Friday, November 28, 2014


174. Moral realism?

 Moral realism claims that there are foundations for morality beyond subjective opinion and social convention.[i] In a strong form it proposes that moral precepts are independent from our thought, beliefs or opinions. In a weaker form, it proposes that they are not ‘up to us’.

 Where do I stand in this, with the ‘debatable ethics’ proposed and discussed in this blog? My stand is realist in the weak but not the strong sense. I believe that morality is not independent from our thought but that it is not (entirely) ‘up to us’ either. The possibility remains that its source lies partly in our thought and social convention and partly in some ‘outside’, more objective conditions.

A key question concerning claims of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is ‘good or bad for what or whom?’ That in itself already entails that they are not ‘independent from us’. 

Morality is constructed in interaction between people. In Wittgenstein’s terminology: they are part of language games. In that they are not purely subjective and are largely social. The self needs debate with others, with different views, to test its own moral views. But realism requires that morality is not up to us even ‘if we all agree’. What, then, lies beyond language games, beyond tacit or explicit social consensus? Is there any more ‘objective’ warrant?

I think morality is also subject to an evolutionary selection mechanism as an external cause. I am confident, but cannot be sure and cannot prove, that moral systems that go against the flourishing of life and society will sooner or later fail to survive, and will succumb in revolution or disintegration.

But what, then, does flourishing of life and society entail, and how ‘given’ or ‘objective’ is that? Much more than in nature, in society the conditions that constitute the evolutionary selection environment that determines the survival or failure of morality are not fixed or given and are to a greater or lesser extent affected by the morality they select. In other words, to some extent there is co-evolution between society and its selection conditions. To some extent societies create the survival conditions conducive to them.

The flourishing of life and society may come to mean submission to some authoritarian regime. As I argued earlier in this blog, Fukuyama’s claim that ‘history has ended’ in the definitive victory of the liberal capitalist democracy is not valid.

All this makes my moral stance realist only in a limited sense. It is not the strong realism that most moral realists like claim. My moral realism is also weaker than my realism of knowledge of the natural world. There, the evolutionary pressure of the laws of nature that constitute the selection environment of our thought is more rigorous and more independent from our thought than in morality.      


[i] For a recent discussion, see Kevin DeLapp, Moral realism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013.