Moral realism

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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.

In non-functional linguistics, a sentence is a textual unit consisting of one or more words that are grammatically linked. In functional linguistics, a sentence is a unit of written texts delimited by graphological features such as upper case letters and markers such as periods, question marks, and exclamation marks. This notion contrasts with a curve, which is delimited by phonologic features such as pitch and loudness and markers such as pauses; and with a clause, which is a sequence of words that represents some process going on throughout time. This entry is mainly about sentence in its non-functional sense, though much work in functional linguistics is indirectly cited or considered such as the categories of Speech Act Theory.

The term proposition has a broad use in contemporary analytic philosophy. It is used to refer to some or all of the following: the primary bearers of truth-value, the objects of belief and other "propositional attitudes", the referents of that-clauses, and the meanings of declarative sentences. Propositions are the sharable objects of attitudes and the primary bearers of truth and falsity. This stipulation rules out certain candidates for propositions, including thought- and utterance-tokens which are not sharable, and concrete events or facts, which cannot be false.

Moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is morally right or wrong.

Contents

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]

John McDowell South African philosopher and academic

John Henry McDowell is a South African philosopher, formerly a fellow of University College, Oxford and now University Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Although he has written extensively on metaphysics, epistemology, ancient philosophy, and meta-ethics, McDowell's most influential work has been in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. McDowell was one of three recipients of the 2010 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Distinguished Achievement Award, and is a Fellow of both the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the British Academy.

Peter Albert Railton 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.

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord 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 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.

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 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) viewssuch as the rejection of the semantic and alethic theses in conjunction with the acceptance of the metaphysical thesisturns 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.

Moral universalism 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.

Logically possible refers to a proposition which can be the logical consequence of another, based on the axioms of a given system of logic. The logical possibility of a proposition will depend on the system of logic being considered, rather than on the violation of any single rule. Some systems of logic restrict inferences from inconsistent propositions or even allow for true contradictions. Other logical systems have more than two truth-values instead of a binary of such values. However, when talking about logical possibility it is often assumed that the system in question is classical propositional logic. Similarly, the criterion for logical possibility is often based on whether or not a proposition is contradictory and as such is often thought of as the broadest type of possibility.

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 dominanteven if only implicitlyboth 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

Related Research Articles

In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.

Ethical naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
  4. These moral features of the world are reducible to some set of non-moral features

Ethical non-naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
  4. These moral features of the world are not reducible to any set of non-moral features.

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.

Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions and thus cannot be true or false. A noncognitivist denies the cognitivist claim that "moral judgments are capable of being objectively true, because they describe some feature of the world". If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.

Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures. Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

Moral skepticism 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.

Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false, which noncognitivists deny. Cognitivism is so broad a thesis that it encompasses moral realism, ethical subjectivism, and error theory.

Ethical subjectivism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. The truth or falsity of such propositions is ineliminably dependent on the attitudes of people.

Ethical intuitionism is a family of views in moral epistemology. At minimum, ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.

Universal 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.

In meta-ethics, expressivism is a theory about the meaning of moral language. According to expressivism, sentences that employ moral terms – for example, "It is wrong to torture an innocent human being" – are not descriptive or fact-stating; moral terms such as "wrong", "good", or "just" do not refer to real, in-the-world properties. The primary function of moral sentences, according to expressivism, is not to assert any matter of fact, but rather to express an evaluative attitude toward an object of evaluation. Because the function of moral language is non-descriptive, moral sentences do not have any truth conditions. Hence, expressivists either do not allow that moral sentences have truth value, or rely on a notion of truth that does not appeal to any descriptive truth conditions being met for moral sentences.

Evolutionary ethics Field of inquiry that explores how evolutionary theory might bear on our understanding of ethics or morality.

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.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to philosophy:

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

  1. Ethical sentences do not express propositions.
  2. Instead, ethical sentences project emotional attitudes as though they were real properties.

Projectivism in philosophy involves attributing ('projecting') qualities to an object as if those qualities actually belong to it. It is a theory for how people interact with the world, and has been applied in both ethics and general philosophy. There are several forms of projectivism.

Ideal observer theory is the meta-ethical view which claims that ethical sentences express truth-apt propositions about the attitudes of a hypothetical ideal observer. In other words, ideal observer theory states that ethical judgments should be interpreted as statements about the judgments that a neutral and fully informed observer would make; "x is good" means "an ideal observer would approve of x".

Objectivity is a philosophical concept of being true independently from individual subjectivity caused by perception, emotions, or imagination. A proposition is considered to have objective truth when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by a sentient subject. Scientific objectivity refers to the ability to judge without partiality or external influence, sometimes used synonymously with neutrality.

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. 1 2 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. 1 2 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. 1 2 3 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