Moral realism

Moral realism (also ethical realism or moral Platonism)[1] is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world (that is, features independent of subjective opinion), some of which may be true to the extent that they report those features accurately. This makes moral realism a non-nihilist form of ethical cognitivism (which accepts that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be evaluated as true or false) with an ontological orientation, standing in opposition to all forms of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism, including ethical subjectivism (which denies that moral propositions refer to objective facts), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true); and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all). Within moral realism, the two main subdivisions are ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism.

Many philosophers claim that moral realism may be dated back at least to Plato as a philosophical doctrine,[2] and that it is a fully defensible form of moral doctrine.[3] A survey from 2009 involving 3,226 respondents[4] found that 56% of philosophers accept or lean towards moral realism (28%: anti-realism; 16%: other).[5] Some notable examples of robust moral realists include David Brink,[6] John McDowell, Peter Railton,[7] Geoffrey Sayre-McCord,[8] Michael Smith, Terence Cuneo,[9] Russ Shafer-Landau,[10] G. E. Moore,[11] John Finnis, Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon,[12] Thomas Nagel and Derek Parfit. Norman Geras has argued that Karl Marx was a moral realist.[13] Moral realism has been studied in the various philosophical and practical applications.[14]

Robust versus minimal moral realism

A delineation of moral realism into a minimal form, a moderate form, and a robust form has been put forward in the literature.[12]

The robust model of moral realism commits moral realists to three theses:[15]

  • The semantic thesis: The primary semantic role of moral predicates (such as "right" and "wrong") is to refer to moral properties (such as rightness and wrongness), so that moral statements (such as "honesty is good" and "slavery is unjust") purport to represent moral facts, and express propositions that are true or false (or approximately true, largely false, and so on).
  • The alethic thesis: Some moral propositions are in fact true.
  • The metaphysical thesis: Moral propositions are true when actions and other objects of moral assessment have the relevant moral properties (so that the relevant moral facts obtain), where these facts and properties are robust: their metaphysical status, whatever it is, is not relevantly different from that of (certain types of) ordinary non-moral facts and properties.

The minimal model, i.e. moral universalism, leaves off the metaphysical thesis, treating it as matter of contention among moral realists (as opposed to between moral realists and moral anti-realists). This dispute is not insignificant, as acceptance or rejection of the metaphysical thesis is taken by those employing the robust model as the key difference between moral realism and moral anti-realism. Indeed, the question of how to classify certain logically possible (if eccentric) views—such as the rejection of the semantic and alethic theses in conjunction with the acceptance of the metaphysical thesis—turns on which model we accept.[16] Someone employing the robust model might call such a view "realist non-cognitivism," while someone employing the minimal model might simply place such a view alongside other, more traditional, forms of non-cognitivism.

The robust model and the minimal model also disagree over how to classify moral subjectivism (roughly, the view that moral facts are not mind-independent in the relevant sense, but that moral statements may still be true). The historical association of subjectivism with moral anti-realism in large part explains why the robust model of moral realism has been dominant—even if only implicitly—both in the traditional and contemporary philosophical literature on metaethics.[16]

In the minimal sense of realism, R. M. Hare could be considered a realist in his later works, as he is committed to the objectivity of value judgments, even though he denies that moral statements express propositions with truth-values per se. Moral constructivists like John Rawls and Christine Korsgaard[17] may also be realists in this minimalist sense; the latter describes her own position as procedural realism. Some readings of evolutionary science such as those of Charles Darwin and James Mark Baldwin have suggested that in so far as an ethics may be associated with survival strategies and natural selection then such behavior may be associated with a moderate position of moral realism equivalent to an ethics of survival.

Advantages

Moral realism allows the ordinary rules of logic (modus ponens, etc.) to be applied straightforwardly to moral statements. We can say that a moral belief is false or unjustified or contradictory in the same way we would about a factual belief. This is a problem for expressivism, as shown by the Frege–Geach problem.

Another advantage of moral realism is its capacity to resolve moral disagreements: if two moral beliefs contradict one another, realism says that they cannot both be right, and therefore everyone involved ought to be seeking out the right answer to resolve the disagreement. Contrary theories of meta-ethics have trouble even formulating the statement "this moral belief is wrong," and so they cannot resolve disagreements in this way.

Proponents

Philippa Foot adopts a moral realist position, criticizing Stevenson's idea that when evaluation is superposed on fact there has been a "committal in a new dimension."[18] She introduces, by analogy, the practical implications of using the word "injury." Not just anything counts as an injury. There must be some impairment. When we suppose a man wants the things the injury prevents him from obtaining, haven’t we fallen into the old naturalistic fallacy?

It may seem that the only way to make a necessary connexion between 'injury' and the things that are to be avoided, is to say that it is only used in an 'action-guiding sense' when applied to something the speaker intends to avoid. But we should look carefully at the crucial move in that argument, and query the suggestion that someone might happen not to want anything for which he would need the use of hands or eyes. Hands and eyes, like ears and legs, play a part in so many operations that a man could only be said not to need them if he had no wants at all.[18]:96

Foot argues that the virtues, like hands and eyes in the analogy, play so large a part in so many operations that it is implausible to suppose that a committal in a non-naturalist dimension is necessary to demonstrate their goodness.

Philosophers who have supposed that actual action was required if 'good' were to be used in a sincere evaluation have got into difficulties over weakness of will, and they should surely agree that enough has been done if we can show that any man has reason to aim at virtue and avoid vice. But is this impossibly difficult if we consider the kinds of things that count as virtue and vice? Consider, for instance, the cardinal virtues, prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Obviously any man needs prudence, but does he not also need to resist the temptation of pleasure when there is harm involved? And how could it be argued that he would never need to face what was fearful for the sake of some good? It is not obvious what someone would mean if he said that temperance or courage were not good qualities, and this not because of the 'praising' sense of these words, but because of the things that courage and temperance are.[18]:97

Criticisms

Several criticisms have been raised against moral realism. The first is that, while realism can explain how to resolve moral conflicts, it does not explain how these conflicts arose in the first place.[19] The widespread disagreement about what is right and wrong is puzzling if humans are assumed to have access to moral facts.

The evolutionary debunking argument suggests that because human psychology is primarily produced by evolutionary processes which do not seem to have a reason to be sensitive to moral facts, taking a moral realist stance can only lead to moral skepticism. This undercuts the motivations for taking a moral realist stance, namely to be able to assert there are reliable moral standards.[20]

Others are critical of moral realism because it postulates the existence of a kind of "moral fact" which is nonmaterial and does not appear to be accessible to empirical investigation.[21] Moral truths cannot be observed in the same way as material facts (which are objective), so it seems odd to count them in the same category.[22] However, such an argument may be applicable to our concepts of epistemic justification as well, possibly leading to radical skepticism and thus threatening to undercut the moral anti-realist's argument.[23] This criticism is also not applicable to ethical naturalism, a form of moral realism which suggests the possibility of a science of morality by considering moral claims to be referring to observable entities (such as wellbeing).

See also

References

  1. ^ Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Volume 10, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 271.
  2. ^ Plato's Moral Realism: The Discovery of the Presuppositions of Ethics, by John M. Rist (Jul 15, 2012)
  3. ^ Moral Realism as a Moral Doctrine, (New Directions in Ethics), by Matthew H. Kramer
  4. ^ "The PhilPapers Surveys". philpapers.org. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  5. ^ PhilPapers survey, 2009, under the heading 'Meta-ethics'
  6. ^ Brink, David O., Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  7. ^ Railton, Peter (1986). "Moral Realism". Philosophical Review. 95: 163–207. doi:10.2307/2185589.
  8. ^ Sayre-McCord, Geoff (2005). "Moral Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  9. ^ Cuneo, Terence (2007). "The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism", Oxford.
  10. ^ Shafer-Landau, Russ (2003) "Moral Realism: A Defense", Oxford, ISBN 0-19-925975-5.
  11. ^ Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  12. ^ a b Sturgeon, Nicholas (1985). "Moral Explanations", in Morality, Reason, and Truth, edited by David Copp and David Zimmerman, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allanheld, pp. 49-78.
  13. ^ Geras, Norman (1985). "The Controversy about Marx and Justice". New Left Review. 150: 47–85.
  14. ^ Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Applications, (New Forum Books), by Daniel N. Robinson (Jul 29, 2002).
  15. ^ Väyrynen, Pekka (2005). "Moral Realism", Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Donald M. Borchert (ed.). (link Archived 2008-05-12 at the Wayback Machine)
  16. ^ a b Joyce, Richard (2007), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  17. ^ Korsgaard, Christine (1996). The Sources of Normativity, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  18. ^ a b c Foot, Philippa (1958). "Moral Beliefs". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 59: 83–104. doi:10.1093/aristotelian/59.1.83.
  19. ^ Mackie, John, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Viking Press, 1977) part 1, chap. 1, section 8 : The argument from relativity: "The actual variations in the moral codes are more readily explained by the hypothesis that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values"
  20. ^ Vavova, Katia. "Evolutionary Debunking of Moral Realism". Philosophy Compass. 10: 104–116. doi:10.1111/phc3.12194.
  21. ^ Harman, Gilbert, The Nature of Morality : An Introduction to Ethics (Oxford,1977), I.1, "Ethics and observation"
  22. ^ Mackie, John, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Viking Press, 1977) part 1, chap. 1, section 9 : The argument from Queerness
  23. ^ Terence Cuneo, The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Further reading

Atheist's Wager

The Atheist's Wager, popularised by the philosopher Michael Martin and published in his 1990 book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, is an atheistic response to Pascal's Wager regarding the existence of God.

One version of the Atheist's Wager suggests that since a kind and loving god would reward good deeds – and that if no gods exist, good deeds would still leave a positive legacy – one should live a good life without religion. Another formulation suggests that a god may reward honest disbelief and punish a dishonest belief in the divine.

Catholic moral theology

Catholic moral theology is a major category of doctrine in the Catholic Church, equivalent to a religious ethics. Moral theology encompasses Roman Catholic social teaching, Catholic medical ethics, sexual ethics, and various doctrines on individual moral virtue and moral theory. It can be distinguished as dealing with "how one is to act", in contrast to dogmatic theology which proposes "what one is to believe".

Cognitivism (ethics)

Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false (they are truth-apt), which noncognitivists deny. Cognitivism is so broad a thesis that it encompasses (among other views) moral realism (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions about mind-independent facts of the world), ethical subjectivism (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions about peoples' attitudes or opinions), and error theory (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions, but that they are all false, whatever their nature).

Cornell realism

Cornell realism is a view in meta-ethics, associated with the work of Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon, and David Brink (who took his Ph.D. at Cornell University). There is no recognized and official statement of Cornell realism, but several theses are associated with the view.

Emotivism

Emotivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes. Hence, it is colloquially known as the hurrah/boo theory. Influenced by the growth of analytic philosophy and logical positivism in the 20th century, the theory was stated vividly by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic, but its development owes more to C. L. Stevenson.Emotivism can be considered a form of non-cognitivism or expressivism. It stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as quasi-realism and universal prescriptivism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).In the 1950s, emotivism appeared in a modified form in the universal prescriptivism of R. M. Hare.

Evolutionary ethics

Evolutionary ethics is a field of inquiry that explores how evolutionary theory might bear on our understanding of ethics or morality. The range of issues investigated by evolutionary ethics is quite broad. Supporters of evolutionary ethics have claimed that it has important implications in the fields of descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and metaethics.

Descriptive evolutionary ethics consists of biological approaches to morality based on the alleged role of evolution in shaping human psychology and behavior. Such approaches may be based in scientific fields such as evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, or ethology, and seek to explain certain human moral behaviors, capacities, and tendencies in evolutionary terms. For example, the nearly universal belief that incest is morally wrong might be explained as an evolutionary adaptation that furthered human survival.

Normative (or prescriptive) evolutionary ethics, by contrast, seeks not to explain moral behavior, but to justify or debunk certain normative ethical theories or claims. For instance, some proponents of normative evolutionary ethics have argued that evolutionary theory undermines certain widely held views of humans' moral superiority over other animals.

Evolutionary metaethics asks how evolutionary theory bears on theories of ethical discourse, the question of whether objective moral values exist, and the possibility of objective moral knowledge. For example, some evolutionary ethicists have appealed to evolutionary theory to defend various forms of moral anti-realism (the claim, roughly, that objective moral facts do not exist) and moral skepticism.

Fact–value distinction

The fact–value distinction is the distinction between things that can be known to be true and things that are the personal preferences of individuals.

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (né McCord, born December 10, 1956) is a philosopher who works in moral theory, meta-ethics, the history of ethics, and epistemology. He has written extensively in these areas. He is known especially for his work on moral realism and on David Hume's moral theory. He has also written on contractualism. His Essays on Moral Realism is widely used in undergraduate and graduate courses on meta-ethics and he was, for five years, a co-editor of the journal Noûs.

Sayre-McCord received his BA from Oberlin College and his PhD (under the direction of David Gauthier) from the University of Pittsburgh. The recipient of several university-wide teaching awards, Sayre-McCord is the Morehead-Cain Alumni Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at the University of North Carolina, where he has taught since 1985.

Matthew Kramer

Matthew Henry Kramer FBA (born 9 June 1959) is an American philosopher, currently Professor of Legal and Political Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He writes mainly in the areas of metaethics, normative ethics, legal philosophy, and political philosophy. He is a leading proponent of legal positivism. He has been Director of the Cambridge Forum for Legal and Political Philosophy since 2000. He has been teaching at Cambridge University and at Churchill College since 1994.

Meta-ethics

Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should I do?", evaluating specific practices and principles of action, meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that studying moral judgments about proper actions can guide us to a true account of the nature of morality.

Michael A. Smith

Michael Andrew Smith (born 23 July 1954) is an Australian philosopher who teaches at Princeton University (since September 2004). He taught previously at the University of Oxford, Monash University, and was a member of the Philosophy Program at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. He is the author of a number of important books and articles in moral philosophy. In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Moral objectivism

Moral objectivism may refer to:

Robust moral realism, the meta-ethical position that ethical sentences express factual propositions about robust or mind-independent features of the world, and that some such propositions are true.

Moral universalism, the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics or morality is universally valid, without any further semantic or metaphysical claim.

The ethical branch of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism (Ayn Rand).

Moral skepticism

Moral skepticism (or moral scepticism) is a class of metaethical theories all members of which entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal claim that moral knowledge is impossible. Moral skepticism is particularly opposed to moral realism: the view that there are knowable and objective moral truths.

Some defenders of moral skepticism include Pyrrho, Aenesidemus, Sextus Empiricus, David Hume, J. L. Mackie (1977), Max Stirner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Joyce (2001), Michael Ruse, Joshua Greene, Richard Garner, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2006b), and the psychologist James Flynn. Strictly speaking, Gilbert Harman (1975) argues in favor of a kind of moral relativism, not moral skepticism. However, he has influenced some contemporary moral skeptics.

Moral universalism

Moral universalism (also called moral objectivism) is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature. Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism. However, not all forms of moral universalism are absolutist, nor are they necessarily value monist; many forms of universalism, such as utilitarianism, are non-absolutist, and some forms, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, may be value pluralist.In addition to the theories of moral realism, moral universalism includes other cognitivist moral theories, such as the subjectivist ideal observer theory and divine command theory, and also the non-cognitivist moral theory of universal prescriptivism.

Normative ethics

Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking.

Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts; and it is distinct from applied ethics in that the former is more concerned with 'who ought one be' rather than the ethics of a specific issue (such as if, or when, abortion is acceptable).

Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs. In this context normative ethics is sometimes called prescriptive, rather than descriptive ethics. However, on certain versions of the meta-ethical view called moral realism, moral facts are both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time.

Most traditional moral theories rest on principles that determine whether an action is right or wrong. Classical theories in this vein include utilitarianism, Kantianism, and some forms of contractarianism. These theories mainly offered the use of overarching moral principles to resolve difficult moral decisions.

Peter Railton

Peter Albert Railton (born May 23, 1950) is an American philosopher who is Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor and John Stephenson Perrin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he has taught since 1979. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2004.

Philosophical realism

In metaphysics, realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone's conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc.

Realism can be applied to many philosophically interesting objects and phenomena: other minds, the past or the future, universals, mathematical entities (such as natural numbers), moral categories, the physical world, and thought.

Realism can also be a view about the nature of reality in general, where it claims that the world exists independent of the mind, as opposed to non-realist views (like some forms of skepticism and solipsism, which question our ability to assert the world is independent of our mind). Philosophers who profess realism often claim that truth consists in a correspondence between cognitive representations and reality.Realists tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality but that the accuracy and fullness of understanding can be improved. In some contexts, realism is contrasted with idealism. Today it is more usually contrasted with anti-realism, for example in the philosophy of science.

The oldest use of the term "realism" appears in medieval scholastic interpretations and adaptations of ancient Greek philosophy.

Quasi-realism

Quasi-realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

Ethical sentences do not express propositions.

Instead, ethical sentences project emotional attitudes as though they were real properties.This makes quasi-realism a form of non-cognitivism or expressivism. Quasi-realism stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as emotivism and universal prescriptivism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).

Universal prescriptivism

Universal prescriptivism (often simply called prescriptivism) is the meta-ethical view which claims that, rather than expressing propositions, ethical sentences function similarly to imperatives which are universalizable—whoever makes a moral judgment is committed to the same judgment in any situation where the same relevant facts obtain.

This makes prescriptivism a universalist form of non-cognitivism. Prescriptivism stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as emotivism and quasi-realism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).Since prescriptivism was introduced by philosopher R. M. Hare in his 1952 book The Language of Morals, it has been compared to emotivism and to the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant. Unlike Kant, however, Hare does not invoke universalizability as a test of moral permissibility. Instead, he sees it as a consistency requirement that is built into the logic of moral language and helps to make moral thinking a rational enterprise.

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