The Best Argument Against Moral Realism, And The Reason Ethics Is Still More Important Than Ever

Moral realism refers to a world in which moral facts exist – there are objective ethical standards which can be discovered by humans. However, this world is not the one we live in, and I shall explain the best argument against moral realism below.



This morning I was watching an interesting interview that popped up on YouTube, when something someone said struck a chord. A political commentator was arguing that recent times in the UK illustrate a failure of our society to educate people on the difference between right and wrong. But does this make sense? Further, what does it mean to say that something is right or wrong independent of circumstance and context – objectively? Are some things always wrong? Finally, if this recent Islamic fundamentalism (which the interview was about) threatening Britain is objectively wrong, then how come? Well, all this boils down to one question, and that is whether or not objective, mind independent moral facts exist. Of course, this commentator must have believed they do. However I am going to explain why this is wrong, but why ethics is at the same time more important than it has ever been as a discipline.

First, let’s clarify what the interviewee got wrong. An expression of ‘failure to understand right and wrong’ is a tacit admission to moral facts existing in the external world, which, as moral agents, it is our job to go and find. Before defending my alternative position, I will explain why this is a flawed understanding of what morality is.

I have looked across all the major ethical positions – naturalism, non-naturalism, emotivism, relativism and so on – and found Mackie’s appeal to the radically queer nature of moral facts to be the strongest indication of their non-existence.  The argument, split into two parts, goes as follows.

The Best Argument Against Moral Realism

The first part concerns the metaphysics of morality, and the other concerns its epistemology. Put more simply, Mackie presupposes the existence of objective, mind independent moral facts, and then asks what the consequences are. Mackie identifies that this understanding of morality is basically one of a radically queer kind of property, such that it leads us to posit “qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe”. This is the metaphysical strand of the argument – in accepting moral realism (the belief that objective moral standards exist) we must accept that these weird properties exist. This leads us to ask questions such as ‘how can natural things in this universe possess intrinsically motivational properties?’. Indeed, Mackie thought that these notions were so strange and ‘queer’ that they were absurd to suppose, and therefore while not logically impossible, moral realism is a ridiculous position to hold. I find this line of argument utterly compelling, and urge any of you to read his work for yourself.

The second part of the argument looks at how it is that we can know about these properties. In order to know about such weird properties people would require “some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else”. While this strand of the argument is not as critical, it still draws attention to how ridiculous moral realism seems. We would need some special faculty of the mind which allows us to receive this data from the outside world and interpret it to inform ourselves as to what is right and wrong.

Mackie’s argument is to ask the following question – is it rational to posit the existence of all of this, while the alternative requires none of it? In a sense I suppose Mackie has applied the tool of Ockham’s razor – “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected”. Moral realism certainly rests upon an array of unproven assumptions, which is, at the end of the day, its downfall.

So now you know why I think it is wrong to say that anything is immoral in the sense that it diverges from objective moral standards which society has failed to teach us properly. These moral standards do not exist.

Does This Mean Morality Is Pointless?

In short, no it does not. Terrorism is still bad, generosity is still good, and morality is about identifying why this is the case.

In accepting moral irrealism, what we must do is redirect the question of Metaethics. The question is not about the actual nature of morality; the question is about what we mean when we use moral language.

R M Hare, seeing the flaws in other attempts to reconcile irrealist morality with meaningfulness, proposed a theory of morality that, in my opinion, hits the nail on the head (or, at least, comes closest to doing so).

Universal Prescriptivism

Hare’s theory is known as Universal Prescriptivism, and appears to be an attempt to advance Ethical Emotivism.  In fact, the theory is quite simple, and is based around one or two key tenets.

  1. When we make moral statements, like ‘abortion is wrong’, what we are actually doing is prescribing behaviour – we are telling other people not to do it.
  2. Because moral conclusions, such as ‘abortion is wrong’ are based on certain states of affairs in the world (like ‘foetuses feel pain’ etc.), whenever those states of affairs present themselves, we must rationally prescribe the same behaviour every time. This point is particularly important because it avoids the fundamental problem of emotivism, which is that it is inconsistent (and this is not how we use moral language).

While I shall not go into detail here, the reason I promote this theory of ethics as the correct one (or more accurately the least wrong one) is because it is the only theory I have come across to stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, there are no arguments which undermine it fatally.

So What Does This Mean For The Example Of Islamic Fundamentalism?

Prescriptivism tells us that when I say ‘terrorism is wrong’, I am prescribing certain courses of action. So it would seem that I am just telling other people what to do without foundation for my assertions. But this is not true. We can argue about the rational foundations upon which my prescription is based. I might argue with these fundamentalists about their interpretation of the Quran, or I might appeal to the ununiversalizability of terrorists’ own prescriptions. This means questioning whether a terrorist would always prescribe his or her actions to others if a relevantly similar scenario obtained. This is the true nature of moral discourse, and is what allows ethics to survive the apparent attack from moral irrealism.

I am still able to conclude, then, that terrorism is immoral. This is because there is no rational being who would prescribe the same action of terror in all conceivable relevantly similar scenarios. But more than this, I believe that terrorist ideology is fundamentally misguided, such that the foundations upon which terrorist prescriptions are formed are flawed.

Why Ethical Discourse Is More Important Than Ever Before

The reason ethical discourse is more necessary and urgent than ever is because moral agents’ prescriptions are more disharmonious than in times before now. More than this, it is because there is also an increasing ability for people to impose their beliefs on others with more technology and freedom.

If moral persuasions are not about real states of affairs in the world, but about interpreting natural events and making prescriptions based thereon, we need to be attempting to change the platform upon which certain moral agents make their prescriptions. That doesn’t mean eradicating people from the face of the earth. That doesn’t mean allowing minority peoples to continue spreading hatred through the world. That means information provision. That means a more concerted effort to give people all the facts available, which can in turn be used to formulate legitimate, valid moral conclusions. Whether this is possible, we will have to wait and see.


Do you agree that terrorism is not objectively immoral? Or do you have a different interpretation about what morality and ethics are concerned with? And what is your favourite argument against moral realism? Let me hear about it in the comments below!

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  1. I feel the only rebuttal one needs for not believing in moral realism (or objective morality as it’s called in my circles) is the simple fact that there are disputing morality systems. While most people will agree on some ethical issues, say, causing unneeded suffering is wrong, some people still do it, and maybe even enjoy it.

    Universal Prescriptivism, while it might seem sensible, isn’t exactly useful either. After all, Islamic radicals think that “jihad is moral” because the Koran says so, but anyone else would say “jihad hurts and kills innocent people and is immoral”. I don’t think you *can* apply a universal morality to everyone. While it’s an admirable thought, human morality is very subjective, and often irrational. I don’t see any way to apply one set of moral standards to everyone. And who gets to decide what standards we apply? I mean the “moral” thing for some people is to kill the disabled or sick. Whereas to me, I kind of don’t want to be killed because I got a shitty genetic code. I think there ought to be some universal standards (don’t murder and rape, mkay?), but I doubt I could force Crazy Susan to not rape and murder her way through a California Middle school on moral grounds.

    The only way I could think of to get most of humanity on board is just asking them if they’d want [bad thing] to happen to them. And even then, you’ll have the crazies who go “No, but I still want to do [bad thing] to others!”

  2. Also, I don’t see that Universal Prescriptivism is useful in deciding on any ethical proposition. If we use the abortion example and substitute in No 1. the statement “abortion is right”, then we are prescribing that abortion is acceptable behavior and it is allowed. Then in No. 2 if we insert “abortion is right” and “foetuses don’t feel pain’ etc.” the same argument that “we must rationally prescribe the same behaviour every time” holds. So the conclusion is that the Universal Prescriptivism as described in this post supports both the positions that “abortion is wrong” and that “abortion is right”.

    1. I don’t think so. Didn’t he say that you can still argue about the factual foundations for your agrument?

  3. The political commentator thinks terrorism is bad and attributes its increasing occurrence to a slackening of moral teaching in society. The author agrees that “terrorism is bad”. If the conclusions are the same, does it matter whether the this argument comes out of a belief in moral realism or not?

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