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Realism, Naturalism, and Moral Semantics*

  • David O. Brink (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 January 2009

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.

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David O. Brink , Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Peter Railton , “Moral Realism,” Philosophical Review 95, no. 2 (1986): 163207

Stephen Darwall , Allan Gibbard , and Peter Railton , “Toward Fin de Siècle Ethics: Some Trends,” Philosophical Review 101, no. 1 (1992): 115–89, esp. 117–18.

Hilary Putnam , “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” reprinted in his Mind, Language, and Reality, vol. 2 of his Philosophical Papers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

Michael Slote , “The Rationality of Aesthetic Value Judgments,” Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 22 (1971): 821–39.

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

Terence Horgan and Mark Timmons , “New Wave Moral Realism Meets Moral Twin Earth,” Journal of Philosophical Research 16 (19901991): 447–65

Terence Horgan and Mark Timmons , “Troubles for New Wave Moral Semantics: The Open Question Argument Revived,” Philosophical Papers 21, no. 3 (1992): 153–75

Terence Horgan and Mark Timmons , “Troubles on Moral Twin Earth: Moral Queerness Revived,” Synthese 92, no. 2 (1992): 221–60.

T. M. Scanlon , “Utilitarianism and Contractualism,” in Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams , eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

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