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Realism, Naturalism, and Moral Semantics*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

David O. Brink
Philosophy, University of California, San Diego


The prospects for moral realism and ethical naturalism have been important parts of recent debates within metaethics. As a first approximation, moral realism is the claim that there are facts or truths about moral matters that are objective in the sense that they obtain independently of the moral beliefs or attitudes of appraisers. Ethical naturalism is the claim that moral properties of people, actions, and institutions are natural, rather than occult or supernatural, features of the world. Though these metaethical debates remain unsettled, several people, myself included, have tried to defend the plausibility of both moral realism and ethical naturalism. I, among others, have appealed to recent work in the philosophy of language—in particular, to so-called theories of “direct reference” —to defend ethical naturalism against a variety of semantic worries, including G. E. Moore's “open question argument.” In response to these arguments, critics have expressed doubts about the compatibility of moral realism and direct reference. In this essay, I explain these doubts, and then sketch the beginnings of an answer—but understanding both the doubts and my answer requires some intellectual background.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2001

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1 This way of understanding ethical naturalism presupposes realism or at least cognitivism insofar as it presupposes that there are moral properties and that moral judgments ascribing moral properties to person, actions, and institutions can be true or false (with some being true). This, I think, is a traditional way of understanding ethical naturalism. It might be contrasted with a broader understanding, according to which the ethical naturalist simply tries to fit moral practices and judgments within a naturalistic worldview. Cf. Harman, Gilbert, “Is There a Single True Morality?” in Copp, David and Zimmerman, David, eds., Morality, Reason, and Truth (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1984).Google Scholar Notice that, on this broad understanding, various forms of moral skepticism and noncognitivism might qualify as forms of ethical naturalism.

2 Brink, David O., Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).CrossRefGoogle Scholar Cf. Boyd, Richard, “How to Be a Moral Realist,” in Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey, ed., Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Railton, Peter, “Moral Realism,” Philosophical Review 95, no. 2 (1986): 163207CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Sturgeon, Nicholas, “Moral Explanations,”Google Scholar in Copp, and Zimmerman, , eds., Morality, Reason, and Truth.Google Scholar

3 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), chap. 1, esp. pp. 717.Google Scholar

4 A number of commentators have interpreted one strand in the OQA as reflecting Moore's concern with the normativity of ethics. On this internalist reading, the OQA claims that moral properties could not be natural or supernatural properties, because no natural or supernatural property has the requisite internal or conceptual connection with practical reason or motivation that moral properties have. See, for example, Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan, and Railton, Peter, “Toward Fin de Siècle Ethics: Some Trends,” Philosophical Review 101, no. 1 (1992): 115–89, esp. 117–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar This may well be one strand in the OQA, but much of the OQA makes no appeal to internalist assumptions. Though much of my discussion carries over to the internalist reading, I focus on those parts of the OQA that do not presuppose internalism.

5 Moore, , Principia Ethica, 10, 13, 14, 16.Google Scholar

6 Moore, G. E., “Reply to My Critics,” in Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed., The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1942), 588.Google Scholar

7 See, for example, Brink, , Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, chaps. 6–7, esp. pp. 156–67, 172–80, 193–97.Google Scholar

8 On an individualistic version of the descriptional theory, ‘G’ means different things in the mouths of the orthodox and the heterodox. On this view, the heterodox is not making analytically false claims, but neither is he disagreeing with the orthodox—he has simply changed the subject. Thus, this version of the descriptional theory is also incapable of allowing for genuine disagreement.

9 These arguments are framed in terms of the traditional version of the descriptional theory and do not directly address other versions of the descriptional theory, like Searle's, that make the meaning of a term consist, not in a single (though perhaps complex) description, but rather in a cluster or family of descriptions, some but not all of which need to be satisfied in order for the term to refer. See Searle, John, “Proper Names,” Mind 67, no. 266 (1958): 166–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar However, like Kripke, I think that the arguments in the text apply, with only small modifications, to the cluster theories of descriptions. See Kripke, Saul, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 7477.Google Scholar

10 See Donnellan, Keith, “Reference and Definite Descriptions,” reprinted in Schwartz, Stephen P., ed., Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977)Google Scholar; Kripke, , Naming and NecessityGoogle Scholar; and Putnam, Hilary, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” reprinted in his Mind, Language, and Reality, vol. 2 of his Philosophical Papers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 In “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” Putnam conceives of meaning as a “vector” consisting of (a) syntactic markers; (b) semantic markers; (c) stereotypes, which do not determine extension; and (d) modal extension. Thus, the meaning vector for ‘water’ would be (a) mass noun; (b) natural kind, liquid; (c) transparent, odorless, colorless, potable; and (d) H2O.

12 However, the intuitionist's reasons for accepting the semantic test of properties—that all necessity is analytic—may also undermine the claim that moral properties, though not identical with natural properties, nonetheless strongly supervene on, and are constituted by, natural properties.

13 It is common to distinguish analytic truths, as those statements made true by virtue of the meanings of the words in which the statement is expressed, and synthetic truths, as those statements whose truth depends upon the way the world is and not simply the meanings of the words in which the statement is expressed. If analytic truths are simply statements made true by virtue of the meanings of the words in which the statement is expressed, then real definitions might express analytic truths, and so at least one way of defending ethical naturalism could be understood as a defense of analytical naturalism. It is common, however, to think that analytic truths ought to be comparatively obvious truths about which competent speakers ought to be authoritative. Insofar as this is part of analyticity, even the referentialist about meaning ought to reject analytical naturalism.

14 See Brink, , Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, 204–9Google Scholar; cf. Slote, Michael, “The Rationality of Aesthetic Value Judgments,” Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 22 (1971): 821–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 See Gampel, Eric H., “A Defense of the Autonomy of Ethics: Why Value Is Not Like Water,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26, no. 2 (1996): 191209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Especially with John G. Bennett.

17 See Horgan, Terence and Timmons, Mark, “New Wave Moral Realism Meets Moral Twin Earth,” Journal of Philosophical Research 16 (19901991): 447–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Horgan, Terence and Timmons, Mark, “Troubles for New Wave Moral Semantics: The Open Question Argument Revived,” Philosophical Papers 21, no. 3 (1992): 153–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Horgan, Terence and Timmons, Mark, “Troubles on Moral Twin Earth: Moral Queerness Revived,” Synthese 92, no. 2 (1992): 221–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The first two of these articles are most directly relevant to my present concerns.

18 Boyd, , “How to Be a Moral Realist,” 195.Google Scholar There is a puzzle here insofar as Boyd appears to commit the causal theory to successful reference, for I take fallibilism and the possibility of reference failure to be a defining feature of realism. However, perhaps Boyd would regard reference failure as a “degenerate” case.

19 Horgan, and Timmons, , “Moral Realism Meets Moral Twin Earth,” 455.Google Scholar

20 See Putnam, , “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’.”Google Scholar

21 However, there is an important difference between Putnam's Twin Earth and Moral Twin Earth. The difference between Earth and Twin Earth appears to be merely compositional—the stuff on Earth is H2O, whereas the stuff on Twin Earth is XYZ— and not to have wider functional significance. However, the difference between Earth and Moral Twin Earth appears not to be merely compositional. Presumably, different people, actions, and institutions will satisfy consequentialist and deontological standards. If people have the same commitments to morality on Earth and Moral Twin Earth, the differing standards will cause each planet's people to assess people, actions, and institutions differently; over the long run, this should affect the course of individual and social histories on Earth and Moral Twin Earth. Though the members of both planetary pairs—Earth and Twin Earth and Earth and Moral Twin Earth—are, as I said, otherwise indistinguishable, this caveat includes many more differences in the second pair than in the first. As it seemed important to Putnam's original arguments that differences between Earth and Twin Earth be minimized, the more extensive differences between Earth and Moral Twin Earth may complicate Timmons and Horgan's argument. In what follows, I ignore these complications, if only for the sake of argument.

22 This account of dialectical methods and dialectical equilibrium is, of course, similar to Rawls's account of reflective equilibrium. See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 1921, 4651, 578–81.Google Scholar See also Brink, David O., “Common Sense and First Principles in Sidgwick's Methods,” Social Philosophy and Policy 11, no. 1 (1994): 179201.Google Scholar

23 See Brink, , “Common Sense and First Principles in Sidgwick's Methods,” 184–87, 200.Google Scholar

24 For a fuller discussion of the resources within a dialectical method for dealing with moral disagreement, see Brink, , Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, 197209.Google Scholar

25 Donnellan, Kripke, and Putnam all recognize the importance of referential intentions in fixing reference; their importance is also stressed in Sidelle, Alan, Necessity, Essence, and Individuation: A Defense of Conventionalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).Google Scholar

26 Donnellan, , “Reference and Definite Descriptions,” 48.Google Scholar

27 Different speakers, or even the same speakers in different contexts, can employ different intentions with respect to the same word, though to do so they cannot have the intention to refer to whatever the other speakers are talking about. For instance, some speakers might use ‘fish’ to pick out a biological kind, in which case their use of ‘fish’ would not refer to whales. Other speakers or conversational contexts might not share this intention directly, or indirectly by way of an intention to refer to whatever the speakers with biological intentions were talking about. For instance, those who live by the sea might use ‘fish’ to pick out marine life, in which case their use of ‘fish’ would refer to whales. This kind of relativity of meaning or reference with respect to intention is perfectly compatible with the theory of direct reference.

28 These claims suggest that direct reference and descriptional theories need not be antithetical, provided that the descriptional theory gives the meaning of natural-kind terms in sufficiently abstract descriptions, the satisfaction of which is a potentially controversial substantive matter.

29 Cf. Hart, H. L. A., The Concept of Law, 2d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 159–60Google Scholar; Rawls, , A Theory of Justice, 5, 10Google Scholar; and Dworkin, Ronald, Law's Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 7072, 90.Google Scholar

30 There are dangers inherent in making any one description, however abstract, constitutive of the concept of morality, insofar as one ought to be quite liberal about what might count as a conception (however unorthodox) of morality. Another possible understanding of the concept of morality, which I will not explore further here, is that we count something as a moral code (however unorthodox) just in case its organizing principles make explanatory contact with some of our pretheoretical beliefs about morality.

31 For a contemporary statement of contractualism, see Scanlon, T. M., “Utilitarianism and Contractualism,” in Sen, Amartya and Williams, Bernard, eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).Google Scholar

32 Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals [1751], ed. Nidditch, P. H., 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), sec. 9, pt. 1.Google Scholar

33 Not surprisingly, this response to the relativist worry shares structural features with familiar responses to other relativist worries, in particular, the reply to relativist worries about moral disagreement that attempts to explain moral disagreement by finding shared or common principles that are applied in different empirical conditions, or at least in conjunction with different empirical beliefs.

34 If so, Boyd's semantic commitments turn out not to be robustly realistic.