What is Moral Realism?


Moral Realism or Moral Objectivism is a meta-Ethical theoretical position that holds that moral values are to be understood as objective and independent from human perception. That is to say, moral realists hold that moral values can be reduced to moral facts that are independent of beliefs or a concrete societal entity. Instead, moral facts describe the real/actual world. Moral Realisms thus holds that moral facts and judgements about moral facts can be understood in similar certainty as other scientific or mathematical certainty.

Furthermore, Moral Realism can be said to rely on cognitivism, insofar it holds that propositions about morality can be said to be true or false. Moral Realisms thus stands in opposition to non-cognitivist / expressivist theoretical positions about morality, such as Moral Anti-Realism, social constructivism, error theory, functionalism, and / or relativism.

There are two notable advantages of holding to Moral Realism, at the least outside the philosophical domain. First, because Moral Realists allow for logical rules to be applied to moral propositions, they can reach conclusions that are ‘truth-apt’ – i.e. conclusions about moral propositions can be either true or false, and by extension thereof moral actions can be justifiable / unjustifiable without falling for contradictions. In other words, due to the logical presupposition of moral propositions, we can hold morals to the same standard as we do propositions about the natural world and facts. Second, and to some extent following from the above, disagreement about morals and moral propositions should allow for a resolution – i.e. if disagreements about moral propositions would lead to logical contradictions, it is possible to assert that only one of those propositions can be true. Moral Realism, therefore, unlike other meta-ethical theories, is in advantage of at least a theoretical possibility of resolving disagreements about morals.

These advantages are not without critics. The main philosophical attack on Moral Realism is that while theoretical resolution of disagreements about moral propositions is possible, Moral Realism cannot account why and how these disagreements came to be in the first place. Moral Realism is thus not in a position to assess the validity of one proposition over the other, precisely because it cannot assess the origin of ‘moral facts’. By extension, moral facts are not observable and are not bound to physical laws. Whatever one may think of them, they are ultimately immaterial. While material facts can be observed and assessed by scientific method, morals and moral propositions cannot be accessed through the same rigorous method.

While there are many contemporary philosophers that argue for Moral Realism, the same cannot be said about many philosophers in the philosophical canon. Arguably, PlatoImmanuel Kant, and Karl Marx were moral realists, and the early 20th century philosopher G. E. Moore.

Types of Moral Realism

Moral Realism knows two dominant variants:

  • Ethical Naturalism – a view that holds that we can have empirical knowledge of moral properties; and, furthermore, that these moral properties are entirely reducible to non-ethical properties. Ethical Naturalism assumes that moral propositions can be either true or false, and that the meaning of these propositions can be conveyed without resorting to ethical terms – i.e. as facts / natural properties.
  • Ethical Non-Naturalism – just as Ethical Naturalism, a view that holds that ethical propositions are truth-apt – i.e. can be true or false (this is also known as cognitivism). Ethical Non-Naturalisms largely follows the work of G. E. Moore and holds that moral propositions cannot be reduced to non-ethical properties. That is to say, what is ‘good’ cannot be defined in any other terms that ‘good’, and what is ‘bad’ cannot be defined in any other terms than what is ‘bad’. G. E. Moore claimed that an attempt to define ‘good’ / ‘bad’ in any other terms – such as, ‘pleasant’, ‘desirable’, etc. – leads to a naturalistic fallacy.
  • There is a third lesser known variant: Ethical Intuitionism. It is a variation for Ethical Non-Naturalism and holds that we are intuitively aware of moral truths, without a need for an elaborate theoretical construct; and more important philosophically, without the need to reduce moral properties to non-ethical properties.

Further Reading

DeLapp, K. (2013). Moral Realism, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Enoch, D. (2013). Taking Morality Seriously: A Defense of Robust Realism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sayre-McCord, G. & Ayer, A. J. (1988). Essays on Moral Realism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Shafer-Landau, R. (2003). Moral Realism: A Defence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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