More on Moral Sand

Moral Sand: A Research Project in Practical Metaethics (click here for a more concise statement, more clear as an overview/introduction)

David Slutsky


            My dissertation What In The World Could Show Whether Moral Realism Is True? represents the first of a three stage research project. The three stages are: 1) moral anti-realism, 2) a pragmatic approach to moral disagreement, and 3) cosmopolitanism. One part of the research project is to show that each stage is independently plausible, such that we have reason to accept any one of the stages even if we do not accept any of the others. Another part of the research project is to show that the acceptance of stage (1) provides us with reasons for accepting stage (2), and that the acceptance of stage (2) provide us with reasons for accepting stage (3).

            Many instructors of introductory ethics classes make a point of addressing the freshman concern that moral realism supports some kind of cultural imperialism or intolerance. One typical response to this concern is to point out that realism, in and of itself, need not support any such thing. Instructors and popular textbooks often proceed to point out that realism in other fields and disciplines does not lead to such worries. For instance, the idea in physics that superposition states are real, or that there is a fact of the matter whether Copenhagen interpretations of quantum mechanics or some version of a hidden variables theory turns out to be true, does not support the idea that we should force particular trends in physics upon students.

            In addition, it is not uncommon for people to point out in this context that realism provides both grounds for individuals to question the truth of their own views, and grounds for individuals to learn truths from people with different ideas, theories, and traditions.[1] One assumption here is that if realism does not lead to morally objectionable difficulties such as intolerance in other fields, then it does not lead to morally objectionable difficulties in ethics either. Another assumption here is that if realism has benefits in other fields, then we should expect it to have those benefits in ethics as well. Unfortunately, as I have tried to argue in my dissertation, realism in ethics is not true. Another problem with these assumptions is that the analogy between ethics and other fields with regard to tolerance and learning does not seem to hold. Although theoretical arguments in the sciences sometimes become heated, chemists and physicists ordinarily do not physically attack, coerce, or go to war with one another over their theoretical differences. However, people and various groups of people do become violent in various ways including warfare precisely when the most serious or heartfelt moral principles and claims are at issue.

            Not all findings in the social sciences paint the kind of rosy picture found in ethics textbooks of moral reasoning proceeding in a calm and even-handed manner. For instance, according to some research in social psychology, strength of moral conviction can lead to such things as intolerance and uncooperativeness.[2] To be sure, strength of moral conviction that derives from confidence in moral realism appears to correlate with violation of procedural safeguards that people otherwise accept. This kind of data suggests that we might want to abandon moral realism even if it is true. If moral realism thwarts or does not help achieve our moral goals, we may want to consider alternative ways of understanding morality.

            Joyce (2001) defends moral anti-realism as well as what he calls moral fictionalism. Although Joyce argues that moral anti-realism is true, he also emphasizes that morality is an extremely useful part of life. Even if we embrace moral anti-realism while doing metaethics, it is not clear what it would mean to abolish morality and the ways in which it influences our lives - including our moral practices of praise, blame, support, and protest. Moral fictionalism involves living our lives as though we believed that moral realism is true, even though we would reject moral realism when we put on our metaethical hats and think more carefully about morality. Moral fictionalism makes ordinary life an elaborate game of make-believe that consists of pretending to believe things that we do not really believe when we are in a more careful and critical frame of mind.

            My project involves a distinction between epistemological and pragmatic approaches to morality. When we believe or pretend to believe that moral realism is true, we rely on the epistemological approach. One of the many things that the epistemological approach influences is how we deal with conflict and disagreement. The spirit of the epistemological approach involves figuring out who is right, who is wrong, and generally trying to act, or to 'win' arguments, accordingly. My contention is that the epistemological approach, under the guise of either moral realism or moral fictionalism, can be dangerous and undesirable. It encourages people to dig their feet into moral sand, and it can generate and maintain conflict in ways that may worse achieve many social goals. These problems with the epistemological approach bring us to the alternative pragmatic approach that characterizes stage 2 of the research project.

            The spirit of the pragmatic approach involves finding ways to live with other people without an objective sense of righteousness. It encourages people to work toward their social goals through cooperation and compromise.[3] If our goals call for it, the idea is to try to build a consensus through compromise and cooperation. In this way of thinking, morality becomes a matter of social mediation and conflict resolution. Although this approach may appear to be contractarian, it carries no Hobbesian assumptions about moral psychology, motivation, or selfishness.

            Some of the questions and claims that inspire and characterize the pragmatic approach to morality and moral disagreement include the following:

1) What psychological, sociological, and methodological effects does acceptance of moral realism and anti-realism have on the ways that we respond to moral disagreement?

2) Do different kinds of moral conviction lead to different levels of tolerance, compromise, and cooperation?

3) Is the goal of moral inquiry to win arguments, on the one hand, or to find ways to cooperate, or to find compromises that we can live with, or otherwise to find ways to live together that best achieve our moral and social goals, on the other hand?

4) If we accept moral realism, we may be more likely to dig our feet into moral sand, try to prove that we are right, and win moral arguments.

5) If we accept moral anti-realism, we may be more likely to cooperate, compromise, or build a consensus through cooperation and compromise.

6) If moral anti-realism is true, then the goal of winning moral arguments is doomed to failure and, for epistemological reasons, we should seek best to achieve our social goals through compromise.

7) If moral realism is true, moral disagreement will persist and, for pragmatic reasons, we should seek best to achieve our social goals through compromise.

8) Attempts to find terms of social cooperation that everyone can reasonably accept reproduce moral disagreements through disagreement over what everyone can reasonably accept.

9) Interaction and compromise over time may lead to less disagreement and less need to compromise.

10) Is the modus vivendi really as problematic as Rawls claims?

11) What kind of ethos does moral realism and resistance to compromise create, and what effects does this ethos have on social stability?

12) What kind of ethos does moral anti-realism and the goal of compromise create, and what effects does this ethos have on social stability?

13) Could some forms of social instability be instrumentally important for achieving certain social goals?

            Stage 3 of the research project depends in large part on answers to the aforementioned questions. The point of stage 3 is to combine the answers to these questions with empirical facts about the world that are pragmatically relevant to the many social goals found throughout the world. For instance, empirical details about the levels of interaction, dependence, and influence between and across different cultures and nations probably have a strong influence on the success and failure of different ways of achieving or aiming at various social goals. The pragmatic approach, combined with such global forces as those of production, development, and labor, leads people to consider alternative forms of compromise and cooperation in seeking social goals. My hope and initial speculation is that as the Global South and developing nations organize and perhaps form alliances with emerging world powers, cosmopolitan principles, positions, arguments, and theories articulated by writers such as Thomas Pogge, Gillian Brock, and Simon Caney will coincide with growing pressures and possibilities for social, governmental, and cultural change. These possibilities include the details of national labor laws, perceptions of which individuals belong to which groups, and attitudes about the moral importance of different forms of group membership.



Boyd, R. 1992. Constructivism, Realism, and Philosophical Method. In Earman, J. (ed.) Inference, Explanation, and Other Philosophical Frustrations. University of California Press.


Brock, G. 2005a. Egalitarianism, Ideals, and Cosmopolitan Justice. Philosophical Forum 36: 1-30.


Brock, G. 2005b The Difference Principle, Equality of Opportunity, and Cosmopolitan Justice. Journal of Moral Philosophy 8: 333-351.


Caney, S. 2001. Cosmopolitan Justice and Equalizing Opportunities. Metaphilosophy 32: 113-134.


Joyce, R. 2001. The Myth of Morality. Cambridge University Press.


Pogge, T. 2002. World Poverty and Human Rights. Polity Press.


Pogge, T. 2005. Real World Justice. Journal of Ethics 9: 29-53.


Skitka, L. et al. 2005. Moral conviction: Another contributor to attitude strength or something more? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88: 895-917.


Skitka, L. et al. 2006. Exploring the psychological underpinnings of the moral mandate effect: Motivated reasoning, identification, or affect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90: 629-643.


Walker, M. U. 1998. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. Routledge.

[1] For instance, See Boyd 1992.

[2] For instance, see Skitka et al. 2005 & Skitka et al. 2006

[3] Here I hope to follow the kind of path forged by Walker 1998.