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What are the strongest arguments for moral realism and are they conclusive.

Moral realism is a metaphysical standpoint that states the existence of objective moral
facts, in light of which moral judgements are true or false. These moral facts have
determinate truth values that exist independent of mental states, by which I mean
beliefs about what those truth values are and whether one can discover them. For
some contemporary moral realists like Boyd, moral realism is analogous to scientific
theories, such as physics, which are composed of primary laws that are not
determined by our attitudes, but can explain other phenomena, independent of how
one correctly or incorrectly theorizes about them1.
I am going to consider Richard Boyd’s argument for moral realism. I consider this
to be a strong argument in the sense that it cannot only be used to solve the two
problems Mackie presents in relation to the objectivity of morals but also shows the
parallels that can be drawn between scientific realism and moral realism in acquiring
knowledge about the moral good making moral realism a more plausible doctrine.
However, I am also going to consider some examples to show the incompatibilities of
human needs and morality that highlight how this account is far from conclusive.
Before considering the strengths of Boyd’s argument let us first understand Mackie’s
problems known as the metaphysical and epistemological queerness problems. The
former states that the existence of objective moral values would be relations or
entities that would be unlike anything else one could conceive of in the world. He
cites the example of Plato’s Form of the Good to show what these objective values
would have to be like in the world. If these strange moral properties were to be
instantiated, then, in relation to the knowledge of the good, they would have to
provide one with2;
“...both a direction and an overriding motive, something being good both tell the
person who knows this to pursue it and makes him pursue it. An objective moral good
would be sought by anyone who was acquainted with it, not because of any
contingent fact that this person, or every person, is so constituted that he desires this
end, but just because this end has to-be-pursuedness built into it.”
This suggests a sort of magnetic property within objective values that prescribes to the
knower what they ought to do. For example, human happiness is good, its objective

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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p163, Blackwell Publishing,2007
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The Subjectivity of Values, John Mackie, Foundations of Ethics, p20 Blackwell Publishing,2007
property, and thus should be pursued. Mackie asks how is this “to-be-pursuedness”
built into happiness? How can these moral facts have the sort of magnetic property
that are both an objective characteristic of reality and that internally generate reasons
for action independent of our attitudes and desires3.
His position is further supported by his epistemological argument4;
“If there were objective values and if we were aware of them, it would have to be by
some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our
ordinary ways of knowing anything else.”
Mackie argues that we do not have this special sense to discern these objective values,
since this implies that we possess a “faculty of moral intuition” that allows one to
perceive the objective rightness or wrongness of something. Furthermore, Mackie
asserts that to postulate a faculty of moral intuition is not sufficient in understanding
the rightness or wrongness of something. Mackie asks5;
“What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a piece of deliberate
cruelty say, causing pain just for fun-and the moral fact that it is wrong?”
Postulating this faculty does not help us to understand the “consequential link
between the two.6” As a result Mackie believes that it makes more sense to postulate a
subjective retort “which could be causally related to the detection of the natural
features on which the supposed quality is said to be consequential.7”
Let us now consider Boyd’s argument as a response to these problems. Boyd wanted
to demonstrate how our moral beliefs and methods are similar, in relation to their
objectivity and inter-subjectivity, to our conception of our scientific beliefs and
methods. He therefore attempted to demonstrate how scientific realism and moral
realism share common features. He asserts that scientific realism is the doctrine that
scientific methodology is adept in supplying knowledge of “unobservable
(theoretical) entities8”, for example electromagnetic fields and knowledge concerning
how observable phenomena behave. By understanding this scientific methodology
and applying it to our moral reasoning he believed that this would help us with a
“reliable method for obtaining and improving moral knowledge.9” Moral properties
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The Subjectivity of Values, John Mackie, Foundations of Ethics, p20 Blackwell Publishing,2007
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The Subjectivity of Values, John Mackie, Foundations of Ethics, p19 Blackwell Publishing,2007
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The Subjectivity of Values, John Mackie, Foundations of Ethics, p20 Blackwell Publishing,2007
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The Subjectivity of Values, John Mackie, Foundations of Ethics, p20 Blackwell Publishing,2007
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The Subjectivity of Values, John Mackie, Foundations of Ethics, p20 Blackwell Publishing,2007
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p166, Blackwell Publishing,2007
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p163, Blackwell Publishing,2007
such as good, wrong, just and unjust, exist in people’s actions, events, states of affairs.
The relationship between these can be ascertained through moral reflection and
disputation, in the same way as improvements in scientific knowledge can be made
through similar procedures10. This is the nature of the process of dialectic. Since
scientific explanation must stop at a set of basic facts, the moral realist will claim that
the same is true for morality. Consequently we should consider Boyd’s argument for
moral realism as an analogical argument.
This dialectical procedure is also present in his theory of knowledge. He believed
knowledge was an a posteriori matter11, and proposed a type of causal theory of
knowledge that included no foundational beliefs, but a reliable regulation of beliefs.
He believed that in order to attain a closer approximation to the truth we should
maintain our beliefs over time, since one cannot be certain that the beliefs they may
hold will result in yet more precise beliefs. Instead he asserts a dialectical method in
relation to belief regulation12,that would allow one to obtain and improve their
knowledge, whatever the theory they were considering, which would in turn allow
them to improve their chosen methodology used to discover and assess this
knowledge. Improvement is made in both because the dialectical method allows one
to incorporate the elements of truth from past beliefs while at the same time removing
the errors from these, thus allowing one to not only increase their knowledge about
the relevant subject but also improve their methodology for obtaining it13. In
demonstration of this, Boyd cites the example of “folk biology” prior to Darwin that
attributed the plant and animals adaptive and organizational features to God. However
this did not stop them from;
“accumulating the truly astonishing body of knowledge about anatomy, physiology
and animal behaviour upon which Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural
selection dependent, nor did it prevent them recognizing the profound biological
insights of Darwin’s theory.14”

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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p163, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p166, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p168, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p167, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p178, Blackwell
Publishing,2007
Science demonstrates the relationship between dialectic and reliable belief regulation.
For example the interaction between observing different phenomena and theoretical
considerations about unobservable entities allows scientists to “routinely modify or
extend operational measurements or detection procedures for theoretical magnitudes
or entities on the basis of new theoretical developments15.”
The new methodological procedures that result from these theoretical considerations
reliably regulate our scientific beliefs which reflect improvements in knowledge.
In order to demonstrate the analogous nature of scientific realism and moral
realism, Boyd has to demonstrate what our initial moral beliefs are. He believed that
these were concerned with “the important human goods, things which satisfy
important human needs16.” Whether these needs are approximately true enough, that
they will better our moral knowledge, is dependent upon on whether or not one can
reliably demonstrate that we have knowledge of these needs. In order to do this, we
may appeal to history that demonstrates that our understanding of human needs has
improved, for example the abolition of slavery in most of the civilized world. In
Ancient Greece, the fact that some people were considered just slaves, seemed
perfectly natural, but over time, we have examined these beliefs through this dialectic
procedure and have realized the importance of individuals social and psychological
needs, for example, “cultivated attitudes of mutual respect” and the “need to engage
in cooperative effort.17”
Thus both scientific realism and moral realism epitomize how the dialectical process
starts from approximately true beliefs and after successive approximations leads us to
an accurate account of truth in the world.
Furthermore, having seen the analogous nature of these doctrines in relation to their
procedures for obtaining knowledge, we might further consider that since scientific
terms refer to natural kinds, this could be equally true for moral concepts. Thus
Boyd’s moral realism should be considered naturalistic, since he holds that moral
properties are constituted by natural properties that we can only discover and
understand through a posteriori methods. However an initial problem for Boyd in this

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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p166, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p175, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p175, Blackwell
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recognition is how, given the range of moral properties, for example, goodness,
justice, temperance etc, they can stand in close approximation to one another.
A reason for his adoption of natural kinds is that they epitomize the differences
between “properties, relations, magnitudes18” as they are found in nature. These can
be referred to in both scientific and moral reasoning allowing them to be revised when
new evidence becomes available, which makes natural kinds more appropriate than
analytic or stipulative definitions that tell us nothing about their differences between
properties and relations of terms.
Boyd believed that natural kinds could be defined in two different ways. The first is
that natural kinds satisfy the necessary and sufficient conditions that are particular for
that kind. For example, for something to be water it must necessarily have the
conditions of two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms for it to be considered water19.
His homeostatic cluster definition is the other way of defining natural kind terms that
involves a;
“...collection of properties such that the possession of an adequate number of these
properties is sufficient for falling within the extension of the term.20”
Furthermore “there is some inderminacy in extension legitimately associated with
these property cluster definitions21” in that it is difficult to tell whether or not objects
epitomize the properties in question. The properties that compose these cluster
definitions have a homeostatic relationship;
“...in the sense that they co-occur in an important number of cases and either the
presence of some of the properties tends (under appropriate conditions) to favour the
presence of the others, or there are underlying mechanisms or processes which tend to
maintain the presence of the properties or both.22”
The reason why the extensions of some terms are indeterminate is because an object
may possess only a few of the properties in the homeostatic property cluster, and
because of this, it may be difficult to decide whether to include the object in this
natural kind. This is made clearer in Boyd’s example of biological species, which he
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p170, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p171, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p171, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p171, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p171, Blackwell
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argues have “imperfectly shared and homeostatically related morphological,
physiological and behavioural features which characterize its members.23” One cannot
be too precise when defining biological species because an animal may have the
necessary and sufficient physiological characteristics, but not a behavioural feature
but yet still be considered a member of that biological species. For example, in
relation to the cat family, there are many differences that can be drawn between a
domestic cat and a lion, and yet they are still considered as members of the same
biological family.
Boyd proposes a type of naturalistic theory of reference in addition to his account of
natural kinds. Boyd asserts that;
“The connection between causal theories of reference and naturalistic theories of
knowledge and definitions is quite intimate: reference is itself an epistemic notion and
the sorts of causal connections which are relevant to reference are just those which are
involved in the reliable regulation of belief.24”
In this way he tries to incorporate the dialectical procedure, allowing us to refine the
use of our terms. For example, the term earth was originally causally connected to a
set of properties, for example it is flat. Subsequently based on the voyages of
discovery by for example, Christopher Columbus, beliefs about the shape of the world
changed, as it became clear that the shape of the world was in fact spherical. As a
result our beliefs about the world have become more accurate.
Having considered Boyd’s assertions about natural kinds and his theory of reference
for those, we are now in a position to reflect on the moral good in relation to the
homeostatic property cluster definition. These are those “things which satisfy
important human needs.25” These human needs are natural facts on the basis that the
cluster of properties that occur together are not causally dependent upon our beliefs.
These properties include those that are;
“…physical or medical. Others are psychological or social; these include the need for
love and friendship, the need to engage in cooperative efforts, the need to exercise

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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p172, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p170, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p175, Blackwell
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control over one’s own life, the need for intellectual and artistic appreciation and
expression, the need for physical recreation etc26.”
I understand his view of moral goodness to be composed of the moral properties that
promote personal well being, personal autonomy, cooperation, love and friendship.
Boyd asserts that this bunch of natural facts regarding human needs reveals the
essence of the moral term of goodness. Any action that promotes any of these could
under Boyd’s perspective be considered morally good. For this reason we should
understand Boyd’s moral realism to be consequentialist.
The presence of these needs mutually support the presence of others. For example the
need for friendship with another may mutually support the love for that person. The
causal connections that unify the cluster of properties that define moral goodness are
social and psychological homeostatic mechanisms that include;
“…cultivated attitudes of mutual respect, political democracy, egalitarian social
relations, various rituals, customs, and rules of courtesy, ready access to education and
information, etc.27”
Any action that satisfies one of these important human needs can be considered
objectively good, since these actions will have this feature independent of our beliefs
or attitudes about them.
Let us now consider how Boyd’s argument can be considered strong in the respect
that it can be employed to answer the problems of “queerness” raised by Mackie.
Boyd would refute the metaphysical problem of queerness, on the grounds that moral
facts are analogous to natural facts. He concurs with the naturalists that there is no
connection between natural facts, in this case, moral goodness and reasons for action.
However he explains the close connection between these in another way. He begins
by asserting the standard naturalistic response;
“that the natural property moral goodness is one such that for psychologically normal
humans, the fact that one of two choices is morally preferable will in fact provide
some reason for preferring it.28”
This is compatible with the homeostatic consequentialist definition of good, since the
good is defined as the important human need. However, he wanted to further this by
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p175, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p175, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p182, Blackwell
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showing how people who are not motivated by moral facts have “some sort of
cognitive deficit.29” For Boyd, the logical connection between natural facts
concerning morality and motivations, rests on the basis that anyone who understands
these facts will in turn be motivated by them. Those who aren’t motivated suffer from
a cognitive deficit similar to a perceptual deficit.
Furthermore, he employs Hume’s notion that everyone has a certain degree of
sympathy which plays both a cognitive and motivational role in moral reasoning. The
cognitive role is the “capacity to imagine themselves in the situation of others30” and
to recognise another’s well being or not in relation to “the homeostatic cluster of
moral goods31” and finally to “anticipate correctly the probable effects on others
wellbeing of various counterfactual circumstances32.”This process makes moral facts
“motivationally relevant.33” Thus moral facts are an objective feature of reality in a
similar way as natural facts are in science. They don’t internally generate reasons for
action, but rather when one understands them, they will in turn be motivated by them.
In response to the epistemological problem of queerness, Boyd would simply
posit that we come to know about moral facts using the same procedures used to
discover natural facts. An example is observation which in turn helps us to achieve a
reflective equilibrium amongst our beliefs. Since our natural conception of goodness
“is an ordinary natural property34” we might expect that we are able to observe it in
the same way as we observe the natural properties in science. The homeostatic
consequentialist conception of goodness;
“…is a property quite similar to the other properties studied by psychologists,
historians and social scientists.35”

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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p182, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p183, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p183, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p183, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p183, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p177, Blackwell
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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p177, Blackwell
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Consequently Boyd concluded that observations can be used in the same way in moral
investigation as it does “in the other kind of empirical inquiry about people.36” By
appealing to social sciences we can observe what constitutes the important human
needs, and what satisfies them, and thus they don’t need to be perceived by any kind
of special faculty.
However, a weakness is that he assumes that we can work out what the
important human needs are and what satisfies them, from an empirical analysis of the
consequences of our actions. Despite sounding good in theory, some of these needs
are incompatible in practice. For example, let us consider a realistic moral dilemma
that demonstrates how promoting personal well being, love and friendship could all
be incompatible, from which I will conclude that Boyd needs to offer more in terms of
the metaphysical nature of moral properties other than that they are clustered together
and mutually support one another.
Mike is very tired and stressed with his job. Prior to this he promised to go and visit
his son, whose newly married wife that Mike does not like, is having a birthday. A
week before he is expected, Mike visits a doctor in relation to his stress, who
recommends taking a week off work. According to Boyd’s homeostatic property
cluster definition, if an act promotes personal well being, which if we take to be
health, then it is morally good. In this respect, the consequence of not going would be
considered morally good. Despite Mike believing that the trip would further exhaust
his mental resources, he believes that making an effort on behalf of his love for his
son, and extending his friendship to the wife would be a good thing. Another property
of this cluster definition Boyd gives about moral goodness is the promotion of love
and friendship, important human needs that need to be satisfied. Thus under such
criteria, a consequence of making the trip out of love for his son and forming a bond
of friendship with his wife would also be considered as morally good.
Thus we can see from this example that since Boyd offers us no more concerning the
metaphysical nature of moral properties other than that they are clustered together and
an action that satisfies one of them is considered good, then it is difficult to discern
from an empirical analysis of the consequences of going or not going which would be
considered the good. Which of the “going or not going” satisfies the most important

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How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, p177, Blackwell
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human need in this dilemma? Boyd’s account does not tell you. As a result I feel that
it is far from conclusive.
Consequently a normative consequentialist theory like utilitarianism may be a better
guide when considering the most important human need in scenarios like this, because
the only needs that would have to be satisfied are the maximization of happiness or
the minimizing of pain. This is an easier method to employ than Boyd’s account and
would lead to more conclusive results.
A further problem with Boyd’s account relates to his belief that there are sociological
and political conditions that support the homeostatic conception of good and that we
should study empirically what these conditions are and then try to bring them about.
In this way ethics would be like a science. However a problem with this, as Berlin has
pointed out in regard to Machiavelli is that some “unavoidable political ends can be
achieved only by means that are morally evil.37” Take for example China, and there
one child per family policy. If a family has more than one child, that child is aborted.
Although this is considered morally evil, it is a political necessity to prevent further
overcrowding in an already overpopulated country. From this example we can see the
incompatibility of human liberty to procreate without restriction as opposed to the
dictate of the state which is stated for the benefit of the whole community. This is a
practical example demonstrating that if you want to satisfy human needs then you
may have to employ morally questionable means.
I conclude that Boyd’s account is strong in providing an effective response to
Mackie’s critique and showing the parallels between scientific realism and moral
realism in acquiring knowledge about the moral good, both of which make moral
realism a more plausible doctrine. However as a result of the examples and criticism I
have provided I find it a far from conclusive theory in that it does not take into
account the incompatibility of human needs and moral values and consequently Boyd
needs to offer more in response to this.

Bibliography:

37
The Originality of Machiavelli, Against the Current, Essays in the history of ideas, Isaiah Berlin,
p28-9,Pimlico, 1997
• The subjectivity of Values, John Mackie, Foundations of Ethics, Blackwell
Publishing, 2007
• How to be a moral realist, Richard N. Boyd, Foundations of Ethics, Blackwell
Publishing, 2007
• The Originality of Machiavelli, Against the Current, Essays in the history of
ideas, Isaiah Berlin, ,Pimlico, 1997