Like with many things in the realm of metaphysics, there is much we will never know for absolute certainty given that we can never get out of our own minds or five senses. This should bring us to a place of humility, I believe. Nonetheless, I believe that we are justified in holding to moral realism for several reasons. Let me make my case. I will also examine and respond to a few common arguments moral relativists pose against moral realism.
Moral realism holds that certain acts are either objectively good or evil in of themselves. In other words, rape and torture is always objectively evil. Feeding the poor and looking after the vulnerable is an objective good. Rape is always an objective evil even if the entire world was of the opinion that rape was a good thing and perhaps somehow contributed to the flourishing of our species. For something to be objectively evil, human consensus and opinion is irrelevant. Alternatively, a moral relativist will argue that morals are simply human conventions; we make up morals. Objective morality then doesn’t exist, there is no standard, or law, that applies to all people, of all cultures, and at all times. Thus, on this view rape is not evil in of itself, rather it is simply one’s opinion that it is evil. For the relativist we happen to live in a society that just collectively views rape as a moral evil.
I believe that moral relativism falls short. Firstly, we can hold to moral realism on the grounds of our overwhelming moral experience. This I contend is a warranted belief until we have been provided with a defeater which could come in the form of a skeptic undermining our ability to comprehend a realm of objective moral values.
Interestingly most people, skeptics of moral realism too, would say that the majority of us human beings will at least experience this “force” or “pressure” telling us that some things are morally evil as opposed to good, or vice versa. After all, one’s bound to receive a bunch of nodding heads if he or she inquires of an audience if senicide or rape is morally evil. Of course the skeptic, however, will say this is illusory even though it indeed feels very real. For example, naturalistic philosopher Michael Ruse calls this force an illusion, saying that “ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate” (1).
However, this hardly provides a defeater and Ruse also commits a logical fallacy. Firstly, it is helpful to draw a succinct analogy to objective realism. An objective realist, as I am certain you are, is one who believes that the external world exists. In other words, the chair you are sitting on or the bed in which you lay exists as opposed to being a figment of your imagination. But like with moral realism we cannot actually get outside of our five senses, or outside of our own mind, to verify this belief. As the philosopher David Hume once saw, if we tried to verify the existence of the external world using our human reason we would be arguing in a circle, and thus commit a fallacy. The point being, however, is that we all hold to the belief that the external world of physical objects exists. Why? Simply because our experience tells us so, though this is ultimately a belief based on faith. This is a belief that philosophers will call properly basic. Such a belief is one that we don’t need additional evidence or proof for given our overwhelming experience of the world. Thus, the skeptic who challenges such a belief needs to shoulder the burden of proof and provide a defeater.
It is in this same way that our moral experience is very powerful. It is true that since we cannot prove moral realism, we must exercise a leap of faith in our affirmation of it. However, we believe that we have sound reasons, namely our moral experience, for doing so. In this way moral realism can be considered to be properly basic. We could cite other reasons that would support this notion, for example, the fact that the same basic standards of morality exists universally across human cultures (that murder, theft are morally wrong), and that those who deny objective morality live and act as if it really exists, which leads one to wonder if moral relativists actually exist at all. The skeptic is therefore obligated to provide a defeater until which we are warranted in our belief that objective morality exists.
Further, we need to consider some of the important responses that skeptics have made.
As previously stated, it is clear that Ruse commits a fallacy. On Ruse’s view “Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection” (2). Thus evolution is what instilled into us the need to act morally because of its benefit to us. However, Ruse commits the genetic fallacy because he attempts to explain objective morality by how human beings came to know it. Ruse thus confuses moral ontology with moral epistemology. The former considers the nature of morality (is it objective or not?) while the latter concerns how we come to know of it. It might very well be the case that evolution instilled moral awareness within us but that objective morality still yet exists. If you entertain this theologically it makes sense. If a Creator created its creatures via the evolutionary process and wanted them to become aware of morality it would make sense that he/she/it would use evolution to achieve that end (3). Ruse’s argument is thus analogous to arguing that Islam is a false religion because a boy is a Muslim as a result of being born in Saudi Arabia. Where the boy was geographically born has nothing to do with the truth value of his religion; in the same way how we came to know of morality says nothing about whether or not it exists objectively. If successful, at most Ruse’s argument would prove that our perception of objective moral values has evolved, not that it doesn’t exist.
Another argument might concern those who do not comprehend morality. Think of the sociopath who feels nothing when s/he witnesses pain inflicted on other creatures. Might this prove that objective morality does not exist? No, not nearly. To believe that objective morality exists does not mean one has to assume that our moral experience and moral reasoning is always perfect in the same way that to believe that the external world exists means that everyone must be able to comprehend it accurately at all times. The external world still exists even if there are people who have sense perception issues, experience hallucinations, or who are blind. Thus, in the same way objective morality exists even if there are people walking about unable to experience it.
A third argument I have come across concerns the grey areas. These areas being where making moral decisions are actually quite difficult. Think of the fat man test that forces one to engage a challenging scenario. For example, would you push the fat man off of the bridge and into the path of an oncoming train if you fully knew that it would save the lives of the three children on the railway who would otherwise perish? Or do you refuse to push the fat man and avoid implicating yourself altogether? This is a grey area, and people would obviously disagree and rationalize their answers differently. However, as a challenge against objective morality this is weak. Why? Because it actually assumes that morality is objective. Everyone confronted with the fat man scenario reasons and comes to a conclusion on the basis of morality, independent of their conclusion. Maybe the morally superior act is to push the fat man off of the ledge even though it would undoubtedly end his life. Maybe one cannot bear the moral evil of knowingly killing someone even though doing so would save more lives.
So, what should we make of all this? Given our moral experience and the shortcomings of the skeptic’s explanations that attempt to undermine objective morality, it is far more likely that it actually exists. And on that end I ought to consider myself a moral realist.
1. Ruse, M. 1985. “Evolution and Ethics” in New Scientist. p. 51-52.
2. Ruse, M. 2010. God is dead. Long live morality. Available.
3. Copan, P. “My Genes Made Me Do It”: Is Ethics Based on Biological Evolution?