Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Anthony Skelton


This dissertation addresses the problem of whether or not morality can be objective. Objectivity seems built into our everyday moral discourse and practice, yet it can be difficult to say just what moral objectivity consists in. There is significant disagreement in the philosophical literature on this topic. I examine three influential contemporary accounts of objectivity: Derek Parfit’s non-naturalist realism, Sharon Street’s anti-realist constructivism, and Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons’ cognitivist expressivism. Despite their differences, these authors share a common aim: to defend the idea that the truth of moral claims are at least in some sense invariant with respect to our subjective attitudes about morality.

I argue that each view faces significant challenges and that none of the three offers a convincing account of moral objectivity. Parfit’s proposed epistemology is problematic, in particular the role he gives to rational intuition of self-evident truths. Street’s view of personal values as the source of moral truth does not adequately account for the authority of moral claims, and has a number of unappealing consequences. Horgan and Timmons' minimalist view of truth is unconvincing and leaves their account vulnerable to charges of moral relativism. Nonetheless, each view also has something important to offer. I propose that a successful account of moral objectivity will need to take seriously Parfit's idea that the source of reasons must be external to individuals, Street's conviction that moral truths must not involve a mysterious epistemology or be too removed from the practical standpoint, and Horgan and Timmons idea that evaluative beliefs are unique and may require new ways of thinking about moral truth and cognitive content. I also note that reasons play a key role in all three accounts of objectivity, but that all three views also make moral reasoning and judgement a bit mysterious. I conclude that more work needs to be done on the nature of reasons and their relation to moral truth.