A liberal realist answer to debunking skeptics: the empirical case for realism


Debunking skeptics claim that our moral beliefs are formed by processes unsuited to identifying objective facts, such as emotions inculcated by our genes and culture; therefore, they say, even if there are objective moral facts, we probably don’t know them. I argue that the debunking skeptics cannot explain the pervasive trend toward liberalization of values over human history, and that the best explanation is the realist’s: humanity is becoming increasingly liberal because liberalism is the objectively correct moral stance.

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  1. 1.

    Hume (1975, p. 289; 1992, p. 471), emphasis in original.

  2. 2.

    See for example, Plato (1977).

  3. 3.

    Benedict (1934).

  4. 4.

    Dawkins (1989, ch. 12), Wright (1995, ch. 10), Ruse (1998, pp. 218–222).

  5. 5.

    Haidt (2001).

  6. 6.

    Alford et al. (2005, p. 162). “Political orientation” refers to a composite of responses to questions about various political controversies. Genetically identical twins are much more similar in political orientation than are fraternal twins raised in the same home. Because political beliefs depend on moral beliefs (Graham et al. 2009), this suggests that moral beliefs reflect substantial genetic influences.

  7. 7.

    See Tye (2008). A related view is that desires are evaluative representations; see Oddie (2005). The same points apply to the latter view as to the view about emotions.

  8. 8.

    Street (2006, pp. 129–131). For a reply to this sort of argument, see Huemer (2005, pp. 218–219).

  9. 9.

    On moral perception, see McGrath (2004), Moore (1992, p. 2517). On explanation, see Sturgeon (1985), Railton (1998). For objections to these views, see Huemer (2005, section 4.4).

  10. 10.

    Reid (1983, pp. 319–323), Butler (1964). This view appears to be Street’s (2006) main target, though she does not name it as such.

  11. 11.

    There is much more to say about these views, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to address them. In the interests of space, I assume that we are comparing anti-realism to rationalist intuitionism.

  12. 12.

    Prichard (1957, pp. 7–8), Ross (1988, pp. 29–30), Huemer (2005, pp. 99–102, 215–216).

  13. 13.

    This view requires qualification to be plausible; no one holds that all moral knowledge is a priori. For example, one might plausibly hold that the knowledge that pain is bad is a priori, but the knowledge that Hitler was evil is obviously not a priori since it depends upon empirical beliefs about Hitler’s actions and motives. One might plausibly hold that all fundamental moral knowledge is a priori, or something in this neighborhood (where fundamental moral knowledge might be characterized as moral knowledge that does not depend upon other moral knowledge, or as moral knowledge that does not depend upon non-moral knowledge). Hereafter, I shall take this qualification as read.

  14. 14.

    Quine (1951).

  15. 15.

    Ayer (1952), Mackie (1977, pp. 38–40).

  16. 16.

    For defense of this assumption, see Bealer (1992), BonJour (1998).

  17. 17.

    Cf. Jamieson’s (2002, ch. 1) and Singer’s (2011, pp. 114–117) discussions of moral progress.

  18. 18.

    Pinker (2011).

  19. 19.

    Keeley (1996, pp. 196).

  20. 20.

    Bowles (2009, p. 1295), Keeley (1996, p. 197). The two “Central California” entries refer to distinct sites in central California.

  21. 21.

    For discussion of a variety of possible factors, see Pinker (2011).

  22. 22.

    For discussion, see Mueller (2004), Huemer (2013).

  23. 23.

    Nietzsche (2003), part 1, section 10, p. 35 (originally published 1883–1885); Adams (1891, p. 277) (discussing the war of 1812 and explaining the advantages of war over embargo); Zola quoted in Joll and Martel (2007, p. 275).

  24. 24.

    Spierenburg (2008, pp. 3–4), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2013).

  25. 25.

    On the acceptance of killing in primitive societies, see Oesterdiekhoff (2011, pp. 169–170); on honor-motivated killings in medieval Europe, see Spierenburg (2008, pp. 7–8).

  26. 26.

    Library of Congress (2011).

  27. 27.

    Pinker (2011, p. 149).

  28. 28.

    From a fifteenth century print, reproduced in Held (1987, p. 47).

  29. 29.

    Bradley and Cartledge (2011), Eltis and Engerman (2011).

  30. 30.

    Aristotle (1941, Politics I, 1255b 37–40).

  31. 31.

    Exodus 21: 20–21.

  32. 32.

    Data source: Wikipedia (2014a).

  33. 33.

    Data source: Wikipedia (2014b). Dates used are the first year women could vote in any election in a given country.

  34. 34.

    For an account of the American civil rights movement, see Williams (1987).

  35. 35.

    Data source: Center for Systemic Peace (2011). I count as democracies all countries with scores of 6 or higher on the polity 2 variable in the Polity IV dataset. Note that the dataset includes only countries with populations of at least 500,000, and data are sparse before 1900.

  36. 36.

    For an account of the Indian independence movement, see Sarkar (1988).

  37. 37.

    For similar observations, see Byrne (2009, pp. 123–124).

  38. 38.

    Singer (2011, p. 116). For a sympathetic discussion, see Jamieson (2002, pp. 6–9).

  39. 39.

    Concerns of this sort are raised by Harman (1977, pp. 6–9) and Street (2006, pp. 129–131).

  40. 40.

    Mackie (1977, pp. 36–38).

  41. 41.

    Lindberg (1992, p. 9).

  42. 42.

    Duane (1998, p. 16).

  43. 43.

    Lindberg (1992, pp. 116–117, 332–333).

  44. 44.

    For an evolutionary explanation, see Dawkins (1989, ch. 9).

  45. 45.

    Leviticus 20:10; Quran 4:15; Sahih Bukhari 83:37.

  46. 46.

    Locke (1990, p. 64).

  47. 47.

    For a similar view of cultural moral evolution, see Byrne (2009, p. 131).

  48. 48.

    For accounts of the nature of explanation, see Hempel (1965), Huemer (2009, section 3). The explanation offered here satisfies the former account, where (1) and (4) are understood as the relevant lawlike generalizations. It also satisfies the latter account, since it cites facts explanatorily prior to the abolition of slavery which raised the probability that slavery would be abolished. The relevant notion of probability here is logical, not physical.

  49. 49.

    Shafer-Landau (2012, p. 30) argues similarly.

  50. 50.

    I would like to thank Anthony Kelley, Spencer Case, and an anonymous reviewer for this journal for helpful comments on the manuscript.


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Huemer, M. A liberal realist answer to debunking skeptics: the empirical case for realism. Philos Stud 173, 1983–2010 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-015-0588-9

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  • Moral realism
  • Evolution
  • Moral skepticism
  • Liberalism
  • Liberalization
  • Debunking