A Short Review of Moral Realism by Russ Shafer-Landau

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

In his book Moral Realism: An Introduction, Russ Shafer-Landau argues for, unsurprisingly, moral realism. On the first page he explains that the project of this book is to explain how the moral law could be something not of our own making, something whose truth did not depend on the commitments of those who are bound by its dictates. He argues that moral judgements enjoy a special sort of objectivity, that when they are true, they are so independently of what any human being, anywhere, in any circumstance, may think of them.

Part 1: Realism And Its Critics

In part one of this book, Shafer-Landau provides a helpful catalogue of metaethical positions. In doing so he explains where his model fits in and how it conflicts with other positions. Broadly speaking, his model is cognitivist as opposed to non-cognitivist (sometimes referred to as moral expressivism). Within cognitivism, his model is realist as opposed to constructivist. (There are a variety of forms of constructivism including subjectivism, relativism, Kantianism, contractarian, and ideal observer theories.) Lastly, he rejects ethical naturalism, that is, the idea that moral facts are a kind of natural fact, one whose existence can be confirmed by the best natural or social scientific theories. Thus, his position, like G. E. Moore’s, is a version of non-naturalism, the view that moral truths are not natural facts nor can they be reduced to natural facts. Therefore, his ontology assumes there is more to existence than the physical material universe. He claims that moral realists can craft a plausible metaphysics, one that is compatible with, but not exhausted by, the picture of the world as given by the natural sciences.

In this first part, Shafer-Landau also launches an attack on constructivism. He admits that constructivists use the following intuitively appealing argument:

  1. Laws require lawmakers.
  2. Thus, if there are moral laws, then there must be moral lawmakers.
  3. These lawmakers are either us as we actually are, some idealized version of us, or God.

He notes that divine command theorists use this argument to show that God must be the source of the moral law. He responds to this by noting that, for example, the laws of mathematics and chemistry aren’t explained by having been created by anyone; they are just correct. Since the laws of mathematics and chemistry don’t need a lawmaker, then neither do moral laws. He concludes that moral laws are merely brute facts about the way the world works, just like the laws of mathematics and chemistry. To insist that the fundamental laws or principles of ethics require something to make them true just presupposes the falsity of non-natural moral realism.

Part 2: Moral Metaphysics

In part two Shafer-Landau focuses on the metaphysics of his metaethical model. He begins with Moore’s classic argument for moral non-naturalism and gives an easy-to-understand explanation of Moore’s open question argument. He also rails against scientism, i.e., the notion that science is the only discipline that can give us truth. He notes that physicalism, the claim that everything that exists is physical, cannot itself be certified by physics. The Cornell moral realists, though they agreed that moral properties aren’t natural properties nor can they be reduced to natural properties, technically remained moral naturalists because they said that moral properties are dependent for their realization, ultimately, on physical properties.

Shafer-Landau’s position, non-naturalism, has two essential claims:

  1. Moral properties are sui generis and not identical to any natural properties.
  2. Moral terms cannot be given a naturalistic analysis.

Similarly, mental properties are not physical properties, but mental properties are realized by instantiations of physical properties. He claims that the supervenience relation between natural properties and moral properties is similar to the supervenience relation that obtains between the mental and the physical. Therefore, he affirms a form of property dualism.

Parts 3-5: Moral Motivations, Reasons, and Knowledge

In part three, Shafer-Landau discusses moral motivation. Here, he argues against Humeanism, the notion that people are motivated not by beliefs but by their desires. This is part of his argument against non-cognitivism (moral expressivism).

In part four, he discusses moral reasons. He provides a definition of externalism and internalism that is easy to understand. Internalists condition epistemic appraisal on what is, in some sense, available to an agentinternal to her network of beliefs and doxastic powers. Externalists claim that an agent may be warranted in her beliefs even if she cannot recognize that she is or cannot appreciate the warrant conferring relations that obtain among her beliefs or among the reliable belief-forming processes whose proper functioning transforms true belief into knowledge. He also responded to the argument against moral realism from moral disagreement.

In the fifth and final part of the book, he tackles the issue of how we can have epistemological access to moral truths. In this section he tackles moral skepticism. He admits that the persistent moral skeptic will never be fully satisfied, but he provides several good responses to the skeptic. First, the skeptic must be willing to pay the hefty price of moral skepticism, that is, global philosophical skepticism. Yet this is surely too high a price for a moral skeptic to pay since he is affirming the warrant of at least one philosophical claim, that is, his own moral skepticism. As an externalist, Shafer-Landau surmises that we may justifiably believe something even where we cannot provide warrant for that belief. Also, in this section he makes it clear that he’s not a fan of intuitionism, noting that its deliverances are notoriously idiosyncratic and unreliable. Instead, he holds that some moral principles are self-evident. A proposition is self-evident if those who really understand its content, and believe it on that basis, are thereby justified in believing it. If there are self-evident beliefs, then a chain of justification may terminate in one of them with complete propriety. He concedes that our ethical duties may all derive from a single overarching principle that can be known a priori because it is self-evident.

Strengths and Weaknesses

One strength of this book is Shafer-Landau’s focus on morality being self-evident. Another strength of this book is the section where he argues against the following popular objection to religious and moral beliefs: some say that a person’s religious beliefs are merely inherited from the culture he’s raised in such that if someone was born in the East instead of the West, he’d be a follower of Islam instead of Christianity. Those who make this argument conclude that our religious and moral beliefs aren’t caused by truth but merely by the arbitrary place and time of our birth. In response he notes that no one will give up their scientific beliefs, and other beliefs they’re confident in, because of the historical situation they happened to be born and raised in. Similarly, this factor shouldn’t undermine our religious or moral beliefs either.

A third strength of this book is that he is friendly to theism. In some of his other books, he has argued against divine command theory, mostly by using the Euthyphro dilemma and arguing against the notion that laws need lawmakers. However, on page 75 of this book, he spoke respectfully of divine command theory in that he explained that moral properties might supervene on natural facts alone or they might supervene on natural facts plus supernatural facts, such as God’s intentions. He goes on to explain that in this book he wants to remain neutral on theological matters. On page 105 he notes that a common argument against the existence of moral facts is parallel with a familiar argument against the existence of God. In a footnote to this, he pointed out that just because our natural sciences have enjoyed stupendous success and progress, this does not necessarily give us good reason to deny God’s existence. Throughout the book he quotes Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Linda Zagzebski, and Robert Audi.

As for weaknesses of Shafer-Landau’s approach, one of them is the reasons he offered for rejecting the lawmaker argument. He assumed that mathematical and scientific laws exist without a lawmaker, and thus moral laws could too. But he can’t just assume mathematical and scientific laws can exist without a lawmaker, especially when several Christian philosophers have argued that the existence of God is the best explanation for such laws. Another weakness of the book is that he didn’t really provide a metaphysical explanation of his proposed non-natural moral facts. He just claims they are brute facts, but that doesn’t seem like a satisfactory stopping point.

Convincing Proof