A Companion to Ethics – Michael Smith (Moral Realism)

A Companion to Ethics

Ed. Peter Singer

Ch. 35: Moral Realism (Michael Smith)

Bibliographic data here.


Table of contents:

About the author:
“Michael Smith

The overall problem

The problem: facts that necessarily impact desires

The specific issues/problems

1. Objectivity
   A moral concern: getting the answers right
   Right answers presupposes correct moral answers exist
   That moral answers exist presupposes a moral domain
   Moral domain has (or moral answers in the domain have) certain character
   Character: identical circumstances produce same moral choice (i.e. circumstances determine moral

   Discovery of what’s right comes through reasoning/reasons
   Convergence of opinion = ‘objectivity’

2. Practicality: this objectivity motivates or obligates one to act
3. Metaphysical & psychological implications are opposite of each other
   Psychology involves two things
      Beliefs: subject to reality – external world (truth/falsehood)
      Desires: how the world is to be, not subject to reality-rational criticism (truth/falsehood)

      Some desires based upon other desires or beliefs (e.g. not be near a spider because of mistaken belief
      about odor)

      Desire can be criticized only if based on belief
         An action (judgment?) = product of:
            a. Belief about world
            b. Desire for how it is to be

4. Metaphysical : more facts exist than simply outcome (i.e. consequences), but moral facts themselves exist

5. Psychological: practicality and objectivity pull in opposite directions (objectivity involves belief based on fact, practicality involves judgments dependent upon desire)

   Desire and moral beliefs about moral facts separate, may not always agree
   Yet, making a moral judgment requires desire to do so, though metaphysical basis produces no desire
   This expression, e.g. “we ought to give to famine relief” is an expression of desire “Horray for giving….”

Contrasting moral realism, cognitivism, anti-realism, non-cognitivism, and nihilism

Moral realism & cognitivism: moral facts metaphysically exist (opposite = non-cognitivism/irrealism/anti-realism) vs. anti-realism & moral nihilism


Non-realist options

   |  Anti-realism (metaphysical) & non-cognitivism (psychological)
   |   Anti-realism: moral facts don’t exist and aren’t needed, desires all that matter, “Hooray for Y…”
   |   Versions of anti-realism: intuitionism, subjectivism, prescriptivism
   |   Goal of moral language: get others into same desire as us
   |  Moral nihilism: no moral facts, but because of this moral knowledge not possible


Problems with anti-realism:

   | 1. Desire not about external world, not objective, just emotive
   | 2. Practicality of judgment explained, but implausible to say moral claims not truth-assessable, makes
   |     ethics silly, e.g. assessment of desires
   | 3. Makes little sense of moral reflection
   | 4. Imposes our wants on others merely, looks immoral!

Characteristics and problems with realism

Characteristics of realism

Problems with realism

   1. Moral properties are “queer”: connect necessarily with will
   2. Practicality problem: nothing motivates one to act (since moral facts exist neutrally for us) so no
       explanation for moral reflection and argument

Problems with realism in-depth

Reasons for action = moral argument/reflection
Yet, more than reasons make up moral reasoning, so what are moral facts about?

|  One answer: must tend toward social stability or proper-function (Aristotelean) of human beings: moral fact |  is what we
|  have reason to do
|  Problem: realist must challenge accepted ‘standard’ psychological account of reason as desire/belief pair
|  without reference to ‘queer’ facts:

     | 1. Obvious that actions are based upon dispositions
     | 2. Dispositions have content: beliefs or desires (or a pair)
     |       a. Desire necessary to target desired state of affairs to produce: desires motivate actions
     |       b. Belief reflects way world is and must be also present

Solution to the realist problem

Solution to realist problem

   Problem with ‘standard’ account: conflates motives with reasons
   Desire to drown screaming baby doesn’t require a reason to drown the baby, therefore beyond rational
   criticism (desire beyond criticism) [impulse to jump off Grand Canyon]

   Rational ideal must be: to have desires we would have if cool, calm, and collected
   Explanation of no reason for drowning baby: because of rational ideal
   Judgments = about reasons for doing/not doing
   ‘A fact about a reason to do X’ = what we would desire in rational idealized conditions (calm and

       | Desires based upon belief in reasons to do such and such
       | Belief must represent what I would desire to do under idealized conditions (calm and informed)
       | Rational failure = not desiring to desire what I would believe in ideal circumstances
       | So, for realism, moral judgments do express belief about reasons we have

Problem with the solution

Problem with solution: would we all converge in opinion on what desires would be in ideal circumstances among more than one person in same situation? Answer: probably not, because ‘standard’ picture talks of desires being unpredictable

    Objectivity is a failure because same situation (universalizeability) doesn’t yield same moral judgment

Answer to the problem

Answer to the problem

   | 1. Point of moral education is to change people’s beliefs and therefore their desires
   | 2. Perhaps in proper environment with free reflection people would converge and objectivity would exist



Leave a reply