In making a first small foray into Quasi Realism, I would like first to go back here to the very basics.

Lets for a moment forget about the correct chronological order and the whole network of nested -isms in meta-ethics, save two. And draw a line with moral realism at one end and moral relativism at the other.

Moral realism.

Moral realism is the philosophical position that claims that there are objective (absolute) moral truths out there that are knowable. So for example when I say that “recreational hunting is wrong” it is either true or false. It does not depend on your opinion whether recreational hunting is wrong or is admissible or whether you are being brought up in a certain way or even whether the hunted animal is on the brink of extinction or there are so many of them that you have to shut the doors of the kitchen to keep them out. There is no argument about circumstances, a context within which something otherwise wrong now is permissible, instead we are speaking about a fact; the sentence “P is wrong” has two possible truth values: P is wrong is either true or false.

According to moral realism there exists one and only one true morality which is objectively true and therefore transnational, transcultural and indeed universal and permanently fixed. There is then of course a problem to explain the cultural variation in different normative systems, even if the variation might be far less than you'd expect if moral relativism were (absolutely) true.

Moral relativism

Moral relativism holds the position that no such objective truth exists or in other words no truth values are attributable to moral propositions. A moral relativist thinks what is morally abject for me might be morally just for you, or when not used in this individual form then in communal form. In evaluating the above example “recreational hunting is wrong” they hold that the averment is true for the stater by default. And someone else who says “recreational hunting is good” (for example because the argument is made that in so doing the hunter improves the health of the population by selectively removing more old, weak and sick animals) is not only equally justified but her assertion is equally true according to a moral relativist.

According then to moral relativism, morality is subjective, build on personal values that can change with time and circumstances and there is no way to decide between different systems of morality. Taken to it's extreme it can be used to defend that normative frameworks that hold that stoning a girl to death for dating a boy outside her tribe (famous example Du'a Khalil Aswad ) as being the lesser evil is not objectively objectionable.

Okay, so the point of this sketch is to (hopefully) demonstrate that few people would consistently identify with either position all the time and maybe go a little back and forth, depending on personal convictions and tastes somewhere in the spectrum between these two extremes.

That would be a more pragmatical position to take n'est pas?


Fortunately this is not a novel thought. The path has been laid out for us, moral diys, by the English philosopher Simon Blackburn and made into a philosophically consistent and highly respectable position and consequently has been designated it's very own -ism too. It's called quasi-realism, not entirely to Blackburn's liking as I noticed.

Relevant Video Blackburn Talk on TVO:  Truth a Guide for the Perplexed


Now from this picture one could get the mistaken impression that we are talking about some formalized way to make some sort of compromise between relativists and realists or between two realists or two relativists. There is no way to compromise between the realist position that says it is either my way or the highway and the relativist who just flat out denies there is a conflict at all and each should just go about their own business. Avoiding conflict also means denying resolution.

Instead quasi realism is a separate position that holds that while like in moral relativism there is no objective metaphysical moral truth, like there is an objective physical truth, we can nevertheless treat those (moral) propositions as if they were either objectively true or false.The quasi realist would rely on emotional attitudes as being evoked by a certain moral practices or propositions as being real properties of the aforementioned to come to a moral judgment. To then apply that judgment functionally in a debate between positions. It is a practical position to take foremost.


You could take this “as if” position more seriously than it deserves and ask yourself how do we justify that? How can we be sure that when we treat moral propositions as if they were objectively true or false, that we picked the right truth value? In other words how can we know that we are right about something, independent of our minds unlike moral relativists believe is possible? From what I gathered from looking around for critiques, the problem of mind-independence seems to be favored angle to attack quasi-realism among philosophers.

Here it is easy to sink away into a morass of intricacies of the epistemological aspects of moral philosophy to seek for a solid foundation of moral philosophy. I will leave that to those more able than me. Until proven wrong I'll let my intuition prevail - and some arguments, which to be honest I only half understand - which informs me that there exists no such foundation (even if moral realism were true. )

In science there is such a foundation, there is an objective reality even if we have no way of accessing it in any direct way. To quote Karl Popper:

Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of it's theories rises as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp but not go down to any natural or 'given' base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm gorund. We simply stop when we are statisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.”

A similar foundation, I'm convinced does not exist in the realm of morality, yet the same imagery applies nonetheless. We can build safely without the bedrock, we don't need it, but we must not forget to drive in the piles firm enough to carry the structure.

At this point I'm going to have to refrain from the Blackburn's challenge to moral realism with the revised appeal to moral supervenience. I will try to follow up on that.

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I don't think you'd be much surprised if I agree with you. I think any moral system that doesn't allow you to condemn child abuse or infibulation is if not completely useless, itself worthy of condemnation.

But I think you make a point that I have neglected. Which is that of toleration. Toleration is something by definition you do with practices you don't agree with, as long as they are tolerable.

Since in quasi realism moral judgments are in principle expressions of attitude, attitudes that we can trust we share to a great extent with our fellow human beings due to the biological basis of our moral intuitions, we can therefore feel reasonably assured that grand scale infringements, when broadly and openly debated, without moral basis are not enduring, at least not without artificial enforcement, be it ideology, religion or a simply abuse of power by minorities.

Yes, as it so happens I saw "Inside Job" yesterday, so I am still in an emotional state of shock about just that.

Noami Klein is absolutely great and but I didn't, I should, I was going to, but I can't for the coming months, unless I quit my job or stop with my sleeping habit. I have a stack of 7 books lying in front of me now, some quite demanding and I am a very slow reader.

I did listen to some talks and interviews Naomi Klein did on and about this subject/ this book also. I need no convincing that something has to change drastically, but I am extremely pessimistic on this front.

I have a stack of 7 books lying in front of me now


I wish I could say that. My own stack of unread books is about 20 times as big.

Thank you Jaume, it is always a big comfort to me to know others have it worse ;-)

As a regular listener/ viewer of Big Ideas I'd be failing to point out the recent talk of Richard Wilkinson:

TVO Video Talk Richard Wilkinson

Other Big Idea talks dealing with this subject that I heartily recommend:

P. Sainath On Inequality In India


Dambisa Moyo's ideas about aid and dependence


A very moving talk by Chris Hedges I was riding my bike at the time and got an ever growing lump in my throat listening to this. Got increasing trouble seeing through my watery eyes and while swinging from one side of the road to the other, heavily breathing, fighting back tears, I nearly crashed into a tree before I just had to stop, dismount and stand perplexed alongside the road, slightly disorientated, listening to the rest of it.

Coincidence. I think Dambisa Moyo's magnus opus is buried somewhere in my heap of unread books. Did anyone here give Dead Aid a look?

Thanks Adriana, looks like an interesting blog. However, from the piece above there is I think a bit of (again) underemphasis of the personal, individual biological/ neurological aspect of morality/ making moral judgments and forming opinion. I think in favoring a (neo-) contractarianist view on morality, you must explain the contract: why does a group agree to a certain set of norms? Pluriformity would follow naturally, but actually - as you know - we see much uniformity, suggesting biologically determined predispositioned values, common in all humans and stronger than that, stretching even further to other primates.

I don't think you should go any further than to say there is no definite truth value attributable to moral propositions and that from this it does not follow there is no way to come to consistent moral behavior other than by convention.

Yes I see, he's exploring ideas and focused on the objection to subjectivism as an inconsequential form of fatalism. He certainly has interesting ideas.


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