A Case for Moral Realism

A few people who read Linda Zagzebski’s argument in my previous post were most indignant that a philosopher would assume moral realism without making a case for it specifically. I think the most obvious reason for that, which they largely appear unaware of, is that the majority of professional philosophers do not need convincing that realism is correct since most of them think so.

Having said that I think it is fair to answer those who doubt moral realism to be true or that there are no good reasons for thinking it to be true. Some of them appear to think there are no such reasons or that the moral realist is reduced to mere intuitionism at this point. That is clearly not the case and here I will present some very good arguments for thinking moral realism to be true and moral non-realism as false. However it is worth noting how many moral sceptics do employ their intuitions on other matters such as whether this world is real or not or whether they are the same person despite the physical changes in bodies over time. I think it’s an inconsistency worth noting with such people.

I wish I could proceed by assuming people know what philosophers mean by moral realism but one of the biggest problems in talking about this subject is that people misunderstand what this position is. It gets endlessly misrepresented and misunderstood and many people who argue against it are actually moral realists themselves but don’t appear to know it.

Here are five good definitions of what moral realism is from professional philosophers:

“Moral realism is the theory that moral judgements enjoy a special sort of objectivity: such as judgements, where true, are so independently of what any human being, anywhere, in any circumstance whatever, thinks of them.”

(Russ Shafer-Landau – ‘Moral Realism – A Defense’ p.2)

“Realism holds that moral judgements can be true or false, that sometimes they are true and that what makes them true is independent from people’s (or groups of people’s) beliefs, judgements or desires.”

(Andrew Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.77)

“If moral realism is false and late-term abortions do not have either the property of being right or the property of being wrong, then it is hard to see why we cannot accept that we both could be right. In other words, we might think that moral realism is the best explanation for why we hold that to act cannot be both right and not-right, both good and not-good and so on.”

(Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.59)

“Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common (and more or less defining) ground of moral realism.”

(Geoff Sayre-McCord –

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Moral Realism, 2009)

“Moral realists think that moral judgments are beliefs that attempt to represent moral reality, that these beliefs are sometimes true, and that they are made true by objective or stance-independent moral properties.”

(Nathan Nobis –

‘Truth in Ethics and Epistemology: A Defense of Normative Realism’ PhD thesis, 2004)

It ought to now be clear that moral realism is the view that moral claims can be true or false beyond being just a subjective opinion. If you think that people who kill in the name of religion are doing something really wrong (not just something you disagree with subjectively) then you are a moral realist. If you think that child sacrifice is wrong, even though there have been cultures where it was seen as acceptable, you are a moral realist. If you think that discriminating against people on the basis of their ethnicity is really wrong (not just against your own standards) then you are a moral realist.

The most common misunderstanding of moral realism is that the moral realist must be an absolutist. This is false. I could think that there might be a possible circumstance (unthinkable as it is) where sacrificing a child might be the lesser of two evils (if it saved the entire planet for example) but I would still be a moral realist. If I think there are any moral actions which are objectively wrong in any given circumstance then I am a moral realist. You might even think some moral claims are subjective (perhaps you think pacifists and ‘just war’ theorists both make convincing arguments) but so long as you think some moral claims are objectively right or wrong then you are a moral realist.

Hopefully that clarifies what moral realism is and is not sufficiently to move to the arguments in favour of moral realism.

  1. The argument from epistemic realism

“It’s interesting that this parallel [between ethics and epistemology] goes generally unremarked. Moral subjectivism, relativism, emotivism, etc. are rife among both philosophers and ordinary people, yet very few of these same people would think even for a moment of denying the objectivity of epistemic value; that is, of attacking the reality of the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable belief. I wonder why that is?”

(William Lycan ‘Epistemic Value’ p.137)

This is an argument often credited to the philosopher Terence Cuneo which can be found in his book The Normative Web: An argument for moral realism although a good many other philosophers use it too. The argument, set out formally, looks like this:

  1. If moral facts do not exist, then epistemic facts do not exist.
  2. Epistemic facts do exist.
  3. So, moral facts exist.
  4. If moral facts exist, then moral realism is true.
  5. So, moral realism is true.

Cuneo points out that many moral beliefs are closely akin to other sorts of beliefs which constitute a web-like structure of views. He points out that there are other kinds of duties we all tend to think exist and yet the moral sceptic (I will use that phrase as a catch-all term for anyone not a moral realist while I realize it can have a more nuanced meaning) will employ these without any argument and accept them as true. Virtually everyone who discusses such matters appears to think we have a duty to support our arguments with reasons. The very people who doubted moral realism as their reason for rejecting the moral argument suggested there were objective ‘oughts’ which I had not met. They placed what they appeared to take to be objective epistemic demands on me to provide evidence of moral realism being true. Some of these demands were far too evidentialist in my opinion but I agree, broadly speaking, with giving reasons for taking a view. That is not my problem. The problem is this: How can the moral sceptic differentiate between an epistemic ‘ought’ and a moral ‘ought’? The two appear to be extremely similar. In fact, in everyday language, such people are likely to call you ‘wrong’ if you do not meet their imperatives.

So if I have intellectual duties such as giving reasons for what I believe, being honest in scientific enquiries, not misrepresenting people, avoiding logical fallacies etc. then it appears they are not all that different from moral duties (in fact it would be hard to suggest that being honest in scientific endeavours is not both an intellectual AND a moral duty).

So if you claim to be a moral non-realist and you have ever suggested someone has done something objectively wrong in misrepresenting your opinion then you have a rather serious dilemma on your hands. This ‘epistemic virtue’ is clearly tied to the moral virtue of being honest. There are dozens of examples you could think of which appear to be both epistemic virtues and also moral virtues.

In addition to this Nobis notes that there are some very odd implications to one’s view if one wishes to adopt epistemic non-realism. As he puts it:

“I also observe that epistemic irrealisms seem to yield bizarre consequences for argumentation: for one, if an epistemic irrealism is true, then it’s not literally true that it (or any other view, including an irrealistic meta-ethical view) should be accepted or is reasonable or justified. This might undercut the epistemic support for these kinds of views: at least, it renders a highly non-standard view about the nature of epistemic evaluations, one which few moral irrealists accept, and one that I argue should not be accepted because there are better reasons to reject it than accept it.”

(Nathan Nobis – ‘Truth in Ethics and Epistemology: A Defense of Normative Realism’ PhD thesis, p.9, 2004)

In summary: Epistemic ‘oughts’ are profoundly similar with moral oughts (and are sometimes indistinguishable from moral oughts). We agree that there are epistemic duties and therefore we should agree there are moral duties.

Addendum: Reading Derek Parfit’s On What Matters Volume 1 currently and he uses this argument pointing out the similarity between moral and epistemic duties. He says:

“We ought, I shall argue, to accept some value-based, objective theory.” p.47

  1. The argument from moral knowledge and the problem of moral disagreement

“Though few will judge their own moral views to be true only relative to their own outlooks, the absence of any moral facts outside particular outlooks makes it the case that the judgements rendered within one outlook are no more true than those of a competing outlook. The views of each incompatible outlook are equally (un)true.”

Shafer-Landau ‘Moral Realism: A Defense’ p.32

A lot of moral sceptics appear to miss this point. If there are no moral facts then one must accept the view that the ethical values I hold and those of, say, a neo-Nazi are equally subjective. On what basis can I now disagree? Of course, the moral non-realist may not descend into complete ethical relativism but it’s difficult to see how they can avoid having to concede that other people have moral views diametrically opposed to themselves and they cannot argue that their view is anymore objectively superior or rational – they can only state their view to be better for them personally.

As Fisher states:

“One reason for adopting moral realism might be that moral properties mean we can have moral knowledge. If killing, as a matter of fact, has the property of being wrong then we can potentially come to know this. However, if moral scepticism is correct then we cannot have knowledge and, in particular, we cannot know that killing has the property of wrongness.”

(Andrew Fisher – Metaethics: An Introduction’ p.145)

                                                                                                              This argument has been presented nicely by the philosopher Nathan Nobis. He presents the argument like this:

1. Either moral realism is true or it is not.

2. If it is not true nothing is really wrong.

3. Some things really are wrong.

4. Therefore moral realism is true.

He gives the example of slavery. Most of us think that it was objectively wrong that people were treated like animals (or worse) on the basis of their race and we think that real moral progress has been made in lessening racism. Well if we think this then the very idea of moral progress can only be made if one is a moral realist. So our experiences, both hypothetical and personal, lead us to think that some things really are wrong. We talk about them as if they were objectively wrong. We do not say they are merely wrong in our subjective opinion (since this would mean someone else with an antithetical subjective view would be of equal value to yours) but we think we are objectively right when we say ‘racism is wrong’ and we think someone who says ‘racism is good’ is saying something objectively wrong.

3. Moral experience

Most of us find moral subjectivism simply impossible to live out at all. It is the normal reaction in life that we think people can and do really wrong us. If you are a non-realist and someone murders a member of your family what should your reaction be? Well you can be as angry as you like. You can be upset, depressed, furious, and want to kill them in return. But what you cannot do (not consistently at least) is say they did anything wrong (in any objective sense). What is interesting is that the vast majority of people simply cannot live moral subjectivism out and if it cannot be lived out then perhaps one ought to wonder the value of it at all.

Many people who reject epistemological realism (the idea that we really are real and really living a life) will say to epistemological sceptics that it doesn’t make any difference to their lives. If I am living in the Matrix or I am a computer generated character then, they say, it changes nothing for them. It’s just idle speculation and changes nothing about what appears to be the case.

So perhaps to someone who suggests moral non-realism we ought to say “So what? It doesn’t change anything!”

  1. Justice and punishment

 What would you say was the worst case of injustice you know of? Stop for a moment and try to think of your best example…

What came to mind? Whatever it was let us choose something more personal to ourselves. Let us suppose that someone was found to have murdered someone we love. Let us then suppose that, for some reason, this person was not able to be convicted and punished for this crime or that the judge decided it was not worthy of punishment or that your personal testimony was discredited for some highly spurious reason. What would our reaction to this be?

I think it highly unlikely that we would think that justice had been done. The problem would not be that we thought our subjective standard of justice had not been done but rather that some objective standard of justice had not been done.

In addition to this it appears to be quite hard to justify punishing supposed immoral actions if they really are nothing but subjective preferences. The only basis one could justify such punishment would be on the basis that a social norm has been violated and most people are content to see the perpetrator punished. What we could not say is that the person is being punished for doing anything objectively wrong. But philosophers do not like arguments based merely on a majority view for the obvious reason that this could be used to legitimate lots of things done in the past which most of us regard as morally inacceptable (eg. child sacrifice).

Moral non-realism seriously undermines the basis for punishing anyone for any action and thus both punishment and justice are seriously compromised once one has abandoned moral realism.

  1. Our Moral Intuitions                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Of the five arguments being outlined here I expect this one to come in for the heaviest criticism but it’s important to see that the case for moral realism is already strong without this argument. However, this argument adds something to the overall case in my opinion.

The first thing to note is that this argument is used by both theistic and non-theistic philosophers alike.

Atheist philosopher David Brink says:

“Moral judgements express normative claims about what we should do and care about. As such, they presuppose standards of behaviour and concern, and that we might fail to accept or live up to. Normativity, therefore, presupposes fallibility, and fallibility implies objectivity. Of course, this presupposition could be mistaken. There might be no objective moral standards. Our moral thinking and discourse might be systematically mistaken. But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable. In the meantime, we should treat the objectivity of ethics as a kind of default assumption or working hypothesis.”

(David Brink, ‘The Autonomy of Ethics’ in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Atheism’ ed. Michael Martin, 2007)

 Or this from atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen:

“It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things (as wife-beating and child abuse) to be evil than to believe any sceptical theory that tells us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil… I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.”

(Kai Nielsen, ‘Ethics without God’, 1990, pp.10,11)

The important point to note here is that atheist philosophers also justify moral realism on the basis of our intuitions. What both are suggesting is that it appears self-evident that there are moral truths. Brink is also pointing out that the revisionist position is that of non-realism and that the non-realist bears the burden of demonstrating that our moral experiences and discourse are not as true as they appear to be. Now of course, as Brink states, it is possible all our moral intuitions could be wrong but that is what the moral non-realist must demonstrate.

We should not take moral scepticism to be the default position. Why not?

Certainly it is because we don’t do so with any other topic. We do not think it is rational to be completely sceptical of our senses even though we know our senses can sometimes deceive us. Some point out our intuitions can deceive us and that is surely right but the same people do not play such a sceptical game with their senses. People also tend not to be epistemological non-realists. Most of us tend to be realists and when asked why many suggest that we appear to be real and that it is the duty of the solipsist to give good reasons for doubting what appears to be obvious.

The argument from moral intuitions is helpful in the sense that it demonstrates who has the burden of proof in this matter.

I believe these are five very good reasons for thinking moral realism is true and moral non-realism is false. To change my mind one would have to demonstrate why all these reasons are false (or at least highly improbable) and provide positive reasons for thinking moral non-realism is true and, as yet, I have found no such case persuasive. What is also interesting is that, despite numerous attempts to do so in the twentieth century, there is no one non-realist theory of ethics which has persuaded large numbers of philosophers. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, despite moral realism coming under sustained attack in the last 150 years moral realism is extremely popular among professional philosophers just as it has been throughout the entire history of philosophy.

Moral non-realists – you have your work cut out!



About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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13 Responses to A Case for Moral Realism

  1. Nice outline of some arguments.

    I am a moral realist as well, but I have allot of sympathy with moral error theory. Consider some points:

    On the idea that epistemic right and wrong sort of implies moral right and wrong. I think there is some ambiguity in the use of the word “wrong.” 2+2=5 is wrong, but its not immoral. I think an anti-realist and a moral skeptic can easily accept that the “shoulds” involved with certain ways of thinking simply means something like – “that is how to think, if you are rational.” They, would not say its immoral to be irrational- just irrational. Its not that you are immoral if you think 2+2=5 you are just, well, dumb. And so the epistemic “wrongs” are really more like incorrect math problems not “wrong” in a moral sense. There is allot of ambiguity in these terms. I “ought” to buy a new pair of shoes but I am not immoral if I don’t.

    On moral intuition I think Richard Joyce provides a very good response in this article:

    Its worth a read on its own but one argument he makes is that his intuition is that morals do *not* exist as a feature of reality. Therefore intuitionalism for him favors maintaining his skeptical view. It will therefore, clearly not be a reason for him to give that view up.

    I personally tend to think these sorts of intuition arguments are weak.

    You say:
    “What both are suggesting is that it appears self-evident that there are moral truths.” I am not sure the intuitionist is claiming that moral facts existing in reality is self evident. However, I do think several moral theorists do try to claim certain things about morality are self evident. Peter Singer seems to think certain moral facts are self evident. (although I don’t think he claims that the existence of moral facts itself is self evident.) I do not agree with this view of “self evident.” It certainly does not seem self evident in the way logical rules are self evident. I think in this case appealing to “self evidence” is really just saying we strongly believe certain things about morals.

    The fourth argument is an interesting one that I had not considered.

    But with respect to the second third I think the moral skeptic would point out that just because they do not think moral facts exist in reality, that does not mean they are not disgusted by certain conduct and emotionally uplifted by other conduct. They just will just deny that those emotions are actually linked with any moral facts in reality.

    I would like to question moral skeptics on this though. Joyce had said you would not have to worry about him stealing the silverware if he came over to your house. I am willing to concede that but I do still have questions along those lines. For example, we know its not the case that he would refuse to steal because he thinks its wrong. Would it just be a matter of his having a bad emotion, or fear of getting caught? What exactly would prevent him from stealing if he could get away with it and managed to overcome his emotional issues?

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Thanks for engaging with it.

      I appreciate the link to Joyce’s paper. I have not read very much of him so I needed an excuse to and you have provided that. I will certainly have to include that lovely quote at the beginning of his paper just to annoy all those non-ethicists who think that any appeals to intuition are on a par with a logical fallacy!

      Maybe I have not made myself clear enough on the epistemic argument? I will have to read it back and check as I need to communicate it better in this case. The analogy is not so much that people can be epistemically right or wrong. That would not be misleading so much as a equivocation on the term (as you suggest). Rather, the argument is that people tend to think we have right and wrong WAYS of coming to know things. So, for example, most people think that logical fallacies hold. Given that, if someone were to give an argument to people who lack any knowledge of logical fallacies (say, for example, young children) which they knew was full of logical fallacies we would think them to do doing something wrong. Now, in this case, you could even say ‘morally wrong’. That is why this argument is less like an analogy and more an appeal to the fact that most of us (even moral non-realists) tend to think they still have academic duties (to make their arguments logical and to no deceive others in their research etc.). So the argument is suggesting the non-realist is likely to be ignoring the fact that they still hold to moral realisms in some areas of their life and, when it comes to duties surrounding how we come to know things (hence ‘epistemic’ in that sense) and how we pass on knowledge to others this means we have not abandoned moral realism after all. I hope that clarifies?

      The argument you mention from Joyce appears an odd one to me. If my intuition was that solipsism is true then does that mean I have a good argument in favour of intuition? (Of course – I am asking myself this question!) I think the argument from intuition is more about how things appear to be to the vast majority of people rather than one quirky philosopher! 😉

      Well – there are differing definitions of what makes an ‘intuitionist’ as you probably know so that doesn’t help matters to much. I am meaning the less formal definition of those who think our intuitions do count as evidence all other things being equal.

      Yes – on the 2/3 arguments I am not precluding emotivism. Of course, emotivism can ‘account’ (in a sense) for people having different emotional states to certain actions. But #2 is the problem that the emotivist (if they are consistent) cannot insist their emotion is the right one in any objective sense. The person who leaps around in joy at some terrible terrorist bombing might well disgust the emotivist but the emotivist has to be willing to admit that both emotions being expressed are equally subjective. Their disgust cannot be judged a better reaction than the person rejoicing. If they do suggest one is a better response they are, at the very least, flirting with moral realism. This, of course, is often what happens.

      I don’t think the point Joyce makes about not stealing matters at all to be honest. I would not be concerned about his behaviour as a non-realist. What I am concerned about is whether his behaviour REALLY follows logically from his metaethics. (And what would happen if the next world convention on human rights was hosted by a group of 50 moral non-realists.)

      Many thanks.

      • Sorry for the late response but really I generally I respond later than most who blog. So its normal for me to take even longer.

        With respect to the epistemic argument for morality I think you set it forth fine, as far as I can tell. I admit I am not really knee deep in the nuances of the argument, but I think I do appreciate the gist of it. Often when I would read Joyce I would wonder why he is writing so much if it is not wrong for people to have certain views. Clifford was someone who seemed to clearly believe epistemology had a moral component. And I think its an interesting question that I am not entirely decided on.

        I don’t want to speak for Joyce or Mackie but in the same token I don’t want suggest what I am saying is new or my own thoughts either. Joyce wrote a book on the myth of morality. It was a while since I read it and I really just sort of skimmed through it reading more intently with what interested me. But if I recall right he argued that rejecting morality does not mean we reject all normative facts – just moral ones. So we can say there is a right, and wrong way to fish, do math, or epistemology. But the rightness and wrongness of how you do these things will not be decided on whether in the end it is moral or not. The rightness or wrongness will be decided on whether you catch fish or you come up with a rational mind. I think Mackie also made this distinction in his book inventing right and wrong. Sadly my memory is so bad that I can’t give details just the gist of it. But I do recall what they said made sense.

        “The argument you mention from Joyce appears an odd one to me. If my intuition was that solipsism is true then does that mean I have a good argument in favour of intuition? (Of course – I am asking myself this question!) I think the argument from intuition is more about how things appear to be to the vast majority of people rather than one quirky philosopher! ;)”

        I haven’t read Huemer’s book but Joyce provides a few quotes to suggest that Huemer says we need to stick to our own intuitions rather than adopt the majority view. That seems more sensible to me – to the extent intuitionism makes sense. It honestly doesn’t do much for me.

        In the end of Joyce’s paper he starts to get into what I consider his bread and butter argument against real morality. He set his version out in his book on the evolution of morality. It is similar to Plantinga’s EAAN except he singles out moral beliefs in particular for scrutiny. I am also a strong believer in that argument. Joyce wrote a book on the argument as well as several papers. Other philosophers who make the same general argument are Sharon Street:
        and Mark Linnville. Its worth noting that his arguments from evolution do not claim that real morals do not exist, but rather even if they do exist we couldn’t have reliable beliefs about them.

        “I don’t think the point Joyce makes about not stealing matters at all to be honest. I would not be concerned about his behaviour as a non-realist. What I am concerned about is whether his behaviour REALLY follows logically from his metaethics. (And what would happen if the next world convention on human rights was hosted by a group of 50 moral non-realists.)”

        I agree with your questions. I think he would acknowledge emotional attachments to certain actions and would say he doesn’t feel the need to break with those attachments. I think even people who reject morality are going on a certain moral emotional momentum. I think the problem comes after several generations of people teaching that such moral momentum is irrational and therefore the emotions attached are also irrational where we get the problems.

        It seems to me Nazis and communists tried to move things along in this respect and push away from a Christian worldview to one where those moral emotions are to be rejected. But I think that is jumping ahead to a possibly emotional issue that is perhaps beyond the scope of your blog. Plus I do not think Joyce or Mackie are like Nazis. They wouldn’t say what they did was wrong. But they also wouldn’t say what they did was permissible. In common speech we might think when someone says there is nothing morally wrong with that we are saying that was morally permissible. Joyce is quick to point out that rejecting morality means nothing is morally wrong, but also nothing is morally permissible. The whole talk of morals is in error.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          Thank you for your interaction and thought on this matter. I value your responses. Don’t worry about the time between them. I cannot respond myself fully right now as I’m listening to the Craig/Carroll weekend of lectures.

          I do wonder, however…. Would Joyce have stood up at the Nuremberg Trials and taken the position that all talk about morals is in error?

          • I think that highlights the argument from justice which is one the arguments I hadn’t considered. But I tend to think justice would have to go with morals. I actually do wonder how Joyce would respond to that argument. I still need to think it through myself but tend to think they are inescapably linked.

            But that said I think the error theorist would be in favor of punishing people who do “repugnant” things. They could join in the condemnation of the actions but they just wouldn’t condemn them because they think they are morally wrong. Generally I think the moral error theorist can accept all of the main aims of criminal law. That is they can say the law is “good” for deterrence, rehabilitation and even retribution. Their reasons to support that though of course could not be that it promotes moral good.

            One point I would make here is that if we accept naturalism and evolution, as Joyce does, then our strong emotional responses in relation to beliefs about morals should not count as justification that those beliefs actually corresponding with reality. This is where I think there is a key divide between theistic and the naturalists world views.

          • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

            This is why I don’t think error theory is a serious contender in metaethics (and it would appear most philosophers agree). It makes no more sense to claim that all moral statements are false than it does to claim all statements about reality are false. I’m inclined not to take someone too seriously if they tell me that all epistemic truth claims are false but who lives their life as if this life is real and their actions count for something. In the same way, someone who cannot essentially be distinguished from a moral realist when it comes to judging moral evil in their language, even though in more academic moments tells me something else, is, for me, hiding something.

            Someone once suggested that no theology should be taught that cannot be taught at the gates of Auschwitz. I’m inclined to think the same is true for metaethics. Could any error theorist REALLY tell a holocaust survivor that all moral statements are wrong? So when we say that the Nazis were wrong to hang a little child is that person going to say they don’t think that’s true? If they are consistent at that point then I think they bear exactly the same burden of proof an epistemic anti-realist ought to (viz. a huge one). If someone were to suggest that life is not real and we are brains-in-vats we don’t entertain such people seriously. It’s just called being overly skeptical. But suddenly, when it comes to ethics, some people appear to think such hyperbolic skepticism should get a free pass. I don’t see why it should.

            An error theorist might well argue to punish “repugnant” things but they cannot say there is any duty to punish repugnant things and that is the problem as it relates to justice. People also get repulsed over different things to different degrees. Who decides and on what basis? The majority repugnance response of the society in question? This is going to get messy fast. Of course they can take this heuristic approach to punishment but it’s difficult to see how it’s going to work practically. And what of societies who do not get repulsed by actions other societies do? The only way to have trans-culture justice is to take the view that some things really are wrong no matter what the culture says. I think error theory is hugely unworkable. However, that’s no the biggest problem it has. The biggest problem it has is the lack of evidence it proposes to suggest that virtually all human beings are wrong in thinking realism is true (the common sense view). It’s lacking in evidence and there is a strong case for realism. Not to mention the fact that most philosophers think Mackie was wrong in his claim that moral truths, if they do exist, are queer.

            But since hardly any modern philosophers hold to error theory I don’t see how it could be seen as posing any challenge to realism at all.

            Yes I would agree that Joyce appears to have a defeator for his beliefs about morality. But it gets worse. He may well now have a defeator for all his beliefs, as Plantinga has suggested. Thanks.

  2. I have a *lot* more to say on this but for now I just want to say: great stuff. I don’t really see us as arguing as much as wondering out loud together. Because allot of what you wonder, I wonder too. But I think we both may have thoughts on this that can advance each other’s understanding.

    Let me just give a few quick comments on some points you make:

    “It makes no more sense to claim that all moral statements are false than it does to claim all statements about reality are false.”

    I actually wrote a paper on how moral beliefs *are* different than other forms of belief. I am thinking of putting it on my blog but it is quite long for a blog. Its about 10 pages. Would you be interested in reading it before I post it?

    “Not to mention the fact that most philosophers think Mackie was wrong in his claim that moral truths, if they do exist, are queer.”

    Despite being in the minority I tend to really tend to agree with Mackie. I think moral truths are queer, if we are to accept naturalism and evolution. Indeed I think accepting belief in moral truths is not at all unlike accepting belief in the Holy Spirit. I happen to believe in the Holy Spirit where as Mackie and Joyce do not. But I think the acceptance of moral truths epistemologically is very similar to accepting the Holy Spirit. Is that queer? I don’t mind saying it is in a way.

    I have allot more to say here about the secular idea of morals equaling some sort of concern for sentient creatures including the chicken I ate earlier today. In other words the sanctity of human life, when nothing is sacred, is hard to justify. If we don’t justify that, because nothing is “sacred” and we are just animals, then what? We either start giving funerals for dead chickens or we start piling the human carcasses in the garbage with the chickens. Are we going somewhere in between?

    “Yes I would agree that Joyce appears to have a defeator for his beliefs about morality. But it gets worse. He may well now have a defeator for all his beliefs, as Plantinga has suggested.”

    My last blog talked about this a bit. I am not so sure that Plantinga doesn’t have a defeater for belief in e and n. I argue he does. But to the extent people argue against the defeater the reasons they use don’t really match up well for ethical beliefs. My blog hasn’t gotten that far yet, but that is coming.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      I know the feeling – me too! I plan to write some posts on non-cognitivism and error theory so look out.

      I am a little confused though since on your blog you do not appear at all in sympathy with Mackie/Joyce since you affirm moral realism??? At least I’m pretty sure I read something on your blog where you said you were a moral realist. Are you playing Devil’s Advocate here?

      Yes I would certainly read that essay on why we should consider epistemic skepticism as different from moral skepticism.


      • I am a moral realist and a Theist. However I think if I dropped theism I would accept error theory – sort of. Let me explain.

        It seems to me if Naturalism and Darwinian Evolution are true then our moral beliefs are entirely unreliable. It is similar to Plantinga’s argument but I try to single out moral beliefs and explain why any evolutionary explanation would fail to track moral truth even if evolutionary processes might track the truth of other beliefs.

        So technically it’s not an argument that real morality does not exist. It is rather an argument that our moral beliefs would be completely unreliable given N and E. Just like Plantinga does not argue that that reality does not exist if we accept N and E. He argues that we would have a defeater for our beliefs about reality. I hope that makes sense.

        I am going to touch up the paper and likely just post it on my blog.

        BTW are you a chess player?

  3. Pingback: Links of Interest (2) | Into the Harvest

  4. JoMaJ 234908 says:

    Just a question:

    What about the objection that certain people have different sets of morality?

    Some people would save a drowning pet they love and would ignore a neighbor they hate who is drowning along with the dog.Others would save the human neighbor even though their beloved pet would die.

    This means that people have a differing view on what is wrong and when it is wrong and what is right and when it is right.

    A similar way of phrasing such an objection is that there are so many differing views on what is moral and what is not so this means morality is subjective.

    The conclusion then seems to be that morality cannot be objective and real because people disagree when a moral judgement is correct and real.
    And if morality was objectively real everyone would know under what circumstances an action was wrong and there would be no disagreements.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Yes that’s an important question because many people have this misconception about it.

      It really does not matter in the slightest that people have different moralities – not for the arguments for moral realism at least. You see, the argument for moral realism is just the argument that there are moral truths. The argument is not that everyone must recognize moral truth.

      Take some examples from other fields. There are very good arguments that we can know scientific truth. Just because some people differ on exactly what those truths are (there are still flat-earthers out there and those who reject evolution) does not bring the argument that there are scientific truths into question. In fact, the people who often disagree do so precisely because they think they’re right and the others are wrong. The point is that the mere existence of differing scientific views does not, per se, bring the question of the possibility of scientific truth into question.

      Therefore, the fact that people disagree on what constitutes a moral action is of no consequence to the arguments for moral realism.

      This is made even clearer by the way you summarize it at the end. What good reason is there to think that just because there are moral truths that everyone would know them? This is an unjustified assumption. Despite the very strong evidence for evolution there are still people who disagree. Does that bring evolution into question? Does Ken Ham’s existence raise questions over evolutionary theory? I think you would agree not. In the same way, just because Donald Trump is a racist does not mean there is not a very good case for racism being a morally incorrect view.

  5. JoMaJ 234908 says:

    Just a question:

    What about the objection that moral realism cannot be true because not everyone agrees if something is truly right/wrong in a given circumstance?

    The argument is basically that if moral realism was true,then there would not be any disagreements about whether or not something can be or is right/wrong under a given circumstance.

    An example usually given is that some people consider it right to save their beloved pet from drowning rather then a neighbor they hate if that neighbor is also drowning.

    Others would save the neighbor rather than the dog.

    Some would even save neither as they don’t care about either the pet or the neighbor.

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