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Moral Anti-Realism

Introduction | Types of Moral Anti-Realism
Introduction Back to Top

Moral Anti-Realism (or Moral Irrealism) is the meta-ethical doctrine that there are no objective moral values.

It is usually defined in opposition to Moral Realism, which holds that there are indeed objective moral values, that evaluative statements are factual claims which are either true or false, and that their truth or falsity is independent of our perception of them or our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards them. Thus, Moral Anti-Realism can involve either a denial that moral properties exist at all, or the acceptance that they do exist, but that their existence is mind-dependent and not objective or independent.

Types of Moral Anti-Realism Back to Top

There are several different forms, depending on whether ethical statements are believed to be subjective claims (Ethical Subjectivism), not genuine claims at all (Non-Cognitivism) or mistaken objective claims (Moral Nihilism or Moral Skepticism):

  • Ethical Subjectivism, which holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of the observers, or that any ethical sentence implies an attitude held by someone.

    • Moral Relativism (or Ethical Relativism): the view that for a thing to be morally right is for it to be approved of by society, leading to the conclusion that different things are right for people in different societies and different periods in history.
    • Divine Command Theory: the view that a thing is right if it is approved of, and commanded by, God. William of Ockham, a strong proponent of the theory, went so far as to argue that if God had commanded murder, then murder would indeed have been morally obligatory, and indeed that God could change the moral order at any time.
    • Individualist subjectivism: the view (put forward by Protagoras) that there are as many distinct scales of good and evil as there are individuals in the world.
    • Ideal Observer Theory: the view that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer (a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative and informed) would have.

  • Non-Cognitivism, which holds that ethical sentences are neither true nor false because they do not express genuine propositions, thus implying that moral knowledge is impossible. Again there are different versions:

    • Emotivism: the view, defended by A.J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson (1908 - 1979) among others, that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions, and ethical judgments are primarily expressions of one's own attitude, although to some extent they are also imperatives meant to change the attitudes and actions of other listeners.
    • Prescriptivism (or Universal Prescriptivism): the view, propounded by R.M. Hare (1919 - 2002), that moral statements function as imperatives which are universalizable (i.e. applicable to everyone in similar circumstances) e.g. "Killing is wrong" really means "Do not kill!"
    • Quasi-Realism: the view, defended by Simon Blackburn (1944 - ), that ethical statements behave linguistically like factual claims, and can be appropriately called "true" or "false" even though there are no ethical facts for them to correspond to. Blackburn argues that ethics cannot be entirely realist, for this would not allow for phenomena such as the gradual development of ethical positions over time or in differing cultural traditions.
    • Projectivism: the view that qualities can be attributed to (or "projected" on) an object as if those qualities actually belong to it. Projectivism in Ethics (originally proposed by David Hume) is associated by many with Moral Relativism, and is considered controversial, even though it was philosophical orthodoxy throughout much of the 20th Century.
    • Moral Fictionalism: the view that statements of a certain sort should not be taken to be literally true, but merely a useful fiction.

  • Moral Nihilism, which holds that ethical claims are generally false. It holds that there are no objective values (that nothing is morally good, bad, wrong, right, etc.) because there are no moral truths (e.g. a moral nihilist would say that murder is not wrong, but neither is it right).
    Error Theory is a form of Moral Nihilism which combines Cognitivism (the belief that moral language consists of truth-apt statements) with Moral Nihilism (the belief that there are no moral facts).

  • Moral Skepticism, which holds that no one has any moral knowledge (or the stronger claim that no one can have any moral knowledge). It is particularly opposed to Moral Realism (see above) and perhaps its most famous proponent is Friedrich Nietzsche.

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