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.
- 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:
- If moral facts do not exist, then epistemic facts do not exist.
- Epistemic facts do exist.
- So, moral facts exist.
- If moral facts exist, then moral realism is true.
- 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
- 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!”
- 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.
- 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!