Moral realism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 01, 2022, from

3. American moral realism

Metaphysics. American moral realists are naturalists: they suppose that moral facts are either natural facts or configurations of natural facts (see Naturalism in ethics §1). As suggested in the initial summary, it is possible that the fact that if I do this I will have helped someone and harmed nobody else just is the fact that I ought to do this action. Perhaps, however, the moral fact is more complex than this natural fact (and than any other single natural fact), without this meaning that it is not some combination of natural facts. If so, those natural facts will have to be combined in the right sort of way – in the sort of way that they are here – if they are together to make the moral fact that I ought to do this action. Then the moral fact will be identical with this configuration of natural facts.

This form of naturalism in ethics is often, though not always, accompanied by some form of consequentialism. A certain sort of natural fact is a moral fact because there is a relation between that fact and certain consequences (see Consequentialism). Naturalism in ethics is now a live option again because of a growing sense that G.E. Moore’s ‘open question’ argument is flawed (see Moore, G.E. §1).

Epistemology. American moral realists, seeing moral facts as natural facts, suppose that they are knowable in whatever ways natural facts can be known, including science. To identify those facts as moral facts, we will need to combine the best scientific theory with the best moral theory.

Theory of motivation. How is it possible to reconcile the claim that moral facts are natural facts with the widespread sense that moral facts have an intrinsic authority – that they make demands on us to which we should respond, whatever our personal choices and preferences? This ‘intrinsic authority’ is hard to understand in any detail. Perhaps the best attempt is Kant’s distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives (see Kant §1; Kantian ethics). Moral imperatives such as, ‘Help those less fortunate than you’, are categorical, in the sense that one cannot escape their relevance to oneself by saying, ‘I just don’t care very much about that sort of thing’. By contrast, a hypothetical imperative such as, ‘Use fresh eggs to make an omelette’, has no grip on those who just do not care about how their omelettes taste.

However we understand it, the idea of the authority of moral facts does not sit easily with ethical naturalism. Natural facts, however configured, do not seem able to have any such authority over the will (see Moral motivation §§1–2). American realists generally respond to this by doubting the claim that any fact could have that sort of authority. The world, whether in its moral or its more obviously natural clothes, is one whose grip on us depends on our bringing to it a sort of moral concern (which will have been the product either of evolution or of education). If we lack that concern, we will be unmotivated by moral distinctions, even though we will be still perfectly capable of discovering which actions are right and which are wrong. To know the right is one thing, and to bend one’s will to it another. Moral judgment is cognitive; it is the discovery of facts. But facts are motivationally inert; whether one is motivated by them depends not so much on them as on what one cares about. So moral imperatives are hypothetical, despite appearances.

In these thoughts, American realists adopt what is sometimes called a ‘Humean’ theory of motivation. Neither belief nor desire alone can lead to action; only a combination of the two can do that. (For an action we need two mental states, one with each direction of fit.) Moral facts are the objects of belief. No such belief can motivate alone; for there to be an action, the agent must have some desire or preference as well as the belief. Moral facts cannot motivate in their own right, therefore; their ability to make a difference to how we act depends upon the independent contribution of a desire. This being so, they cannot have such a thing as an intrinsic authority over us; for whether they can make a difference to how we act depends on something over which they have no control (see Practical reason and ethics§2).

Citing this article:
Dancy, Jonathan. American moral realism. Moral realism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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