Tersman, Folke | 2021
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition)
Appeals to moral disagreement have figured in philosophical discussions since antiquity, especially regarding questions about the nature of morality. An example is provided by Sextus Empiricus, who in a famous passage concludes (in Richard Bett’s translation) that “there is nothing by nature good or bad” from the observation that “the same thing is thought bad by one person and good by another” (Against the Ethicists, 14). It is often dubious to characterize the thoughts of ancient philosophers by using distinctions and terminologies that have emerged much later. Still, it is tempting to take Sextus to offer an argument against the metaethical position known as “moral realism” and its central thesis that there are moral truths which are objective in the sense that they are independent of human practices and thinking.
Moral realism is the target also of many modern appeals to moral disagreement which are often made by philosophers who instead favor nihilist, relativist, constructivist, non-cognitivist or expressivist views. However, the phenomenon has been ascribed other dialectical roles as well. For example, it has also been invoked in support of realism. Metaethics is furthermore not the only domain in which moral disagreement has received attention. Another is political philosophy. An influential view which is known as “public reason” entails that a government’s use of coercive power is legitimate only if it can be justified to the citizens on the basis of principles that all could reasonably accept. That view provides a different context in which facts about moral disagreement are relevant (see Quong 2018 for an overview and discussion). Nevertheless, this entry is exclusively devoted to its metaethical significance.
Some of the topics metaethicists address concern the metaphysics and ontology of morality. Others concern its epistemology and its semantics (and metasemantics). Moral disagreement has been thought relevant to all those subfields, and the entry is organized in accordance with the divisions among them. However, one of the points the discussions below are meant to illustrate is that the topics are related and that the positions and arguments that have been put forward in one of the subfields might be relevant also to those in another.