According to wikipedia page on moral realism:

A survey from 2009 involving 3,226 respondents found that 56% of philosophers accept or lean towards moral realism (28%: anti-realism; 16%: other).

According to it the second most popular standpoint after moral realism is twice less popular. And majority of respondents supported moral realism.

So what makes moral realism so popular? Does it really have something inherent in it that makes most philosophers choose it?

  • 4
    Here is the survey and here is the Bourget'-Chalmers's summary of methods and findings. 99 philosophy departments were surveyed, of them 89 in English speaking countries. The leading answer belongs to the principal component that also includes cognitivism, aesthetic objectivism and platonism. My guess is that it is just an (over) reaction to postmodernism with its post-truth, etc.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 21:28
  • @Conifold, hm, the formulation of the question also must create a bias: realism is in the first place and only two positions are presented.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 22:07
  • What are the reasons for close votes? Opinion-based? I'm asking about objective reasons, not opinions. Descriptive ethics is not opinion based. Or what are the reasons?
    – rus9384
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 12:09
  • 1
    @elliotsvensson, even professionals are affected by wording. Also, as I said, 'other' may be chosen less often due to forgetting some of the meta-ethical theories. And as I see, not all philosophers tend to say that subjectivism is inconsistent with realism: red color really exists, even if it's perception is subjective and not all people can experience it. Same with morals. According with their views.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 23:45
  • 1
    @rus9384. It's really only a very small matter - your meaning was perfectly clear Your question has often exercised me. I too am struck by the vogue for moral realism. Your question made me think about the reasons for it. So, thank you for putting my mind to work. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 19:12

3 Answers 3


Moral Realism isn't a clear term. The way the survey is set up, some constructivists could label themselves under it. (I've also heard of terminology that puts Moral Relativism under Moral Realism, so then things get really strange.) But it'd probably still be popular without that. So why's that? I'd argue it's because the literature on it is vast and, also, "currently" (meaning the last 20 years or so) really active. Which is either unwittingly reason to defend Moral Realism (so, because it's interesting), or is a symptom of its sturdiness or maybe even strength. Depends on how we look at it.

So what makes moral realism so popular?

We could also look at the argumentative points for it.

Firstly, Moral Realism has many different directions. This variety makes it compatible with a number of stances in metaphysics. For example, we have:
1. Moral reductionist naturalism (Railton)
2. Moral non-reductionist naturalism (like Cornell Realism, see Brink)
3. Different kinds of moral non-naturalism (Shafer-Landau or Enoch)

Secondly, there are strategies bracketing metaphysical investments. For example:
4. Using epistemological approaches to make Moral Realism more plausible then alternatives. Intuitionists use this. (See Huemer or Audi)
5. Using arguments that make no metaphysical investments. (Cuneo or Huemer come to mind)

I want to point to one argument to showcase how there are, at least, interesting defenses of Moral Realism. This one will be from category 5, mainly because the basic idea can be summed up pretty well. And it's one of many defenses from the last 20 years.

The basic idea is from Cuneo 2007. I've seen it called the "Partners in Crime" or "Bad Company" argument. The main aim of the argument is to directly attack the Argument from Queerness which is arguably one of the more powerful issues raised against Moral Realism by Error Theory. (It could be used against Moral Relativism as well but I'll set that possibility aside with my formulation to keep it brief. I'll also not problematize terms here for that reason.)

1) If moral facts can't possibly exist then epistemic facts can't possibly exist.
2) But epistemic facts exist (and hence can also possibly exist).
C) Therefore moral facts can possibly exist (and the Argument from Queerness fails).

Premise 1 works by comparison. The idea is that epistemic facts (which are just basic guidelines we use to decide what is rational and what isn't) are normative because they decide between correctness and wrongness. Because they are normative, they are comparable entities or properties to moral facts. In order to attack this premise, the Error Theorist would have to present reasons for why the comparison can't work.
Premise 2 works by the idea that Epistemic Nihilism is untenable. The naive (as in the simplest) argument for that is something like: "If there are no epistemic facts then there are no rational reasons to accept the Argument from Queerness. This is either self-refuting (because it posits reasons when they don't exist) or leaves us with no reasons to accept it". In Cuneo this gets discussed much more detailed. (For a response from an Error-Theorist, check Olson.)
So generally, the argument shifts us from defending Moral Realism from metaphysical objections to attacking Epistemic Nihilism. If we think that the argument isn't completely implausible then it's easy to see the appeal: defending Epistemic Nihilism probably is not popular.

  • 1
    The same number of respondents (56.5%) in the survey are for physicalism, its combination with moral realism strikes me as odd. Of course, current "moral realism" is not what Plato or Kant would acknowledge as such, the "moral reality", which McDowell explicitly analogizes to secondary qualities, is tied to biologically/historically contingent human character/sensibility. But even such "common humanity" realism is arguably at odds with recent empirical findings in neuroscience and moral psychology.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 2:34
  • I'm not error theorist, rather subjectivist, but Premise 1 in given example is odd one. Is the statement "That bucket is red" epistimic fact? I see moral judgements exactly as subjective as this statement.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 6:04
  • @rus9384 "epistemic fact" means something like: "If we want to be rational then we have to use logic when drawing conclusions from our premises". This is normative because someone could simply choose to go against such a prescription. We would then say that they are wrong or irrational. An Epistemic Realist also doesn't have to argue for specific epistemic facts. It's sufficient to defend them abstractly and non-specificly. The Epistemic Realist could f.e. claim that our discourse isn't abitrary but that there exist some rules/properties that guide it.
    – Marc H.
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 13:42
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    @conifold: I would be most grateful if you could name some sources regarding those empirical findings in my question here. I found exactly one psychological survey and it was ambiguous on the matter, to say the least: the outcome was that most people entertain or are open to moral pluralism by at the same time being objectivist.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 19:34
  • @PhilipKlöcking For moral psychology I was thinking of Waldmann et al. survey. You may also appreciate Greene's Secret Joke of Kant's Soul (sic!) that develops philosophical arguments against "common humanitarians" based on such data.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 19:59

Moral realism I take to be broadly the view that moral judgements can be true or false, that some are true and are known to be true. There has been an upsurge of interest in and sympathy with moral realism among philosophers since roughly the mid-1970s. I account for this on three grounds :

▻ the decline of empiricism ▻ the phenomenology of the moral life ▻ the dominance or rights discourse

The decline of empiricism

In the mid-1930s in the analytical tradition logical positivism, a radical form of empiricism, presented a straightforward challenge to moral realism. Moral judgements were deemed to be incapable of verification and hence to be 'meaningless'. Still the fact of moral judgement needed to be accounted for; and the logical positivists relegated moral judgements to the mere role of expressing and eliciting emotion. This is the theme of the famous or notorious chapter 6 of AJ Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic (1936). The emotive theory of ethics, barely sketched by Ayer, was developed with some sophistication by Charles Stevenson in Ethics and Language (1944).

Emotivism never achieved an entirely satisfactory formulation, not least because it did not have an adequate philosophy of language.

The early 1950s saw the emergence of RM Hare's prescriptivism in The Language of Morals (1952). Hare elevated moral judgements above the status of being merely emotive but did not entertain the idea that any moral judgement could be actually true.

Logical positivism proved an untenable position. Hare's prescriptivism ran into difficulties, mainly because it allowed just anything to count as a moral judgement provided certain formal conditions were met.

Moreover, empiricism, which provided the main backdrop to the critique of moral realism, was seen to be holed by serious difficulties - the myth of the given and the theory-ladenness of observation were powerful tools of critique of empiricism. Quine's 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' (1951) also assailed empiricism as traditionally understood to devastating effect.

A major prop of empiricism, employed against moral realism, also suffered major assaults - this was the correspondence theory of truth. If moral judgements are true (at least some of them) then they must correspond to (moral) facts or states of affairs but how could such facts or states of affairs be detected or recognised ? Indeed, what could they possibly be like ? 'The cat is on the mat' is true (if it is true) because it corresponds to the perceivable real-world state of affairs of the cat sitting on the mat. What would a real-world moral fact or state of affairs - the wrongness of saturation bombing of a civilian population, say - be like and how could one perceive its presence ? We could perceive the bombing but how could we perceive its wrongness ?

The correspondence theory of truth ran into great technical difficulties, and found rivals in deflationism and other theories.

All this meant, as some philosophers realised, that the tools used against moral realism - logical positivism, the emotive theory of ethics, empiricism and the correspondence theory of truth - had nothing like the cogency they had once been widely thought to possess. Therefore moral realism was again an option. Eager interest ensued and moral realism turned out to be, whether or not the correct stance in ethics, capable of serious defence. It naturally therefore attracted followers. I am doubtful about whether moral realism is the majority view in professional philosophy but it certainly has numerous and adept defenders.

The phenomenology of the moral life

If we reject moral realism then we apparently have to deny that it is true that the Shoah was evil, that it is true that the holocaust in Rwanda was a shameful tragedy of unjustifiable violence, that it is true that torturing other humans or sentient creatures for fun is wrong, and so on and on. Moral realism appears to many the strongest and perhaps the only barrier against moral scepticism, subjectivism, and relativism all of which (it is widely supposed) fail to deliver the truth that certain actions and states of affairs are purely and without qualification as a matter of fact wrong. This is definitely how some experience the moral life - as a life in which it must be true that certain things are wrong. Moral realism speaks to that mindset.

The mindset is not new, of course. But 24/7 media news coverage, instant global communication, the opening of archives, and many other factors have brought moral catastrophes vividly home to us as never before. The mindset has been reinforced, and moral realism is the beneficiary.

The dominance of rights discourse

The language of natural or human rights is of longstanding. In political discourse it goes back at least to the American and the French Revolutions in the 18th century; and it has an even longer philosophical history. I will mention only Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689). In more recent times the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made its appearance in 1948.

None the less rights-talk entered a new phase in political and moral discourse in the United States and Western Europe from the 1970s. It is now the, or a, dominant mode of discourse. The case for abortion, for instance, is commonly couched in terms of a woman's right to control the condition of her own body. Claimants of this right do not, so it seems to me, regard it as anything other than true that they have it. They do not claim it as one might express a wish or vent an emotion; they claim it as a moral fact or truth that they have this right. If this is not the case with all claimants, it is so with very many.

Or if we consider the issue of gay rights, there we find the right to same-sex marriage widely demanded, when it is demanded, as a moral entitlement of a factual kind. It is true (not just a subjective opinion or an expression of Western values) that gaylife is an equally valid lifestyle; it is true that gays should have the right of same-sex marriage : this is the prevailing sense of campaigners's arguments.

I am simply characterising the discourse; my own views cannot be inferred about abortion or same-sex marriage.

It seems to me that the logic of universal human rights requires the invocation of truth, hence of moral realism. What would one have thought if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had ended with : 'Of course it isn't actually true that we have these rights but they are something we support' ?


My own views about moral realism are of no relevance here. I have simply tried to answer the question and to explain why moral realism is on an upswing.

  • "If we reject moral realism then we apparently have to deny that it is true that the Shoah was evil, that it is true that the holocaust in Rwanda was a shameful tragedy of unjustifiable violence, that it is true that torturing other humans or sentient creatures for fun is wrong, and so on and on." Actually, I'm pretty sure there should be a theory of subjective truth. Because truth seemingly exists only in mind, consciuously or unconsciously, doesn't matter. Is this theory unpopular?
    – rus9384
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 18:21
  • @rus9384. I agree but I don't think subjective truth is what moral realism, as commonly understood, is about. I'm keeping to the question. My eye is on moral realism as it stands; and my lips are very consciously sealed about the adequacy of its notion of truth and indeed about what I think of moral realism at all. Good to hear from you again. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 18:28
  • Indeed, it's not, I think the main opposition is between subjectivists and realists. Also, it's not necessary to be a realist to say something is true. E.g. aleph_1 > aleph_0 is true, but hardly anyone can say these numbers are physically existent.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 18:52
  • Again I agree : it can be true that two propositions are synonymous but synonymy is not a physical existent. It could be true that an action has a moral property without that property's being physical. But aren't we moving beyond the question now - Why is moral realism so popular ? How has the widespread belief come about that some moral judgement can be known to be true ? The validity of moral realism is a separate matter. I'd encourage you to raise this in another question. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 19:23
  • The "phenomenology of the moral life" argument looks like the most pertinent to me. Emotionnally, we just can't conceive that rape, murder, torture, genocide, etc. being horrible is just a matter of opinion. We don't want these things to happen, and for this, we need everyone to believe that evil is evil in an objective sense. Ethics often works backwards. I seldom see philosophers biting bullets and accepting repugnant conclusions.
    – user34023
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 19:35

A possible reason is phenomenological conservatism, which says that it is reasonable to assume that things are as they appear, unless there are positive grounds for doubting this. Michael Huemer uses this principle to defend moral realism in Ethical Intuitionism.

  • This seems doubtful as an explanation considering that Huemer's direct realism is a very unpopular position, in the survey in question a sophisticated version of it, disjunctivism, only has 11% support. "Scientific realists typically assume representational perception" tells us Wikipedia.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 7:18
  • Believing in phenomenological conservatism does not require believing in disjunctivism, so I don't know why you're equating the two.
    – user76284
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 16:20
  • Believing perhaps, but Huemer's defense of it is tied to his direct realism. If your thesis is that popularity of moral realism derives from popularity of PC you need to explain where the latter comes from.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 16:31
  • 1. If I'm interpreting the question correctly, belief is exactly what we're discussing. 2. What do you mean by "tied"? 3. I mentioned Huemer's use of PC in arguing for moral realism as an example, not the only possibility. 4. I named PC as a possible reason for belief in moral realism, not an exhaustive reason. 5. The popularity of PC is likely beyond the scope of this question, and would require another discussion.
    – user76284
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 16:44

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