Do any moral realists say that subjective judgments also have moral truth, such that unreal facts can oblige or permit us to act in a way that we really usually shouldn't?

1 Answer 1


Moral realists believe (very roughly) that there is an independently existing moral reality; that some moral judgements are true by virtue of that reality; and that some moral judgements can be known to be true. (I use the phrase 'by virtue of' in order not to entangle myself in theories of truth; while a moral realist needs a theory of truth, s/he is not committed as a moral realist to a particular theory, e.g. the correspondence theory.)

Only such moral judgements are true for a moral realist; subjective judgements, e.g. judgements based purely on emotion or on some intellectual error are either no capable of truth (as perhaps in the case of emotive judgements) or are false (as perhaps in the case of judgements based on intellectual error.

I am talking very roughly but this is the essential picture. But now, while subjective judgements are not and cannot be true, they can still be binding. A moral realist can find a role for conscience. If I sincerely believe that X, even if X is not a moral truth, a moral realist can still accept it as a moral truth that I ought to (try to) do X since it is what I sincerely believe I ought to do.

There is or need be no inconsistency in this on the part of moral realism. Given the fallibility of human beings, it is reasonable that even error has its rights; and this can itself be a moral fact, true by virtue of an independently existing moral reality.

So, I don't think a moral realist can accept that subjective judgements have moral truth exactly, but s/he can recognise as a moral truth that even an erroneous conscience is binding : an agent who is sincere in his or her moral judgement, even if that judgement is subjective, is morally bound or obliged to (try to) act on it.

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    An important addendum might be that in professional philosophy, "subjective judgments" means "merely subjective judgements" such that judgments made by subjects which do capture objective reality are not called "subjective judgments" in this vocabulary.
    – virmaior
    Mar 9, 2018 at 15:39
  • I've no disagreement with this. But does it affect the substance of my argument ? Why would anyone call 'judgments made by subjects which do capture objective reality' subjective ? I respect your views so much that I feel, not that you're wrong but that I am missing your point.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 9, 2018 at 16:21
  • I think people who are not in professional philosophy often confuse this point and that it inspires some of these types of questions on this site. Even if this OP isn't, later readers of the question and answer might think they've got an ingenious objection (when they don't) related to confusing uses of subjective and objective.
    – virmaior
    Mar 9, 2018 at 16:24
  • I was simply trying to show how a moral realist could accept that there could be a moral obligation - on moral realist terms - to act on a moral judgement which didn't itself satisfy moral realist standards. The key to this is the right, the objective moral right and even obligation, which moral realists can recognise, to act on an erroneous conscience . I had Aquinas in mind, a moral realist who takes just this view. I really did not flatter myself that I had conceived 'an ingenious objection' to anything.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 9, 2018 at 17:29
  • I think your answer is great as an answer to the question, and I don't disagree with it at all. I'm merely suggesting adding a disclaimer for the unsophisticated reader who doesn't know that "subjective judgment" in this context means "merely subjective judgment." It's clear that this is what it means in the context of your answer, but that's clear to you and me because we read this stuff all the time.
    – virmaior
    Mar 9, 2018 at 17:51

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