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Moral Realism.

It Depends

I'm a realist. That is: I have faith that reality exists and that I can learn about it.

This implies that there are true or false statements that can be made about reality.
So I might say as a true statement: On Earth the acceleration caused by the force of gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared. That is actually only an approximation because the Earth is not a perfect sphere and there are variations that depend on the actual structure of the Earth at a place. But we take the statement to be true because we think that we can refine the figure as much as we want given more information.

In 'Stranger In A Strange Land" Heinlein gave us the idea of a 'fair witness' (Anne in the story). If Anne was asked 'What color is yonder house?' she'd say 'the sides I can see are white.'

I take Anne as a realist. A sceptic might scoff: it is false to say that the house has a color at all. It's all in your head. Without a perceiver it is meaningless to speak of what color a house is. That is, there is no color in reality and it's all in your mind. And who is to say what is in your mind is the same as what is in my mind?

But then it must be asked right away; who is to say it's not? You can't jump from 'Maybe it's different' to 'It is different' We live in an age when color blindness is well known. I think one common accomodation is how traffic lights us both color and position or symbol to indicate the state of the system to drivers. But all such systems depend on drivers who have the capacity to see.

Can moral statements be true or false in the way that statements about reality can be true or false?
Moral realism asserts that.

I was reading a moral sceptic today (JL Mackie) who opened a famous essay (The Subjectivity of Values) with the bald statement "There are no objective values". Mackie holds that while moral values are built into our language and culture they don't objectively exist. For instance, that which is moral in one culture is not moral in another culture. How can a moral idea be objective if it isn't universal? For me, the moral sceptics fall into the absolutist trap - the platonic idea that nothing is objective unless it is perfect and eternally unchanging.

There is an easy way out of that trap.
We make moral judgements in a way much like we understand language. The basic structure is that information goes into a system and interpretation comes out. With language we are interpreting statements in many ways. With morality we are interpreting situations in terms of right and wrong. With language we have brains blessed by evolution with structures that can interpret combined with a culture that informs that structure. ie 'et' means 'and' in some languages and is a contraction of 'eat' in others

I hold that it is objectively true that 'et' means 'and' in French. In a similar (but more complicated way) abortion is 'good' in my culture but 'bad' in others What this points to is the fact that the goodness or badness of abortion is not given by reality at the level of atoms.

And I can take it as true that if you believe that souls are created at conception and that only God can terminate a soul - then for you - abortion is objectively wrong. I don't believe that and so for me abortion isn't really a moral issue. That's an objective stance too. In the sense that objective has to do with making statements that can be shown to be true or false.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.