Contemporary applied ethics, and by extension practical and professional ethics education, can be considered an offshoot of the broad philosophical doctrine of moral realism. Moral realism takes many forms but in broad outline it is an established meta-ethical position that emerged as a seemingly attractive alternative to another family of established philosophical positions that sometimes goes under the name of “expressivism”. Expressivism, again in rough terms, is the idea that ethical beliefs are mere expressions of subjective preferences, attitudes, emotions, and desires. Moral realists typically reject expressivism (as well as other forms of subjectivism in ethics) because the realist-sounding ordinary language with which moral views are debated and promoted is hard to square with the idea that moral beliefs are mere expressions of subjective preferences (cf. Darwall et al., 1992). People speak as if moral statements correspond to some real features of the world, features that exist independently of anyone’s opinions or preferences. Just as the statement “The cat is on the mat” can only be regarded as true if the cat is in fact lying on the mat, a moral judgement such as “Alain is generous” is true only if it is the case that Alain actually is generous. Moral statements, like statements about the material world, seem to report facts and this suggests that there is some discernible truth about moral matters. If the main claim of moral realism is the idea that the referents of moral language are fact-like, moral realism also tends to adopt, for the same reason, an internalist position on the question of moral motivation. Moral judgements, expressed seriously and in ordinary language, are not just descriptive. They are also prescriptive: when I judge, say, that it is morally preferable to eat the eggs of only free-range chickens, it implies that I, and perhaps everyone else as well, have a good reason to actually eat free-range eggs. That is to say, ordinary language supposes that judgements of moral rightness and wrongness come with a built-in or “internal” motivating reason to act in accordance with one’s moral judgements.

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References

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