Moral realism

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

6. Arguments against realism

Since realism comes in different forms, arguments against it are more likely to attack some particular form than to attack realism as such. The main difficulties for the American and the British realist schools have already been mentioned. In both cases they were metaphysical. The Americans have difficulty in keeping moral facts both natural and moral. The British have difficulty in explaining how the world can be other than ‘motivationally inert’.

The two general challenges to realism that are most often mentioned are those made by John Mackie and Gilbert Harman. Harman (1977) asks what, if anything, is explained by moral facts that cannot be equally well explained by moral beliefs. If moral belief alone is enough for all such explanations, why suppose that the facts exist in addition to the beliefs? The facts appear to be explanatorily redundant. We might suggest that at least the facts explain the beliefs, but Harman replies that the beliefs can be equally well explained in other ways, for example, by appeal to upbringing and education. This leaves the facts explaining nothing; they are mere metaphysical danglers, hanging in the air and not related to anything else at all. We are better off without such things. (This is different from Wright’s view above, because Wright allows that moral facts could explain moral beliefs; he only asks whether they could explain anything else ‘directly’.)

Mackie (1977) suggests that values, if they existed, would be very peculiar things, unlike anything else in the universe; so queer are they that, if they existed, we would need a special faculty of moral perception or intuition to perceive them. Their queerness lies in the idea that an objective value would necessarily be pursued by anyone who recognized it, because such values have ‘to-be-pursuedness’ built into them. Even if such things are possible, which nobody influenced by Hume would allow, something of that sort is of a different order from anything else with which we are acquainted.

Mackie also asks about the supposed relation between moral facts and natural facts. We ordinarily say, for instance, that an action was wrong because it was cruel. But ‘just what in the world is signified by this "because"?’ (1977: 41; original emphasis). Not only is there the wrongness and the cruelty, but also a totally mysterious ‘consequential link’ between the two.

These arguments of Mackie’s are answered in different ways by the different varieties of realism. The Americans deny the possibility of ‘to-be-pursuedness’; the British admit it, but try to explain it by appeal to the dispositional theory of value. As for the mysterious ‘consequential link’, both sides would, in their different ways, try to say that the wrongness is somehow ‘constituted’ by the cruelty.

Citing this article:
Dancy, Jonathan. Arguments against 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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