Moral facts seem weird because they don't seem to mesh too well with a purely physicalist ontology (although there is such a thing as ethical naturalism). It somehow seems odd that alongside the facts of fundamental physics, chemistry, and biology, there are additional facts like 'it is wrong to cause gratuitous harm'. On the other hand, it seems blatantly obvious (to me at least) that there are true moral facts; that it's wrong to cause gratuitous harm or that child abuse is wrong seems as clear to me as 2+2=4. We're usually rational in believing things that seem blatantly obvious to us (in the absence of any defeaters), but, so some arguments go, physicalism is a defeater for moral realism - fundamental physics is the whole story, and moral facts just aren't derivable from physics.

It seems to me that most philosophers throughout history would not have been physicalists (they didn't have the benefit of hindsight we do, i.e. a nearly complete scientific explanation of the world, and many of them were religious and and so probably believed in at least some supernatural beings). Since they wouldn't have been physicalists, the argument from physicalism sketched in the first paragraph wouldn't have been an issue.

So... I'm wondering, before physicalism (and the metaphysical and epistemological problems it poses for moral realism) became so dominant, were most philosophers moral realists? Did they trust their moral "senses" in the same (or a similar) way they trusted their physical and intellectual senses?

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    The first paragraph reprises Mackie's argument from queerness, but one can trace the gist back to Hume's is/ought guillotine. Neither Hume nor Mackie were physicalists. General naturalist/empiricist outlook is enough to be suspicious of moral facts and the special faculty of "moral intuition" that they seem to require. So is cultural relativism or social constructivism. Most Western philosophers up to 19th century were Christians, hence moral realists, and physicalism erodes that, but so do many other things.
    – Conifold
    Jan 20, 2021 at 11:09
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    This said, there has been a turn towards moral realism more recently among naturalist minded philosophers, 56% now accept it according to one poll, see What makes moral realism so popular a standpoint? Cuneo authored an influential pushback against Mackie's idea that moral facts are queer. He argues that they are similar to epistemic facts (norms for pursuing knowledge) that few find problematic, see his Normative Web.
    – Conifold
    Jan 20, 2021 at 11:24

1 Answer 1



How would you know? Given what you know about epistemic knowledge what is your true question?

What is a realist?

Realism, in the arts, the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or of contemporary life. Realism rejects imaginative idealization in favour of a close observation of outward appearances. As such, realism in its broad sense has comprised many artistic currents in different civilizations.

It sounds a lot like being an individual to me, e.g. the ability to demonstrate free will be it radical or otherwise

To answer your question with a question, are all things in real life not real?

  • Moral Realism is a specific position in Philosophy, not significantly related to Realism in the arts and different from what you discuss here. Jan 23, 2021 at 20:48

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