Ethical Realism

August 17, 2010

A Review of Moral Reality by Paul Bloomfield

Paul Bloomfield presented an argument for moral realism in his book, Moral Reality (2001). He argues that it is possible (or very likely) that we don’t know everything about morality, and therefore moral reality exists beyond our moral judgments and attitudes.1 This argument was discussed in the introduction, but then it appears to be ignored throughout the rest of the book, which turns its attention to four riddles (24):

  1. Right and wrong are unobservable, but how can a property be unobservable?
  2. How can we know unobservable facts?
  3. Morality concerns more than our attitudes or preferences, but what linguistic rules determine moral language?
  4. Moral properties can’t motivate us just for existing, so how can moral properties influence our motivations?

I will discuss Bloomfield’s arguments and offer objections.

Bloomfield’s Argument for Moral Realism

I understand Bloomfield’s argument to be the following:

  1. There are probably some moral judgments we are incapable of making. (e.g. We might not be able to know for sure if abortion should be illegal.)
  2. The best or only reason to think that there are moral judgments we are incapable of making is because moral facts are more than our personal beliefs and attitudes.
  3. Therefore, moral facts are more than our personal beliefs and attitudes.

Bloomfield argues that it is reasonable to think that there are different levels of moral knowledge people can acquire (16). Wise people know more about right and wrong than the rest of us, but even wise people don’t know everything about morality (ibid.). Our moral ignorance implies that there is more to morality (a moral reality) beyond our understanding. This is no different than any other science—we don’t know everything about any “real” part of reality. We continually examine the world and learn more about it.

This argument is fascinating and could probably be developed quite a bit. Unfortunately it is merely quickly used by Bloomfield to try to move the burden of proof to the moral anti-realist—He wants to say that we should be moral realists because there is more reason to agree with it than anti-realism.

I have four challenges against Bloomfield’s argument. I don’t want to suggest that my objections prove Bloomfield wrong, but I think he has a lot more to discuss before his argument will be adequately convincing. My challenges are the following:

Challenge 1

The argument seems to beg the question. If we assume that we are ignorant about some moral facts, of course there are moral facts. The premise is too strong to be a “reason” to support the conclusion. We need more reason to agree that we are ignorant of some moral facts. I think this position is “common sense” and we tend to agree with it, but that just means that moral realism is a highly intuitive and common sense position. However, what seems true based on our moral experience might not be true.

Challenge 2

How do we know that our incapacity to make some moral judgments is due to the reality of unknown moral facts? Some people think that our moral opinions and attitudes tend to be “false” in the sense that “true” moral beliefs are ideal. Perhaps what is “truly good” is whatever I would want if I knew all nonmoral facts, for example. It might be that I currently dislike capital punishment because I don’t know that capital punishment deters millions of people from becoming murderers. If we had millions of more murderers due to doing away with capital punishment, then I might prefer to have it.

Challenge 3

We can’t know the conclusion of moral facts is the “best” explanation for our moral ignorance unless we consider all of the pros and cons. We need to weigh the reasons to believe in moral realism against the reasons to believe in anti-realism. Bloomfield has presented us with one reason to accept moral realism, but there is more to realism and anti-realism other than this single consideration.

Challenge 4

Are moral facts equivalent to moral realism? Bloomfield wants to conclude that there are moral facts that we are ignorant about, but is that sufficient to conclude that moral realism is true? It might not be. If moral facts are reducible to nonmoral facts, then morality would be dispensable. We would never have to talk about it again, and there might be no sense in which we really “ought” to be moral.

Bloomfield’s entire book (Chapters 1 through 4) could be taken to be an attempt to meet the third challenge by showing us why there is no good reason to reject moral realism. (If we have some reason to believe in moral realism and no reason to reject it, then moral realism is the most justified position we can have.) However, he strangely seems to be unimpressed with the fourth challenge. Bloomfield suggests that we don’t even need the word “morality” and we could talk instead about “living well” (21). This seems entirely too dismissive. I suspect that “living well” could itself be a morally loaded term that “overrides” nonmoral considerations.

Four Riddles

How can a property be unobservable?

Bloomfield finds that health is a good analogy to morality (in part) because it is also unobservable (27). He argues that both morality and health are “functional” (28). Something is healthy if it is functional and something is right if it is functional. We can’t observe right and wrong or health because we can’t observe something as “functional.” To say something is functional is to compare it to alternatives—something can be more functional than other things. A person can be healthier than how he or she would be if he or she ate differently and exercised less. A person who does the right thing is doing something different and better than the person who does the wrong thing. If alternatives don’t exist, then right and wrong (and health) can’t exist. It is only knowledge of alternatives that can make it possible to know right from wrong, and healthiness from unhealthiness.

Of course, it is possible to have indirect observation of right and wrong or health. We can see that a person has been wounded (and therefore lacks health) or that a person is committing a horrific crime. We can immediately see that someone is unhealthy or doing the wrong thing because we already know the alternatives.

Additionally, Bloomfield considers that some people find moral reality to be objectionable because it “resists reduction” (45). Some philosophers think that water is “nothing but” H2O and heat is “nothing but” kinetic energy. These things reduce to other things, and some philosophers suspect that everything will reduce to other things in that way. Perhaps physics describes the only real level of reality. However, it is quite normal for just about everything to resist reduction (45-46). We don’t know how to reduce psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, chemistry to physics, or physics to statistical mechanics (ibid.).

Although Bloomfield devotes a lot of resources to explain why it is difficult to give a plausible account about how entropy (the tendency of matter towards disorder) reduces to statistical mechanics, I don’t find this argument particularly relevant because something has to be irreducible at some point—and entropy might be one of those things. The important question to me is—does everything reduce to physics?—and I see no reason to think that entropy is in need of being reduced to something else.

Finally Bloomfield suggests that both health and morality are supervenient (48-55). The truth of moral statements depends on the truth of nonmoral facts, and the truth of health statements depends on nonhealth facts. An act is immoral when it effects our bodies and minds in certain ways, and you become unhealthy when certain things happen to your body. Although some people find “supervenience” to be objectionable, Bloomfield argues that it should be no more objectionable for morality than it is for health. Simon Blackburn suggests that the best reason for morality to be supervenient is due to the fact that morality is something like cultural customs. We could visit a possible world (alternate reality) where people “correctly” think causing pain was right rather than wrong, for example. Bloomfield is not convinced by Blackburn’s argument, and suggests that we would reject a possible world where people “correctly” believe that eating poison is healthy, and we should reject that there could be a world where people “correctly” believe that torturing is never wrong for the same reason (50-55). Our belief that eating poison is unhealthy isn’t arbitrary or a matter of taste, and neither is the belief that there is something wrong with torture.

Bloomfield admits that some moral truths can be determined by a culture, but such principals aren’t arbitrary. For example, there are moral truths that require everyone’s compliance, such as “You should obey traffic laws” (53). We could have a law in the USA to drive on the left side of the road instead of the right side without making any difference, but the law itself still prevents people from dying.

In conclusion, a property (e.g. moral status) can be unobservable when it requires unseen alternatives for an appropriate judgment, just like health and other functional properties. How well a healthy organ (or virtuous person) fulfills its function depends on the alternatives. Such properties might be “irreducible” and “supervenient” but there is nothing objectionable about this.

My First Objection

Bloomfield isn’t entirely clear what it means to say that moral facts aren’t “directly observable.” What counts as direct observation or indirect observation? Torbjörn Tännsjö’s Moral Realism presents a strong argument that we do have moral observation, just like we have psychological observation. I suppose it’s not always “direct observation” but it might be that very few observations are direct. Not to mention that our experience of pain seems like a pretty direct observation that presents us with a moral fact, “pain is bad.”

Tännsjö admits that we can’t observe facts about “right and wrong” because we must compare the alternatives to know if something is right or wrong. We don’t observe that keeping a promise is right because we need to know what the alternatives were. What happens when the person doesn’t keep a promise? Only then do we know that it’s wrong. However, we can observe the negative consequences of our actions and that in itself is highly morally relevant.

Bloomfield ignores “intrinsic values” and seems to only be concerned with “right and wrong.” He is too dismissive about the nature of good and bad consequences.

My Second Objection

Moral demands are mysterious in at least one way that demands for health are not. Moral demands are overriding. The right thing to do insofar as health is concerned might be to drink moderate amounts of water, but the right thing to do insofar as morality is concerned is of primary “importance.” If we morally ought to drink water, then we have sufficient reason to drink the water. It would be rational to do so. However, if we ought to drink water just to be healthy, then there might be a moral demand that makes it irrational to drink water. For example, I might have to rush into a burning building to save my child and wait to drink water later.

The fact that morality is overriding due to its importance is unlike anything else. An anti-realist might find this sort of thing to be objectionable. Terance Cuneo tries to take on the issue of morality’s overriding importance in Normative Web.

How can we know unobservable facts?

Bloomfield suggests that we can understand moral knowledge in a similar way to how we understand medical knowledge. We have two main ways to know about health (or morality): One, through symptoms; and two, through problem solving (71-76). We use symptoms to identify the cause of illness and we use problem solving to identify a way to cure the illness. Sometimes the symptoms present us with an obvious “cure” (perhaps that a headache can be alleviated with an aspirin), but other times the symptoms indicate some sort of underlying malfunction of a system, and the system must be repaired. The “symptom” of having a fever was once taken to be a reason to eliminate the fever, but we now know that fevers are often a good way for our bodies to heal themselves.

Bloomfield suggests that diagnosis and problem solving map onto two popular ethical theories—deontology and consequentialism (81-86). These are two “strategies” for making moral decisions. Deontologists supposedly think that the situation that presents itself has something like symptoms that can immediately present us with an obvious moral solution. For example, seeing your grandparents might automatically give you a response to hug them. Consequentalists, on the other hand, use problem solving to decide which action is appropriate based on what consequences are expected (after analyzing the situation at hand). Will the action help people or hurt people? Consequentialism might be necessary for complex cases where the right thing to do is not obvious, but it can also be “one thought too many” when the right thing to do is obvious, such as when we must choose between competing obligations.

Bloomfield suggests that “moral intuition” is not as mysterious or objectionable as many seem to think (84). Moral intuition is merely our automatic and effortless knowledge given knowledge of the situation much like when a doctor immediately knows why someone is sick upon seeing the symptoms. To see (or even consider) kids torturing a cat immediately presents itself as “bad” because we already understand right and wrong based upon the situation. Intuition is often known to be difficult to explain and we might not always have the ability to tell someone how we know something about health or morality. This is no different than how doctors might often be at a loss when asked how they can recognize a particular disease when they see it (ibid.).

Moreover, Bloomfield considers the fact that many find irresolvable moral disagreement to be objectionable, and he argues that there is irresolvable disagreement not only between doctors, but also between scientists in the hard scientists who agree upon all the known facts (88-92). Therefore, irresolvable moral disagreement is no more objectionable than any other sort of disagreement. In fact, it would be strange if there were no moral disagreement. We might suspect that morality was a human invention if there was no moral disagreement because it would be unlike just about any other study of reality.

Finally, Bloomfield considers the objection that unlike medical knowledge, moral knowledge is not a skill because it requires the right motivations, but other skills don’t (101-102). He offers two replies. One, he suggests that virtue is so difficult that it requires motivation. People would give up if they didn’t have motivation. Two, he suggests that we learn to be psychologically determined to do the right thing.

In conclusion, our moral knowledge is no more mysterious than medical knowledge.

My Objection

Again, Bloomfield ignores the fact that morality is overriding (unlike health). How can we know it’s overriding? How can we know it’s so important? He does not answer these questions. His discussion of requiring the right motivations might touch upon the fact that it’s overriding, but I think that morality isn’t merely overriding in the sense of being psychologically determining. It’s overriding in that it should be psychologically determining.

What linguistic rules determine moral language?

Bloomfield discusses two problems with moral language. One, we have words like “good” used in so many different ways. Could the word “good” refer to the same thing when we say someone is a “good person” or that “giving to charity is good?” He answers, “No, but that’s not a problem.” Two, language makes “is” and “ought” to look like two different things, but they aren’t.

Moral Semantics

Bloomfield discusses how using the word “good” in three different ways is just like how we use the word “health” in three different ways (108-120):

Health (108-114)

  1. b-health – Being or becoming healthy. (An organ or organism can be healthy.)
  2. c-health – Causing health. (Drinking moderate amounts of water causes healthiness.)
  3. s-health – Symptoms of health. (A certain blood pressure and body temperature are signs of our health and lack of health.)

Good (114-120)

  1. b-good – Being or becoming good. (What counts as “good” in this sense is controversial, but it could be a person or one’s intentions.
  2. c-good – Causing good consequences. (Giving to charity helps people, so it is c-good.)
  3. s-good – Symptoms of goodness. (To spontaneously jump into a burning building to save a child would be a good sign that virtue is embodied.)

I suggest that r-good is another use of the word “good,” which means “rational goodness.” It is one thing to be morally rational—to make a decision based on our current information with the reasonable expectation that good consequences will follow, but what actual consequences (c-goodness) follow from our action it is quite another thing. Utilitarians are primarily concerned with actual consequences. What makes an action “ultimately right” is whether or not it caused good things to happen. However, actual decision making requires us to make the “right decision” insofar as it is rational based on the limited information we have. For example, imagine that I decide to drive to work and end up running over a stranger. The decision to drive was perfectly rational because no significant harm from driving could be rationally expected, but we also have to realize that there is something wrong (terrible) that resulted from my decision as well. (On the other hand driving drunk is irrational because excessive harm can be expected.)

Armed with this understanding of moral semantics, Bloomfield turns his attention to an objection to moral realism—People in a possible world correctly use the word “good” in a different way than we do (120-127). Such people might think that what really matters is that we are good people (virtue) as opposed to causing happiness. Bloomfield would point out that there are different uses of the word “good” and people really do disagree about the right way to understand b-good (being and becoming good). Are people, intentions, or mental states the most relevant ascriptions of “b-good?” We don’t know for sure yet. But he suggests that one answer is still right and one is wrong. If we were faced with a possible world where people have a different answer than people of our world then we would be in a similar situation as we would expect within any other realist-based disagreement. They are wrong, we are wrong, or everyone is wrong (127).

In conclusion, it’s not really that mysterious how we use the word “good” in many different ways. B-good is the main sort of goodness and the other sorts of good relate to “b-good” in some way.

Moral Syntax

Next, Bloomfield suggests that what many people describe as the “is/ought gap” is not objectionable because it is a result of the fact that morality is a functional property, just like health (128-152). What we “ought to do” can be different than the way things actually are. What we actually do can be different than what we ought to do. We can’t know what ought to be merely from what is actually the case. However, we can know what we “ought to do” to be healthy or to be good. How? By considering the alternatives. We “ought to” drink moderate amounts of water because it will help us be healthy (because to be healthy is to be biologically functional)—and we know that by comparing it to the alternative. We “ought to do” things that cause more goodness (because it is the function of goodness to do so)—and we know that by comparing it to the alternatives.

Bloomfield then argues that “what we ought to do” is determined by the function of morality, and what contingently exists in possible worlds (132). First, what determines what we “ought to do” is determined by moral function. What we ought to do given our situation (or any relevantly similar) is the same in every possible world. If it is wrong to harm a child given my situation, then it is also wrong for anyone to harm the child in a relevantly similar situation. Why? Because the function of morality is to benefit rather than harm people—and because there is a possible world where that function is carried out well. There is a world where the child is not harmed.

What makes a situation “relevantly similar” is that it is “functionally equivalent” (146-147). Punching someone in the face or kicking them in the face as an act of self-defense are “functionally equivalent” because the function of morality (to benefit rather than harm) is being overridden for the same reason (self-preservation).

In conclusion, “what ought to be” is merely what “is the case” in a possible world. We can’t know what ought to be merely from the actual world, but we can know it by comparing possible worlds.

My First Objection

Torbjörn Tännsjö’s Moral Realism suggests that “good” and “right” are quite different things. What Bloomfield calls “c-good and s-good” could probably be better known as “c-right, and s-right.” An action is right if it causes benefits rather than harms. This objection is not a serious one, but it is worth considering for a moment.

My Second Objection

It’s not entirely clear to me what “possible worlds” are all about. Bloomfield wants me to think that somehow what happens in “possible worlds” is relevant to morality, but it’s not clear that possible worlds exist in anything other than our imaginations. I suppose that he could try to argue that somethings are “necessary” and others are “contingent” even within the actual world, but I’m not entirely sure what that means either. For example, we could say that I am the same person even if I lose my arm, so my arm is a contingent part of me. The mysteries involving possible worlds is a large part of philosophy and Bloomfield might be able to respond to this worry adequately, but I currently know little about it and more needs to be said about it.

My Third Objection

The actual world does have some moral relevance. There are actual harms and benefits to our actions, which I understand to be intrinsic values. What “is” the case in actuality (in terms of intrinsic values) combined with our personal abilities might be enough to decide what “ought to be the case.” Pain is bad just for existing. The reality is that we can make choices and act in ways that make people happy, or cause pain and suffering. I don’t think that is as strange or complected as Bloomfield makes it seem. The more good a person is capable of, the more we demand from her. We don’t ask children to tell us the cure for cancer, but we do ask people who know the cure for cancer to share it with us because they are able to do so.

How can moral properties influence our motivations?

Some philosophers have suggested that moral facts must somehow cause us to be motivated and this has been considered to be evidence that what we call “moral facts” are nothing but our personal preferences. However, Bloomfield argues that we constantly know the right thing to do without being motivated to do it.

For example, he discusses Thasymachus who thought that morality is for dupes (160-161). (This view actually does still exist.2) This man would think that stealing is perfectly rational whenever we could get away with it. He would not be motivated to “do the right thing” whenever he is certain that he can get away with stealing despite knowing “the right thing requires us not to steal.”

Additionally, Bloomfield considers why philosophers might think morality entails “at least some motivation” and suggests two possible answers.

First, some philosophers might think it motivates us similar to how knowledge of logic seems to motivate us (165-171). We can see modus ponens and immediately become motivated to believe that it is valid. (Modus ponens is “P. If P, then Q. Therefore, P.”) However, it is still quite possible not to be motivated to know that it is valid. There is a gap between seeing a valid argument and realizing that it is valid. What is logically valid is valid in abstraction beyond our realization, and our realization of validity is in our mind and is contingent upon the inner workings of our mind.

Second, he considers that a good person really will be compelled to do the right thing. Insofar as a person is virtuous, her motivation to do the right will always be present when realizing what it is (170-171). Insofar as a person is not virtuous, she will realize that she sometimes fails to want to do the right thing. One might realize that the right thing to do is to donate a kidney, but that is a painful and time consuming procedure that few people would actually want to do.

In conclusion, we are motivated to do good insofar as we are determined to be good by our psychology (and are therefore virtuous). This process is not fully described or proven by Bloomfield, and some actual psychological studies are in order. The question of motivation is a psychological one, and it is therefore more of a scientific question than a philosophical one.


Bloomfield’s argument for moral realism is incredibly undeveloped, but his discussion of moral realism in terms of four puzzles is very relevant and powerful. He has many interesting and insightful arguments and hypotheses concerning the nature of moral reality. I don’t find Bloomfield’s arguments to be finished business because there is much more to be said, but I have one objection that I consider to be particularly serious—Moral reality implies something of overriding importance exists. That is something potentially objectionable about moral realism that he does not discuss.

You can buy Paul Bloomfield’s book, Moral Reality, at


1 “[W]e begin with the difficult-to-deny premise that there may actually be aspects of our moral lives that we are incapable of recognizing, and we draw the conclusion that the scope of moral reality must transcend what falls contingently within our epistemic ken; moral judgments are more or less accurate judgments of a portion of reality that does not depend on being judged for its existence” (15).

2 The Distressed Watched/Amazing Atheist. “The End Of Morality and The Anarchy Of The Soul.” Blip TV. <;. Uploaded originally on Youtube June 30, 2010.

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