Moral Realism and Naturalized Metaethics

Dissertation, Cornell University (1990)

Stephen J. Sullivan
Edinboro University
Recent developments in the philosophy of language and epistemology--in particular, the "naturalizing" of reference, knowledge, and justification--have important metaethical implications. In my dissertation I show the relevance of causal theories of reference and knowledge, and of an noncausal but still nonfoundationalist theory of justification, to the metaethical debate over moral realism, and use these theories to defend realism against several popular objections. ;In Chapter 1 I characterize moral realism and argue both for a presumption in its favor and against traditional forms of realism. ;In Chapter 2 I motivate and adopt a sophisticated version of the causal theory of reference which emphasizes the linguistic community's possession of significant knowledge of the referent. I then apply this account of reference to moral terms and on its basis sketch a metaethical perspective from which the moral realism debate can be seen as a complex empirical issue. ;In Chapter 3--the heart of the dissertation--I elaborate on that perspective in order to rebut what is perhaps the most influential objection to moral realism, namely, that no plausible epistemology of ethics is available if realism is true. I argue that theories of the nature of the referents of moral terms are to be assessed in essentially the same way as scientific theories of the nature of the referents of natural-kind terms. Drawing on my own "contextualist" account of justification, I argue as well that this approach to moral epistemology renders normative ethical theories no more vulnerable to skeptical doubts about their justificability than it does scientific theories. ;In Chapter 4 I examine three other important objections to moral realism, which appeal to metaphysical considerations and to facts about moral disagreement, and use the metaethical apparatus of the previous two chapters to rebut these objections
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