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Three Theories of Moral Cognitivism / Realism

Updated on May 28, 2014

Terminology you may need to know:

  • Moral Agent: A being who is able to make conscious moral decisions. (Usually believed only rational humans can be moral agents)
  • Moral Patient: Not capable of making moral decisions but still partakes in the moral realm. (Objects, animals, babies, etc. that are pat of the agent's scenario)


What is Cognitivism?

Cognitivism, or moral realism (the two terms are interchangeable) is the view that there is an objective moral truth. Some moral realists believe that this truth transcendent, meaning it exists as a superior to say, our desires and emotions. This is the rationalist approach. Other moral realists however, like naturalists, argue against this claim and say that moral truth is found empirically.

The apposing stance on ethics is of course, non-cognitivism, or anti-realism. This is the view that morality only exists subjectively, as we perceive it and choose to perceive it. Moral truth cannot be found according to this theory, as morality is something created by human conscience.

However, cognitivists argue against this opposition, claiming that morality is not created by human conscience, but discovered by it, just as we use our rationality to discover mathematical truths.

This analogy of mathematics is one that puts moral realism into good context. Mathematical truths exist, we can't deny that. But they don't exist empirically (in the real world) because we cannot experience the number two. We have a concept of the number. We can look at it's symbol and understand it: 2. But we can't experience it in essence. We can see two of something, but not the actual concept of two. And so it is only through reason that we can understand mathematical equations or discover mathematical truths. This, cognitivists claim, is the same with morality. It is discovered through reason.

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You may be aware already of the rationalist vs empiricist debate in philosophy which originated when philosophers attempted to find a basis for how knowledge is gained in the eighteenth century. The rationalist standpoint was that knowledge can only be gained through reason and so obviously, this is their approach to morality too.

Philosophers such as Aquinas, Plato and Kant are all considered moral rationalists as they believe that moral understanding can only be achieved through reason, and such understanding is necessary (true no matter what the circumstances are) as opposed to contingent.

The philosopher we're going to look at in more depth though, is Plato, as he developed quite an interesting approach to rationalist morality.

The famous painting depicting the opposing philosophies of Plato and his student. Plato points above, while Aristotle argues for a more grounded approach to philosophy.
The famous painting depicting the opposing philosophies of Plato and his student. Plato points above, while Aristotle argues for a more grounded approach to philosophy. | Source

Plato - Theory of Forms

So Plato's idea was that morals existed as a god independent, transcendent truth. He claimed that moral truth exists in the world of forms. Forms are perfect and everlasting concepts existing outside of the physical realm. So a moral act in the real world can't take the Form of perfect 'Goodness', because the world is ever-changing and imperfect, but it can have characteristics of this 'Goodness'.

However, Plato made the claim that this moral truth can only be understood through training of the mind, after which the individual is able to access the world of forms and know exactly what moral truth is. So only intellectuals can understand morality. This is a bad case of elitism. Surely any moral agent is capable of making moral decisions without having an understanding of the perfect form of goodness. It's not just intellectuals that can act morally. And even if it were true that this training of the mind is required to understand moral truth, Plato claims that once people know what the right thing to do is, they will never act wrongly. But we can prove empirically and historically that this happens all the time! I may know that the right thing I should do today is visit my grandma in hospital and take her some nice flowers, but sometimes that doesn't stop me staying inside and writing articles on HubPages because it's raining outside. This is called weakness of will, something that Plato claims is impossible.

Moreover, so called 'intellectuals' make moral mistakes frequently. Remember Marcus Aurelius? He killed a lot of Christians, which is bad you might agree, but he was considered a great man, and even he made mistakes. Likewise, you could say the same thing about Hitler, he thought he was doing the right thing. Now an anti-realist could justify Hitler's actions because subjectively, his actions were morally good according to himself. But this is hitting tricky territory, so we'll save that for another hub, when I go into an analysis of non-cognitivism.

John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian philosopher
John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian philosopher | Source


Naturalism is practically the opposite of rationalism. So while rationalism claims that moral knowledge is discovered through reason, naturalism claims it is found empirically. Moral truth exists in the natural world.

There can be found an issue in this though, as it becomes a reductive doctrine, meaning it reduces moral terms to natural ones and this limits it's definition. For example, utilitarianism is a naturalist theory that defines good as pleasure. but to define something is to say it is the same as. So pleasure is good. Good is pleasure. This is where G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy argument comes in. He claims that the question 'what is good?' should be open ended, that's what makes morality so complex. But naturalists close this question by saying 'well, good is pleasure.' This turns what would otherwise be a sensible question (is pleasure really good?) into a ridiculous question, because what you are essentially asking is 'is pleasure really pleasure?' This is completely nonsensical!

So you can't reduce morality to natural properties, because morality is just far more complex than that.

After establishing this argument, Moore then goes on to explain his own theory of morality: Intuitionism.

Another criticism of Naturalism

David Hume. This guy critiques practically everything! And he's got a pretty good one for Naturalism.

So we already know that a naturalist takes a natural fact and makes a moral value claim based on that fact. Because morality is part of the physical world. Yes?

No. David Hume argues that this isn't possible. He says that philosophers continually mistake facts for values but the distinction between these two is absolutely vital for any philosophical argument. Hume argues there is a gap between the fact and the value, meaning you can't deduce a value from a fact, this is because, quote, the new value determined from the fact expresses 'some new relation or affirmation' which is completely independent from the original fact.

Many philosophers have attempted to bridge this 'is-ought' gap because it causes issues not just for naturalistic theories, but a whole number a philosophical arguments. John Searle for instance, claimed that there are exceptions to the rule Hume introduced. For example, the fact that 'you promised to pay me back' suggests that you therefore ought to pay me back. There is no gap between the fact and the value here. But... you try to come up with another example. I bet you can't can you? That's because these premises are very far and few between, so the majority rule still is that you cannot derive a value from a fact, undermining the naturalist view of morality.

He hasn't got a worry in the world!
He hasn't got a worry in the world! | Source

G.E. Moore's Intuitionism

As an intuitionist, Moore claimed that morality is self evident. We make moral judgements because... well... we just do.

That's it. We just know what morality is.

Seriously. That's all there is to it. Convincing huh?

If this argument was made for every philosophical debate in history, we would put an end to all conflicting beliefs. We would put an end to philosophy!

Back to the point though, Moore claims that the issue with the previous two theories we have discussed is that they try to define the indefinable. Morality cannot be defined, hence the open question argument. It is a very complex concept that we cannot explain because we just know it intuitively. Much like the colour yellow. Try describing the colour yellow to a blind person. You can't. Because you just know what it looks like, you can't explain it, you just know.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is morality!

Take of that what you will. But I'll soon be posting a hub on anti-realism to contrast these theories.

For now, any questions, queries, arguments or counter arguments, comment below and express your opinion on these concepts.


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    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 3 years ago

      Hi amynaylor.

      Excellently summed-up popularly publicized, accepted (?) theories of "Moral"- is the subject capturing my attention.

      Not being in position to express my opinion, rather eagerly expecting your next hub on anti-realism theories relating to "morality" having in mind relative vs. absolute morality,- its manifestation long before the ' morality' word has been introduced.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • Amy Naylor profile image

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      Thank you very much billybuc!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Excellent food for thought this Wednesday morning. Well-written my friend.