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Moral RealismReview - Moral Realism
by Kevin DeLapp
Bloomsbury Academic, 2013
Review by László Kocsis
Apr 1st 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 14)

We think ourselves as moral beings: some of us are good persons, while others are bad. These evaluations depend on our actions; we classify them as right or wrong. What is the connection between moral properties and our deliberate actions? When we say that actions have particular moral properties, what do we actually do: do we represent moral facts or just express our emotions or attitudes? Are there moral values and facts at all? If there are, how can we get knowledge of them? These are hard questions but not unanswerable.

No doubt when we evaluate actions in ordinary talk we use declarative sentences containing moral terms (e.g. 'killing innocent people is wrong' or 'saving a drowning child is good'), and if we take them at face value, it seems that we describe facts and ascribe properties, namely moral facts and moral properties. Does this mean that there are moral facts in our world? Moral realists maintain that we have good reasons to say 'yes'. In the newest book in the Bloomsbury Ethics Series, Kevin DeLapp collects these reasons and presents and defends a strong form of moral realism.

Moral realism is a metaethical view. In metaethics, we do not answers particular moral questions or solve particular moral dilemmas but try to understand, among others, those metaphysical, epistemological and semantical assumptions on which our moral discourse, thought and practice are based. When they make an attempt at elucidating the fundamental grounds of morality, moral realists maintain that we have true moral claims which are used to describe real and objective moral facts, and we have epistemic access to such facts.

Despite its intuitiveness, moral realism seems untenable, or at least there is no easy road to it. Firstly DeLapp points out why moral realism is not a popular metaethical position. He emphasizes that this world is "disenchanted" and mentions three sources of this disenchantment: religious contestation, cultural diversity and materialistic or naturalistic world-view. Of course, these phenomena are not inevitably bad in themselves, though they trammel the tenability of moral realism. "In a disenchanted world, moral realism cannot be blithely taken for granted―it must be actively argued for. The question this book seeks to address, then, is this: can morality survive the modernist gauntlet of secularism, scientism, and pluralism and emerge as a distinctive sphere of meaning with some anchorage in our conception of »reality«?" (6) DeLapp is optimistic and says that "this book will attempt to articulate how moral realism can »re-enchant« morality as a distinctive sphere of meaning." (8)

DeLapp has two main goals with this book: giving a correct definition of moral realism and defending it from its main challenges. In chapter 2, moral realism is characterized roughly as the view that moral facts and values are genuine parts of reality and have mind- and language-independent, or, as DeLapp says, stance-independent existence, and when we make a moral judgment, we believe in a truth-apt moral proposition and some moral statements are literally true. Advocates of moral realism agree with this characterization, but in this book, DeLapp argues for a special kind of moral realism which has two main aspects: it is naturalistic and pluralistic. Its details get through to readers in those chapters where DeLapp defends moral realism against its main theoretical challenges.

How can moral realism be naturalistic? In chapter 3, where he is concerned with the biggest metaphysical challenges, DeLapp elucidates his naturalistic moral realism and defends it against, among others, Moore's Open Question Argument against the definability of 'good', which says that moral terms cannot be synonymous or cointensive with non-moral terms therefore if someone is a moral realist, she should be an ethical non-naturalist. The trouble with non-naturalistic moral realism is that it leaves the existence of morality in this world unexplained. It is true that the moral-natural reduction cannot be co-intensional but it needs not: DeLapp's argues for a special formulation of naturalistic moral realism which allows that moral is reducible to non-moral in the extensional sense. If it is possible, the reduction is coextensive. Of course, identifying the natural or non-moral properties on which moral properties depend is not an aim of this book; DeLapp tries to underpin the possibility of this reduction and give an answer to the metaphysical questions pertaining to the nature of moral entities. Herein DeLapp follows John McDowell and adheres to the claim that moral properties are dispositional properties with the same ontological status as colors have. "The color red, for example, might be understood as the disposition of an object to produce in an observer »red« perceptions in appropriate epistemic situations. (…) By analogy, moral properties could similarly exist as powers to produce corresponding moral reactions in appropriately situated or constituted agents." (54) This kind of dispositional moral realism is a good attempt to establish the stance-independent existence of morality without falling into objectivism, "the view that moral properties exist in a way, that makes no reference to any features of agents whatsoever." (52) Reference to moral agents when characterizing the way in which moral properties exist does not mean that the existence of these properties depends on moral agents in any sense.

After he laid down the metaphysical and ontological grounds of moral realism, DeLapp adverts to other challenges. Besides metaphysical problems, moral realists must confront anthropological, psychological and epistemological challenges (chapter 4-6). The most burning one is the anthropological fact of cross-cultural moral disagreement which seems to be sustained by metaethical relativism, the greatest rival of moral realism. This kind of moral relativism maintains that moral disagreement between different cultures, the existence of which is an undeniable empirical fact, is due to the lack of stance-independent moral values and facts. DeLapp's realist way out is original: he argues that from moral dissidence we should not arrive at the conclusion that there is no stance-independent moral value; we can still say there are many values. Even if it is not a clean-cut assumption, the commitment to plural goods is compatible with robust realism about morality.

This naturalistic-pluralistic moral realism needs to handle two interesting questions about psychological and epistemic connections between belief- and evidence-independent moral values and moral agents. 1. How can moral values engage our will and morally motivate our actions? 2. How can we have any epistemic access to the moral part of reality to justify our moral beliefs? Regarding the psychology of moral realism (chapter 5), DeLapp confronts the internalist conceptions which claim that our moral judgments have inherent motivational power. On the one hand, motivational internalism cannot be reconciled with moral realism since it is widely agreed that desires and not beliefs motivate us to act and this does not promote the truth-aptness of moral judgments. On the other hand, DeLapp gives us independent reasons to reject internalism and accept an externalist view concerning the motivation and justification of actions. DeLapp's externalism holds that morality can motivate or give reasons to act if we have non-moral antecedent desires. He points out that morality does not always motivate us, e.g. in the cases of weakness of will or morally conscious amoralist sociopaths. In chapter 6 he presents the epistemology of moral realism. DeLapp argues for a noninferentialist version of ethical intuitionism modeled on visual perception. According to this view we have a moral belief because it is inferred from other belief(s); moral beliefs are "self-evident", i.e. we simply "see" or morally perceive them. To morally perceive them it needs to be the case that some features of a situation can and should be interpreted as morally salient. DeLapp emphasizes that the "self-evident" character of intuitively recognized moral beliefs does not imply that they are true. It just means that they cannot be justified by appealing to other beliefs; they are epistemologically foundational beliefs. But how can such self-evidence of moral beliefs fit in with huge moral dissonance experienced in the world? Here is DeLapp's answer: "If ethical intuitions are exclusively particular (i.e. if we only ever intuit what is right or wrong to do in specific situations), then intuitionists can allow for disagreement at the level of general moral principles since such principles are not self-evident." (132)

Finally, DeLapp's book concludes with a chapter where he shows that when thinking about certain moral dilemmas and debates (about tolerance and human rights) his realist approach about pluralistic goods can be used to offer favorable frameworks to understand these problems and show possible ways out by taking steps to re-enchant morality as a distinctive sphere of meaning.

In his book, DeLapp tries to defend his moral realism against less tenable (non-)naturalistic moral realisms and various forms of moral antirealism or irrealism, like Mackie's error theory or expressivist non-cognitivism. The only thing I miss in defense DeLapp offers is that he does not take new versions of moral fictionalism into consideration, like hermeneutic moral fictionalism, one of the most recent metaethical challengers of moral realism (see Mark Eli Kalderon: Moral Fictionalism, OUP, 2005). According to this kind of moral fictionalism, moral judgments have representational contents, but our attitude towards them is not that of belief but that of make-belief (or acceptance without belief).

This book is more than a good and useful introduction to arguments for and against moral realism. DeLapp offers a plausible and supportable realistic conception. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to become familiar with contemporary metaethical issues and the ways in which they can be solved while maintaining a robust moral realism as a lively option.

 

© 2014 László Kocsis

 

László Kocsis is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pecs, Hungary.


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