Thursday, July 06, 2017

A Definition of Moral Realism

Through a round-about series of links, I was made aware of a video that reports to be the first in a series discussing moral realism.

The video, Moral Realism Defined, does a good job of defining the term as the term tends to be used by moral philosophers.

However, I do not think that the definition is useful. Recall, language is an invention, and we should adopt those definitions that aid in the ends of communication. The current philosophical definition of "moral realism" is one that generates a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. It should be abandoned or reformed - one of the two.

The standard definition of moral realism holds that moral values are real if they are independent of human beliefs and desires.

On this definition, I can make an easy case against moral realism. All value exists on desire. Moral value is a type of value. Therefore, moral value depends on desire. Things that depend on desire are not real. Therefore, moral value is not real.

The problem I have is with that statement that says, "things that depend on desire are not real".

Desires are real.

We use them to explain and predict the motion of bodies in the real world.

In an oft-repeated story, I put my hand on a hot metal plate when I was young. This formed second degree burns that blistered the palm and fingers on my hand. The pain that this caused explained, in party, why I put burn ointment on my hand and wrapped my hand in a bandage. It explained why I took pain relievers. There are many things that happened in the real world that would be hard to explain without reference to that pain.

Yet, "realists" want to say that this pain - the hurtfulness of this pain - was not real.

I think this is an absurd account of reality. A decent definition of realism has to account for the fact that pains such as this - that desires and aversions themselves - are as real as height, weight, age, location, blood pressure, core body temperature, and any of countless additional facts about me. Scientists can examine my pain just as they can examine my digestion. We need a better account of realism that can account for these very real entities.

I hold, as many long-time readers know, that morality consists of relationships between malleable desires and other desires. Specifically, it applies to malleable desires that can be molded through activation of the reward system - through rewards and punishments, including praise and condemnation. These relationships are what provide people with reason to praise and condemn, to reward and punish. There are desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally, and these are the core of morality.

These relationships are real. They are as real as the orbital relationship between the moon and the earth. They exist as a matter of fact. They are facts about which whole societies can be mistaken.

Yet, relationships between malleable desires and other desires depend on the existence of desires for their own existence. They are not independent of desires. The realist wants to tell me that, because of this, they are not real.

That strikes me as utter nonsense - and shows that we have need for a new definition of moral realism.

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