Want to Discover Moral Truth? Part 3 How to Be a Moral Realist by Richard Boyd

Holy Crap! It’s 4:10am and I’m going to start this now?  Am I insane?  Yup.  Actually, I have to do a presentation on this articles in 2 days so I’m forcing myself to get through the entire article tonight so tomorrow I can pick and choose the parts I’ll use for my presentation.

I should add, as I’ve mentioned before, I am extremely grateful to those of you who take the time to read my blog.  I know that some of this stuff may not be the most exciting content.  But how can I be expected to compete with cute lol catz?  But seriously, knowing there is a small, yet, loyal audience inspires me to learn and write more and betterly…and be further indoctrinated by those “snobish professors with a liberal agenda”.  So, thank you.

Notes and Thoughts on “How to Be a Moral Realist” by Richard Boyd


Read Parts 1 and 2.

Two Epistemological Challenges to Moral Realism

Both of these challenges fall out of the claim that moral realism is conflating our construction of moral value with its discovery.  Lets flesh this out a bit.  Recall back in part 1 when we were talking about realist epistemology, there was this idea that there is a positive feedback loop between our moral intuitions and our moral reasoning…

This idea comes from the close analogy Boyd proposes between how we acquire scientific knowledge and how we acquire moral knowledge.  The basic idea is that improvements in theory will improve our methods of inference, and those improved methods of inference will improve our theories.  Note that methods of inference can include both explicit (like deduction and statistical methods) and implicit methods (like the the types of intuitions a good scientist develops with experience and deep theoretical knowledge).

Two important issues arise when we apply this model to moral thinking.  First of all, the positive dialectic between method and theory only works if we’ve started with an approximately good (i.e., true) theory and method, although with some failings. The second issue is to give a plausible account of what the moral analogue to scientific observation will be.  Scientists have lab coats, test tubes, and bunsen burners; that shit’s ‘fficial and objective.  What does moral observation gots?


Lets deal with observation first.  Boyd’s answer to moral realism’s analogue to scientific observation is: “observation”.  Wut you talkin’ ’bout Boyiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid?  You try’na get crazy with us ese?

Ok, lets give him a chance.  He reasons that since goodness is a natural property then, just like any other natural property, observation is how we’z gonna come to know ’bout it.  Consider the properties studied by psychologists, historians, sociologists and such.  The properties these fields study are non-physical yet are all studied empirically.  Some of these types of observations will involve introspection, some will involve observation of oneself.  And some will require trained observation by experts (read: snobbish liberal indoctrinators).  Ahh, I really can’t let that Santorum remark go.  I should.  But it’s difficult.  Sooo difficult.

Of course our moral observations will be influenced by the moral framework within which we see the world, but this is no objection since all sciences–hard or soft–operate the same way.  Baaaaat there is a difference!  Our scientific theories are constrained by the hard facts of reality to make them approximately true.  I can believe that mind can overcome matter all I want but reality will constrain this theory when I try to walk through a wall.  Which brings us to the next challenge moral realism has to overcome–that reality will constrain its theories sufficiently to make them approximately true.

Approximate Truth of the Starting Point

The quextion we need to answer is whether we are correct to suppose that “we have had background moral beliefs sufficiently near the truth that they could form the basis for subsequent improvement of moral knowledge in the light of further experience and further historical development”.  Otherwise stated: Is what we know about human goods and the mechanisms by which we realize them sufficient to act as a guide to gradual progress and expansion of these goods?

Boyd thinks that the answer is yes.  We do know enough about human goods, mechanisms of their fulfillment, and observation for there to be gradual progressive development of moral theory through reflective equilibrium.

My non-skeptic, non-philosopher self agrees with him if we limit the claim to certain cultures.  But that tom-foolery aside, I don’t think this argument does anything to temper my intuition that moral progress is not so much a matter of discovering natural properties but of our after-the-fact ascription of moral notions to things that agree with us and/or become cultural norms.

But enough about me, lets talk about Boyd.  For Boyd, once we grant that indeed we do know enough about human goods and mechanisms for their augmentation that there can be a positive feedback loop, then “we may now treat moral intuitions exactly on par with scientific intuitions“.  He acknowledges that moral intuitions needn’t have a foundational role in moral understanding nor be a substitute for observation.  However, just as good scientists develop legitimate intuitions that are embedded in fruitful theories, we can say the same of moral intuitions: if they are embedded in “approximately true” moral theories, they are a legitimate means of acquiring knowledge.

Ok, even though I put that above quote in italics, it’s still a bold statement.  I think it’s a bit of stretch to say the two kinds of intuition are on par.  Given the constraints on scientific inferences are much greater than those on moral inferences and I don’t think the methodologies come close in level or objective rigour.  Also, the mechanisms by which moral observations can be distorted are much more difficult to control for than for scientific observation (hard sciences, anyway).  

Boyd will probably counter that that isn’t the point.  All he needs to get moral realism going is that we accept that our moral theory is approximately true enough for there to be reflective equilibrium.  I don’t have a clear argument for why I disagree, probably cuz it’s 530 in the morning, but something’s gone awry with his reasoning.  For now I’m just going to say that I refudiate his conclusion.  I don’t think moral intuitions are on par with scientific intuitions because they are respectively constrained to different degrees.

The God Objection

Another possible argument against the naturalist moral realist is that for most of human history people have believed that some sort of supernatural entity grounded moral law.  If moral values are natural properties, then, most people been (and continue to be) wrong about the source of morality.  This is contradicts what the realist just said, that our moral theory is currently at a place where it is approximately true.

Boyd replies that, while they were wrong about the source of morality, this did not prevent them from making correct moral judgments about fundamental human goods.  The judgments about fundamental human goods were correct enough for their moral theory to be approximately true, and allow for progressive reflective development.

He draws an analogy to biology.  Pre-darwinian biologists (and unfortunately, many present-day Americans) attributed all order and organization of life to sweet baby jesus.  But the fact that they mis-attributed the source of the order did not prevent them from developing important knowledge in biology.  What’s important is they got enough of it right to allow for progressive reflective development to get started.

Note: I never managed to finish this last night, so, picking up from last night….

Moral Knowledge Is Easier to Explain than Scientific Knowledge

I’m just gonna warn you right now, shit’s about to get loco up in herr.  So, check it aus.  In the 17th Century, modern chemistry was born but it was based on the incorrect idea that all matter was made of corpuscules. It a lot of ways it was kind of a lucky guess but the idea that all matter had micro-structure, despite getting the details wrong, was sufficient to get modern chemistry off the ground.  But how did they arrive at this idea?  In many ways it a lucky guess.  It was more or less accidental.  It was not a belief that was produced by particularly reliable mechanisms of belief production.

Now, this here’s going to blow your mind.  The mechanisms by which we have come to our homeostatic-cluster-o’-human-goods idea are much more reliable than the ones that produced the ideas of corpuscular theory.  Recall that our beliefs about what constitute the homeostatic cluster o’ human goods is arrived at through our understanding of human needs.  Who better to understand human needs (our own and of others) than humans?  It is entirely plausible that the evolutionary and psychological mechanisms for understanding these needs is reliable where as the we know that the belief producing mechanism for early chemistry were not.  Boyd summarizes that it is “easier, not harder, to explain how moral knowledge is possible than it is to explain how scientific knowledge [is possible]”.

Wrap your big head around that!  Again, I think there’s something to his idea that the belief producing mechanisms for beliefs about human goods is more reliable than they are for science.  However, there is a prollem.  Suppose he’s right.  It’s going to be hard to account for the fact that in just under 400 years of modern science and only a teeny tiny fraction of the population working as scientists, scientific knowledge has exploded and progressed; whereas, after 2300 years (if we use Ancient Greek philosophy as a starting point) and the entire population thinking about morality, we haven’t made close to the amount of progress we see in science.  If I could make that sentence shorter I would. Sorry.

How do we explain non-western cultures that have been around for 1000s of years that still mutilate women’s genitals  and treat them as barely better than livestock?  Where is the progress we should see if we are starting on even better footing than science did?


What are the big bugaboos for moral realism?  (1) How to explain the wide variation in moral concepts between cultures, individuals, and groups which is purportedly best explained by a constructivist framework; (2) how to explain the wacky idea that moral terms refer to properties that can be explained in the language of natural science.

How can the moral realist meet these 2 challenges?  the general approach will be to shew that moral terms are naturalistic but not reducible to specific natural definitions.  This is the whole concept of homeostatic definitions.  For this line of response to work the moral realist needs to further shew that (A) there are good reasons to see moral definitions as grounded in natural phenomena rather than being stipulative; (B)  there are good reasons to think that our every day use of moral terms reference real moral properties; that is, our use of moral terms like ‘good’ are constrained by reality.

Ok, Mr. moral realist, convince me of (A).  I don’t fancy Boyd’s reason for (A) to be too convincing.  He offers a couple of arguments.  The first sounds a little like fancy footwork.  He says that it is the homeostatic cluster-o’-properties nature of moral terms that explains why there is variation.

That is, some people’s conception of the good might have a little more concern for a particular set of human needs, while others might give a little more preference to another set.  Think of the ‘cozy’ example.  One house might be have a nice warm fire place and the other some quaint wood furniture covered in large fluffy pillows.  That the two houses aren’t identical is no reason not to call them both cozy.  The same applies to ‘good’, that’s why we can have different conceptions of it.

As I’ve said elsewhere, a constructivist story also explains varying uses of the same moral terms.  So far, Boyd hasn’t given me a compelling reason to pick the realist story, unless that’s the position I already started with.  Lets check out his next argument.

His second argument is that the progressively changing nature of our conception of the good, in light of new evidence about human needs and potential, is best explained by moral realism.  The idea is as we discover more about human needs we are discovering more about the property of ‘goodness’.

But, again, I don’t see why we should prefer this to a constructivist account.  It seems equally likely that after discovering new human needs we later come to describe their fulfillment as good.  But this happens after the fact.  We aren’t discovering an aspect of something that was heretofore hidden from us.  Think of the expansion of suffrage to women.  After observing that it is a human need to have equal gender participation in the political process were we discovering an already existant aspect of goodness?  Or did we merely expand our notion of good to include women’s suffrage because we observed it fulfilled a human need?

Ok, I’m just going to admit right here that I’ve kind of lost my line of thought and may have gone off track in terms of structuring this entry, so bare with me as I try to get it back on track…

I think I’m supposed to talk about bugaboo #(2), that moral terms refer to properties that can be explained in the language of natural science.  To support this Boyd has to appeal to (B) and shew that our use of moral terms is constrained by objective reality.  In other words, I can’t just use the word ‘good’ to refer to anything (if I want its use to be intelligible).

I’m going to agree that it would be unintelligible for me to use the term ‘good’ to describe murder of innocents but does it necessarily follow that this is because the word’s usage is constrained by reference to natural properties?  Maybe.  But might it not also be just as likely that we can explain away this constraint by appeal to convention?  Isn’t it just the convention of a language community that constrains how I use words?  I don’t see why we should accept one explanation over the other.

Hard Cases and Divergent Views
Supposing that moral realism is true, there are two other objections they have to handle: hard cases and divergent view.  ‘Hard cases’ refers to hollow reinforced objects used to transport other objects.  Another definition is that hard cases are moral dilemmas for which there is no obvious solution, even between people who share a moral culture.  The difficulty is magnified when we consider how people of different moral cultures would approach a hard case.

The non-realist can avoid this difficulty because they are making no claims about objective moral values.  But of course, this is not true of the realist.  

What’s a realist to do?  Well, clever Boyd has already laid the groundwork for an esplanation.   Recall his homeostatic property-cluster definitions.  Recall also that due to their homeostatic nature they are not always bivalent (that is, they are not always, necessarily either true or false).  

It’s kind of like the notion of species.  At what point do we say a particular group of a species has evolved to the point that we should call them a new species?  There’s no clear line.  Of instances on the extreme ends of the spectrum between two species that share the same genus we can say of a specimen whether it is or isn’t a member of one of the species.  But a specimen somewhere in the midway point of evolving from into another species, there’s no true of false answer to the question.  

Ok, I can dig that the whole homeostatic property-cluster non-bivalence thing.  Most social sciences have such terms and biology does too.  The next confounding factor for why there can be diverging moral views–even though there are real moral values–is that class interests and other cultural factors can distort analysis.  

Now things are starting to sound just a little too convient for the moral realist.  His problem is to account for how there can be such divergent views on moral good.   He’s so far given us one account, which is that ‘good’ isn’t always true of false of something.  Now he’s saying that also, analysis of these differences can be clouded by social distortion and bias.  Next he says that another confounding factor is that moral issue are incredibly complex and controversial.  

All of what he is saying is true but here’s my problem with it: how can we distinguish between a legitimate case where, on a moral judgment, one group “gets it right” (and the other wrong), and a case where the disagreement is only apparent because of all the confounding factors?  Especially if both groups have moral frameworks that are approximately true enough were recursive progress occurs.
I don’t see how this can be done (unless we presuppose a prior objective standard).  Not so say this proves realism is false, but I think it tilts plausibility in favour of constructionists.

An interesting tangential suggestion Boyd makes is that most moral disagreements could be resolved if there were total agreement on non-moral facts.  For instance, if there were unanimous agreement on exactly what human needs ought to be satisfied to what respective degrees, moral realism predicts most moral disagreements would dissipate.  That koo.  But, assuming rational actors that are concerned about morality, I don’t see why this doesn’t preclude a constructivist interpretation. 

Well, tangents aside, does Boyd succeed in giving a realist account of moral disagreement and hard cases?  I think he give a decent defense but I’m not convinced he’s made a convincing positive case. 

Morality, Motivation, and Rationality

The final objection typically aimed at moral realism is that it does not give a good account of (what people think should be) a logical connection between moral judgments and reason for action.   Otherwise stated, if we come to judge/know that something is morally good then this should necessarily provide a reason to act in accordance with that judgment.  Facts on their own, especially natural facts, don’t provide this logical connection to rational choice or reasons for action.  The argument concludes that since natural facts can’t motivate action, they must not exist.  So, moral realism is false.  

In all honesty I think this is a crap argument against realism but lets look at it for fun…yay!  The moral realist can simply deny that knowledge of moral facts necessitates it motivating action.  People can come to know what is morally right, yet not have that knowledge motivate them to act.  I think people like this exist.  I don’t think there has to be a necessary link between moral knowledge and motive for action.  Some people be wack.

That’s possible.  Know what else it possible?  I’ll tell you….that psychologically normal humans will act in accordance with what they believe to be morally good.  It’s not the facts that do the motivating, it’s just part of our psychology because the homeostatic definition of ‘good’ is tied to human needs.  Because we, as fellow humans, can understand and thus sympathize with the needs of others, we will tend to act in such a way that will anticipate correctly the probable effect of our actions on others.  I can dig that.  

Conversely, if we say that it is moral facts that must motivate, then in cases where people don’t act in a way we’d expect, we have to say that they just didn’t perceive the right moral facts.  That doesn’t sound right.  We do have clear examples of people do who know intellectually what the correct moral facts are, yet don’t act in accordance with them.  So, I’m with the realists on this one. 

It is the psychological capacity for sympathy and compassion that motivate action, not moral facts.  People who don’t have these psychological capacities are not motivated by moral facts.  This is actually in line with modern psychology and neuroscience.  It is not logic that motives us to moral action but our psychology.  

Got damn! That was a long article.  Of course the article I’m doing my presentation on just happens to be the longest we’ve done in class so far…Anyway, you win 10 internets if you read all 3 and made it to the end. 

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