Here, we take a look at Railton's moral realism.
Recall, in Railton's argument for non-moral value realism, he used an example of a dehydrated tourist, Lonnie, facing an option of whether to drink milk or water. ("Moral Realism", The Philosophical Review, Vol. 95, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp 163-207.) Drinking water would deal with his dehydration and cause him to feel better, while drinking milk would cause him to feel worse. These facts obtain regardless of what Lonnie believes or wants to be the case. Furthermore, through experience, Lonnie can learn about the better value of drinking water or clear soda instead of milk.
To start with, Railton identified morality with social rationality. Specifically, with:
...what would be rationally approved of were the interests of all potentially affected individuals counted equally under circumstances of full and vivid information.In the same way that the drinking of water instead of milk is what a fully informed Lonnie would prescribe for his less informed, dehydrated self, moral institutions are what a fully informed community would recommend for its less informed self.
Furthermore, Railton suggested that immoral institutions would, at least in some cases, leave a community with something akin to a social upset stomach.
Just as an individual who significantly discounts some of his interests will be liable to certain sorts of dissatisfaction, so will a social arrangement - for example, a form of production, a social or political hierarchy, etc. - that departs from social rationality by significantly discounting the interests of a particular group have a potential for dissatisfaction and unrest.Railton went on to identify some confounding circumstances that might interfere with this social unrest. He included social oppression, a lack of information or experience that would prevent the agent's from knowing that their interests are being neglected, and the small size or weakness of the group being harmed as confounding factors.
Still, according to Railton, there would be instances where injustice would lead to dissatisfaction and unrest in something like the way that drinking milk would lead to an upset stomach. These experiences of unrest would inform a community not to do those things - to change or improve its institutions, making them more just.
I see two problems with this account.
The first is that Railton established as one of his conditions for realism that the values be independent of the agent's beliefs about value. The upset stomach from drinking milk and the relief of symptoms from drinking water are independent of the agent's beliefs about the value of drinking milk or water. Consequently, the value of drinking each - whether bad or good - is real.
However, social unrest seems to depend heavily on beliefs. A society experiences unrest when a segment of the population believes that it is being treated unjustly and have the power to alter the forms of society to their advantage.
However, beliefs need not conform to morality. For example, when members of a dominant race or religion in an area sees its influence declining towards a state of equality, they may see this loss of prestige and privilege as "oppression" - as robbing them of something that is their right. The social unrest that results is better explained in terms of the belief that an injustice is taking place than the actual fact of injustice.
Can Railton actually separate these ill consequences from belief?
Second, this account is of little use in accounting for the countless smaller moral infractions that take place - or that could take place but do not - each day. The co-worker who takes somebody else's lunch out of the refrigerator, the drunk driver, the relative who borrows a few hundred dollars and never repays it . . . none of this can be understood in terms of social unrest resulting from unjust institutions. However, all of them have something to do with morality.
Railton's idea comes from a long tradition in moral philosophy that takes the society to be like an individual and to say that morality is for the community what practicality is to the individual. Plato went this route when the compared different types of societies to different types of individuals. The society governed by its philosopher kings are like an individual governed by reason and learning, while a society governed by its monied elite is like the individual governed by his acquisitive passions.
However, there are important differences between individuals and societies. Societies are made up of distinct entities each acting on their own interests and desires. While individuals may not be the fully integrated wholes they were once thought to be, we are still significantly more integrated than societies. The problem of integrating distinct parts is far less of a problem.
I am not denying that moral values are real. I hold that there are desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. These include such things as an aversion to taking the property of others without their consent, a preference for telling the truth, an interest in repaying debts and keeping promises, and a desire to help those in desperate need.
However, this account of morality respects the fact that societies are made up of individuals with their own distinct interests. It also is relevant to all of the smaller things that morality us concerned with; not driving under the influence, repaying a debt, keeping a promise, offering somebody in trouble a helping hand. That there are desires that people generally have reason to promote is a fact of the world. They exist independent of what people believe they have reason to promote. Their benefits are available - awaiting discovery (They are like the benefits that a dehydrated person can get from drinking water instead of milk - Railton was right here.)
There is a moral realism. However, it is not Railton's moral realism.