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Moral realism (also ethical realism) is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world (that is, features independent of subjective opinion), some of which propositions may be true to the extent that they report those features accurately. This makes moral realism a non-nihilist form of ethical cognitivism with an ontological orientation, standing in opposition to all forms of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism, including ethical subjectivism (which denies that moral propositions refer to objective facts), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true); and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all). Within moral realism, the two main subdivisions are ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism.
Many philosophers claim that moral realism may be dated back at least to Plato as a philosophical doctrine, and that it is a fully defensible form of moral doctrine. One study found that 56% of philosophers accept or lean towards moral realism (28%: anti-realism; 16%: other). Some notable examples of robust moral realists include David Brink, John McDowell, Peter Railton, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Michael Smith, Terence Cuneo, Russ Shafer-Landau, G.E. Moore, John Finnis, Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon, Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit. Norman Geras has argued that Karl Marx was a moral realist. Moral realism has been studied in the various philosophical and practical applications.
A delineation of moral realism into a minimal form, a moderate form, and robust form has been put forward in the literature.
The robust model of moral realism commits moral realists to three theses:
The minimal model, i.e. moral universalism, leaves off the metaphysical thesis, treating it as matter of contention among moral realists (as opposed to between moral realists and moral anti-realists). This dispute is not insignificant, as acceptance or rejection of the metaphysical thesis is taken by those employing the robust model as the key difference between moral realism and moral anti-realism. Indeed, the question of how to classify certain logically possible (if eccentric) views—such as the rejection of the semantic and alethic theses in conjunction with the acceptance of the metaphysical thesis—turns on which model we accept. Someone employing the robust model might call such a view "realist non-cognitivism," while someone employing the minimal model might simply place such a view alongside other, more traditional, forms of non-cognitivism.
The robust model and the minimal model also disagree over how to classify moral subjectivism (roughly, the view that moral facts are not mind-independent in the relevant sense, but that moral statements may still be true). The historical association of subjectivism with moral anti-realism in large part explains why the robust model of moral realism has been dominant—even if only implicitly—both in the traditional and contemporary philosophical literature on metaethics.
In the minimal sense of realism, R.M. Hare could be considered a realist in his later works, as he is committed to the objectivity of value judgments, even though he denies that moral statements express propositions with truth-values per se. Moral constructivists like John Rawls and Christine Korsgaard may also be realists in this minimalist sense; the latter describes her own position as procedural realism. Some readings of evolutionary science such as those of Charles Darwin and James Mark Baldwin have suggested that in so far as an ethics may be associated with survival strategies and natural selection then such behavior may be associated with a moderate position of moral realism equivalent to an ethics of survival.
Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that the game theoretic advantages of ethical behavior support the idea that morality is "out there" in a certain sense (as part of the evolutionary fitness landscape). Journalist Robert Wright has similarly argued that natural selection moves sentient species closer to moral truth as time goes on.
Writer Sam Harris has also argued that ethics could be objectively grounded in an understanding of neuroscience. He has admitted to being committed to some form of moral realism (viz. moral claims can really be true or false) and some form of consequentialism (viz. the rightness of an act depends on how it impacts the well-being of conscious creatures).
Moral realism allows the ordinary rules of logic (modus ponens, etc.) to be applied straightforwardly to moral statements. We can say that a moral belief is false or unjustified or contradictory in the same way we would about a factual belief. This is a problem for expressivism, as shown by the Frege-Geach problem. Another advantage of moral realism is its capacity to resolve moral disagreements: If two moral beliefs contradict one another, realism says that they cannot both be right, and therefore everyone involved ought to be seeking out the right answer to resolve the disagreement. Contrary theories of meta-ethics have trouble even formulating the statement "this moral belief is wrong," and so they cannot resolve disagreements in this way.
Several criticisms have been raised against moral realism: The first is that, while realism can explain how to resolve moral conflicts, it does not explain how these conflicts arose in the first place. Pointing to consistent patterns in evaluative diversity, some moral realists reply that moral conflicts evidence functioning mechanisms to discern objective moral truth collaboratively (like conflict in a courtroom). Others appeal to basic human psychology, arguing that people possess various motivations that combine in complex ways, or else are simply mistaken about what is objectively right.
Others are critical of moral realism because it postulates the existence of a kind of "moral fact" which is nonmaterial and does not appear to be accessible to the scientific method. Moral truths cannot be observed in the same way as material facts (which are objective), so it seems odd to count them in the same category. However, such an argument could be applied to saying that the science of psychology also cannot be a science; or the acceptance of psychology as a cognitive science vitiates this argument (which would not be indicative of any weakness of the argument, as Feynman in the Cargo Cult Science made the same claim starting from different hypothesis). One emotivist counterargument[by whom?] (although emotivism is usually non-cognitivist) alleges that "wrong" actions produce measurable results in the form of negative emotional reactions, either within the individual transgressor, within the person or people most directly affected by the act, or within a (preferably wide) consensus of direct or indirect observers.