SuperUser Account / Friday, January 31, 2020 / Categories: Intro To Ethics Intro to Meta-Ethics: Moral Realism vs Anti Realism Is morality fixed or flexible? We begin this discussion with a simple story. A freelance writer agrees to write an article introducing moral realism and moral anti-realism, mortal adversaries if ever there were. He fancies himself well read on philosophy but there is so much philosophy out there. And to be perfectly honest the only time he has heard these terms before was at the pub. Our writer friend attempted to end a somewhat circular discussion of religion; he sighed and said “we all find out when we die so we’ll have to live with that,'' his friend replied “well that’s moral realism for you.” Said writer’s questionable taste in analogies notwithstanding, his one superpower is the ability to do homework. And if you asked him he would claim that learning is the most moral pursuit anybody can engage in. One headache inducing crash course later and he still didn’t really understand the world of moral realism and anti-realism but he had learned about useful terms for framing and differentiating moral claims. And if you can spare him five minutes of your time so will you. Moral Realism - If you are right then you’re right morally. You can always rely on a good subtitle to drastically oversimplify something. Now imagine that statement were made as a moral claim. If we could determine, based on all the available evidence, that every use of a subtitle does drastically oversimplify the topic it refers to then that moral claim is true. At least from the perspective of a moral realist. Perhaps then we might debate whether oversimplifying something is morally wrong or we could abandon this analogy before it breaks down any further. But before we do we should note the working definition of moral realism. A moral claim can be seen as a sincere attempt to characterise the world, and is functionally true if the facts on which it is allegedly based appear to be true. Based on that definition most of us would be moral realists for the simple reason that we believe in what we believe is true. That’s all well and good, assuming that it is possible to make moral claims about the world and you believe they can be objectively quantified. If you disagree on that point then you’re a moral anti-realist. Or you could also be a moral relativist or a non emotive prescriptive ethicist or an error the…. It was about this point in the research that our intrepid writer developed a nose bleed and realised he might need to back up a little. Meta Ethics - Breaking the Ethical Fourth Wall Think of ethical theories as characters in a film. Meta-ethics fills the role of film critics. Identifying, codifying and comparing what they see, rarely discovering deeper truths but greatly aiding the rest of us to decide how we’ll spend our weekend. Reading film criticism will not by itself make you a good filmmaker, and studying meta-ethics alone will not make you a good person. It is rather a way of identifying, codifying and comparing theories ethics or moral claims. It is also an umbrella term encompassing other umbrella terms which vary in how they define moral claims, who they focus on as moral claimant or actor, and even the extent to which those claims are considered to reflect reality. As you can see on this graph it is a veritable rabbit hole of varied umbrella terms. Each new branch exploring subtly different ways to approach ethics. The important point is that moral realism and moral anti-realism are not two sides of a single coin but rather different points in an interconnected network. Anti-Realism - That’s Just Your Opinion, Man For the anti-realist, our intrepid writer cannot make moral claims as if they are observing some objective reality. He can only reflect his own responses to the world he lives in. A.J Ayer would translate our writer’s claim to the value of learning as functionally no different from saying ‘I enjoy doing homework’. Because the only part of that claim that has any bearing on objective reality is the implication that people should learn. Ayer, a founding emotivist, would likely argue that this comes from our writer friend’s emotional attitude to learning. A prescriptivist would agree with the emotivist in their non-cognitivist premise. But instead of reflecting emotional attitudes, a prescriptivist positions moral claims as nothing more than attempts to control the behaviour of others. A prescriptivist would hear in our writer’s claim only the words ‘I want people to do their homework’. After all our writer is just one man with faculties as limited as any other. And his beliefs would likely be alien to someone from a different context. This is the problem with attempting to approach morality objectively. Two people from different contexts might both consider themselves moral realists and yet uphold completely different moral ‘truths’. What one may state as a fact another may dismiss as mere opinion. Anti-realism avoids this problem by shifting the goalposts away from objective moral truth. Instead asking why a claim to moral truth was made in the first place. Relativism - Just Who Are You To Make Moral Claims Anyway? We have now slid sideways on the network from moral anti-realism to relativism. The difference is subtle but important. A relativist is still a cognitivist, meaning moral claims are sincere claims to them. But like an anti-realist he also rejects the potential for moral claims to be objectively true, due to the extreme variability of moral claims in different contexts. To go back to our intrepid writer and his moral claim. We could look at his moral framework and ask what lead him to make it. That would be speaker-relativism. We could also ask how well he practices what he preaches. That is action relativism. And these questions sound very similar to anti-realist objections, so what’s the difference? Merely that the relativist recognises that our writer can, and has, made a sincere attempt to characterise the world. You must still acknowledge a claim in order to question it, because the framework for questioning offered by relativism is examining claims in context. The good news is you can still be a cognitivist and reject the truth of every moral claim in or out of context. Anyone else have a nosebleed yet? It’s Time to Talk About Error Theory The founding premise of error theory is that everybody is wrong about morality because nobody can be wholly right. It is a cognitivist approach to ethics that allows for moral claims to be sincere, but anti-realist in that it denies those claims any chance of being true. So if meta-ethics are film critics then error theory despises every film he sees, though not enough to stop seeing them. The term important term here is ‘truth-value’. An error theorist sees moral claims as having truth-value even if they cannot be true. They become ‘arguments from relativity’ as a result. Meaning our writer friend can never make a moral claim that is more than relatively true compared to different claims in different contexts. But the relative truth he does espouse about the value of learning still has value. So that's moral realism and anti-realism for you. How does any of this help an individual make better ethical choices? Well it’s unlikely to help with a trolley problem if that’s what you’re asking. However for studying ethical theories and reacting to moral claims it is extremely useful. Firstly because it provides ready made questions of any absolutist claim and second, because the argument from relativity provides a step of detachment from any debate. If all moral claims are no more than relatively true there is no point in arguing about what is true. It shifts the framework to one of debate between relative equals to see whose claim is most appropriate in context. Recommended reading Ayer, A. J., 1946. “A Critique of Ethics,” in Language, Truth and Logic, London: Gollanz, 102–114. Fischer, A., 2011. Meta-Ethics; An Introduction. McGill Queens University Press Joyce, R., 2001. The Myth of Morality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Mackie, J. J., 1990 Ethics; Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguine UK. Intro To Normative Ethics How Do We Measure Well-Being? Print 14478 Rate this article: 4.0 Please login or register to post comments.