In Defense of Moral Realism (with Response to Criticism)
Recently Gil Sanders joined Philosophy for The People to offer a defense of moral realism. It was an engaging 2.5 hour episode, offering an excellent introduction to the field of ethics and competing theories therein. Even those critical of moral realism, such as YouTube user Just Questions, said how much they enjoyed the conversation. That tells me we did something right.
Nevertheless, Just Questions has posed several criticisms, to which I will now offer a response. Note that my responses are to the criticisms Questions aimed toward my side of the conversation. I will allow Gil to respond separately, if he wishes, to criticisms directed at him. For context, please watch the episode with Gil and read Just Questions concerns in the YouTube comment section (note: while time and personal policy does not typically permit me to respond to social media interaction, I am short on content this week with having a new baby and all, so here we are : )
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First, Just Questions wants to know what I find question begging or unsatisfactory about anti-realist arguments. Aside from my discussing the pressure coming from Darwinian counterfactuals, this specific remark was a brief aside about a general structure of response that often assumes having less things floating around in one’s ontology automatically results in a more theoretically virtuous theory that is simpler in relevant respects. But hold: Does it? The reason I find these responses often unsatisfactory is because they frequently assert greater simplicity with equal explanatory comprehensiveness without argument (for example, begging the question against what theists typically argue cannot be explained, in principle, by metaphysical naturalism, to give a neighboring example) or that, once the theory is examined, we discover that to maintain explanatory comprehensives vast amounts of auxiliary components have been wired in, greatly complicating the theory in ways that weren’t so obvious upfront.
Tim McGrew illustrates the point by suggesting the No Abe Lincoln Theory of History. That is, a theory of history that includes everything most people’s do, minus Abe Lincoln. He claims it explains just as much and is simpler — so, we should go with it. But hold on: that cannot be right, can it? Surely to keep up in explanatory comprehensiveness the No Abe Lincolnist must invoke all sorts of alternative explanations for what Abe Lincoln previously very easily explained — vast conspiracy theories, namely. But surely the construction of vast conspiracy theories complicates that hypothesis to the point of it being almost impossible to see as anything other than a joke. So while the No Abe Lincolnist may have one less entity bumping around in their ontology, their theory is, upon substantial analysis, neither simpler where it counts nor as explanatorily comprehensive. I would, of course, suggest a similar situation is often going on in worldview debates — something I’ve written about quite a bit, in fact. But since that is not central to my conversation with Gil, and was made as a brief aside, I simply wanted to clarify what I meant. Now, to move onto Just Questions more prominent concerns.
Just Questions ultimately thinks that the moral realist is begging the question in assuming (by saying it’s obvious) moral facts exist and that this negatively impacts the explanatory comprehensiveness of any anti-realist theory. Just Questions thinks this is like someone just saying it’s obvious Bigfoot exists and that any explanation of the world that doesn’t acknowledge Bigfoot is explanatorily inadequate.
But this is horribly disanalogous. For one, the majority of philosophers, last I checked, are moral realists.Now, I can’t say how many Bigfoot researchers are Bigfoot realists, but that’s because — at least to my knowledge — Bigfoot research is not a seriously scholarly field. Why is that? Aside from the possibility of Bigfoot having little practical bearing on our everyday human lives, this is probably because most people have no reason to think Bigfoot exists (unlike moral realists), and fairly good reason to think Bigfoot does not exist. What we would expect to see, if Bigfoot were real, is probably more than what we do see. It’s not just absence of evidence, but evidence of absence. Moral realists claim there is evidence for moral facts: minimally, intuition if not self-evidence.
Moral facts are more like consciousness or existence than Bigfoot.They are a datum that realists claim (and others implicitly operate as if) we have direct acquaintance with. Bigfoot is nothing like this. There is nothing in support of Bigfoot — especially intuition — that makes the comparison apt. Given our intuitive awareness of the moral realm and given how the vast majority of people act as if this moral realm is binding and real, and given how there are no good arguments against moral realism that aren’t driven by some prior (highly controversial) metaphysics (like physicalism) or epistemology (like scientism), of course any theory that cannot explain the moral realm is explanatorily inadequate. Just as eliminativist theories of consciousness or existence are explanatorily inadequate, if not incoherent. Indeed, I would argue that it is ultimately incoherent to deny moral realism, as well. (I must say also that Just Questions thinking moral realism is less plausible than Bigfoot is a remark he should not have made public.)
One other brief remark concerning the conflicted studies about people having realist vs. anti-realist intuitions.Here, one must ask how seriously anybody could take a psychological study purporting most people are moral anti-realists anymore than anybody could take seriously a psychological study claiming most people are eliminativists concerning consciousness or other minds. Let’s be serious: how people act in their everyday lives, at BLM protests, in response to abortion or climate change or the war in Ukraine; does anybody think this reflects anti-realist beliefs about morality, on all fours with disagreements about who the best metal band is? C’mon man.
Thus, if a psychological studied produced that outcome, you wouldn’t just suspect — you would know — that something is wrong with that study. No surprise then, as Thomas Polzter has argued, that studies in this field have been poorly conducted.
Moving on then.
Just Questions also disagrees with my response to Gil that a certain anti-realist response brought realism back in through the back door.
Gil’s original comment, apparently repeating something from a moral anti-realist, was this: “I’m more strongly against murdering babies than you are. Because if you found a moral fact that you ought to torture babies for fun, would you do it?”
Of course, if this argument has ever actually been used by an anti-realist, it is exceptionally weak, and something the Thomist would claim is impossible. But put that aside. Clearly, this assertion only has pull in the context of moral realism: the suggestion quite obviously being that it is (stance-independently) better to be more strongly against torturing and murdering babies, and that anti-realism provides a sturdier basis for that. Otherwise, what’s the point of such an assertion? Just Questions further misses the point with his remarks about gastronomic realism and suggesting that realists are mistaken to think anti-realists can’t use terms like good or better, etc. But I’m not aware of moral realists saying that. Of course realists note that anti-realists can use terms like good (as in, I desire something) or better (as in, I prefer something) in a sense that doesn’t commit them to moral realism. But that was not the context of Gil’s comment. Rather, Gil’s comment was like a common atheist attack you hear against Christianity: “See, my moral code is better because I can do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, not because I’m afraid God will send me to hell.”
Clearly, the above is an assumption of realism: that it is objectively (stance-independently, if you like) better to do the right thing because you recognize it is the right thing and desire to pursue it for the sake of it itself rather than fear of punishment. Gil’s comment — which should have been obvious from his hypothetically alternatively moral fact scenario — is parallel to that, so Just Questions response fails.
Well, that about does it. While I appreciate Just Questions engagement, his criticisms fall wide of the mark. In a future post, I will commend resources for those wanting to go further in these debates. In the meantime, you may enjoy two of my popular level articles concerning moral realism here and here.
UPDATE: Gil has issued his own response here.
For starters: https://www.amazon.com/Ethical-Intuitionism-M-Huemer/dp/0230573746
Equally, Questions alter comment about being realists concerning ghosts and pixies is either disanalogous or question begging. It is disanalogous to the extent that while people have basic beliefs about the existence of other minds, the external world, moral facts, and God, most do not have any basic belief in pixies, as in little magical elves. If, however, the claim is that people have basic beliefs about the existence of spiritual entities (which is another way of understanding pixie), then the objection is question begging, because (as many would contend) there are good reasons to think general spiritual entities exist – for example, angels. These reasons might extend through revelation or philosophical reflection or both. Either way, if general spiritual entities do exist, then our seemings about spiritual realities are broadly accurate, and what might be the case is that error is creeping in at the level of interpretation (are the entities angels, ghosts, pixies, gods, or… ?). But of course that is no problem for moral realists, so the objection falls flat.
Notice that, contrary to Just Questions claim, Poltzers’ review of the literature indicates a favoring of moral realism, though he is critical of how these studies in this field are conducted, “At the beginning many researchers claimed that the studies support a tendency towards realism. Goodwin and Darley, for example, summed up the findings of their influential 2008 study as follows: “Individuals seem to identify a strong objective component to their core ethical beliefs […]. Arguably, many of our participants viewed their ethical beliefs as true in a mind-independent way” (2008: 1359; see also, e.g., Joyce 2006: 129–130). More recently, in contrast, people have been thought rather to favor realism with regard to some moral sentences and anti-realism with regard to others — depending on factors such as their openness to alternative moral views and their perceptions of consensus (e.g., Goodwin and Darley 2012; Pölzler 2017; Wright et al. 2013, 2014).”
What do you think about Moore's open question? Given any ought "out there", one can non trivially ask if it ought to be the case that they follow the ought "out there"
Part 4 of 4:
//Just Questions further misses the point with his remarks about gastronomic realism and suggesting that realists are mistaken to think anti-realists can’t use terms like good or better, etc. But I’m not aware of moral realists saying that. Of course realists note that anti-realists can use terms like good (as in, I desire something) or better (as in, I prefer something) in a sense that doesn’t commit them to moral realism. But that was not the context of Gil’s comment.//
It wasn’t Gil’s comment, it was yours. You said this at 47:30:
“Right, but notice, notice right there there’s an assumption of a better in the background of that. Right? [...] This is what you have to be so careful of in these types of conversations, there’s moral realism right in the background of that counter.”
If you weren’t suggesting that my use of moral language somehow implied moral realism, then what did you mean? Because that sure looks like what you said.
//Rather, Gil’s comment was like a common atheist attack you hear against Christianity: “See, my moral code is better because I can do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, not because I’m afraid God will send me to hell.”//
No, you are mistaken. Gil was describing my views, not a common atheist attack against Christianity. So the context of Gil’s remark was an attempt to paraphrase my own views, not someone else’s. I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I have a better understanding of what I said and what I meant than you or Gil, and what you describe here doesn’t reflect the point I was making, and that Gil was describing. I do not think it’s the case that my moral code is “better” than a Christian’s because I do the right thing “because it’s the right thing.”
//Clearly, the above is an assumption of realism: that it is objectively (stance-independently, if you like) better to do the right thing because you recognize it is the right thing and desire to pursue it for the sake of it itself rather than fear of punishment.//
Even if that were true, that’s nothing like what I said or what I meant, so no, nothing I said committed me to realism. If you’d like to hear what my point was straight from me, I’d be happy to explain what my point was. It in no way presupposes realism.
//Gil’s comment — which should have been obvious from his hypothetically alternatively moral fact scenario — is parallel to that, so Just Questions response fails.//
Were you not aware that the entire context of that part of the discussion was Gil describing my views? I am the Lance he was referring to. It’s incredibly bizarre to have you try to explain to me why I misinterpreted the context, when the context is effectively a discussion of what I myself had said. What I said isn’t parallel to the scenario you describe, and nothing I said presumes realism. I don’t know where, exactly, Gil is paraphrasing me from, but we can try to find what I said, we can quote it verbatim, and you could explain to me how what I said presumes realism.
Mandik, P. (2016). Meta-illusionism and qualia quietism. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23(11-12), 140-148.
Pölzler, T. (2017). Revisiting folk moral realism. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 8(2), 455-476.
Pölzler, T. (2018). How to measure moral realism. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 9(3), 647-670.
Pölzler, T., & Wright, J. C. (2019). Empirical research on folk moral objectivism. Philosophy Compass, 14(5), e12589. https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12589.
Pölzler, T., & Cole Wright, J. C. (2020a). An empirical argument against moral non-cognitivism. Inquiry, 1-29. https://doi.org/10.1080/0020174X.2020.1798280
Pölzler, T., & Wright, J. C. (2020b). Anti-realist pluralism: A new approach to folk metaethics. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 11(1), 53-82.