Moral Realism: A Defence

Moral Realism: A Defence

Moral Realism: A Defence

Moral Realism: A Defence


Moral Realism is a systematic defence of the idea that there are objective moral standards. Russ Shafer-Landau argues that there are moral principles that are true independently of what anyone, anywhere, happens to think of them. His central thesis, as well as the many novel supporting arguments used to defend it, will spark much controversy among those concerned with the foundations of ethics.


Let me begin this book of philosophy with a bit of armchair sociology. Nowadays many people express their moral views with a great deal more hesitation than was usual in the past. We are less likely to wholeheartedly trumpet the cause of Progress, Manifest Destiny, Religion, or, indeed, anything that comes with capital letters. Part of this stems from our comparatively greater exposure to those who think differently from us. Part of this comes from witnessing what can be done by those whose certitude in their own moral convictions allows them to deny the humanity of their victims. These two causes, and others, have themselves contributed to a distinctively philosophical source of our more measured ethical ambitions. The philosophical source is a kind of scepticism about morality.

This scepticism is the view that our moral opinions are either never true, or are correct, when they are, only in virtue of our endorsements. On this line, moral laws are human laws, made by, and for, humans. Without some sort of personal or interpersonal ratification, a putative moral law is no law at all—just words, a mere pretender. Moral principles enjoy no objective or transcendent status; they are not universal, but parochial; they are not awaiting our discovery, but rather are products of our creative efforts. In likening the moral law to the positive law, whatever reservations we have about the authority of the latter are transferred to the former. For those taken with this analogy, the often dismal history of our legislative undertakings seems to provide ample reason for the sort of moral modesty we see today.

But it doesn't, really. If we create morality, then there is far less room for error than otherwise, and so far less ground for modesty. If rightness is in the eye of the beholder, then so long as one's eyes are open, one is seeing aright, and there's an end on it.

Moral modesty is a virtue, when it is, just because of our fallibility—just because knowing the right thing to do is sometimes very difficult, and there

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