According to Sayre-McCord...
Geoffrey Sayre-McCord has a very inclusive definition of realism in general and moral realism in particular:
Wherever it is found, I'll argue, realism involves embracing just two theses: (1) the claims in question, when literally construed, are literally true or false (cognitivism), and (2) some are literally true. Nothing more.1In other words, moral realism is a synonym for success theory. Picture a little flow chart:
- Do moral claims aim at truth?
no — moral non-cognitivism
yes — moral cognitivism, continue to the next step.
- Are moral claims sometimes true?
no — error theory
yes — success theory
To be fair, I should explain that Sayre-McCord is advancing a general definition of realism. He's not endorsing all success theories as viable options within moral philosophy. For example, he counts moral subjectivism as a form of moral realism, claiming the faults of subjectivism are for other reasons besides the realism/anti-realism distinction. I highly recommend his paper on the topic:
The Many Moral Realisms — Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (search link)
So, according to Sayre-McCord, moral realism is just the view that some moral statements are true.
According to Gray...
James Gray starts with Sayre-McCord's definition and adds one more restriction:
A moral realist believes that there is at least one moral fact, and moral facts are not reducible to nonmoral facts.2He goes on to explain why:
Some moral realists might argue that morality is reducible to non-moral facts. [...] I don’t agree that this is moral realism because once we can reduce morality to non-moral facts, we can say, “We thought morality was real, but now we know we were talking about something else.” Morality at that point can be dispensed with.2My objection to this is that we aren't so stringent about realism in general. I'm a realist about sandwiches, but a sandwich is nothing but bread, meat, mustard, etc. Should I say, "We thought sandwiches were real, but now we know we were talking about something else"?
I think what's going on here is that 'moral realism' is treated as a label for acceptable moral theories. Since Gray thinks non-reducibility (i.e. moral non-naturalism) is needed for morality to be as important as we commonly think it is, he's including it in his definition of moral realism. This would also explain the tendency for philosophers to include things like motivational internalism, the notion that anyone who accepts a moral judgment as true necessarily has some motivation to comply with it.
I'm more sympathetic with Sayre-McCord's approach of sticking to the question of realism and counting other considerations separately, but while Gray is too restrictive, Sayre-McCord is too permissive.
According to Brink...
A realistic view about ethics presumably asserts the existence of moral facts and true moral propositions. But a moral relativist who thinks that moral facts are constituted by an individual's or social group's moral beliefs is able to agree with this. Moral realism, it seems, is committed to moral facts and truths that are objective in some way. But in what way?3Now we're getting somewhere! This 'objectivity' criterion is a popular addition to mere success theory, but it can be tricky to define the kind of objectivity needed. It's easy to exclude too much.
For example, we could say realism requires full independence from mental facts, but then there would be nothing objective in the science of psychology. Or we could say that anything caused by minds can't count as realism, but Brink points out this would stop us from being realists about tables, chairs, or anything else manufactured by thinking beings! (I'll add that Theists couldn't be realists about the natural world.)
Brink settles on the following distinction:
Whatever else realists might claim, they usually agree on the metaphysical claim that there are facts of a certain kind which are independent of our evidence for them. [...] Not only does ethics concern matters of fact; it concerns facts that hold independently of anyone's beliefs about what is right or wrong.4I'm not sold on this 'independent of our evidence' phrasing, but I do think he's onto something with the criterion of belief-independence. Otherwise, "Everyone believes X is morally permissible, therefore X is morally permissible" would count as moral realism.
At the same time, psychological facts like pain can still play a role in moral realism. This is important because it seems likely morality is — at least in part — about mental facts. In "Naturalism, Theism, Obligation, and Supervenience" (search link), Alvin Plantinga mentions two thought experiments:
- Everyone in the world believes it is morally acceptable to torture people for the fun of it.
- Everyone in the world desires that the behavior of torturing people for the fun of it were more widely practiced.
Brink's objectivity criterion might need further refining, but I'm in broad agreement that moral realism can take into account some mental facts even as it excludes others. His comparison to psychology is very apt. While psychological facts depend on minds (being the study of minds), we can still be mistaken about how our own minds work. Similar deal for morality.
The Big Lesson
If you do use the term 'moral realism,' please give relevant details on what you mean. For now, at least, it's not the clearest term in philosophy's word bank.
1. Sayre-McCord, J. (Ed.). (1998). Essays on moral realism. Cornell University Press.
2. From http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/09/16/what-is-moral-realism/
3. Brink, D.O. (1989). Moral realism and the foundations of ethics. Cambridge University Press. p. 14
4. Ibid. pp. 15, 20