Moral realism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

2. Arguments for realism, and an outline of its history

Corresponding to the three elements of realism, there are three things commonly urged by realists in favour of their position. In different ways, they all suggest that we should take seriously the way things initially appear to us. Realists try to hold that things are as they appear, despite noncognitivist arguments that they cannot possibly be. This is sometimes called ‘the appeal to phenomenology’.

First, realists claim that moral thought appears to have its own subject matter, distinct from science and all natural inquiry. Second, they argue that moral judgment appears to be an attempt to determine a matter of fact that is independent of any beliefs we might have about it; the fact is one thing, and what we think about it another. Third, realists hold that moral judgment presents itself to the judger as risky and fallible. When facing a difficult choice, especially, we have a sense of thin ice; we know that, with the best will in the world, the view we come to may be wrong. Only the second two of these three claims may properly be termed ‘phenomenological’.

Most moral theorists have been realists, from Plato and Aristotle through Price and Hutcheson to Sidgwick and Mill, and then, in the twentieth century, to Moore and the intuitionist tradition (see Intuitionism in ethics). It is the opposition to realism that needs to be documented. Here the patron saint of noncognitivism is Hume, whose work flowered, though altered in many respects, in the noncognitivist tradition of Stevenson, Ayer and Hare (see Emotivism). Leading contemporary noncognitivists are Blackburn and Gibbard.

Advances in the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s persuaded many that the noncognitivist arguments against realism, which had dominated the intellectual scene since 1930, were less powerful than they had appeared (see Analytic ethics §2). Two quite distinct forms of moral realism emerged, American and British. (This means only that most proponents of the first form are American, and most proponents of the second are British.) In the next two sections, the differences between these two positions will be charted in three areas: metaphysics, epistemology and theory of motivation.

Citing this article:
Dancy, Jonathan. Arguments for realism, and an outline of its history. Moral realism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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