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Theoretical Ethics

A Taxonomy of Moral Realism

M. Y. Chew
Wolfson College

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ABSTRACT: The realist dispute in ethics has wide implications for moral ontology, epistemology, and semantics. Common opinion holds that this debate goes to the heart of the phenomenology of moral values and affects the way in which we understand the nature of moral value, moral disagreement, and moral reflection. But it has not been clearly demonstrated what is involved in moral realist theory. I provide a framework which distinguishes three different versions of the theory while at the same time showing the interrelations between them. I also demonstrate how issues such as objectivity, cognitivism, and truth can be related into the discussion by means of this framework.

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Since morality exercises a deep influence over the way we live our lives, it is easy to appreciate why the question — whether the subject is, or can be, objective — has been, and remains a central preoccupation amongst moral philosophers. Any answer to this most fundamental problem of moral philosophy has a direct bearing on how we do ethics, and more crucially, on the prospects we have for improving our present efforts. It is my purpose in this essay to examine one dominant strategy in offering an affirmative answer to this question.

The history of ethics exhibits many different approaches at securing an objectivist ethics. Besides traditional theistic-based approaches, there have been attempts which seek to establish some objective foundation (usually in practical reason or human interest) that is independent of, but which can be used to generate, or involve, an ethical outlook. Another less direct approach has taken the form of attempts at elaborating points of advantageous comparison between ethics and some other discipline, like the natural sciences for instance, that is determinately objective. The strategy of the moral realist differs from these approaches by its insistence on the independent existence of a moral reality that determines the truth-conditions of our moral propositions. Our aim in moral deliberation, according to the realist, is to discover, or come into contact with, this aspect of reality. It is this element which marks out moral realism in the pursuit of objectivity in ethics.

But what is a moral fact? What is the nature of the moral epistemology in such a conception of our moral experience? These are, by themselves, baroque claims. Moral realism is not a recent invention. It has a history that can plausibly be traced as far back as Plato, and can count among its exponent philosophers like Francis Hutcheson, Richard Price, Thomas Reid, G. E. Moore, H. A. Prichard, W. D. Ross. Following a period of neglect, the theory has recently come back strongly into fashion, and has gained the attention of contemporary moral philosophers. In the last twenty years or so, the lively debate between moral realists and their opponents has become the focal point of much of the moral philosophy as pursued by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. Though there are different moral theories that may plausibly be described as realist, it would be useful to note that despite the variation, moral realists aspire, on the whole, to arguing for objectivity in ethics in the distinctive way just mentioned. I set out to determine whether there is any sense in asserting the theory of moral realism by examining what is involved in this aspiration of the moral realist.

Given that the ideas surrounding moral realism involve inherently complicated issues like objectivity, cognitivism, realism, and truth, we do well to have a systematic strategy in approaching the characterisation of the theory. My approach consists in raising a series of metaethical questions in the following order:

  • Are ethical statements truth-evaluable?
  • Does descriptivism offer a correct account of moral semantics?
  • Are any ethical statements actually true?
  • Do we know whether these are true?
  • Are ethical statements to be given a literal interpretation?
  • Do moral properties supervene on natural properties?
  • Are these reducible to natural properties?

The questions are arranged so to achieve a certain effect. By successive ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers to these questions, we construct a tree-like structure, where each branch represents the separation of different theoretical positions. At the start, general questions about the status of ethical beliefs and judgments are raised, and we subsequently classify the metaethical positions according to their different responses to these. At this stage, the idea is to seek a keener insight of the general contours of moral realism in the light of the contrast with its main opponents on various substantive issues. The idea is to focus attention on how moral realists mark off what is distinctive about their theory. The later questions gradually delve into more specific problems about moral realism, and these are used to map out different versions of the doctrine. Two modern versions — labelled as British moral realism and confirmation theory — would be distinguished. The idea is to make explicit a framework for locating the different moral realisms so that we may determine what is involved in asserting any version of moral realism. If this is done properly, it should also reveal the relations among, and motivations for, its diverse forms.

This framework can be diagrammatically represented in the following manner:

Are ethical statements truth-evaluable?
Yes No
-- Early Emotivism (Ayer)
Does descriptivism offer a correct account of moral semantics?
-- Descriptivism
-- Non-descriptivism
Prescriptivism (Hare)
Quasi-Realism (Blackburn)
Expressivism (Gibbard)
Are any of these statements true?
-- Cognitivism
-- Non-cognitivism
Error Theory
Do we know whether these are true?
-- Scepticism
Are ethical statements to be given a literal interpretation?
-- Non-realist Cognitivism
(Kantian Constructivism)
Relativism (Harman, Wong)
Do moral properties supervene on natural properties?
-- Non-supervenient Moral Realism
Ethical Intuitionism
Are these reducible to natural properties?
-- Reductive supervenient Moral Realism
Confirmation Theory
(Railton, Boyd, Sturgeon)
-- Non-reductive supervenient Moral Realism
British Moral Realism
(McDowell, Platts)

As I develop this framework, I will also address some issues which have wider concern beyond the topic of moral realism:

Moral Semantics

A predominant preoccupation of twentieth century metaethics has been with the logic of moral discourse. I discuss the considerations that are involved in the attempt to provide an adequate semantics for ethics, and present a way of categorising the non-descriptivist (emotivism, prescriptivism, expressivism) and descriptivist (rationalism, relativism, realism) theses. This classification has the advantage of presenting these metaethical theories in a way which links up with contemporary interest in the issue about the truth-evaluability of ethical discourse.

Conceptions of Objectivity

To the extent that the concept of objectivity itself is not clear, the question whether ethics can be objective suffers from an attendant lack of clarity. Philosophers constantly use the term "objectivity" in various connections, to characterise different things, and it is rare for the different conceptions to be explicitly acknowledged. In order to see what is distinctive about moral realism, I argue that we have to understand the different levels of objectivity. I present two broad theses of objectivity and draw up sub-divisions within each. The first thesis applies to statements and is termed as the semantic thesis. This is apt because the various senses under the semantic thesis all turn on isolating and emphasising different semantic characteristics as the mark of objectivity. We can distinguish within the semantic thesis three distinct, but closely related, senses of objectivity. The first conception — semantic objectivity — is about the nature of the grammatical subject of the statement. The second — metaphysical objectivity — focuses on truth. The third — logical objectivity — depends on whether it is possible to attribute truth values to the statements under discussion.

But this is not the only way objectivity enters our theoretical, and derivatively ordinary, discourse. The second thesis — epistemic objectivity — does not apply to statements but is more suitably applied to systems of thought or perspectives when these can be shown to possess a reasonable method which frees our experience from bias and partiality in such a way we can come to justified beliefs. At the best, such a method can bring about rational agreement or convergence, or if this is not possible, it can at least show us why one belief or judgment is more credible than another. The relevant notion of objectivity here seems to be more methodological in nature, and it is systems of belief within particular domains of discourse that are the objects of concern in any putative ascription of objectivity or subjectivity. The interest is with the structure, if any, of the reasoning or argumentation that would provide the prospect of arriving at more credible beliefs.

The traditional idea of the foundationalist and coherentist structure of justification will be presented as different ways of securing epistemic objectivity. I will also describe different ways of interpreting the result of epistemic objectivity, where some have thought of it in terms of universalibility, others have envisioned it as the requirement of interpersonal truth-conditions, or the possibility of having an interpersonal method of validation.

The relevance of this taxonomy of objectivity for our understanding moral realism will be made clear. It will be argued that the moral realist insists that the only route to logical objectivity in ethics is via the metaphysical objectivity of moral values and properties. The metaphysical objectivity of ethical values becomes a necessary condition for logical objectivity in ethics according to the realists.

Supervenience and Reductionism

But what is meant by the metaphysical objectivity of ethical values? I suggest that realists have generally interpreted this idea in terms of two dependency relations — supervenience and reductivism. I will explicate what is involved with each relation and use this distinction to map out two modern versions of moral realism — supervenient moral realism which relies on truth-conditional semantics and the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, and reductive moral realism which relies on reductive naturalism and scientific realism.

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