Explaining Morality

A guest post by Steve Ash

[Editor’s note: The Centre for Critical Realism is hosting an online book launch event on Tuesday 26 April 2022, where Steve will explain the core argument of his book, then respond to comments from Leigh Price and Dave Elder-Vass. We will then open the floor for questions, answers and an open discussion with the audience. Attendance is free: register here.]

On March the 31st Explaining Morality (www.routledge.com/9780367531034) is published by Routledge. Adopting a critical realist approach to morality, this book considers morality as an aspect of social reality, enquiring into the nature of moral agency and asking whether we can legitimately argue for a specific moral position and whether moral positions can be understood to apply universally.

These are the wider questions in morality. In our work, life and reflections, we continually encounter situations where moral concepts are relevant to understanding and action. These are concepts such as right and wrong or good and evil and while it is not possible to think or act morally without using these concepts, they lack definition, explanation or clarity. As such, their use generates these wider questions. The argument of this book is that it is possible to use the metatheory of critical realism to support practical research into morality by using a theoretical framework that is a synthesis, and development, of the existing critical realist approaches to the wider questions of morality.

Critical realism is used as it is considered to create the possibility for providing justifiable answers to these wider moral questions. Bhaskar[i] and Collier[ii] argue that moral questions are best approached through the acceptance, and application, of the metatheory of critical realism. In that the acceptance of the Transcendental Realist ontology requires ‘as much readjustment in ethics as in epistemology’[iii]. This is because Metatheories are ‘theories about the foundational assumptions and preconditions of science[iv]. Metatheories can, in general terms, be understood to have two aspects; an ontological aspect, a theory regarding the nature of reality and an epistemological aspect, a theory of how and what knowledge can be gained of that reality. The critical realist metatheory regarding the nature of reality is a depth realist position and so differs from both idealism – by holding that the world is real – and positivism – by holding that there is a depth to reality.[v] The epistemological consequence of this ontology is that while explanatory knowledge of reality will be relative, it is possible to produce ‘in particular contexts, strong arguments for preferring one set of beliefs, one set of theories about the world to another’[vi].

The potential of this approach has led to the use of the metatheory to produce more than one moral theory. These are the theories of Bhaskar[vii], Collier[viii], Sayer[ix] and Elder-Vass[x]. All of these moral theories should enable the wider questions in morality to be addressed in a way that assists in the production of rationally justifiable answers regarding specific issues such as the prohibition of slavery.  However, there are two issues that restrict the ability to realise this potential. The first is that without clarity on how these different theories do or may fit together, and where they are in contradiction, it is difficult to confidently apply one or the other of them to specific moral problems.  The second issue is that the moral realist position – that value exists independent to its recognition – which is central to three of these four theories, needs further exploration to be able to have confidence in using this concept to examine moral problems. Explaining Morality draws conclusions on how critical realism can support enquires into specific moral questions by providing a comparative study of how these four different theories of morality address the wider questions in morality and consequently exploring the underdeveloped component of independent value.

Though theoretical questions are the focus of this book, to assist in contextualising some of the concepts being discussed, examples are drawn from considering the issue of slavery throughout. Slavery is used for three reasons. The first is that it demonstrates that approaches to issues in morality are not consistent over time. For while slavery is currently generally accepted as immoral this has not always been the case. The second is that while it has been considered, until relatively recently, as a historic issue, the recognition of modern slavery means that it is a moral issue of current practical concern. The third reason is that critical realism considers itself to be an emancipatory project, as such it should be able to offer a coherent stance on an issue such as slavery. The use of this example does not make this a book about the moral issue of slavery; it is a book exploring critical realist approaches to moral questions, which uses the example of slavery to illuminate some of the issues.

Routledge are offering 20% of this book when purchased from routledge.com until 30th June 2022. Use discount code ESA22.


[i] Bhaskar, R.1986 Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation London, Verso

[ii] Collier, A. 1994. Critical Realism an Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London, Verso

[iii] Bhaskar, R.1986 Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation London, Verso (p187)

[iv] Danermark, B., Ekström, M., and Karlsson, J.C. 1997. Explaining Society. London, Routledge. (p.118)

[v] Bhaskar, R. 2008. A Realist Theory of Science (Second Edition). London, Verso.

[vi] Bhaskar, R. 2017. The Order of Natural Necessity. Great Britain, Amazon (p.20)

[vii] Bhaskar, R. 1993. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. London, Verso.

[viii] Collier, A. 1999. Being and Worth. London, Routledge.

[ix] Sayer, A. 2004. Restoring the Moral Dimension: Acknowledging Lay Normativity. http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/resources/sociology-online-papers/papers/sayer-restoring-moraldimension.pdf. Accessed January 2019.

Sayer, A. 2011. Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Sayer, A. 2019. Normativity and Naturalism as if Nature Mattered. Journal of Critical Realism 18:3, 258–273.

[x] Elder-Vass, D. 2010b. Realist Critique Without Ethical Naturalism or Moral Realism. Journal of Critical Realism 9:1, 33–55