Hoping for Metanormative Realism


Debates in metaethics about metanormative realism, quasi-realism, anti-realism, and nihilism mostly focus on epistemic reasons for beliefs about values. Very little has been said about our practical reasons for metaethical beliefs, and even less is said about practical reasons for other attitudes we might take toward metaethical views. This paper shows why a recent argument bucking that trend fails to show that we have practical reasons to believe realism over nihilism, but that for many of us, we do have practical reason to hope that what I call Optimistic Realism is true.

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  1. 1.

    There is a rich literature on an related, but separate, question about whether pragmatic circumstances might make a difference to the truth of knowledge claims, holding epistemic status fixed—for instance, whether, when the stakes are high, it takes more for a belief to qualify as knowledge (Stanley 2005). However, here I am not concerned with whether practical considerations make a difference to knowledge attribution. Instead I will explore what attitudes more broadly might be justified in the evidential situation in which we find ourselves vis a vis normative realism.

  2. 2.

    Kahane tries to block this possibility by saying that to do so, “only a very weak assumption is needed: that, if some things do matter, it’s somewhat more likely that our evaluative beliefs are broadly on track than that epistemic evaluative skepticism is true. And I think we’re certainly entitled to make this weak assumption, and even something considerably stronger,” (Kahane 2016, 22). But in the current context we are imagining that the evidence does not license this assumption (since in the broader metaethical discussion it is hardly an uncontentious one). Moreover, a significant distinction between epistemological skeptical scenarios and the scenarios where Pessimistic Realism is true is this. In epistemological skeptical scenarios, usually the world must be drastically different than the world as we know it, hard sciences must be based on and generating fictions, and we likely cannot get positive evidence that we are in the skeptical scenario. If Pessimistic Realism is true, the world around us need not be radically different; rather, the evaluative facts that we tend to think supervene on the natural facts are not the ones that in fact do supervene.

  3. 3.

    Pessimistic Realism might motivate us to go looking for another set of evaluative beliefs that will be just as misguided—say, that we ought to modify the forms of authority we currently have, when we really would benefit by doing away with authoritative structure altogether. By contrast, belief in nihilism could foster indifference to legal threats of punishment and help undermine fears that keep us under the thumb of authorities. So here we have a case where it’s more valuable to believe nihilism than to believe even the Pessimistic form of realism when realism is true.

  4. 4.

    Someone might complain that this is too broad a range, but not only is this well defended in the literature; it is born out in our practices and language, for instance when we “hope against hope” when probabilities are at their lowest.

  5. 5.

    Here Martin draws on Ariel Meirav’s argument against the orthodox definition (Meirav 2009, 222–223).

  6. 6.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection and for suggesting the Ross (2006) article in connection with it.


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I am grateful to Ted Poston, Kevin McCain, participants of the Hope and Optimism Midpoint Collaboratory Workshop, and the Alabama Philosophical Society Meeting for discussion and helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Anne Jeffrey.

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Jeffrey, A. Hoping for Metanormative Realism. Erkenn (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-019-00181-8

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