Moral realism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 24, 2020, from

4. British moral realism

The British variety of moral realism denies everything that the American variety claims.

Metaphysics. British moral realism is non-naturalist: moral facts are not natural facts, nor are they are natural configurations of natural facts. They may be non-natural configurations of natural facts, but that is another matter. Natural facts are relevant to moral ones, of course, since they are the reasons why actions are right or wrong. It follows from this that any two situations that are naturally indistinguishable must be morally indistinguishable (see Supervenience). But this sort of supervenience is a far cry from any identity between the natural and the moral.

In terms of the characterization of moral realism given earlier, the British thus attribute far greater distinctness to moral facts, considering them to be metaphysically distinct from natural ones. The Americans have a harder task in showing what is distinctive about the moral, though not an impossible one. They can say, for instance, that moral facts are distinguished by their subject matter, or by the sort of configuration of natural facts that they are.

Epistemology. If moral facts are not natural facts, the normal methods of finding out how things are will not suffice for the discovery of the moral. Admittedly, British realists have been prone to talk of seeing that an action is right. But it appears that they mean by this neither that rightness is visible, nor that there is a moral sense in addition to the normal five senses. Talk of seeing that the action is right is intended to echo Aristotle’s remark that right and wrong are not matters of rules so much as of the nature of the case before us, and that to discern what is right we have to concentrate on the details of the present situation (see Virtue ethics §6). They deny, therefore, that moral judgment is a matter of subsumption, of bringing the present case under some moral rule. Moral judgment is the application of concepts, but those concepts are not rules. Indeed, it is characteristic of British realists to be sceptical about the very possibility of moral rules or principles. For them, moral judgment is a matter of recognizing the reasons for action as they present themselves in the present case, and responding to them as such (see Universalism in ethics §3; Logic of ethical discourse). This sort of recognition is not perceptual, but it is cognitive and practical at once – for what one is recognizing is a reason for action, that is, a normative state of the world.

Theory of motivation. American realists are ‘externalists’ about moral judgment. They hold that the ability of a moral judgment to motivate, that is, to make a difference to how one acts, is dependent on the presence of a quite different mental state, namely some sort of desire. British moral realists are generally ‘internalists’, holding that a moral judgment motivates in its own right, and does not get its ability to affect action from a desire that is present at the same time (see Moral motivation §1). To make this out, they have to reject the standard Humean picture of motivation, though they do not agree among themselves about quite how to do this. Wiggins (1987) and McDowell (1978) hold that action does require a combination of belief and desire, but that in the moral case it is belief that leads and desire that follows. Dancy (1993) suggests that it is belief alone that motivates, since mere recognition of relevant reasons should be enough for action; he sees desire as a state of being motivated (by the reasons), not as what motivates. Either way, the suggestion that there are genuinely normative and non-natural facts is combined with the claim that recognition of these facts motivates in its own right, in a way that is not dependent on the presence of an independent desire.

This raises problems. The first is that Humeanism is more or less received wisdom; so the British are fighting an uphill battle in rejecting it. The second is that it is very hard to make sense of the idea of a state of the world, or fact, that stands in some intrinsic relation to the will. It is normal to think that facts are motivationally inert; to recognize them is one thing, and to bend the will to them another. The British hold that the response to the fact, which we call recognition, is itself motivational. The preferred way of doing this is by appeal to the ‘dispositional conception of value’ (see McDowell 1985). This conception is inspired by a supposedly similar dispositional conception of colour: a red object is one that is disposed to cause in us a characteristic sort of experience (see Colour, theories of §2). Similarly, a valuable object is conceived as one which is disposed to elicit a certain response from us, an inclination of the will. As such, it is not totally independent of us, since it consists (at least partly) in a certain relation to us; and this means that it is not fully objective, if objectivity is to be understood in terms of independence from us. But it is still objective in a weak sense, since value can still be conceived as there for us to recognize and there whether we recognize it or not (see Value, ontological status of).

There are two difficulties with this appeal to dispositions. The first is that the analogy with colours is hotly disputed. The second is that, in order to keep values in the world, their objectivity has had to be diminished. For some, this weaker conception of objectivity is hardly to be distinguished from subjectivity.

Citing this article:
Dancy, Jonathan. British moral realism. Moral realism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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