, I agree that morality could be mind dependent. If pain and pleasure are the only intrinsic values, then morality will only exist when minds exist.

Second, mind dependance does not imply constructivism as Cuneo seems to imply. If pleasure and pain have intrinsic value, then their value exists independently of our attitudes and beliefs about them. They have value just for existing.

Third, constructivism is a form of moral reductionism. Constructivism states that categorical moral reasons are nothing but the acceptance an (ideal) person has of certain moral rules. Constructivists provide categorical moral reasons in a non-categorical and non-prescriptive description that will fail to convince us of any real importance. Sure, I could commit myself to categorical moral reasons, but why should I? It isn’t clear why moral reasons could override non-moral reasons when morality itself is merely something people would accept under certain ideal conditions.

It is possible that I have somehow misunderstood moral constructivism and I agree that certain elements of morality could be best described by constructivism. For example, I am not entirely convinced that right and wrong have absolute standards. It might be that we merely accept various moral standards because we as a community realize that intrinsic values exist. It is good to promote intrinsic values even though it isn’t clear how irrational it would be to decide not to promote them in absolute terms. What we call morally “rational” could be based on arbitrary standards that a community agrees to. Some actions might be more morally rational than others even though there is no way to determine what action is rational or irrational without referring to the standards accepted by a community.

Objection 2: Anti-realist views that endorse categorical reasons.

One form of anti-realism that Cuneo fails to discuss is the sort that supports categorical reasons, and he gives us no reason to reject such a view. Additionally, (a) such a view could be quite plausible considering that the existence of categorical reasons is a major reason to accept moral realism, and (b) Cuneo has failed to prove that irreducible epistemic facts exist unless he proves that all forms of epistemic anti-realism are false. Anti-realism that supports categorical reasons is one form of anti-realism that Cuneo failed to prove is false, so he failed to fully justify the fact that irreducible epistemic facts exist.

I already admitted that epistemic constructivism could have a reductionistic view of categorical reasons, but R.M. Hare’s theory, universal prescriptivism, (a form of moral anti-realism) might also be an anti-realist view that endorses categorical reasons. It might be that universal prescriptivism also applies to epistemic norms, or that there is an epistemic version of universal prescriptivism.11

Hare argues that prescriptivity in and of itself lacks truth conditions, so his definition is quite different from Cuneo’s. Prescriptivity is merely to command, but there is a logical structure to prescriptivity that makes morality rational (Hare 129-132).12 It is irrational to command two contradictory or self-defeating actions, for example. Moral prescriptivity for Hare requires that we can will that an action be taken no matter who is going to do the action. For example, I can’t will to cause you suffering if I can’t will you cause me suffering when our roles are reversed and we find ourselves in the same sort of situation.

I suspect that the word “will” is used by Hare as “desire,” and categorical moral reasons are determined by our ability to desire that an action be taken no matter who will take it and no matter who will suffer the consequences.

It is not clear to me why Hare or anyone endorsing universal prescriptivism would think it is irrational to reject morality entirely. We want to ask, “Why should I care?” Morality requires us to do what we could will universally, but so what? Why would I let that restrict my behavior? If Hare can’t answer that question, then he might not endorse categorical reasons after all. However, here are two possible responses he could give:

  1. We merely accept that it is irrational to do what is immoral in the same way constructivists do. (It’s just something our community accepts, etc.)
  2. It is how our psychology works. We can’t possibly desire something that we believe to be immoral.

Either way, the answer isn’t fully satisfying because there doesn’t seem to be anything important about moral reasons within universal prescriptivism to explain why I should care about morality if I don’t actually care about it and if I must desire to be moral at all costs, then it isn’t even clear that moral reason is overriding competing reasons.

How could universal prescriptivism have any relation to epistemic anti-realism? One, categorical epistemic reasons could be identical to categorical moral reasons. This response could be satisfying if truth is a moral value. Two, we would have a categorical epistemic reason to do whatever we would will everyone else do in the exact same situation with regard to epistemic matters. We might only be able to will that everyone form their beliefs given sufficient justification, for example. It would be irrational to believe something if we can’t will everyone believe it given the exact same justification for the belief.

Even if there is an epistemic anti-realist sort of universal prescriptivism, I am not sure how to make it a satisfying view (especially in light of the fact that it might not be able to fully justify why epistemic reasons are overriding).


The Normative Web provides us with great insight into how similar moral and epistemic realism seem to be. I do not want to suggest that Cuneo does not provide a good starting point to justify that moral realism is true, but it is not sufficiently persuasive in its current form for at least two major reasons:

One, I’m not convinced that categorical reasons are necessary for epistemic and moral realism. This might be a minor objection, but it is one way that Cuneo believes both moral and epistemic realism to be similar.

Two, Cuneo does not necessarily prove that all forms of epistemic antirealism are false, so he does not prove that irreducible epistemic facts exist. I suspect that he left out better versions of epistemic reductionism, epistemic constructivism, and universal prescriptivism.

You can buy Terence Cuneo’s The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism on


1 I have not read Nathan M Nobis’s thesis, but it provided a similar argument that was published in 2004. (At this time Cuneo’s Normative Web was available to Nobis in an unpublished manuscript form.) Nobis defends epistemic realism and moral realism in his thesis, Truth in Ethics and Epistemology: A Defense of Normative Realism. 28 June 2010. <>.

2 This is similar to what Immanuel Kant called “categorical imperatives.” See “Practical reason: morality and the primacy of pure practical reason” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Kant’s Account for Reason.” 28 June 2010. <>.

3 More objections can be found in a review of The Normative Web by James Lenman. 28 June 2010. <>

4 “Truth” is language that is used to successfully represent “facts.” This is the main idea of the “correspondence theory of truth.” Technically, moral realism would be false even if moral facts exist as long as language fails to represent those facts. However, this position is not one I find plausible. If moral facts exist, but we can’t describe those facts in language, then I see no reason to think they exist in the first place.

5 “Isomorphic” literally means “equal shape.” Cuneo is using the term to refer to the fact that reasons function in some of the same ways in both ethics and epistemology, and can be described using much of the same terminology.

6“Assertoric” means that they attempt to assert.

7“Alethic” refers to things that involve necessary truth.

8“Ontic” refers to claims about reality.

9 “Platitudes that concern the content and authority” are basically just the commonsense conception of morality that involves the fact that morality is overriding and prescriptive.

10 It might be that Cuneo’s description of epistemic reductionism is based on the most popular reductionist views, but the view as described does not seem to be the most justified form of reductionism possible.

11 Nathan M Nobis’s thesis, Truth in Ethics and Epistemology: A Defense of Normative Realism discusses the possibility of universal prescriptivism as a possible form of epistemic anti-realism, but I haven’t read what he has to say on the matter yet.

12 Hare, R.M. Sorting Out Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

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