Moral realism

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Moral realism (also ethical realism or moral Platonism) 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 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,[1] and that it is a fully defensible form of moral doctrine.[2] One study found that 56% of philosophers accept or lean towards moral realism (28%: anti-realism; 16%: other).[3] Some notable examples of robust moral realists include David Brink,[4] John McDowell, Peter Railton,[5] Geoffrey Sayre-McCord,[6] Michael Smith, Terence Cuneo,[7] Russ Shafer-Landau,[8] G. E. Moore,[9] John Finnis, Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon,[10] Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit. Norman Geras has argued that Karl Marx was a moral realist.[11] Moral realism has been studied in the various philosophical and practical applications.[12]

Robust versus minimal moral realism[edit]

A delineation of moral realism into a minimal form, a moderate form, and robust form has been put forward in the literature.[10]

The robust model of moral realism commits moral realists to three theses:[13]

  • 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.[14] 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.[14]

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[15] 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.


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.


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."[16] 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 naturalist 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.[16]: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.[16]:97


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.[17] 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, that 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] However, such an argument may be applicable as well to our concepts of epistemic justification as well, possibly leading to radical skepticism, an undesirable result for the moral anti-realist as it would undercut their argument as well.[21] 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 morality claims to be referring to observable entities (such as wellbeing).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Plato's Moral Realism: The Discovery of the Presuppositions of Ethics, by John M. Rist (Jul 15, 2012)
  2. ^ Moral Realism as a Moral Doctrine, (New Directions in Ethics), by Matthew H. Kramer
  3. ^ PhilPapers survey, 2009, under the heading 'Meta-ethics'
  4. ^ Brink, David O., Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  5. ^ Railton, Peter (1986). "Moral Realism". Philosophical Review, 95, pp. 163-207.
  6. ^ Sayre-McCord, Geoff (2005). "Moral Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  7. ^ Cuneo, Terence (2007). "The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism", Oxford.
  8. ^ Shafer-Landau, Russ (2003) "Moral Realism: A Defense", Oxford, ISBN 0-19-925975-5.
  9. ^ Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Geras, Norman (1985). "The Controversy about Marx and Justice", New Left Review, 150, pp. 47-85.
  12. ^ Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Applications, (New Forum Books), by Daniel N. Robinson (Jul 29, 2002).
  13. ^ Väyrynen, Pekka (2005). "Moral Realism", Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Donald M. Borchert (ed.). (link)
  14. ^ a b Joyce, Richard (2007), "Moral Anti-Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  15. ^ Korsgaard, Christine (1996). The Sources of Normativity, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  16. ^ a b c Philippa Foot, "Moral Beliefs," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 59 (1958), pp. 83-104.
  17. ^ 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"
  18. ^
  19. ^ Harman, Gilbert, The Nature of Morality : An Introduction to Ethics (Oxford,1977), I.1, "Ethics and observation"
  20. ^ Mackie, John, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Viking Press, 1977) part 1, chap. 1, section 9 : The argument from Queerness
  21. ^ Terence Cuneo, The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Further reading[edit]