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Open Access Must Metaethical Realism Make a Semantic Claim?

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Must Metaethical Realism Make a Semantic Claim?

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Mackie drew attention to the distinct semantic and metaphysical claims made by metaethical realists, arguing that although our evaluative discourse is cognitive and objective, there are no objective evaluative facts. This distinction, however, also opens up a reverse possibility: that our evaluative discourse is antirealist, yet objective values do exist. I suggest that this seemingly far-fetched possibility merits serious attention; realism seems committed to its intelligibility, and, despite appearances, it isn’t incoherent, ineffable, inherently implausible or impossible to defend. I argue that reflection on this possibility should lead us to revise our understanding of the debate between realists and antirealists. It is not only that the realist’s semantic claim is insufficient for realism to be true, as Mackie argued; it’s not even necessary. Robust metaethical realism is best understood as making a purely metaphysical claim. It is thus not enough for antirealists to show that our discourse is antirealist. They must directly attack the realist’s metaphysical claim.

1. fn11 J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin, 1977).
2. fn22 Mackie doesn’t always distinguish between moral value and value in general, and between value and practical reasons – all of which are typically at stake in disputes between metaethical realists and antirealists. To save words, I’ll also largely ignore these distinctions. With Mackie and most contemporary metaethicists I assume that the truth of RS or competing semantic claims depends in familiar ways on facts about our actual linguistic discourse.
3. fn33 The error theory is, in one good sense, also an antirealist view, but for simplicity I will treat it as a distinct view.
4. fn44 G. Sayre-McCord, ‘Introduction: The many moral realisms’, in G. Sayre-McCord, ed., Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 5.
5. fn55 R. Shafer-Landau. Moral Realism: A Defence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 17.
6. fn66 See Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defence; D. Parfit, ‘Normativity’, Oxford Studies in Meta-Ethics, 1 (2006), pp. 325-380; On What Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); M. Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); D. Enoch, ‘An outline of an argument for robust metanormative realism’, Oxford Studies in Metaethics, 2 (2007), pp. 21-50. Nagel and Scanlon can also be interpreted as defending such a view. See T. Nagel, The View From Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); T. Scanlon, What We Owe To Each Other (Boston: Belknap Press, 1998). These realists would of course object to the way Mackie understands objective prescriptivity. Some of these robust realists claim that their view is ‘non-metaphysical’ because although they believe that there are objective non-natural evaluative truths, they deny that this commits them to ontological claims about the existence of evaluative properties. The contrast I draw between semantics and metaphysics, and the claims I will be making about realism, are meant to be compatible even with this view.
7. fn77 Kalderon mentions this possibility in passing in M.E. Kalderon, Moral Fictionalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), pp. 143, 145-6.
8. fn88 The reverse theory shouldn’t be confused with views that attempt to combine realist and antirealist theses, such as views that combine cognitivist and expressivist elements (D. Copp, ‘Realist-expressivism: a neglected option for moral realism’, Social Philosophy and Policy 18 (2001), pp. 1-43), or with the complaint that highly refined antirealist views, such as Gibbard’s, are hard to distinguish from straight realism (J. Dreier, ‘Meta-ethics and the problem of creeping minimalism’, Philosophical Perspectives, 18 (2004), pp. 23-44).
9. fn99 See Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defence for a more precise statement of mind (or ‘stance’) independence.
10. fn1010 It is hard to see how a view that rejected this thesis could count as a robust form of realism; but it seems to anyway follow from mind independence.
11. fn1111 The only way I can see of arguing that if RM is true then RS must be true is to appeal to something like Lewisian ‘reference magnetism’ (D.K. Lewis, ‘New work for a theory of universals’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 61 (1983), pp. 343–377), if it can be extended to cover non-natural properties. Such a view seems to me implausible. But although it would rule out the reverse theory, its upshot would be anyway identical to the upshot of this paper: that what matters is RM, regardless of standard semantic criteria for the truth of RS.
12. fn1212 A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981) can be interpreted as arguing for this, or something close enough (I owe this example to Jussi Suikkanen). Or it might be argued that at least some of the many who espouse antirealist metaethical views are in fact correctly describing their own evaluative concepts, if not ours. This appears to be Parfit’s view in On What Matters.
13. fn1313 If RM can be true only if RS is true then, given the contingency of RS, this absurdly implies that the existence of objective value is also contingent, indeed contingent on what kind of discourse we happen to have, which itself presumably depends on a range of contingent facts about us.
14. fn1414 This is compatible with thinking that in order to understand this quasi-technical vocabulary, we must first grasp everyday evaluative concepts.
15. fn1515 This question is even easier to ask if, as many hold, the surface of our evaluative discourse at least appears cognitivist and objective. It would be especially straightforward if our evaluative discourse is fictionalist: the relation between pretending something to exist and asserting its existence is obvious enough. See Kalderon, Moral Fictionalism. (I am grateful here to an anonymous reviewer.)
16. fn1616 A parallel worry would also afflict other philosophical debates, rendering, for example, the common contrast between compatibilist and libertarian freedom problematic.
17. fn1717 This point is also echoed by Mackie’s claims about the independence of second-order and first-order morality.
18. fn1818 See J. Bishop, ‘Can There Be Alternative Concepts of God?’, Noûs. 32 (1998), pp. 174-188 for discussion of the God-role. Bishop is responding to a parallel worry in the philosophy of religion: he claims that “the [traditional] concept of God as omniGod can have competitors” and he wants to clarify “what these competing concepts may be understood as competing for” (p. 177), if they aren’t competing accounts of the meaning of ‘God’.
19. fn1919 It’s common for theoretical concepts to transcend the content of everyday terms. Scientific conceptions of space and time radically depart from folk concepts, but this doesn’t render them unintelligible, and it’s clearly appropriate to use ‘space’ and ‘time’ in both contexts despite this divergence in meaning. Conceptual revision doesn’t always imply a change in subject matter.
20. fn2020 The philosophers’ GOD also notoriously transcends the everyday notion, but it would be similarly absurd to conclude that most theist philosophers and theologians are really atheists.
21. fn2121 Objection: But if in stating RM we are employing a non-standard notion of value, then it isn’t really true that the metaphysical claim of robust realists is true, as the reverse theory requires, but some other metaphysical claim. Reply: I understand RM to be exactly the metaphysical claim typically asserted by realists. This claim refers to facts that, if they exist, exist whether or not RS holds. I have been trying to explain how realists could still refer to these facts even if RS happens to be false.
22. fn2222 This is a plausible reading of some actual non-cognitivist complaints. I am grateful here to an anonymous referee.
23. fn2323 See Enoch, ‘An outline of an argument for robust metanormative realism’. What the above discussion does bring out, however, is that we should distinguish claims that some discourse can’t play the value-role, from claims that it doesn’t accurately describe what actually plays the value-role. The latter kind of antirealist argument would be an argument only against RS.
24. fn2424 An anonymous reviewer pressed this objection.
25. fn2525 If the falsity of RS implied the falsity of RM, then this would suggest that RM isn’t metaphysically independent of RS. But what further possibility is being asserted by the current objection? That objective value won’t exist if we don’t? That it won’t exist if we exist but don’t possess any kind of evaluative discourse? Robust realists can easily deny both claims.
26. fn2626 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pressing this question.
27. fn2727 R.M. Hare, ‘Nothing matters’, in his Applications of Moral Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1972).
28. fn2828 Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, pp. 20-25.
29. fn2929 The independence of the value-role from metaphysical debates about realism thus doesn’t vindicate Hare’s view that these debates are empty or don’t matter.
30. fn3030 C. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 240.
31. fn3131 I shall be using ‘response-dependent reasons’ to refer to what others call internal or desire-based reasons. It is irrelevant here that some antirealist views might be compatible with externalist views of reasons.
32. fn3232 Kalderon writes: “[C]onsider the hypothetical community whose acceptance of moral sentences is governed by noncognitive norms despite the existence of moral facts. By the norms internal to their moral practice, a competent speaker may be justified in accepting a moral sentence … Nevertheless, the fact that moral acceptance is fixed independently of the moral facts is just grounds for criticism. Noncognitivism might be a correct description of the standards of acceptance internal to moral practice, but it is a further question whether moral acceptance … is legitimate or justified.” (Moral Fictionalism, pp. 145-6). The problem is that normative terms such as ‘just grounds’, ‘legitimate’ and ‘justified’ can themselves be understood not only by reference to objective value but also in terms of standards internal to our (supposedly antirealist) moral practice.
33. fn3333 This predicament might not arise for antirealist views that don’t recognize reasons for ends, since, on these views, the reasons for ends provided by objective values will face no opposition.
34. fn3434 See H. Sidgwick, H. The Methods of Ethics, first edition (London: Macmillan, 1874), p. 473 for a familiar precedent.
35. fn3535 It seems absurd to hold that such antirealist theists could dismiss the robustly real God, yet true atheists must succumb!
36. fn3636 For a related discussion, see also my ‘The value question in metaphysics’, forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
37. fn3737 Compare: there is no flaw in not possessing a naturalist or expressivist religious discourse. But it’s an understatement that there is something important that we would be missing if God existed in the robust sense, but we failed to believe that. And to believe that is already to accept a certain exclusive practical authority.
38. fn3838 Ironically, this form of argument mirrors an influential type of antirealist argument. See Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity.
39. fn3939 See D. Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), ch. 2.
40. fn4040 Robust realists typically appeal to something like this argument when they try to address epistemic worries about realism. But presumably if we are justified in believing in at least one objective evaluative proposition, then we are justified in believing that objective values exist.
41. fn4141 Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, p. 31, accuses realists of offering nothing besides criticism of alternatives, a point that Nagel and Parfit concede (Nagel, The View From Nowhere, pp. 143–4; Parfit, ‘Normativity’), and which is implicit in Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defence. One exception is Enoch, ‘An outline of an argument for robust metanormative realism’, which sketches a positive argument for robust realism by arguing for the deliberative indispensability of non-natural objective norms.
42. fn4242 Notice that common realist arguments that appeal to our parallel normative commitments in the epistemic realm are not positive arguments for believing in the existence of practical norms (for accepting D/RM). They are just ways of resisting arguments against their coherence – they are arguments for (C), and in themselves they only establish that such norms could exist, not that they do.
43. fn4343 See, e.g. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong; S. Blackburn, Essays on Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). As noted earlier, another way of arguing against RM is to show that objective facts can’t occupy the value-role.
44. fn4444 I’m not suggesting that we could have epistemic access to objective value without possessing the relevant concepts. What’s at question is whether we could have such access if our discourse doesn’t include these concepts. In other domains epistemic progress often involves acquiring new concepts, and we saw earlier that the relevant concepts are already available.
45. fn4545 See, e.g. Parfit, ‘Normativity’; Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism.
46. fn4646 D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 125-126.
47. fn4747 This semantic intuition could be endorsed even by an error theorist – someone who accepts (A) but rejects (C) and therefore (D). Strictly speaking, the robust realist probably only needs such examples to support (A), given that once it’s shown that our evaluative discourse is realist, there are plenty of other firm beliefs that could support (B).
48. fn4848 See, e.g., A. Miller, An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), p. 8.
49. fn4949 Discussing realism about the physical world, Devitt has similarly argued that “[r]ealism says nothing semantic at all beyond … making the negative point that our semantic capacities do not constitute the world” (M. Devitt, Realism and Truth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2nd Edition, 1991), p. 39). Devitt however is arguing against a purely semantic interpretation of debates about realism.
50. fn5050 Actually, if robust realists want to defend RS (let alone if they must), then, since RS is contingent, they face a challenge. It’s familiar that realists face an epistemic challenge: they need to explain how we could ever know about non-natural facts with which we have no causal contact. But there is an overlooked prior conceptual challenge: realists need to explain how, even if RM is true, we ever came to acquire an objective evaluative discourse. Is this merely a fortuitous accident?
51. fn5151 This is why my aim here wasn’t to show that the reverse theory is true, but that the truth of RS isn’t necessary, or even especially important, for a defence of robust realism. There have been ingenious attempts to defend different forms of antirealist semantics. I have nothing to add to that literature, but it’s clear enough that we are not fast approaching a consensus on this semantic question. It’s not yet clear whether, and how, empirical work would advance us towards such a consensus. Indeed, one weakness of current empirical work on folk metaethics is that it simply overlooks the distinction between semantic and substantive (and potentially discourse-transcendent) evaluative intuitions.
52. fn5252 Ironically, this is also the conclusion of R. Dworkin, ‘Objectivity and truth: You’d better believe it’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 25 (1996), pp. 87–139, which denies that we can even make sense of semantic and metaphysical disputes about claims such as RS and RM.
53. fn5353 Kalderon finds the semantic focus of current metaethics similarly puzzling, though he draws from this the rather different lesson that realism is best understood as an ‘epistemological posture’ (see Kalderon, Moral Fictionalism, pp. 94-95, 142). As noted earlier, semantics would still be needed to clarify the nature of the value-role and what could occupy it.
54. fn5454 I am very grateful to several anonymous referees for extremely helpful comments. Work on this paper was partly supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust [WT087208MF].

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Affiliations: 1: Oxford University, Littlegate House, St. Ebbe’s Street, Oxford, OX1 1PT, UK,


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