Moral realism

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

5. Realism and minimalism

In this entry, realism has been seen as a combination of three distinct theses. But there is an alternative account of what realism is that sees it as nothing more than a claim about truth. The realist, on this account, holds that moral statements are capable of truth, and indeed that some are true. If we say this, we can still distinguish between realism and objectivism in ethics. Realism is the claim that moral judgments are sometimes true; objectivism is the claim that the sort of truth they have is objective truth.

We can distinguish two sorts of opposition to this form of realism. The first accepts that moral statements are capable of truth, but holds that all are false (see Moral scepticism §3); the second holds that truth is not the appropriate form of success for a moral judgment, and that we would do better to think of them as sincere or insincere, or as more or less well connected with other judgments, or as ones that we ourselves would agree with. One should not try to combine these two sorts of opposition.

Crispin Wright (1992) has suggested that, if this is what is at issue between realism and noncognitivism, the matter will be quickly resolved in favour of realism. In his view, the mere fact that moral discourse is assertive, and that moral utterances are governed by norms of warranted assertibility, is enough to establish that we make no mistake in calling some true and others false. The question should not be, then, whether moral judgments are capable of truth, since everyone really admits that they are. Instead, the debate about realism should focus on other questions. According to Wright, among these questions are:

    Wright suggests that we only get a ‘full-blooded’ moral realism if our answer to these questions is ‘yes’. There will, therefore, be degrees of realism, and in a way the question is not whether we should be realists, but what sort of realists we should be. How far should our realism go?

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

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