welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Necessity of Moral Realism

According to M.E. Fox and A.C.F.A. d’Avalos, logic dictates that at least some moral propositions must be true.

“Eating people is wrong” is an indicative moral proposition rather than an imperative moral statement such as “you ought not to eat people”. Indicative moral propositions like “eating people is wrong” are meaningful and are truth-assessable. All this means is that the statement “eating people is wrong” is either true or false. All indicative moral propositions, if they are meaningful, are either true or false. Moral realism is the theory that at least one indicative moral propositions is true. If any ethical claim of the form “x is right” or “x is wrong” is true, then ethics is objective. The moral sceptic, however, thinks that his view is more ‘realistic’ than moral realism. He believes that although all meaningful moral ‘is’ claims are either true or false, the truth of the matter is that all moral claims are in fact false. A systematic ‘error’ occurs because the properties to which indicative moral propositions refer do not exist.

An Argument for Moral Realism

The argument we shall advance in this paper is quite simple. It’s that the meaningfulness of moral language presupposes the objective existence of moral properties. That is, if moral claims are the sort of statements that can be in the first place either true or false, then it follows that some of them are in fact true. In other words, that moral scepticism is false.

The argument for this conclusion begins with a tautology, a statement that is necessarily true because it is logically impossible that it is false. For instance, the tautology “all husbands are married men” is just true by definition. The tautology in question is: Either [either P or Q] or [not-P and not-Q]. This is trivially true. Whatever x is, it is either going to be P or it’s going to be Q or it’s going to be neither P nor Q. Of course, P and Q are individual propositions rather than properties of x, but it gets the point across.

The relevance of this tautology to ethics is revealed when P and Q are substituted by indicative moral propositions. In this case, P = “eating people is right” and, Q = “eating people is wrong”. The tautology can now be transformed into a true statement that has some relevance to the real world: Either [either “eating people is right” or “eating people is wrong”] or [“eating people is not right” and “eating people is not wrong”] which of course means the same as, either “eating people is right” or “eating people is wrong” or “eating people is neither right nor wrong”.

The moral sceptic, however, holds that all moral propositions are false. It follows from this, if the sceptic is correct, that both P and Q are false because they are moral propositions. This in turn entails the truth of [not-P and not-Q] because the tautology in question is true. The sceptic therefore has to conclude that “eating people is neither right nor wrong”. This means the same as “eating people is not a moral issue”.

The sceptic can allow that some statements which use moral language are true. That is, he can accept the truth of the claim that eating people is not a moral issue because it is an amoral claim rather than a moral claim.

However, the sceptic holds that it is not only the activity of eating people that is neither right nor wrong. Rather, he holds that all actions are amoral. No moral issues exist. All is amorality.

Unfortunately, as it stands, the sceptic’s position is literally meaningless. The terms ‘moral’ and ‘amoral’ are classificatory devices. They exist as categories into which actions and activities and even people are sorted. (In what follows, the discussion is restricted, for the sake of simplicity, to actions and the category ‘moral’ is assumed to include the category of immorality as well as that of morality). All actions, then, fall under one or other of the two headings ‘moral’ and ‘amoral’. The meaning of the terms in question is constituted by the contrast that exists between the categories; the concepts are bi-polar in that the existence of one classificatory device on its own is a senseless idea. They are meaningful if and only if a contrast exists between them and this obviously requires that they both exist. ‘Amorality’ is defined by the contrast with its corollary ‘morality’ and vice versa. Without the meaningfulness provided by the existence of a competing category, an individual would not, even in principle, be able to understand what it is that is meant when an action is assigned to the category.

In the light of these considerations, the sceptic’s view that all is amorality appears rather fragile. All actions fall into the category of amorality while the category of morality is empty. The problem is that an empty category is a nonexistent category. The meaningfulness of the terms in question is constituted by the existence of a contrast between them. The contrast is realised by the correct use of both categories or it is not realised at all. For the sceptic, this contrast does not exist.

The logical consequence of this is that the claim that “all actions are amoral” is senseless. If it says anything at all, it says that all actions are, in fact, actions. The sceptic has destroyed the meaning of the words he uses by eliminating the contrast between the classifications. He apparently fails to understand that there can be no counterfeit coins without genuine currency. The claim that an action is not a moral issue is meaningful if and only if moral issues do actually exist.

Ethics is meaningful. It follows from this that moral issues exist. In turn, the logical consequence of this is that some indicative moral propositions are true, just as the realist claims they are.

To return to the original example, it is mindnumbingly obvious that whether or not you eat people is a moral issue. Then, the truth of the statement “either eating people is right or eating people is wrong” ensures that at least one of these moral claims is true and, therefore, ‘objective’. But which one? Of course, eating people is wrong.

Meaning and Scepticism

The truth of moral realism follows logically from the meaningfulness of ethics and the truthassessability of moral propositions. Consider the following set of statements:

  • If eating animals is wrong then eating dogs is wrong.
  • Eating animals is wrong.
  • Eating dogs is not wrong.

This is internally inconsistent. However, it’s not clear that the sceptic can make any sense of the contradiction. If he assigns the truth-value of falsehood to the above statements, then the if/then relation doesn’t hold and consequently the conjunction of the other two (false) statements is not inconsistent.

The thought here is simply that if scepticism can’t even make sense of the contradiction then it’s just bloody useless. The problem is deeper, however. For the sceptic, inconsistency is impossible because if all moral propositions are false then no contradiction can possibly arise. Moral claims are all false because the properties to which they refer do not exist. It follows that, for the sceptic, “x is good” means “x possess a property which does not exist” and “x is not good” means “x does not possess a property that does not exist”. The former is false by definition and the latter is just empty. The sceptic is essentially dividing moral claims between those that don’t say anything and those that are necessarily false.

If the sceptic’s analysis is correct, moral statements could not possibly be true. The en mass failure of ethical claims to attain truth means that they are not the sort of statements that could, even in principle, be either true or false. The only way that this could be true is if ethics as a whole is literally meaningless and this is quite obviously not the case.

The meaningfulness of moral language presupposes the truth of moral realism. It presupposes the existence of moral properties and entails the existence of moral facts (true moral claims). That is, the doubts that the sceptic entertains are meaningful if and only if they are necessarily groundless.

© M.E. Fox and A.C.F.A. d’Avalos 1993

M.E. Fox is unemployed and A.C.F.A. d’Avalos has far too many initials to be taken seriously at all.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X