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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 23.1 > Virtuous Reality

Virtuous Reality

Why Right and Wrong Seem Real: a Critique of Moral Realism

…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” —Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

ON AUGUST 24, 2016, AT 3:36 AM, A 6.2 MAGNITUDE earthquake struck central Italy, devastating centuriesold towns and villages across the mountainous regions of Umbria, Lazio, and Marche. The quake killed 297 people, mostly in the town of Amatrice located near the epicenter. The town’s historic center, with buildings dating to the Middle Ages, was obliterated. In the immediate aftermath, the mayor, Sergio Pirozzi, told a broadcaster, “the town isn’t here any more.”1 To see the scale of death and destruction and its human impact reflected in the dazed and distressed expressions of the survivors naturally evokes feelings of empathy and concern. But it is unlikely that anyone has felt any sense of moral indignation over the processes of nature that caused this catastrophe: the continuous tectonic movement of the African Plate into the Eurasian Plate and the pressure it exerts on the Apennine Mountain region where the quake occurred.

Are Right and Wrong Real?

Now imagine a different scenario. It wasn’t an earthquake that killed nearly 300 people in Italy, but a coordinated attack by teams of terrorists who infiltrated the towns and set off massive explosions, killing dozens of survivors as they crawled out through the rubble. There would be moral outrage everywhere. But in purely materialistic scientific terms, could there be any difference in moral content between the actions of the terrorists and the tectonic movements of plates? They are both processes of nature and presumed to be governed by laws in their respective geological and psychological domains. The brain is a physical system no less than a planet.

In a material universe devoid of any supernatural, willful influence, no human action is right or wrong; it just is. The moral dimension we may see in human behavior is, as Einstein famously said in reference to time, “only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” possibly a construction of the human mind that evolved as a mechanism for promoting cohesion within progressively larger and more diverse and powerful groups of hunter-gatherers.2

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About Skeptic

EVIL, THEISM, and ATHEISM Answering the Hard Question “You’re an Atheist?! How Do You Find Meaning and Morality in Life if There is No God?”; God, Heaven, and Evil: A Renewed Defense of Atheism; The Devil’s Mark: The Evaluation of Evil, the Measurement of Morality, and the Statistical Significance of Sin; Whence Cometh Evil? The Concept and Mechanics of Natural Evil; Virtuous Reality: Why Right and Wrong Seem Real: a Critique of Moral Realism; Tearing Down Mr. Hume’s Wall: A Response to Moral Realism Skeptics; Brazilian Cancer Quackery; The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up; Understanding Human Skeletal Variation; Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education; Why Freud Matters: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition; Hope and Hype for Alzheimer’s; I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too; Junior Skeptic: The Incredible Claims of Pet Psychics…