Truth in Ethics and Epistemology: A Defense of Normative Realism

Dissertation, University of Rochester (2005)
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In this work I defend moral realism, the thesis that there are objective moral truths, by defending “epistemic realism.” Epistemic realism is the thesis that epistemic judgments, e.g., judgments that some belief is epistemically reasonable, or justified, or known or should be held, are sometimes true and made true by stance-independent epistemic facts and properties. One might think that epistemic realism needs no defense because it is obviously true and nearly universally accepted. But there are influential arguments against moral realism, which is analogous to epistemic realism: moral realists think that moral judgments, e.g., that something is morally good, or ought to be done, are sometimes true because there are stance-independent moral facts and properties. Moral irrealists deny this for a variety of semantic, metaphysical, psychological and epistemological reasons. They argue that moral judgments are neither true nor false since they are non-cognitive expressions of emotion or commands, or are never true since they fail to refer, or that their truth is “relative.” Drawing on the moral irrealisms of Ayer, Stevenson, Hare, Mackie, Harman, and more recent thinkers, I construct parallel arguments for epistemic irrealisms. On these views, epistemic judgments are also merely expressive, a kind of command, always false, or relativistic in truth conditions: even “epistemic platitudes” like “justified beliefs are better than unjustified beliefs” and “ideally, one’s beliefs ought to be consistent” are understood not as epistemic propositions that might be believed (much less believed truly), or as attempts to accurately represent epistemic facts, or as attributions of epistemic properties. The implications of these claims are highly at odds with common epistemological assumptions, even those that moral irrealists tend to accept. I argue that these implications are rationally unacceptable and that, therefore, the premises that support them should be rejected. Since these premises are those given in defense of moral irrealisms, I thereby defend both moral and epistemic realism. Thus, I argue that “oughts,” “shoulds” and other evaluative judgments are equally legitimate in both ethics and epistemology.

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Nathan Nobis
Morehouse College


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