How to define ‘Moral Realism’

Document Type : Research Paper


Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of philosophy of religion, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


Moral realism is the doctrine that some propositions asserting that some action is ‘morally’ good (obligatory, bad, or wrong) are true. This paper examines three different definitions of what it is for an action to be ‘morally’ good (with corresponding definitions for ‘morally’ obligatory, bad, or wrong) which would make moral realism a clear and plausible view. The first defines ‘morally good as ‘overall important to do’; and the second defines it as ‘overall important to do for universalizable reasons’. The paper argues that neither of these definitions is adequate; and it develops the view of Cuneo and Shafer-Landau that we need a definition which is partly in terms of paradigm examples of morally good actions, which they call ‘moral fixed points’. Hence the third and final definition is that an action is morally good if it is ‘overall important to do because this follows from a fundamental universalizable principle, belonging to a system of such principles which includes almost all the moral fixed points; when a suggested fundamental principle is one which would be shown to be very probably true by the exercise of reflective equilibrium over many centuries’.


Bengson, J., Cuneo, T., & Shafer-Landau, R. (Forthcoming). ‘Conceptual Moral Truths’. In Bloomfield, P. &Copp, D. (Eds.). Oxford Handbook of Moral Realism.Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cooper, N. (1970). ‘Morality and Importance’. In Wallace, G., & Walker, A. D. M. The Definition of Morality. London: Methuen and Co.
Cuneo, T., & Shafer-Landau, R. (2014). ‘The Moral Fixed Points’. Philosophical Studies, 171, 399-443.
Fine, K. (2002). ‘The Varieties of Necessity’. In Gendler, T. S., & Hawthorne J.     (Eds.).     Conceivability and Possibility. Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University   Press. pp. 253-281.
Hume, D. (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. London: John Noon
Jackson, F., & Petit, P. (1995). ‘Moral Functionalism and Moral Motivation’. Philosophical Quarterly, 45, 20-40.
Kant, I. (1785). The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, (first published in German in 1785). (H. J. Paton, Trans.). London: Hutchinson and Co.
Martin, C.B., & Deutscher, M. (1966). ‘Remembering’. Philosophical Review, 75, 161-196.
Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica. Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, M. (1994). The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell
Swinburne, R. (2013) Mind, Brain, and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.