The Unreality of Moral Realism: Moral Realism is a Category Mistake and yet Morality is Real
by Brian Sage Poplin
As a post-institution philosopher, I need to be blunt—the hour is too late to be charitable to stupid ideas. Perhaps an academically employed philosopher wouldn't dare. Here and there, about my philosophical education, both formal and informal, I have come across a strain of philosophically-tinged ideology that is as untrue as it is irritating. I am tired of both the typical unconvincing defenses for this position and the necessary retorts that obliterate its standing as something possible or even necessary. Moral realism is just that stance.
Moral realism is a philosophical position that asserts the existence of objective moral facts (yes, facts). According to moral realists, moral statements have truth values that are independent of human beliefs, attitudes, or cultural norms. However, once and for all, I will here argue that moral realism, as a concept, is nothing more than a category mistake—an error in understanding the nature of morality and its relation to what we would consider observable, and testable, empirical fact. Beyond my silly-making of this position, I will additionally discuss why it isn't all that important for moral facts to be woven into reality and why many philosophers are compelled into this stream of thinking despite it being fallacious and highly ideological. I will innumerate the failings of moral realism while also pointing out a specific case in which one of the widest possible applications of morality, one still well short of independence from human subjectivity and still uncategorizable as fact, is highly controversial amongst moral realists.
To comprehend why moral realism can be considered a category mistake, it is crucial to understand its core tenets. Moral realism posits that moral truths are objective, universal, and, perhaps to the dismay of many moral realists, discoverable. Although compelling arguments for the reality of moral facts are lacking, philosophers of varied ilks have identified that: Even if moral facts were real, it is unknown to us how we would come to know them. In fact, not a single moral fact has been identified by any moral realist throughout all known history. Most people of sound judgment would say this means that they are undiscoverable, yet the moral realists persist. Beyond what many might consider a critical failure of an idea, moral realism suggests that moral judgments correspond to objective facts about the world, much like, if not identical to, empirical facts in the natural sciences. Moral realists insist that there are moral properties inherent in the fabric of reality and that moral facts can be discovered through reason or empirical investigation, or, perhaps something else that they might be afraid to say publicly. That last and final means of knowing? You may have guessed it, special knowledge delivered via divine revelation. That's right. Ideology has entered chat. Religion is what necessitates moral fact. Strangely, even the very vocal atheist Sam Harris has believed in the necessity of moral facts.
So, now to ask, why exactly is it that a single moral fact has not yet been identified? Could it be that they don't exist? Or could it be that the ascription of something like the “necessary attributes of fact” to something that pertains to human subjectivity and opinion does not make sense in a technical manner?
A category mistake occurs when one ascribes characteristics or attributes of one category to another category where they do not belong. In the case of moral realism, the mistake lies in treating moral judgments as if they are on par with empirical claims or facts about the natural world. Whilst it may be errorsome to assume that moral facts can be objectively discovered and verified in the same way as empirical facts, the requirements of special knowledge delivered by divine revelation would appear to be a highly dubious means of discovery in comparison, one that may even be, dare I say, completely subjective. Morality, unlike the natural world, is a product of human normative systems and social constructions. Moral judgments are shaped by a complex interplay of cultural, historical, psychological, and individual factors. Subjectively, an act one may feel guilt for, another may find glee. Yet referencing even one supposedly divinely inspired text renders many varied interpretations of the spectrum regarding good and evil. While moral judgments may be influenced by universal principles like empathy or fairness, the application of these principles varies across cultures and individuals. The moral conclusions of one rational person may contradict the moral conclusions of another. The diversity and subjectivity of moral beliefs suggest that morality is a human construct rather than an objective, discoverable facet of reality.
The failings of moral realism are numerous in arenas where something-like-fact should otherwise be clearly discernible and, well, factual. First, moral realism faces a fundamental challenge known as the "dependency problem." If moral facts are somehow objective and independent of human beliefs, how do we explain the wide range of moral disagreements and variations across cultures and individuals? Different societies have developed diverse moral codes and ethical frameworks that often contradict one another. If moral realism were accurate, there should be a convergence towards a single moral truth, yet this is not the case. The existence of moral diversity points to the subjective and contingent nature of moral judgments. Secondly, the non-intuitive nature of potential moral realism runs contrary to what many moral realists find acceptable. A powerful example of this is Peter Singer's essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” which would appear to successfully argue that ordinary people are evil for acquiring luxuries while others are starving and without. If most moral realists would disagree with the conclusion of what seems to be the widest possible application of morality, then there is a fundamental problem with the way they are viewing facts, morality, and their very definitions. While changing the definitions of these words is not uncommon among the defenses of moral realists, a more honest approach might be to say that we are discussing categories that are not yet so easily defined, and yet moral realists are unlikely to make such concessions because those who are requiring of authority know they should not kneel to uncertainty. Thus the moral realist feigns certainty and their arguments become brittle enough to shatter at the lightest glance. So much is this the case that I have had moral realists tell me that I don't understand how to use the terms “fact” or “moral”.
Yet another factor demonstrating the lacking of moral realism is the need of many supporters to lean on consensus rather than fact itself. As we know, consensus is not fact, and while consensus may be valuable in many areas of human negotiation, its value relative to fact is nil. The majority of philosophers being moral realists is unimportant in the face of the fact that moral facts are yet to be identified. The consensus has need of arising given that the 56% of “philosophers” who claim to be moral realists have been brought to tenure via funded PhD programs offered by “impartial” religious and/or theologically-minded institutions. Being that these institutions are not a disinterested party means that they have indeed selected from a pool of potential educators that are ideologically aligned with their own motives and interests. Again, the number of fully-funded Philosophy PhD programs are not increasing via science-based schools, but they remain steady where religion is a consideration.
Now for the turn.
As much as moral realists attempt to assert the existence of moral facts, I am here to plainly state, morality need not be factual to have value and importance to human beings. In the manner of which morality is non-factual does not, despite detractors being called moral anti-realists, make morality any less real. The plain fact that our moral and ethical values and standards are created by us is part of both their beauty and their strength. Critiquing moral realism does not imply an abandonment of ethics or the dismissal of the importance of moral considerations in our lives; it does however undermine the ideological slant of theists to assert their religious worldview. Ethics can still provide valuable guidance and help us to navigate complex moral dilemmas without the need for objective moral truths installed within the fabric of our reality by some deity. Ethical systems can be grounded in empathy, compassion, reason, and the recognition of human well-being, without assuming the existence of a universal moral reality. Disagreements are still likely to happen.
In writing this paper, I have a sense that authority, and again special knowledge, is of utmost importance to moral realists despite them having no such angle in reality. Again, as someone who has built worlds of fantasy, rules do tend to be important for coherence, however, those rules must, at some point, be known. We continuously graze notions of potential truths in these categories, however, the definitions and standards need to become too fluid and flexible for a moral realist's taste to become realizable. Sadly, something like an underpinning of existential requirements could likely be identified as being of value to sentient beings, but the moral realist is far too concerned with being right to have that conversation.
In conclusion, moral realists commit a category mistake by treating moral judgments as if they are akin to objective empirical facts or items of measurable truth value. Morals can exist without being facts. The subjective and culturally contingent nature of morality, coupled with the dependency problem, the distinct lack of discoverability, the motives of institutional education, and the cunning of ideological marketing challenges the assumption of moral realism as reality. Recognizing the limitations of moral realism opens the door to alternative perspectives that acknowledge the subjective and contextual nature of morality. While dismissing the existence or necessity of moral facts outright, we can still appreciate the importance, value and diversity of moral viewpoints and engage in meaningful ethical discourse without relying on illusory claims of objective moral truths which are more ideological than philosophical.