Closereads: Peter Railton’s “Moral Realism” (Part One)

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We’re reading a 1984 essay by Mark’s U. of Michigan undergrad advisor, included among the most cited philosophy papers in some list that Wes found. Railton’s goal is to give a naturalistic account of ethics (i.e. ethics within a framework of natural science) that both connects tightly to observed empirical facts and also makes moral facts real parts of our world, not merely reducible to non-moral facts about pleasure, social norms, or the like.

In this first part, Railton lays out what naturalism in ethics amounts to and begins to explain why past empiricists like Hume don’t provide an account of morality that is adequately normative: Merely describing what people tend to shoot for doesn’t explain why such a norm is binding on us.

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