Moral Realism

By Michael Gakuran | | Philosophy | 2 Comments |

get-realLet’s begin the debate by focussing on the possibility that there are objectively existing moral facts. Realist views accept the existence of objective moral properties. To put this in perspective, think about what this would be saying.

When we make moral statements such as ‘murder is bad’, we talk as though there are moral facts or properties. Here I am not merely describing murder as bad, I am issuing a ‘normative’ statement. I.e. I am telling us what one ought to do. In this case, it would be ‘one ought not to commit murder’. By common sense it would seem as though I am referring to some sort of fact that exists somewhere (perhaps in the world or a heavenly realm for example), and because I am aware of this fact, I know not to commit murder and am free to go around saying that we ought not to do so.

To be a moral realist, we are looking to show two things: That moral facts exist and that they do so independently of us. (While we usually talk of ‘mind-independence’, in the case of morals it makes more sense to talk of ‘opinion-independence’). A large selling point of moral realism is that, if we don’t take moral values to be real and independent of us, then they are in serious danger of losing their usefulness. Consider the scenario where we say our moral values are just our own opinions – how would we justify right and wrong?

However, it is possible to think morals are objective, but not be a moral realist. The way philosophers talk about this is by saying something like ‘realism about morality is a sufficient condition for being a moral objectivist, but not a necessary condition.

    The Correspondence Theory of Truth

This is the argument used in Epistemology, but also the common sense view most of us adhere to about how we know the world. Quite simply, it states that ‘truth’ is whatever describes (corresponds to) reality and so we can attempt to use it to argue there are moral facts. Take the example here:

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).

Basically all this is saying is that truth is in correspondence to fact. More clearly, if some statement does not accurately describe (correspond with) the world, it would be false. So, if we wanted to be Moral Realists in this example, we would hold all 3 to be true:

(P1) ‘Murder is bad’ means what it appears to mean
(P2) The sentence ‘murder is bad’ describes a fact
(P3) ‘Murder is bad’ is true

(C) We are then committed to the existence of a property (in this case ‘bad-ness’), an object (murder) and a fact (murder is bad).

Obviously in this case, the statement is very contentious so I would not be surprised if you are already thinking one or more of the premises (P1-3) are false. But this argument can be used to describe normal facts too such as: ‘I am 178cm tall’.

The CTT is also highly controversial as a theory, but we will use this to hopefully make clearer the different positions available, particularly the Anti-Realist positions later.

    Non-Reductive Realism

In a similar way to arguing that colour properties are not reducible to physical properties (reducing colours would say that colours *are* the physical properties in objects that, for example, reflect certain wavelengths of light), Non-Reductive Realism about moral properties argues that they cannot be reduced to any natural descriptive properties (ethical non-naturalism). In other words, supposing there exists some magical realm where moral facts such as ‘Goodess’ exist (Platonism).

‘Naturalism’ is a rather tricky term to explain, but basically it means relation to the sciences and the natural world. This may also include the psychological, as it is arguably supervenient (depends) on the brain. In other words, ‘naturalism’ is nothing ‘supernatural’. So by being a ‘non-naturalist’ about morals, one is saying that moral properties are in some sense supernatural or special.

A further distinction could be made however. Imagine you could reduce moral properties to some other type of property that is not based on the sciences. What about saying moral properties are those actions commanded by God (Divine Command Theory)? If we are saying that naturalism is those things related to science, then even though moral properties could be reduced to actions commanded by God, they would be non-naturalistic.

All that aside, Non-Reductivism faces serious problems. Namely:
1) Epistemic – how can we have knowledge of these objective moral properties when they exist outside space and time – we have no sense organs for that?
2) Metaphysical – why believe in some strange, magical set of moral properties that exists outside space and time?
3) Supervenience – below
4) Intrinsically Motivating – awareness of moral facts is supposed to motivate us promote it, but how can this happen if moral facts are objective and in another realm – motivation seems to come from inside us.
5) Cross-cultural Differences – If we have access to these facts then what explains differences in cultural practices and attitudes to life and death (etc) – do different cultures have different access to the moral facts?

The supervenience argument is as follows (from Brock and Mares, 2007, P116):

“If two possible worlds have the same descriptive properties, they have the same moral properties”

Most people tend to agree that, if we imagine another world, identical to ours in every physical/descriptive respect, the same set of moral properties would exist at it. But as Non-Reductivists, we argue that these moral properties/facts are in no way reducible or identical to any descriptive property (physical object in the world). If moral properties are independent and distinct from descriptive properties, why do we think they would occur in the new possible world too?

    Reductive Realism

Reductive Realism attempts to reduce moral properties to natural properties. For example, a utilitarian point of view is that ‘a good action is one that brings about the most happiness’.

The ‘open-question argument’ from G.E. Moore is a big problem for Reductive Realism. The point can be given as follows:

‘Are all bachelors unmarried’ in contrast with ‘Are all bachelors happy?’

In the first example, knowledge of our language is enough to answer it, but the second example is not so straightforward. Then consider trying to define the word ‘Good’. Perhaps: ‘what is good is what tends to produce the most happiness’ or ‘what is good is what God tells us to do’. Then ask ‘Is X good’? and take X to be one of the definitions of goodness. ‘Is what God tells us to do good?’ or ‘Is what tends to produce the most happiness good?’ It seems that we cannot reduce goodness to naturalistic terms by use of our language alone. Moore argued that when we try to account for goodness in naturalistic terms, we commit the naturalistic fallacy. Goodness, he says, cannot be defined so and as such the question ‘What is good’ remains an open one.

But some philosophers have replied by saying that we can define goodness by a posteriori means in the same way we define water as H2O. There was a time when this was not known, but this does not change the fact that ‘water is H2O’. In the same way we can point to samples of water from the tap, in a lake or the sea, so too can be point to actions to explain ‘good’. Just because we cannot conceptualise ‘good’ in terms of ‘happiness’, it does not mean they cannot both refer to the same thing. Showing what they are is a matter of empirical investigation.

Another big problem in ethics Hume’s is-ought argument, namely that no facts about what is the case entail facts about what ought to be the case. (One cannot derive an ought from an is). He is challenging the movement from a set of descriptive claims (claims about the world) to a set of prescriptive claims (claims about what ought to be the case).

But some naturalists might respond in a way similar to this: Oughts such as ‘one ought not to murder’ are born out of the biological facts (the ‘Is’) such as the desire to bond with other people and form groups for protection and comfort. More complex rules are derived to further promote society and mutual benefit, so in this sense cases such as ‘murder is wrong’ and ‘charity is good’ *can* translate into ‘one ought not to murder’ and ‘one ought to be charitable’. (This is the field of sociobiology).


A form of Reductive Realism. The general idea behind Relativism is that there are moral facts, but these facts are opinion dependent. So for example,the moral opinions of a particular society determine what is morally right for those people. Thus morals facts are reduced to what authorities and other groups say they are. This seems very plausible and in line with our common sense. One problem that might prompt us to think more deeply about this kind of relativism is that often we can think something right even if the authorities are deeming it wrong.

One possible answer is that moral principles are social conventions, which are quite often tacit. For example, the social convention not to steal from others, while made explicit in some cases, is something most of us hold as a moral principle.

But what about a society where stealing is rife? Moreover, where in that society, stealing is the tacit social norm. Perhaps it is a bandit society where to steal from others outside their group is viewed as acceptable. It seems that we have clashes between different cultures about what are moral principles, and it seems that although there are cultural differences, there is still a set of fundamental moral principles which everyone should uphold. Perhaps principles that entail a modern human societies can function as they do.

    Response Dependent

Another form of Reductive Realism. A Response-Dependent argument would be something like follows (according to Michael Smith): a person (X) will do some action (Y) in a particular circumstance but only if an ideally rationalised version of person X would judge that X should do Y in that circumstance. In other words, moral actions are those that an ideally rationalised version of ourselves would tell us to perform.

I may want to skip my turn in doing the washing up and lie to my house mate. But an ideally rationalised version of myself would not do so (as lying and skipping my turn is unfair, damages trust, would cause later problems – etc). Thus, the moral action is to do as my better self would do, grit my teeth and do the washing up.

The big plus to this approach is we can explain moral misguidance and mistakes. We are striving to do what our better selves would do, and fall short of this. It also fits with our common sense and promotes the evolution of society. If human beings have been acting like this, either consciously or unconsciously, it would fit with why societies develop over time and make mistakes. Since it also suggests we collapse morality into rationality, the desire to become wiser and act as our better selves would may perhaps be motivational.

The problems we can imagine are important however. People acting according to what they think are their better, rational selves may not be the best method to further society. They may make mistakes (etc), and on a larger scale what a group of people or whole society deems the ‘moral’ course of action may in fact be hugely immoral or detrimental. Consider human cloning for example. Rational, better versions of ourselves may deem cloning to be a ‘good’ action (perhaps to advance society), but it has the potential to backfire, and still seems to call for an objective scale by which to measure things.

A panel of judges, well trained to think about what the better versions of themselves would do still raises questions as to whether they are ‘good’ and advocating ‘good’ courses of action. And so the debates go on.

Well, time is against us. Onto Moral Anti-Realism for a look at the enemy camp!


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 2 – Moral Anti-Realism

2 comments on “Moral Realism
  1. endo says:

    Hello, that was a really good post as reality often finds itself undermined by its own `reliable`structures! I realy enjoyed the picture here. I wonder if I could use it in a highschool magazine for the students` use only? Thank you.

  2. Doomdude601 says:

    Interesting, this is always something in my mind I am struggling with. No not the Murder is wrong thing, that is just pure and simple Common-sense, but other less obvious things I feel like I need to admit, that I would rather not. I guess I just need to break the barriers as Joel Osteen says, it’s more like SCrupulosity

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