Ethical Realism

May 21, 2011

Five Meta-Ethical Theories

Meta-ethical theories are meant to explain moral psychology, moral reality, and moral reason. Moral psychology considers the actual moral judgments, moral interests, and moral motivation people experience. Moral reality refers to the nature behind true moral statements—what makes our statements true. Moral reason describes 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 how well we can understand such facts, but moral anti-realists reject moral realism and don’t think we need moral facts to understand morality. I will briefly discuss five meta-ethical theories, two of which are forms of moral realism and three that are forms of moral anti-realism: Moral naturalism and moral intuitionism are both forms of moral realism; noncognitivism, relativism, and error theory are forms of moral anti-realism. There are many forms of each of these theories, but I will concentrate on one version of each theory.

Moral naturalism

Moral naturalism states that moral facts are ordinary facts of the same physical reality described by scientists (biology, psychology, and physics), and we know about these facts through observation. Many naturalists think that we can observe moral facts because they are identical to other natural facts. For example, pain and intrinsic badness could be identical—two ways to see the same thing. Philosophers argue that scientists discovered that water and H2O are identical and we can discover that pain and intrinsic badness are the same thing in a similar way.

Many philosophers think that morality supervenes on the natural world in the sense that moral facts depend on natural facts, so our observations about the natural world are relevant to morality. Two identical physical states of affairs will have identical moral implications. Two different situations of children torturing cats for fun will both be examples of something morally wrong because the natural facts are sufficiently analogous.

Many moral naturalists equate “natural” with “nonmoral,” but it’s also possible that moral facts are a subclass of natural facts, just like most philosophers now think that psychological facts are natural facts rather than “over and above” natural facts. Many moral naturalists who agree that moral facts can be a subclass of natural facts think we can observe that pain is intrinsically bad just like we can observe our beliefs and desires. Pain is not necessarily identical to intrinsic badness because pain could have a property of being intrinsically bad instead.


  1. The open question argument. – How do we know when two facts are identical? It’s not obvious that pain and “intrinsic badness” are identical because they seem so different. The open question argument makes it clear that no matter what identity relation is offered, we can ask, “But are they identical?” For example, we can say intrinsic badness and pain are identical, and I can feel pain and ask, “But is this pain intrinsically bad?” If no good answer is offered, then such questions imply that moral identity relations are hypotheses at best and have not been proven true.
  2. Moral observation is unreliable. – Many people question our ability to observe moral facts. First, many such observations seem presumptuous, such as the observation that torturing a cat is wrong from seeing it occur. It might merely be our moral assumptions that are needed to explain such an observation. Additionally, moral observations are subjective because not everyone has the same moral observations.

Moral Intuitionism

Moral intuitionists (also known as “moral non-naturalists”) think that observation is insufficient to explain all of our moral knowledge and at least some of our moral knowledge is based on intuition or contemplation that enables us to know self-evident facts. Once we fully understand a moral statement, that can be enough to know if it’s true. For example, it might be self-evident that all pain is intrinsically bad to anyone who fully understands what “pain” and “intrinsically bad” refer to. This is much like our knowledge of mathematics and logic. We can know that “2+2=4” just by understanding what the statement is saying.

Moral intuitionists don’t necessarily think moral facts are natural because they don’t think we can know all moral facts through observation of the natural world. They tend to disagree that moral facts are identical to natural facts.


  1. Intuition is unreliable. – Many people have different intuitions and declare different moral beliefs to be “self-evident.” It’s not obvious that we can resolve this disagreement or that intuition is anything other than prejudice.
  2. Non-natural facts are far fetched. – Philosophers would prefer for all facts to be part of the natural world and it seems mysterious to say that some facts aren’t. Additionally, it’s not obvious that there are “non-natural moral facts” in the first place.


Emotivism is a form of “non-cognitivism” because it claims that moral judgments aren’t ultimately meant to be true or false. Instead, moral judgments are expressions of our emotions and moral arguments are meant to change someone’s emotional attitudes towards certain moral judgments. Not everything we say is true or false, such as “Wow!” or “Do your job!” Emotivists admit that moral judgments often sound like they are assertions, but that is deceptive. They are actually just emotional displays. Saying “Killing indiscriminately is wrong” is actually expressing something like, “Killing indiscriminately, boo!”

Emotivists don’t believe in moral facts or true moral statements, but some emotivists do believe that we can have a conversation involving “fictional” moral ideas that we treat as true for practical purposes. Saying what’s right or wrong might help us agree upon what laws to pass and what social contract would best satisfy our interests. Some people call this “fictionalism.”


  1. Emotivism is counterintuitive. – It seems highly counterintuitive to tell me that when I engage in arguments concerning morality that I was doing something totally different than I thought. Emotivism is very dismissive of our moral experiences and conscious intentions.
  2. Emotivism ignores rational moral arguments. – If moral arguments were merely meant to change our emotions, then why do so many moral arguments seem rational? It’s not obvious that an emotivist can fully explain why rational moral arguments are so important to so many people.

Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is the view that moral statements can be true or false, but the truth of a moral statement depends on the moral tradition of the person uttering it. Why? Because morality is based on a culture, social contract, or constructed tradition. All moral statements are made within a tradition and the statements are true if they correspond to the tradition. One culture could say that lying is always wrong and another could say it’s only wrong some times.

Moral relativists reduce morality to empirically verifiable customs and traditions that can be studied by anthropologists. If you want to know what’s right or wrong, just study the culture you live in.

Moral relativists do not need to prove that all cultures disagree about morality because we could all find it most convenient to agree about certain things. For example, we all have an interest to have our life and property protected, so every culture agrees that stealing and killing willy nilly is wrong.


  1. Some cultures experience moral progress. – For example, slavery was once considered to be perfectly moral in the US, but now we know it was wrong. If moral realism is true, then we can experience moral progress by discovering new moral facts and finding out that our previous moral beliefs were false. It’s not obvious that moral relativists can explain how a culture can improve and correct their false moral beliefs because it’s impossible for a culture to have false moral beliefs in the first place.
  2. Relativism fails to account for rational moral arguments. – We often argue about what’s true about morality, but it’s not clear that such arguments could amount to more than an appeal to popular opinion for a relativist. However, popular opinion can fail to account for moral truths because people are often wrong (such as when they thought slavery wasn’t wrong) and because a culture couldn’t have an opinion concerning every possible moral issue. There’s new moral issues that crop up every day and the situations we find ourselves in are often very unique.

Error theory

Error theory states that all ordinary moral judgments are false. Both “murder is wrong” and “murder is not wrong” are false because nothing is morally wrong. “Moral wrongness” is non-existent just like unicorns and all statements about things being morally wrong are false for the same reason they are false about unicorns—to say, “Unicorns have four legs” and “unicorns have a tail” are both false because there are no unicorns.

(There might be statements about morality that are true, but we would have to be careful. For example, an error theorist could say it’s true that “’murder is wrong’ is false.”)

Error theorists agree that when we speak about morality we often intend to say something true or false and refer to moral facts, but they think all moral concepts fail to refer to anything because there are no moral facts. There is no such thing as right or wrong, good or bad, virtue, or intrinsic value.

However, error theorists don’t necessarily want to do away with morality or moral arguments. Error theorists agree that we could personally find it beneficial to agree to a social contract and it can be convenient for us to speak as if morality is real. This is basically the same position I mentioned earlier called “fictionalism.” This is also true when we speak of unicorns. There’s a sense that it’s true that unicorns have four legs and a tail when we are speaking within the fictional framework where unicorns exist.


  1. Morality and self-interest aren’t identical – What’s good for me isn’t always right. What’s in our self-interest and what’s moral are often at odds. For example, a cautious and successful thief can steal to help themselves while hurting others, and doing so is wrong. However, the error-theorist argues that we only have a reason to be moral and accept morality when it’s in our self-interest. This is contrary to the spirit of morality.
  2. Error theory requires us to reject uncontroversial moral truths – Every meta-ethical theory I’ve discussed is sensitive to the fact that we can successfully make moral judgments without doing something wrong except the error theorist. It is uncontroversial that we can appropriately make moral judgments, such as the judgment that killing people indiscriminately is wrong. The error theorist requires us to admit that our understanding of morality is almost entirely wrong, but we think we do know quite a bit about morality. Given the choice between saying that “killing people indiscriminately is wrong” is an appropriate moral judgment and saying error theory is true, most people will side with our uncontroversial moral judgments. We can argue that we more confident that certain moral judgents are appropriate than that error theory is true.


We make moral judgments in everyday life quite often. We tend to think such judgments can be true or false, but emotivism states otherwise. We tend to think that such judgments are at least sometimes true, but both emotivism and error theory state otherwise. We tend to think that our moral judgments can be appropriate, but error theory seems to imply otherwise. Nonetheless, even if our moral judgments can be true or appropriate, it’s not obvious to everyone why. Each of these meta-ethical theories have a different answer concerning the reality that corresponds to morality, and they all face various objections that must be appropriately dealt with before we can commit to one of them. Additionally, I’ve previously given two arguments for and against moral realism that should also be dealt with.

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  1. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please find a unique Understanding of Reality and therefore ethics via these references.

    Plus a references which explain the baneful limitations of the ruling paradigm of scientism (Webers Iron Cage) in which we are now all trapped.

    Also Reality & the Middle via:

    Comment by John — May 22, 2011 @ 12:03 am | Reply

    • Could you summarize what those links say or the main point you would like to make? I don’t think any of these meta-ethical theories implies the truth or falsity of scientific materialism. We believe that a material world exists, but what exactly a material world is or whether anything is not part of the material world is another issue. Do you want to imply that God, the Good, or Plato’s forms is the ultimate reality for morality? There are some people who think that, and intuitionism seems highly compatible with those views. Some philosophers make it clear that their meta-ethical theories don’t conflict with the existence of God or the forms (if there are any).

      Comment by James Gray — May 22, 2011 @ 12:56 am | Reply

  2. [...] Five Meta-Ethical Theories [...]

    Pingback by The Is/Ought Gap: How Do We Get “Ought” from “Is?” « Ethical Realism — July 19, 2011 @ 10:47 am | Reply

  3. I see the meta-ethics organised in terms of the metaphsycial theories about whether there are moral facts and if so what they are like falling into moral realism, relativism, subjectivism, nihilism, and then sub-divisions of moral naturalism and non-naturalism.

    I would class non-descriptivist theories like emotivism/prescriptivism as semantic theories or theories of judgment.

    Intuitionism as an epistemological one theory.

    Some of these can be combined for instance error theory is descriptivism at the level of judgment coupled with nihilism at the level of metaphysics.

    But I recognise these classifications are just a matter of what a person finds useful.What do you think?

    Comment by thenarcissismofsmalldifferences — August 14, 2012 @ 7:33 am | Reply

    • I think you are making an interesting point. The theories have classical divisions, but there are many issues that each theory can cover. Therefore, it is possible to classify each theory based on various factors. Cognitivism/noncognitivism and realism/anti-realism are commonly discussed divisions. Intuitionism could certainly be seen as a “rationalist” rather than “empiricist” (epistemic) position. Naturalism and non-naturalism is another division often discussed, but it’s not entirely clear what “natural” means and it’s often related to epistemology. As far as metaphysics is concerned we could talk about reductionism/emergentism and physical/nonphysical.

      I think another important issue has to do with intrinsic values. There are many different normative categories (e.g. oughts, virtues, and values) and the classical theories don’t always tell us what to think about them all.

      Comment by JW Gray — August 14, 2012 @ 8:34 am | Reply

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