What objective moral duties aren’t

In talking about the existence of objective moral duties with people I’ve found that there is some confusion as to what is meant by the term. I thought I’d use a small blog post to clear up some common misunderstandings of the term. To start, we have the following definition:

Moral duties are objective if they are binding independent of anyone’s opinions[1]

So there are certain actions that are right and wrong, and their rightness and wrongness are independent of what anyone thinks. People can be correct and incorrect about their moral evaluations of actions. This position could be called moral objectivism or moral realism (I prefer the latter). Now let’s consider two common misunderstandings of this position, and one possible misunderstanding I wish to pre-empt.

Realism is not Absolutism

I take the view of moral absolutism to say that there are certain acts that are right or wrong independent of the situation at hand. Notice how this is not what moral realism holds to. There’s nothing in the moral realist’s position that prevents him from agreeing that the rightness or wrongness of an action is totally dependent on the situation. What realism holds, rather, is that if some action is wrong in a given situation, then it is right or wrong independent on what anyone thinks; it is actually right or wrong. In short, realism involves independence of opinions, not situations.

Realism is not Universal Agreement

By “universal agreement” I mean that everyone agrees that an act in certain situation is right or wrong. It should seem obvious that the realist is not committed to this, since his very position denies the dependence on opinions that universal agreement requires. Nevertheless, many people tend to confuse the two claims. So, to be clear, the realist does not say that people will agree on what is right and wrong. Instead, they say that there is a correct answer to the question of an acts rightness or wrongness in a given situation. So, if you and I disagree over whether the murder of some person is justified or not, one of us is correct and the other is incorrect[2]. That we disagree means nothing for the realist, since he is not committed either way, nor does he require that we agree. In short, realism involves binding of duties, not agreement of them.

Realism is not a categorical denial of moral neutrality

By this I mean that the realist is not committed to saying that every act is either right or wrong. Only those acts for which we have duties can be right or wrong. This seems quite obvious, I admit, but I felt it should be said. The next logical question is how we figure out which actions aren’t morally neutral. The realist isn’t committed to a specific answer, for realism is a meta-ethical question, but the question of the content of our duties is a normative ethical question. In short, realism is about the nature of moral duties, not the content.

Notes

  1. This is in line with how we usually define “objective”. Think of things like “objective truth”, “objective world around us”, etc.
  2. Of course, in this case I’m assuming that murder is not objectively morally neutral. The choice of act, however, is irrelevant to the point at hand. All I need is an act that would not be morally neutral.

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