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A Taxonomy of Moral Realism

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A Taxonomy of Moral Realism

ABSTRACT: The realist dispute in ethics has wide implications for moral ontology, epistemology, and semantics. Common opinion holds that this debate goes to the heart of the phenomenology of moral values and affects the way in which we understand the nature of moral value, moral disagreement, and moral reflection. But it has not been clearly demonstrated what is involved in moral realist theory. I provide a framework which distinguishes three different versions of the theory while at the same time showing the interrelations between them. I also demonstrate how issues such as objectivity, cognitivism, and truth can be related into the discussion by means of this framework.

Since morality exercises a deep influence over the way we live our lives, it is easy to appreciate why the question — whether the subject is, or can be, objective — has been, and remains a central preoccupation amongst moral philosophers. Any answer to this most fundamental problem of moral philosophy has a direct bearing on how we do ethics, and more crucially, on the prospects we have for improving our present efforts. It is my purpose in this essay to examine one dominant strategy in offering an affirmative answer to this question.

The history of ethics exhibits many different approaches at securing an objectivist ethics. Besides traditional theistic-based approaches, there have been attempts which seek to establish some objective foundation (usually in practical reason or human interest) that is independent of, but which can be used to generate, or involve, an ethical outlook. Another less direct approach has taken the form of attempts at elaborating points of advantageous comparison between ethics and some other discip...

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...t will be argued that the moral realist insists that the only route to logical objectivity in ethics is via the metaphysical objectivity of moral values and properties. The metaphysical objectivity of ethical values becomes a necessary condition for logical objectivity in ethics according to the realists.

Supervenience and Reductionism

But what is meant by the metaphysical objectivity of ethical values? I suggest that realists have generally interpreted this idea in terms of two dependency relations — supervenience and reductivism. I will explicate what is involved with each relation and use this distinction to map out two modern versions of moral realism — supervenient moral realism which relies on truth-conditional semantics and the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, and reductive moral realism which relies on reductive naturalism and scientific realism.
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