Moral Anti-Realism

By Michael Gakuran | | Philosophy | Leave a comment |

nothing-is-less-real-than-realism-postersMoral Anti-Realists tell a different story to that of Moral Realists. According to them, there are no moral facts or properties. If so, what are we doing when we say moral statements such as ‘murder is wrong’?

To be an Anti-Realist, we are looking to reject one or more of the premises in the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Hopefully using this as a guideline we can get an idea of all the subtle positions involved. Here it is again for reference:

Proposition Fa: Murder (a) is bad (F)

(P1) Fa means what it appears to mean
(P2) For Fa to be true it must correspond to the facts
(P3) Fa is true

(C) Thus one is committed to the existence of a certain kind of object (a), property (F-ness) and fact (a’s being F).

    Error Theory

Error Theory , advocated by Philosophers such as Mackie, seeks to deny the third premise of the argument (P3) by saying that the sentences simply aren’t true. They agree they mean what they appear to mean and that in order to be true requires the existence of corresponding moral facts, but we are mistaken in thinking of them as true. Why? Because although when we talk about morals we speak as though there is a realm of objective moral facts, appearances are misleading. Another phrase oft used here is ‘mitigating falsehood’ – that although we are wrong in our view that there are objective moral facts (the falsehood part), we should continue to keep using them because they are useful (mitigating).

One explanation for why we are mistaken is a naturalistic one. We have evolved to believe in the existence of objective moral facts because they help promote our species. Those groups of creatures who adhere to some sort of code or rule set tend to cohere and cooperate better than those that don’t, so it is natural we have come to believe in the existence of moral ‘facts’.

Further arguments used by Error Theorists include the Metaphysical and Epistemic arguments. Some of you may have heard of ‘Ockham’s Razor’, the theory that states one should not have superfluous entities when we can economise. Basically, we shouldn’t increase the number of extravagant, strange objects in number or type beyond what we need to. So in this case, by postulating a whole new realm containing ‘magical’ moral facts, we are going against Ockham’s Razor. Our theory is said to be ‘unparsimonious’.

A further objection is the main problem of Epistemology. How can we know of these objective morals facts? If they are outside the spatiotemporal world, how are we causally in contact with them? Plato argued that our souls were present in the realm of the forms before birth and therefore we can have innate knowledge of them, but this seems highly unlikely and strange.


Similar to Error Theory is Fictionalism which says that when we talk about the world we are engaging in make-believe. As written by Brock and Mares (2007, P127):

“The literal truth of moral claims presupposed that there is an opinion-independent selection of moral facts. But fictionalists also hold that there are no moral facts. Fictionalism is an attempt to accommodate both these theses.”

So when we make moral statements, we just pretend there are moral facts. But this seems rather dangerous.

Let’s ask ourselves with regard to both Error Theory and Fictionalism, if we take moral facts to be non-existent or worse, make-believe, what justification do we have for holding actions as right or wrong? The normative force seems to disappear. It doesn’t seem possible that, saying there are no moral facts or that we just have to pretend there are, we could go on living life as normal. I pretend war is wrong so I don’t go to war? It doesn’t seem likely we can sensibly go around with the knowledge that moral facts are just fiction and we should merely pretend there are real for the good of society. Neither does it seem sensible to just accept that we are wrong in thinking of moral facts as objective, provide an explanation and leave it at that.

And what’s more, what can we say about how this lies with common sense? Sure, the argument we have evolved to think there are objective moral facts is compelling, but that does nothing to help us establish a sound moral theory with which to live.


Essentially the view that moral knowledge is not possible. It says moral judgements are not statements that attempt to describe anything, nor are they statements of belief nor truth-applicable (truth-apt). In contrast Cognitivists say that moral statements express belief and that propositions can be true or false. For our purposes, it is enough to understand that Non-Cognitivism says that moral statements cannot be true or false. In other words, moral statements are just based loosely on our emotional responses. Thus, Non-Cognitivism rejects all 3 premises from CTT. One form of Non-Cognitivism is perhaps better know in its manifestation of Emotivism.

    Moral Internalism

Cognitivists think that moral judgements express beliefs (they are truth-applicable) about right and wrong, what one ought to do and such. According to the still widely accepted Humean hypothesis, beliefs cannot be intrinsically motivating, only desires can cause us to act. And lastly, Internalism holds that moral judgements are intrinsically motivating.

If so, we cannot both say that moral propositions are truth-apt (they can be right or wrong) and say that they intrinsically motivate us to act. But we want to allow that our beliefs (or something) motivates us to act, as that is in accordance with what we feel. The majority of people feel a moral responsibility in some sense and we must account for this. If we want to allow our moral statements are truth-apt and motivate us to act, what do we now pin our motivation on?

A more detailed explanation of Moral Internalism from Wikipedia:

“In contemporary moral philosophy, motivational internalism is the view that moral beliefs (or judgements) are intrinsically motivating—they don’t require a separate desire to motivate the agent making the moral judgement. That is, the motivational internalist believes that there is an internal, necessary connection between one’s belief that X ought to be done and one’s motivation to do X. Conversely, the motivational externalist claims that there is no necessary, internal connection between moral beliefs (or judgements) and moral motives. That is, there is no necessary connection between the belief that X is wrong and the desire not to do X. (The use of these terms has roots in W.D. Falk’s paper “‘Ought’ and Motivation” (1947).)”

With all these terms, things can get confusing. What seems to me to be going on is this: The moral statement such as ‘murder is wrong’ seems to have a truth-value. It seems like it can be true or false. This is because I have a belief that ‘murder is bad’. When I express this belief, I am assigning a truth-value to it. I.e. ‘One ought not to murder’ is true because we value the life of human beings.

Now, this moral fact could be manifested in different ways (which would be different varieties of Cognitivism). I could say that ‘one ought not to murder’ is an objective moral fact that exists in a magical realm (like Plato believed) or, if I am a Subjective Cognitivist, I could ascribe a truth value to the statement because I think it is wrong. I.e. it murder is wrong because I disapprove of it. This seems weak though, so imagine something stronger. I could say ‘one ought not to murder’ is true if the majority of society value the lives of human beings. In this way, a Cognitivist expresses moral beliefs.

Now consider a Non-Cognitivist position. Moral statements have no truth values. So a Non-Cognitivist cannot say ‘murder is wrong’, as this would be saying they believe so and would be ascribing a truth value to it. The way a Non-Cognitivist would express their discontent would be to boo or hiss at the statement. In this way, it expresses the same attitude as the Cognitivist, but doesn’t actually require us to hold that ‘belief’. (Paraphrased from [09/08])


Emotivists, as you might imagine, think that moral talk is talk of emotional expressions. Emotions incorporate our desires and motivate us to act (hence why moral statements are just not truth-applicable, they are just our emotional responses). While appealing to our common sense, this method is clearly fraught with problems. With no facts to refer to, arguments about right and wrong are reduced to trying to persuade the other person to adopt the same emotional response as you. Often this is plainly expressed as ‘Boo to murder’ ‘Hooray to charity’ (the Boo-Hooray theory).

If our moral judgements are just emotional attitudes towards things or in accordance with our desires, how can we make sense saying some actions are right and others wrong? Also, how do we explain the phenomenon that we often are sure of our feelings towards something, but feel troubled when asked to consider what is morally right?


Attempts to use Emotivism as a basis but avoid its problems by saying that our moral statements express an ideal moral system. They are not just our emotional attitudes towards things. How we try to construct these ideal moral systems is a little more complicated.


One again time has run short. There is much I haven’t been able to cover (and probably much I haven’t covered accurately; I am but a mere student), but I hope this has been in some sense a little enlightening. Expressivism and Quasi Anti-Realism remain largely untouched and anyone reading with an interest would do well to look into them.

Resources: Handouts from my lecturer, Dr. John Divers (writer of ‘Possible Worlds’ (2002)) and ‘Realism and Anti-Realism’ (2007) by Stuart Brock and Edwin Mares.

Page 1 – Moral Realism

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