CPBD 009: Don Loeb – Moral Irrealism

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 30, 2009 in Ethics,Podcast

cpbd009Today I interview moral philosopher Don Loeb about the arguments for and against moral realism, his perspective on that debate, and his thoughts on the necessity of God for moral foundations.

guest don loebDownload CPBD episode 009 with Don Loeb. Total time is 1:14:23.


  • Don Loeb’s research page at University of Vermont
  • Loeb’s paper comparing moral realism to gastronomic realism
  • A psychology paper by Goodwin & Darley which Loeb says may lend some support to moral incoherentism

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Penneyworth October 30, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Awesome Interview! Awesome links!

That you put so much time and energy into circulating this content is deeply appreciated.

Luke, you say you are a moral realist. Do you think you mean the same thing as W.L. Craig or vox Day when they claim to be moral realists (which I’m sure they would if someone asked)? What is the nature of a real moral apart from “that which gawd approves”?


Don Loeb October 30, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Real means factual. Here are two kinds of question:

“Is there more than one inhabited planet?”

That’s a question of fact. We don’t know the answer, but there is one.

“Which is better, chocolate or vanilla?”

That’s not a question of fact. It’s not that we don’t know the answer. There is none.

Roughly, if there are answers to our moral questions (whether we know them or not), moral realism is true. If there are no such answewrs, irrealism (sometimes called anti-realism) about morality is true. As I suggest later in the interview (for your nice words about which I thank you) God–even if there were one–wouldn’t help make moral realism any more plausible.


lukeprog October 30, 2009 at 6:52 pm


That’s what I’ve been trying to explain with my book and my desirism FAQ and my two podcast interviews with Alonzo Fyfe… have you listened to those two yet?


lukeprog October 30, 2009 at 6:53 pm


I tend to say “anti-realism” instead of “irrealism” because the latter might sound like I just stuttered while trying to say “realism.” :)


Don Loeb October 30, 2009 at 7:17 pm


Funny. I tend to say “irrealism” for what I hope you will agree is an (almost) equally silly reason. “Anti-realism” sounds reactionary (to my ear), as though realism is the theory to beat. You know how I feel about that. (I’m will aware that the prefixes mean the same thing.)


lukeprog October 30, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Actually, that’s a pretty decent reason to use the term “irrealism”!


Don Loeb October 30, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Glad someone’s ear accords with mine, in that case.


Mike October 30, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Thanks for the great interview. I also really enjoyed reading the paper on gastronomic realism.

The only thing that disappointed me about the interview was that you two didn’t discuss desirism at all. I agreed with most of what Don Loeb had to say and I would have been interested in his take on it. Not all of his criticisms of moral realism seem like they’d apply to desirism.


Don Loeb October 30, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Don’t know much about it yet, Mike. Thanks for your kind words.



lukeprog October 31, 2009 at 4:59 am


I would much rather defend some of the basic meta-ethical positions that lead to desirism in peer-reviewed articles, anyway. Some of them, I think, would be genuinely new to the literature, though I feel less secure about them since Fyfe has not written about them yet. For example, I’d like to write a paper defending the notion that there is, of course, no “one true conception of morality,” but many – just as there are many conceptions of “love” or “art.” And I am an error theorist with regard to some conceptions, an incoherentist with regard to some conceptions (ones that are logically contradictory), a non-cognitivist with regard to some conceptions, and a realist with regard to other conceptions. But desirism is the “maximally moral” theory about which I am a realist. That is, desirism is the most “robust” moral theory about which I am a realist – it accounts for a great many of our moral concepts, and is an objective theory, while still only making true claims about things that really exist (and thus, I can be a realist about the theory).

Now that’s a promising approach to moral theory, and it hasn’t been advocated in the literature before, to my knowledge.

I’d also like to publish a peer-reviewed article on some distinctions regarding different divides between “objective” and “subjective” notions. These are often confused in the literature, and philosophers often do not realize the consequences of the dividing line they choose. For example, a requirement of “mind independence” for objectivity means that statements that include value-laden terms such as “192 people injured in latest attack in Baghdad” is not an objective fact, but a subjective statement. And that seems strange.


Don Loeb October 31, 2009 at 5:36 am

Now just a moment,

First, as we use the terms, it’d be odd to say that you are a (say) non-cognitivist with regard to some moral theories. Typically non-cognitivism is a view about what ordinary people are doing with their moral language. It’s descriptive linguistics, as it were, which is why questions about it are at least largely empirical. I am not convinced you are saying otherwise, but I’d recommend care in how you put it. So we need to be clear about what sort of pluralism is being defended. What you mean, I think, is that people use the words in different ways. Some use them merely to express attitudes, some to say incoherent things, etc. (This is close to the position Michael Gill defends in his comment on my paper, “Moral Incoherentism: How to Pull a Metaphysical Rabbit out of a Semantic Hat,” and which I criticize in my reply to his comment.) For many of these uses, if I understand your view, there is a way for US to understand “morally right,” (for example)–as being used in sentences that express attitudes, make factual but false assertions, are incoherent, etc. But some ways people talk, on your view, manage to make factual assertions about actual matters of fact. Thus we can be realists about morality, so understood. Typical realists won’t be satisfied, and you need empirical backing for your claims, but you needn’t satisfy typical realists and nobody has much empirical backing for anything just yet in this area.

Also, no realist worth his or her salt (or pepper) holds that moral facts are mind independent in ways that make feelings (like pain) irrelevant to substantive moral issues. (That may be a tautology, since anyone who denied what I just said would not be worth her or his seasoning!) Most (and here I am disputing your use of “often”) are more careful. So they will say that the moral facts are independent of what we believe about them, and so on. The phrase “mind independent,” less popular than it once was, was probably never intended otherwise in serious philosophical dialogue. It may well have been an abbreviation, in fact. But to whatever extent people may not at one time have seen the truth of the point you make above, it’s well known now.


lukeprog October 31, 2009 at 8:02 am


Yes, I would be using terms like non-cognitivist and realist in a specified way. Or maybe it would be fairer to use new terms. But I don’t think this path of reasoning is unfair.

Imagine someone says that “Love is a powerful force; it can heal lives and change nations.” I assume she is referring to love as the desire to see fellow humans benefit, so I say, “Yes, that’s true!” Later she reveals that by “love” she is referring to a literal metaphysical force. I say, “Oh, no, sorry, that’s false.”

Don, it sounds like you would count this as evidence for love-incoherentism. We just weren’t talking about the same thing, so there’s no single concept of “love” to be realists about.

And in a way my hypothetical Don-the-love-incoherentist is correct. If the goal is to find some features that are common to every common use of the word “love” about which we can be realists, then perhaps this effort will fail and love-incoherentism (in this sense) is correct.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t say true things about love, in another sense. Some commonly used analogies are water and motion. For a long time, the concept of “water” usually included the idea that it was an element, and the concept of “motion” included the idea that it was absolute. But that doesn’t mean water discourse and motion discourse are doomed. We proposed reforming definitions for water (H2O) and motion (change in relative position), and now we can make true claims about each.

But we don’t always want to do that. For example, now that we know traditional notions of God do not have referents, we could redefine the term “God” to mean “higher power” so that we could be realists about God. (In this case, the laws of nature or Barack Obama would answer to the term “God.”) But this is so far from the usual concept of “God” that it is more confusing than helpful to reform the definition of “God” so drastically.

On the other hand, I think desirism’s reforming definitions for “good” and “evil,” along with the theoretic implications of those definitions, arrive at a theory that describes relations between desires, states of affairs, and other desires in such a way that they account for so many common qualities of popular moral realisms that it is worth considering it a theory about “morality,” and this time one we can be realists about.

But I could be quite wrong about that reasoning. I appreciate your comments, Don, but of course I also need to read through my list of hundreds of books and articles before I have any confidence that this should be a persuasive line of reasoning.

Also, thanks for the update on philosophers abandoning the “mind independence” condition for objectivity – I’m not up-to-date on the literature yet, which is one of my very good reasons for not having attempted peer-reviewed work yet.


Don Loeb October 31, 2009 at 8:19 am

I have no doubts about your making real contributions to that literature some day, and not too far away if you can quit that day job before long.

You should read “Moral Incoherentism,” and the comments and replies as soon as you can. They are all in the same book, Volume II of Sinnott-Armstrong’s fantastic collection on empirical ethics. All the issues you raise above are discussed.

It’s interesting that one commentator, Gill, suggests the “pocket” view according to which there are pockets of discourse that are coherent despite variability across the linguistic spectrum, while the other, Sayre-McCord, suggests that the variability is not an issue because there is something “we” are talking about and have been for a long time. I try to answer both of them forcefully. Your view may have elements of both, although it seems to me to resemble the pocket view more. Through it all is the question of reforming definitions, something I also address. The short version of my comment on that is that reform is fine, but changing the subject is another thing entirely.


lukeprog October 31, 2009 at 8:37 am

I will certainly have to read that book!


Penneyworth November 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm


Your paper is fantastic. Thanks for covering so much detail to strengthen the analogy in terms of major arguments for moral realism. I find the gastronomic parallel to be similar to the way I sometimes compare morality to taste in music. Most of us have different tastes, but most of us also are in accord that white noise played at the volume of jet engines is not good music. We have different tastes in food, but most of us agree that cyanide is not good food. There is vast moral disagreement, but most of us agree to disapprove of random unprovoked murder and torture.

Your concepts are crystal clear to me, which is very refreshing as most people seem to have some way to legitimize their personal feelings by subscribing to (or inventing) some theory to project them onto in order to claim (quite disingenuously) that their feelings are in accordance to those mystical moral values that are true despite any human’s feelings on the matter.

So if we define morality as somebody’s moral theory, lots of us who don’t agree with it could be called immoral. What are we criminals at that point?

You said it best. At the end of the day, moral realists and moral irrealists are in the same boat.

Luke, I listened to your fist interview with Fyfe, but was unable to download the second one. Still, I think you made it clear in a more recent post that you are fine staying snug inside the framework of desirism where a real moral is well defined. It rests on acceptance of desirism being defined as morality.


Don Loeb November 2, 2009 at 9:24 pm

PW, thank you for your very kind words. I am so glad you enjoyed my paper.



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