Ethical Realism

May 20, 2011

The Debate Over Moral Realism

The question over what morality refers to has lead to two groups of philosophers. One group describes itself as being “moral realists” and other other as “moral anti-realists.” Moral realists think that there’s more to morality than anti-realists. In particular, the moral realists believes that there’s at least one moral fact. I will describe these two groups then briefly describe why someone might accept or reject moral realism.

What is Moral realism?

There is no precise definition of moral realism that all philosophers agree to, but the general spirit of moral realism is that the anti-realists are giving incomplete meta-ethical theories. The most important element of moral realism is that moral realists believe in at least one “moral fact.” Other than that moral realists tend to be more optimistic about attaining moral knowledge, identifying true moral statements, and often believe in intrinsic values.

Moral facts

The difference between “truth” and “facts” is that statements are true, but facts are the (parts of) reality that at least sometimes make statements true (by corresponding to them). For example, when I say that I have a foot, what I say is true because there’s a real foot in the world that’s part of my body. However, not all facts are objects like feet. Examples of moral facts could be the following:

  1. Pain is intrinsically bad.
  2. We ought not cause pain without an overriding reason to do so.
  3. It’s rational to try to avoid causing unnecessary pain to people.
  4. It’s wrong to torture people without an overriding reason to do so.
  5. Socrates was a good person.
  6. Socrates had courage.

Facts can be any part of reality, such as objects, properties, relations between things, states of affairs, and events.

Parts of reality – We assume that things exist in space and time, but not everything is an object. For example, parts of reality can be thoughts or feelings, but thoughts and feelings aren’t necessarily objects.

Objects – Objects are unities that are taken to exist apart from other unities. A foot can be taken to be an object unified and somewhat distinct from our other body parts even though it’s technically unified with the rest of our body. It’s not entirely clear if any object is truly unified in any meaningful sense because the universe is made up of fields and particles, but it’s convenient to talk about objects and we often understand what people say who discuss them.

Properties – Properties are elements of things, such as length, color, strength, and courage. It’s not clear that all properties are really the same kinds of things. Length is a comparison between things, color is how light reflects off of objects; strength is what a body can do; and courage is a relationship between morality, body, and mind that involves bodies doing what is morally praiseworthy because the mind is motivated to do so.

Relations between things – Objects and things are often interrelated and those relationships can be important to us. The fact that one object in conjunction with the laws of nature can cause something to happen is often very important. For example, we eat food to survive and this involves a complex interrelationship between our bodies, the food, and the laws of nature.

States of affairs – States of affairs are all the facts—the total reality—that’s relevant to us. One reason we think we should eat food is because the states of affairs including our bodies and the food will undergo a causal process and lead to greater health and longevity.

Events – States of affairs exist in time and the reality that exists changes from one moment to the next. We often conveniently discuss “events” to pinpoint the parts of reality that change that interests us. For example, we can speak of the event of a gun being fired or the events that lead to high oil prices.

Are moral facts irreducible?

Moral facts of the moral realist variety can’t be eliminated through reduction. We often find out that one thing is actually something else. We often eliminate the existence of something through a reduction. For example, we might say that human beings are nothing but particles and energy. We could then stop talking about human beings and just talk about certain configurations of particles and energy. Some people also suggest that the mind is nothing but the brain.

Some people have suggested that morality is nothing but cultural customs, preferences, or a social contract. This is a paradigmatic sort of moral anti-realism. Moral realists require that moral facts are more than just cultural customs, preferences, or a social contract.

However, some sorts of reduction are not eliminative. For example, some philosophers think that pain is identical to badness, but they don’t think we can eliminate pain. They think that pain and badness are two different ways to see the same thing. This is much like people who claim that H2O is identical to water, but they don’t claim that “water doesn’t really exist.”

Intrinsic value

One good candidate for being a “moral fact” that seems to explain other moral facts is “intrinsic value”—the idea that something could be good or bad just for existing. For example, it can be a fact that (some) pain is intrinsically bad. As a result we might also decide that the following are moral facts:

  1. It’s wrong to cause people pain indiscriminately.
  2. It’s appropriate for people to dislike pain and to desire to avoid pain.
  3. It’s appropriate to be angry at people who cause others pain indiscriminately.
  4. It’s appropriate to feel guilt, regret, or shame when we wrongly cause other people pain.
  5. We ought to consider the pain our actions can cause people before deciding on a course of action.
  6. It’s courageous to be willing to undergo pain (e.g. jump in a burning building) to help many other people avoid pain (e.g. help them out of a burning building).

The relationship between these ideas and intrinsic value involves instrumental facts. It’s a fact that a person ought to take a gymnastics class to learn to do cartwheels even though there is no object called “rightness” in the world. What makes it right is merely that it’s a good means to an end—it’s a good way for us to accomplish our goals. Similarly, there are better ways than others to promote intrinsic value (or to avoid intrinsically bad consequences).

Moral knowledge

Knowledge implies (at the very least) justified true belief. Moral knowledge of the most controversial kind for a moral realist will include the ability to have justified true beliefs concerning moral facts. Most moral realist philosophers think we can know at least one moral fact, and that’s not surprising considering how strange it would be to insist that there’s at least one moral fact despite the fact that we can’t know about it.

It’s almost impossible to be absolutely certain when we have knowledge, but the requirement of having a “justified belief” isn’t so difficult. The idea of “justification” is that some beliefs are more rational than others. Justified beliefs are sufficiently rational, and unjustified beliefs are irrational. Moral knowledge requires us to have rational moral beliefs, so moral realists agree that morality contains an element of rationality.

How could we have justified beliefs concerning morality? There are at least three ways:

1. We can assume certain beliefs to be true and use those beliefs to create arguments. – We might not need an argument for all our beliefs to be justified. We could assume that certain moral beliefs are true until they are proven false or problematic counter-evidence is attained. This is much like the scientific method that offers hypotheses and successful hypotheses are taken to be true until proven otherwise. However, we must have a way to have counter-evidence against our moral assumptions or it will be impossible to know which moral assumptions are better justified than others.

2. Through observation. – Many people think that we can observe moral facts just like scientific facts. It seems likely that we can observe various mental facts, such as our thoughts and feelings, and many people also think we can observe that our pleasure is (often) intrinsically good (good just for existing) and pain is (often) intrinsically bad (bad just for existing).

3. Through self-evidence. – Many people think certain facts are self-evident and sufficiently mature people can know they are true through contemplation. Many people agree that “2+2=4” could be known through self-evidence, and perhaps the belief that “torturing people indiscriminately is wrong” can also be known once a person understands what “torturing people indiscriminately” and “wrong” consist of.

Finally, many philosophers who believe in “moral knowledge” don’t necessarily think we can perfectly model moral facts, have perfectly accurate moral beliefs, or attain certainty. Our language doesn’t necessarily correlate with reality perfectly and we generally use words that are convenient and easy to communicate rather than try to model reality perfectly. Scientists try very hard to model reality and have incredibly in-depth knowledge of reality as a result, but even scientists fail to perfectly model reality and their theories gain greater precision quite often. A theory is often taken by scientists to be false when a new one with greater precision is successfully tested. In other words knowledge might not quite require true beliefs insofar as the word “true” is often taken to refer to perfect precision, but such precision might rarely be possible. (It might be possible in logic and mathematics.)

Is moral realism true?

I will briefly discuss some reasons to accept or reject moral realism.

Why agree with moral realism?

There are at least two main reasons to agree with moral realism:

One, we tend to think we know a lot about morality, moral realism can help explain how we can know so much about morality, and moral realism might be needed to explain the actual “moral knowledge” we have. Many make this point by saying that moral realism is intuitive or is supported by common sense. For example, a moral realist can argue that it’s rational to nurture our empathy to care more for others and that might make sense if other people (or their experiences) have intrinsic value, but it’s not clear how it can make sense for an anti-realist.

Two, moral realists are convinced that anti-realism—the rejection of moral facts—couldn’t possibly cover all that there is to morality. They think that anti-realists are missing something. For example, we might think we know that pain is intrinsically bad from personal experience, but facts about intrinsic value imply moral realism. Without intrinsic value it’s not clear how any moral belief could be justified, and we regularly engage in moral debate about which moral beliefs are more justified.

Why reject moral realism?

Moral anti-realists often reject moral realism for at least two reasons:

First, they think that the moral facts that moral realists believe in are far-fetched and probably don’t exist. They might not be convinced that such moral facts are supported by intuition or common sense or they might simply dismiss our intuitions and common sense. For example, some philosophers think that there is no evidence of moral facts, and such facts would be too strange to hypothesize about. Our intuition and common sense is often dismissed for being prejudice and unwarranted popular opinion, but almost all anti-realists agree we do know quite a bit about morality, such as the fact that it often makes sense for us to argue about morality.

Second, they think that morality can be adequately explained without referring to moral facts. Anti-realists can admit that we make certain moral judgments, but they could explain why we make those judgments without appealing to moral facts. For example, they could argue that people agree that torturing people indiscriminately is wrong because we have empathy for each other and/or we implicitly agree to a social contract that will serve everyone’s interests.


There are many different moral realist and anti-realist philosophers who all have somewhat different beliefs concerning the nature of morality. Nonetheless, the debate over moral realism highlights at least two main elements of the nature of morality—moral facts and moral knowledge. We want to know if moral statements can be true because of moral facts, if we can know those facts, if those facts ever refer to intrinsic value, and if any of our moral beliefs are rationally justified.



  1. […] The Debate Over Moral Realism […]

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  2. […] our moral knowledge and how we can decide which moral beliefs are best or “most likely true.” Moral realists believe that there are moral facts (moral elements of reality) and they are often optimistic about […]

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  3. […] (I wrote a new introduction to moral realism — “The Debate Over Moral Realism.” […]

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