Realism 01. We are going to take a brief look at moral realism. This is designed to prepare us for a seminar on the topic. On WebCT a seminar means, or at least what I think it means, posting a paper and having others raise questions about it. Moral realism gets pretty complex, so I think it is a good topic for a seminar.
One idea about moral realism that we cover in this section strikes me as a good way to go. In involves reasoning about the best explanation. How can we best explain moral judgments? By some objectively existing fact? Or by something else, maybe by psychological dispositions? I don’t think that either one gives the best explanation. Maybe after our seminar we can get a better handle on this and other issues related to moral realism.
Realism 02 The flip side of moral realism is moral relativism. I often say in class, but don’t get to say much on the web, that the philosopher who is most often right is John Dewey. Peirce, who most influences me, is probably mostly wrong, but that’s a different issue. Dewey’s correct analyses come at a cost. They are often vague. For example he more or less rejects the distinction between subject and object. The cost here is that he is left somewhere in the middle, without a fully adequate explanation, in my opinion. I was about to say that I don’t like either moral realism or moral relativism, and think that the correct view is somewhere in between. That’s easy enough to say, but what is the correct view? Unfortunately, the correct view is surely much more complex than either of those positions.
Realism 03. We need to be aware of the distinction between cultural and moral relativism. One is a sociological or anthropological doctrine and involves observations of what people believe and how they act. The ethical doctrine prescribes behavior. It tells us how we ought to act. We might accept cultural relativism and reject moral relativism. Moral and cultural relativism do give us some good advice. We say that all law is local. That is false, but it is true that some law is local. I think that some morality is local. For example, you don’t need to study bioethics for too long before you realize that some key values are local. Informed consent is one. In means different things in Italy, China, and in the U.S. But in each place the different sense of informed consent has a very powerful moral force. This should be taken seriously.