Ethical Theory Spring 2019

A Realist Reply


David Brink is a moral realist, meaning he thinks there are moral facts that are independent of our beliefs. This essay is framed as a response to Mackie. It’s a complicated response. For most of the essay, he describes things that anyone who believes in moral realism could say in response to Mackie. But in part of it, he sketches out a version of moral realism that he himself believes in.

I thought the most interesting part of the essay is the one where he sketches a version of moral realism that he believes in. So we concentrated on that in our discussion.

Brink’s Functionalist Theory

Brink thinks that moral properties are as real as any other properties. “Wrong” is a property of an action just as “weighs ten pounds” is a property of my cat.

OK, so how do we identify these moral properties? We can’t see them, hear them, smell them, taste them, or touch them, after all. Brink says that we identify them by their function. Moral properties play a functional role in promoting or hindering human flourishing. Things and actions that promote flourishing are good or right, those that hinder it are bad or wrong. Here’s how Brink puts it.

moral properties are those which bear upon the maintenance and flourishing of human organisms. Maintenance and flourishing presumably consist in necessary conditions for survival, other needs associated with basic well-being, wants of various sorts, and distinctively human capacities. People, actions, policies, states of affairs, etc. will bear good-making moral properties just insofar as they contribute to the satisfaction of these needs, wants, and capacities. People, actions, policies, states of affairs, etc. will bear bad-making moral properties just insofar as they fail to promote or interfere with the satisfaction of these needs, wants, and capacities. The physical states which contribute to or interfere with the satisfaction of these needs, wants, and capacities are the physical states upon which, on this functionalist theory, moral properties ultimately supervene. (Brink 1984, 121–22)

That word “supervene” requires some explanation. It means that moral properties depend on material properties. Since everything is made of matter, nothing can be good or bad that isn’t material. So all moral properties are material properties too but not all material properties are moral properties.

An example might help to explain what he means. If I have a headache, then I have a property, “having a headache” that is also a property of my material body (namely, my brain). The pain of the headache supervenes on the physical state of my head. If the pain goes away, it will have to be because something physical about my head changes.

We can’t identify pain by looking at the physical state of a brain. Instead, we identify it functionally, by the behavior that pain normally causes. Brink thinks we do something similar with moral properties. Just as no one would deny that headaches are real, no one should deny that moral properties are real. That’s the idea.

Our discussion

Zane wasn’t sure how far this could go. Food promotes human flourishing, so food is good. But what happens when we get to something more complicated? Does abortion promote human flourishing? In some ways it does, in some ways it doesn’t. What about always saving the largest number? Doing things that seem right when they won’t make a difference? Doing the right thing for a bad reason? You get the idea.

Zoë thought that human flourishing was the weak part of the theory. If you have a definition of what human flourishing is, then you can go about investigating what promotes that in the normal ways familiar from the social sciences. But how do you establish what human flourishing is in the first place? What function does it play, such that we can identify it the way Brink suggests? Does it keep us alive? Make our lives good? Does it make us happy? Exercise our higher mental faculties?

Zach didn’t have a problem with this aspect of Brink’s thinking. He thought that all of the sciences face a similar problem. Observations are what are called “theory dependent,” meaning that you need a theory in order to interpret the observations in the experiments you’re making. To put it a bit crudely, the squiggles that you see on the screen in a big physics experiment don’t mean anything unless you have a theory about how the machine is making them. With such a theory in hand, you can say “when I saw the squiggles on the machine, I was seeing a subatomic particle” even though you obviously aren’t literally seeing something that small. Zach’s suggestion was that this puts observations in the natural sciences on a par with moral scientists’ observations of human flourishing.

Chris pointed out that we don’t do actual experiments in ethics. We do “thought experiments.” The reasons for the difference are pretty obvious. You can’t just see what would happen if you let the drowning child drown. (And even if you did, it’s not clear what you would learn.) That makes ethical thinking a lot more dependent on our thoughts and theories than observations in the natural sciences are. We build the machines by testing them at each step to see if they behave the way we expect them to. That means there is a series of reality checks that it’s hard to come by in the ethical realm.

Brink on Mackie

Mackie had two arguments: the argument from relativity and the argument from queerness.

The argument from relativity maintains that the persistence of moral disagreements is good evidence that there are no objective moral facts. Brink’s answer is that disagreements about moral matters are difficult to resolve because it is very difficult to establish facts about human flourishing. That is compatible with there being objective moral facts, namely, facts about human flourishing.

Brink understands the argument from queerness a little differently than I do. He takes Mackie’s point to be that moral facts are not part of physics. Brink thinks that his remarks about how moral facts supervene on physical facts is enough to answer Mackie. Headaches aren’t studied in physics either, but they are still real, after all.

I took Mackie to be saying that moral facts would be different from other facts because they would have to motivate action and because there is no way of knowing them through the senses. So I didn’t really see that the stuff about supervening on physical facts was necessary to address his points.

That said, Brink does have answers to the arguments as I understood them.

He denies that moral facts would have to be motivating. (This is what he means when he rejects what he calls “internalism.”) You could know that the objective facts about morality say you have to kill your child but not want to do that. So Brink denies the assumption in the metaphysical version of Mackie’s argument from queerness.1

As for the epistemological side of Mackie’s argument, Brink has an easy answer. (Thank goodness something is easy here.) It is that we study human flourishing using the normal tools of the social sciences. There is nothing exotic about how we come to know the objective moral facts, according to Brink.

Key Points

These are the points that you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. How moral facts are like other objective facts, according to Brink.
  2. How our knowledge of moral facts is like our knowledge of objective facts, according to Brink.


Brink, David O. 1984. “Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62: 111–25. doi:10.1080/00048408412341311.

  1. Strictly speaking, Brink only denies that moral facts would have to be categorically motivating, or motivating regardless of what you think. He takes it as pretty obvious that people care about human flourishing most of the time (see Brink 1984, 122).