Philosophy 150 - 8.3.1 Ontology of value

An important area of metaethics is the ontology of value. Ontology is the study (ology) of being (ōn). It gets at the nature of what makes something what it is. Ontology of value is the study of the being of values. What is a value? Is it a statement about reality? A subjective idea or belief? A mental state or emotion? As you will see, there are different ontological accounts of value.

Realism and Anti-realism

Do moral values have a basis in reality, or are they purely subjective and relative to individuals or communities? Depending on your answer, your approach to ethics will look completely different. Thus, the first major distinction between different types of ethical reasoning is the difference between realism and anti-realism. Moral realists, as discussed earlier, object to the fact-value distinction. Realism asserts that ethical values have some basis in reality and that reasoning about ethical matters requires an objective framework or foundation to discover what is truly good. For a realist, values are not simply subjective opinions. Anti-realism asserts that ethical values are not based on objective facts about the world but instead rely on subjective foundations like individuals’ desires and beliefs.

Think Like a Philosopher

Are you a moral realist or anti-realist? Before answering this question, consider the list of actions below. For each, consider both whether you think the action is objectively wrong and why or why not you take this position. Both your responses and your reasons for your responses will help you to determine which category you fall into,

  • Murder
  • Lying
  • Corporal punishment
  • Harming an innocent person

This section extends moral realism beyond the fact-value distinction to examine why many argue that moral realism is an important position to take and the types of objective realities people have used to establish a moral reality.

The Importance of Debate within Moral Realism

Moral debate poses a challenge to moral realism because it makes morality seem subjective. If people disagree on important moral issues, such as abortion, or on how to justify moral beliefs, how are we to determine who is right? Maybe no one has the right answer and moral claims are simply subjective opinions.

For a realist, moral disagreements do not mean that morality is subjective. Many fields, including the natural sciences, have vibrant debates and disagreements that do not necessarily indicate that their claims are subjective. For example, astronomers used to think that the sun and planets revolved around Earth, and the heliocentric concept of the universe was considered heretical. This disagreement does not mean that astronomy is subjective but instead that astronomy requires ongoing observation and debate to improve its understanding of reality. Along similar lines, moral debates do not necessarily prove morality is subjective and in fact can even improve one’s understanding of a moral issue. Moral realism asserts that morality has an objective framework or foundation, which means that you can make true moral claims. People do not necessarily, however, agree on which claims are true.

The Importance of Moral Resolution

Moral relativism, discussed earlier, is an anti-realist position because it denies that there is an objective or universal justification for moral beliefs. Instead, morality is always relative to an individual or community. This means there is no way to say what is truly good or bad.

Moral relativism has taken many different shapes throughout the history of philosophy, and it is debated in popular discourses—especially politics and religion—as well as in metaethics. It is controversial because it seems to undermine the possibility of finding common ground in ethical debates that shape practical action or political policies. Thus anti-realism and moral relativism seem to create insurmountable barriers for overcoming moral disagreements.

For contemporary philosopher Michelle Moody-Adams, however, moral disagreements between different cultures—and even within cultures—do not require us to adopt an anti-realist position. She takes moral disagreements seriously but also argues for “cautious optimism” about moral objectivity (1997). For Moody-Adams, irresolvable moral disagreements are an “unavoidable feature of moral experience” and not a reason to be skeptical about moral reasoning (1997, 107).

Since anti-realism is a form of moral skepticism, it can lead not only to relativism but also to pessimism about whether we can resolve moral debates or whether moral reasoning has any legitimacy. Being able to explain what is right or wrong is important not only for ethics but also for the lives of individuals within communities because people’s actions and decisions impact each other. This is one of the critiques that moral realists employ against anti-realists. If morality is purely subjective, then values are arbitrary and people are unable to make true claims about moral values.

Moral realism requires one to find objective justifications for moral beliefs and claims. These justifications take a variety of forms—including God and nature—which the following sections will explain.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax