Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Is Moral Realism?

There doesn't seem to be a single, widely accepted definition of moral realism. Let's look at some candidate definitions.

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.1
In other words, moral realism is a synonym for success theory. Picture a little flow chart:
  1. Do moral claims aim at truth?
    no — moral non-cognitivism
    yes — moral cognitivism, continue to the next step.
  2. Are moral claims sometimes true?
    no — error theory
    yes — success theory
The above breakdown is very standard terminology. As we'll see, other philosophers add further criteria (beyond success theory) for a view to count as moral realism.

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.2
He 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.2
My 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?3
Now 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.4
I'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:
  1. Everyone in the world believes it is morally acceptable to torture people for the fun of it.
  2. Everyone in the world desires that the behavior of torturing people for the fun of it were more widely practiced.
Plantinga think any real moral facts must hold independently of both situations. Brink's distinction agrees for (1), that torture would still be wrong if everyone believed it were permissible. However, it is at least arguable that the psychological fact of being extremely undesirable to victims plays some role in torture being wrong. If everyone (including victims!) somehow desired an increase in torturing for fun, wouldn't that affect the real moral facts?

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
3. Brink, D.O. (1989). Moral realism and the foundations of ethics. Cambridge University Press. p. 14
4. Ibid. pp. 15, 20


  1. Garren, as usual (hehe) I am not quite getting a few things (sorry if it's annoying):

    1. What is success theory? I Google'd it and only found a technical quotation from Putnam.

    2. How does the end-relational theory fit into all this? I can see how things can be belief-independent (aka, no matter what Bobby thinks, junk food is not a good way to meet the goal of getting fit) but it also seems as if by defining good as "helpful," moral facts have absolutely no basis but consensus or mutual agreement. After all, getting an accurate gun to kill my neighbor would be deemed good within the context of my goal, but bad within the context of keeping a civil society--which context should we accept and give prominence to? I don't know, seems to kinda straddle the line between absolute relativism while being cognitivist or something like that. I guess it just doesn't seem to have any way of resolving the conflicts, which may be a bit problematic.

    3. A bit of an aside, and, really a cause of concern I'm having and I'd like to hear your input, but it seems to me that Plantinga and others seem to think "objective" also means "unchanging" and "absolute" and I'm beginning to question why this is so.

    I mean, yeah, okay, it has it's roots on Platonism and everything, but this just seems extremely strange to me. Can't we simply point out that things like temperature can be measured objectively, even if different temperatures (within a specific range) feel different to each one of us, and they change from day to day and object to object? And it also seems to me very strange to claim that there is some absolute, "unchanging" temperature that exists in some abstract sense, what would that even mean? Similarly, I don't see this "torture is bad, no matter what" mentality meaning much of anything. Shouldn't moral facts be updated given changing circumstances, just like temperature readings are given increased or decreased atomic activity?

  2. Esteban,
    .."What is success theory?"

    Any view of ethics in which moral statements aim at truth and some statements succeed in being true is a success theory.

    .."How does the end-relational theory fit into all this?"

    I see it as the correct way of explaining what's going on in moral discourse. There are elements of realism and anti-realism at work in a specific configuration.

    First, we treat certain ends as 'moral.' We expect each other to work toward these ends even against what would otherwise be our individual ends. This expectation does work to a degree to make moral ends into individual ends, by psychological and legal means, both as directly adopted ends and indirectly adopted ends. Anti-realist moral theories tend to focus on these aspects.

    Second, we make moral judgments and bring up non-moral facts as evidence for moral claims based on how well particular actions, policies, and attitudes do — in fact — bring about moral ends. This is the realist aspect that is the focus of end-relational semantics.

    This overall view not only explains what's going on in moral discourse, but I think it does a decent job of explaining what's going on among philosophers who argue about the nature of ethics. If this combination view is accurate, no wonder 'pure' views are lacking in isolation.

    .."I guess it just doesn't seem to have any way of resolving the conflicts, which may be a bit problematic."

    It depends on where the conflict lies. Once we agree on a moral end, it becomes an empirical matter to determine what is right or wrong to do to further that end. (This is what Sam Harris is doing, by the way.) Or, we might disagree on ends, but resolve the disagreement by examining the overall structure of ends, and finding we do agree on a more fundamental end after all. Finally, it might turn out that we disagree on fundamental ends. Then — yes — we would lack a way to resolve the conflict through reason. But at least it would be nice to go through the process of finding out that this is the problem, instead of the first two (resolvable) sources of disagreement.

    I suspect it happens to be true that many (maybe even most!) moral disagreements are resolvable by finding a common end and empirically determining the most helpful way to bring about that end. We are similarly constituted beings in common social context, after all.

    .."I'd like to hear your input, but it seems to me that Plantinga and others seem to think "objective" also means "unchanging" and "absolute" and I'm beginning to question why this is so."

    I'm going to chalk this one up to an unreasonable allergy to the term 'relative' in Christian culture. This isn't just a derogatory outsider comment. I recommend taking a look at this short explanation of 'absolute' and 'relative' by a Christian writer. (It's not my website, I swear!)

  3. More needs to be said about whether or not moral realism requires morality to be irreducible. You are a realist about sandwitches because you believe in sandwitches, but many people are anti-realists who believe in morality. Emotivists and constructivists believe in morality, but they think morality doesn't require "realism." I say that moral realism requires morality to be irreducible (in some sense) because of the actual philosophical moral realist tradition. That's how the word is used in the tradition. Morality isn't "just" a cultural tradition. If it were, relativism would be true -- a form of anti-realism.

    James Gray

  4. What kind of "reduction" is incompatible with moral realism can be examined closer. I don't necessarily want to say that identity theory isn't a form of moral realism. I don't think identity theory totally reduces moral facts into non-moral facts because it's not a form of eliminative reductionism. That's the sort of reduction that I think is uncontroversially incompatible with moral realism.

    Moral realist philosophers describe morality as objective or independent of our beliefs. I think what they are really getting at is that we can't reduce morality to these things because it seems like a sort of eliminative reduction.

  5. @James,
    .."I don't think identity theory totally reduces moral facts into non-moral facts because it's not a form of eliminative reductionism. That's the sort of reduction that I think is uncontroversially incompatible with moral realism."

    First, thanks for stopping by. Would you like me to add a note to the post to look down at the comments for clarification (or update) on your position? I don't want to misrepresent anyone I quote.

    Now about these different kinds of reduction… As I understand it, the key difference between a reforming and an eliminative reduction has to do with how much sense it makes to continue making positive truth-apt statements about the thing reduced.

    For example, if we reduce the idea of God to a cultural invention, it doesn't make sense to keep using truth-apt God talk which implies God exists (eliminative). But if we reduce the Christian idea of God to, say, the Muslim idea of God, it would still make sense to use much the same God talk, with some appropriate modifications (reforming).

    At this point it would be trivially true that we can't subject moral language to eliminative reduction and keep the positive truth-apt criterion which everyone seems to agree is critical for moral realism. But what if we can reduce moral facts to non-moral facts and retain much of our ordinary moral language in a success theory sort of way? I understood your post on moral realism as denying — or at least overlooking — this possibility.

    And for the record, I do deny notions about categorical imperatives, simple good, and motivational internalism (which some philosophers insist are essential to morality), but I think enough of the way we ordinarily talk about morality can be retained in a positive, truth apt, belief-independent way that I'm avoiding the dreaded eliminative label.

  6. For some reason my comments are being blocked. I tried several times and got various errors including html restrictions, length limits, and a vague an 'error has occurred.'

  7. For _a_ Google product, the comment support on Blogger is remarkably terrible.

    (No editing, for example.)

  8. I think I "want" from moral realism is really a position whereby attribution of moral praise or blame to an agent is non-arbitrary.

  9. As I think you know, I currently completely buy all of ends-relational theory.  Also, I'm not really that interested in whether it deserves the label "moral realism" or not, because the words you use to call it don't change what the theory actually is.

    That being said, and for the purposes of reviving a year-old conversation, one interesting distinction I've come across is whether people can be *unknowingly mistaken* about moral claims.  It's one thing to say that moral claims can be true (success theory), but with emotivism or some varieties of subjectivism, the only requirement for moral truth is to not lie about your personal feelings.

    Given that you can be mistaken about what best fulfills an end and not know it, thus end-relational theory seems more objective than some other theories commonly branded as anti-realist.

  10.  Peter, do you have any advice for responding to people who insist that end-free "oughts" can be truth apt? I have a hard time dealing with that clash of intuitions.

  11. I'd respond that this depends on what they mean by an "end-free ought".  It's kind of like saying "He likes ice cream" and arguing that you don't need to say who he is because this is a pronoun-free sentence. "End-free" can't be truth apt because the word is too vague to evaluate, and usually dissolves when elaboration is given.

    For example, I've noticed that usually when people use an "end-free ought" they are either referring to a categorical imperative or the sum of pragmatic considerations.  Perhaps other concepts could be considered, but I've never encountered any.

    However, if they mean the categorical imperative that's not really end-free, but really requires the end "In order to fulfill your duty, ...".  And you're also left proving that such an action is actually your duty, which usually is problematic.

    If they mean the sum of pragmatic considerations, that implies the end "In order that you do what best objectively satisfies your desires, ...".  So that's not really end-free either.  And even then, this is also person-relative as well, as each person has somewhat different desires.Thus no end-free ought really is end-free.