Moral realism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 22, 2019, from

1. Realism, objectivism, cognitivism

These three terms are hard to keep separate, but it is worth the effort. Cognitivism is the claim that moral attitudes are cognitive states rather than noncognitive ones. The distinction between cognitive and noncognitive states is not clear; the best way of drawing it is by appeal to the distinction between two ‘directions of fit’. Beliefs, which are the paradigm examples of a cognitive state, have one direction of fit; desires, which are the paradigm examples of a noncognitive state, have the other. A belief, that is, has to fit the world; the world is given, as it were, and it is the belief’s job to fit that world, to get it right. A desire is not like that; the desire’s job, if anything, is to get the world to fit it, to make things be the way it wants them to be. Crucially, a desire is not at fault if things are not as it wants them to be; a belief is at fault if things are not as it takes them to be. The question whether moral attitudes are cognitive states or noncognitive ones is the question whether they have the direction of fit of a belief, or that of a desire. They could, of course, be complex states with a mixture of both; but noncognitivism is the view that moral attitudes have either wholly or partly the direction of fit of a desire. This is normally expressed more briefly as the view that moral attitudes either are or at least contain desires; to think an action right is a sort of ‘pro-attitude’, and pro-attitudes are wantings (see Belief; Desire; Moral Judgment §1).

Realists, believing that there are distinct moral facts, are likely to be cognitivists, since the appropriate attitude to a fact is belief rather than desire. It is for this reason that the opposition to realism is normally called ‘noncognitivism’. Realists, holding there to be moral facts, maintain for that reason that moral attitudes are beliefs; noncognitivists, holding that moral attitudes either are or include desires, claim for that reason that there are no facts to be the objects of those attitudes.

Objectivism is harder to distinguish from realism, since the two are very closely linked. Objectivity is something to do with independence from us. Realism, as characterized above, combines three theses: a distinctness thesis, a metaphysical thesis and an epistemological thesis. The metaphysical thesis is the claim that moral facts are objective. If moral facts are independent in some way, what exactly is it that they are independent of? To say ‘independent of us’ is little help at best, and straightforwardly wrong at worst. Moral facts concern agents and actions, which are human matters, and so they are not completely independent of us; if we were different, different actions would be wrong. The phrasing used above, ‘independent of any beliefs and thoughts we might have about them’, attempts to be more precise, at the cost of excluding too much. Is the limitation involved in ‘about them’ justified? If not, what other limitation would be better? This matter is very difficult to resolve (see Values; Objectivity).

Realism, on this showing, is a complex of claims. The distinctness claim carves out a distinctive subject matter for ethics. The independence claim tells us something about the sort of fact that ethics is concerned with. The epistemological claim tells us that we have a less than perfectly secure grip on those facts. Moral realists have, however, generally been willing to say that we are capable of moral knowledge, even if we do not achieve it very often. They would all agree that are we capable of justified moral beliefs (if they are cognitivists).

Readers should be aware that the characterization of moral realism is a matter of hot debate. In particular, as well as the sort of account offered in the present entry, there is a form of realism that, taking its start from the claim that there are facts of the matter in ethics, and so moral truths, holds that there must therefore be ‘truth-makers’ – things that make the truths true. In the moral case, what makes moral truths true must be the possession of moral properties by suitable agents and actions. Realism, so understood, is the commitment to moral properties and relations as no less ‘real’ than other properties. It is possible, however, to combine these two strands of realist thinking without strain.

Citing this article:
Dancy, Jonathan. Realism, objectivism, cognitivism. Moral realism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L059-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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