What makes moral realism so popular

What Makes Moral Realism So Popular?

Moral Realism I generally believe that moral judgments can be true or false, that some are true and are known to be true. Since about the mid-1970s, interest in and sympathy for moral realism has increased among philosophers. I explain this for three reasons:

Decline the decline of empiricism ▻ the phenomenology of moral life ▻ the dominance or the legal discourse

The decline of empiricism

In the mid-1930s, logical positivism, a radical form of empiricism, posed a direct challenge to moral realism in the analytic tradition. Moral judgments were viewed as unverifiable and therefore "meaningless". Still, the fact of moral judgment had to be taken into account; and the logical positivists relegated moral judgments to the mere role of expressing and evoking emotions. This is the theme of the famous or infamous Chapter 6 of AJ Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic (1936). The emotional ethics theory, hardly outlined by Ayer, was developed with some sophistication by Charles Stevenson in Ethics and Language (1944).

Emotivism never achieved a completely satisfactory formulation, not least because it did not have an adequate philosophy of language.

In the early 1950s, RM Hare's prescriptivism appeared in The Language of Morals (1952). Hare made moral judgments about the status of being only emotional, but never got the idea that a moral judgment might actually be true.

Logical positivism turned out to be an untenable position. Hare's prescriptivism ran into difficulties, mainly because it accepted anything as a moral judgment, provided certain formal conditions were met.

Moreover, empiricism, which was the main reason for the criticism of moral realism, was pierced by serious difficulties - the myth of the given and the theoretical burden of observation were powerful tools of the criticism of empiricism. Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951) also attacked empiricism, as it is traditionally understood as devastating.

An important pillar of empiricism used against moral realism also suffered severe attack - this was the correspondence theory of truth. If moral judgments are true (at least some of them), they must correspond to (moral) facts or circumstances, but how could such facts or circumstances be known or recognized? How could they actually be? 'The cat is on the mat' is true (if it is true) because it corresponds to the perceptible real state of the cat sitting on the mat. What would a real moral fact or state of affairs - such as the inaccuracy of a saturation bombardment of a civilian population - look like and how could their presence be perceived? We could sense the bombing, but how could we sense its inaccuracy?

The correspondence theory of truth encountered great technical difficulties and found rivals in deflationism and other theories.

All of this meant, as some philosophers recognized, that the tools used against moral realism - logical positivism, emotional ethical theory, empiricism, and the correspondence theory of truth - had nothing to do with the coherence that was once widely believed they owned them. So again, moral realism was an option. There was eager interest, and it turned out that, whether or not it takes the correct ethical stance, moral realism can be seriously defended. It therefore naturally attracted followers. I'm not sure if moral realism is the majority in professional philosophy, but it certainly has numerous and accomplished defenders.

The phenomenology of moral life

Apparently, if we reject moral realism, we must deny that it is true that the Shoah was evil, that the Holocaust in Rwanda was a shameful tragedy of unjustified violence, that it is true to torture other people or living beings is false and fun and so on. Moral realism seems to many to be the strongest, and perhaps only, barrier to moral skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism, all of which (it is commonly believed) fail to provide the truth that certain actions and facts are pure and unconditional fact not correct . So some definitely experience the moral life - a life in which it must be true that certain things are wrong. Moral realism speaks to this mindset.

The way of thinking is of course not new. But the 24/7 media coverage, instant global communication, opening archives and many other factors have brought moral disasters to us like never before. Mindset has been strengthened and moral realism is the beneficiary.

The dominance of the legal discourse

The language of natural or human rights is long standing. In the political discourse it goes back at least to the American and French revolutions in the 18th century; and it has an even longer philosophical history. I shall mention only Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689). More recently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights appeared in 1948.

Nonetheless, from the 1970s onwards, a new phase in the political and moral discourse on rights entered the United States and Western Europe. It is now the or a dominant type of discourse. For example, the case of an abortion is often formulated in terms of a woman's right to control the condition of her own body. I do not believe that any claimant to that right will consider it other than true that they have it. They don't claim because one could express a wish or leave out an emotion; They claim it is a moral fact or truth that they have this right. If this is not the case for all applicants, it is for a great many.

Or, if we look at the issue of homosexual rights, we find there the right to same-sex marriage, which, if requested, is widespread as a moral claim of a factual nature. It is true (not just a subjective opinion or an expression of Western values) that gay life is an equally valid lifestyle; It is true that gays should have the right to same-sex marriage: this is the prevailing sense of the activists' arguments.

I just characterize the discourse; My own views cannot be inferred about abortion or same-sex marriage.

It seems to me that the logic of universal human rights is the Invocation of truth and thus of moral realism. What would you have thought if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had ended with: "Of course it isn't true, that we have these rights, but they are something we support "?

Final grade

My own views on moral realism are not relevant here. I just tried to answer the question and explain why moral realism is on the rise.


"If we reject moral realism, we seem to have to deny that it is true that the Shoah was evil, that the Holocaust in Rwanda was a shameful tragedy of unjustified violence, that it is true to torture other people or living beings for fun false and so on and so on. "Actually, I'm pretty sure there should be a theory of subjective truth. Because the truth appears to only exist in consciousness, it does not matter. Is this theory unpopular?

Geoffrey Thomas ♦

@ rus9384. I agree, but I don't think subjective truth is what moral realism is about as commonly understood. I stick to the question. My eye is on moral realism in its present form; and my lips are very consciously sealed about the appropriateness of his concept of truth and, in fact, about what I think of moral realism at all. Nice to hear from you again. Best - GT


In fact, it is not, I think the main opposition is between subjectivists and realists. Nor is it necessary to be a realist to say something is true. Eg aleph_1> aleph_0 is true, but hardly anyone can say that these numbers physically exist.

Geoffrey Thomas ♦

Again I agree: it may be true that two sentences are synonymous, but synonymy is not a physical existence. It could be true that an action has a moral quality without that quality being physical. But let's not go beyond the question - why is moral realism so popular? How did the widespread belief that a moral judgment can be recognized as true came about? The validity of moral realism is a separate matter. I encourage you to address this on another question. Best of all - Geoff


The "phenomenology of moral life" argument seems to me to be the most relevant. Emotionally we just cannot imagine that rape, murder, torture, genocide, etc. are terrible, just a matter of opinion. We don't want these things to happen, and for that to happen, everyone has to believe that evil is evil in an objective sense. Ethics often work backwards. I rarely see philosophers who bite bullets and accept disgusting conclusions.