BMCR 2002.07.26

Real Ethics. Rethinking the Foundations of Morality

John M. Rist, Real ethics : reconsidering the foundations of morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (viii, 195 pages). ISBN 0511042043 $23.00 (pb).

Rist’s aim in this study is twofold: first, he sets out to show that only two coherent attitudes concerning moral foundations are available, viz., either ‘Platonic realism’ or ‘Thrasymachean nihilism’; second, he suggests that the former is far more plausible than the latter. The book is thus primarily about ethics, but because of its project substantial parts deal with ancient theories of the good and the good life, of justice and love, and of the soul and the nature of man. Rist builds his case for realism on philosophical theses propounded by Plato or such ‘Platonists’ as Aristotle, Augustine or even Aquinas. His study, therefore, is of interest not only to philosophers, theologians and, in fact, all those concerned with moral theory but also to classicists interested in ancient ethics.1

The book consists of an introduction and nine chapters; it is completed by a bibliography and a general index. The introduction states the subject at issue: moral foundations. The reader, however, has to work through the first chapter, entitled ‘Moral nihilism: Socrates vs. Thrasymachus’, to gain full understanding of the aim and structure of the book. In chapter 1 Rist interprets the moral nihilism Thrasymachus defends and Socrates attacks in the first book of Plato’s ‘Republic’ — namely the thesis that what is called justice is in fact the advantage of the stronger — as a version of moral anti-realism. According to Rist, who on this point follows Plato as against the mainstream of contemporary ethical thought, this means that moral standards are not only not grounded in some kind of objective reality but are based on arbitrary preferences of groups or individuals and therefore cannot be rationally justified: ethical theories which pretend to justify their principles without recourse to ‘Platonic realism’ can be shown to fail and, accordingly, be reduced to ‘Thrasymachean nihilism’. These two theories, Rist claims, are the only viable alternatives in the debate about moral foundations.

Most of the remaining chapters develop essential aspects of ‘Platonic realism’ (chapters 2-4) or treat its major contemporary alternatives, pointing out their inadequacies (chapter 6-7). Chapter 5 is a bit of a hybrid, proposing an interpretation of moral rules and principles as means to ends, thereby elaborating Rist’s ‘realist’ conception of moral conduct — in which virtuous emotions and dispositions take precedence over rules and principles — and, at the same time, exposing the limitations of a rule-based conception of justice as fairness. Chapter 8 turns to the political implications of ethics. Chapter 9 returns to foundational issues.

It’s not feasible to do justice to every aspect of the book in the compass of this review. For example, some of Rist’s discussions of rival theories will be hinted at in a few words, others will be passed over altogether; even some of the themes that are not unimportant to Rist himself will have to be ignored in order to present a clear analysis of his main argument. The following paragraphs will attempt to do just that, concentrating first on ‘Platonic realism’ as envisaged by Rist and then on his treatment of rival theories. After that the review can be aptly concluded by a brief assessment of the ‘Platonism’ he wishes to revive.

The most important feature of this ‘Platonism’ clearly is its theistic interpretation, which Rist adopts from Augustine and the medieval Christian tradition. According to this tradition Plato’s form of the Good — which in his ethics functions not only as an objective standard but also as a metaphysical object of love or Eros, capable of inspiring human action — needs to be interpreted as God. For goodness as a quality must be substantiated in something good; and as the object of the highest form of human love this ‘something’ must be a person. As Rist would have it, Plato’s form of the Good, along with other moral exemplars, subsists in God’s being or nature.

On the part of man, of course, such a theory requires a very specific conception of human nature. Man must possess the intellectual and moral capacities to live by the Good; he must be able to recognize and love it, and to let it govern his actions. Plato copes with this requirement by positing a ‘core self’, an intellectual soul, the proper functioning of which in human beings is as a rule disturbed by vicious upbringing and practice but which cannot be corrupted itself. This essentialist theory — though it does not explain why human life is as morally defective as it is — explains at least the fact that at times some people do display moral improvement by stripping off from their souls the layers of mistaken belief and bad habit.

Rist rejects this theory. Instead — and this is a second important feature of the ‘Platonism’ he advocates — he favours a theory of human nature according to which there is no such thing as a ‘core self’ to be detected, but only a ‘future soul’ to be hoped for. There are no layers that can be stripped off. The moral self of man possesses no single identity. It is ineradicably divided into opposed and self-contradictory personalities which in succession make up the moral history of man in this life, and which, by external help, that is, by God’s grace, may be transformed into a unified soul after death. Rist takes seriously what he dubs the ‘surd-factor’ in human nature, revealing itself in the incapacity of most men by themselves to unify their souls and to live a life which is governed by the love of God, which results from the feeling of incompleteness that accompanies their inner division.

In support of this christianized version of ‘Platonic realism’, the bare essentials of which have just been outlined, Rist rejects some major alternatives as incoherent. His criticism is not confined to contemporary theories, which are dealt with in chapters 6-7. In view of these theories he also discusses the ethical thought of Epicurus, Macchiavelli and Hobbes as well as that of Kierkegaard in chapter 2. The first three are discussed as precursors of contemporary ‘naturalism’, which Rist presents as heavily influenced by Hume. Kierkegaard is treated as an important factor in the development of currently wide-spread theories of autonomy and choice. A second important factor in the development of these theories, viz., Kantianism, is dealt with both in its original form and in its contemporary adaptations by theories of ‘practical reasoning’, as is also the case with Aristotelianism. According to Rist the project of both Kantianism and Aristotelianism to separate ethics from metaphysics has proven a failure.

It would be tedious to enter into the details of Rist’s criticism of all these theories. Instead, it seems better to sketch the main line and the kind of argument he uses to establish his thesis that (1) all the alternatives referred to are incoherent and, as a result, open to reduction to ‘Thrasymachean nihilism’ and that (2) ‘Platonic realism’, which, for all its epistemological problems, is taken to be a consistent and intelligible account of human life and experience, in the debate about moral foundations carries the day.

Rist’s claim that all the alternatives to ‘Platonic realism’ are incoherent has varying reasons. Some theories are judged incoherent because of the implausibility of their premisses. Rist, for example, criticizes Kant for his bifurcation of human nature into autonomous reason and heteronomous inclinations, his belief that all the formulations of the Categorical Imperative are equivalent, and the inability of his rational commands to motivate a dutiful man to act at all. Other theories, e.g. modern theories of ‘practical reasoning’, are found to be incoherent in that they fall short of their aim, that is to be an account of morality. According to Rist there is no way of interpreting morality as rational decision-making — as identifying reasons for actions which every rational agent would accept — simply because of the fact that ‘I ought to do this’ is not identical to ‘It is rational for me to do this’. He opposes any philosophical redescription in non-realist terms of the ordinary realist understanding that the ‘man in the street’ has of ‘common morality’. Still other theories, e.g. non-metaphysical theories of ‘natural’ rights, are deemed incoherent because they are based on mere assumptions. According to Rist ‘natural’ rights not backed up by an adequate metaphysical account of human value are nothing but personal preferences.

All such theories, Rist claims, may be considered ‘nihilist’ in that their foundations cannot be established but their content can be interpreted, in the wake of Thrasymachus, as a political means to social ends. In other words, they can be reduced to pseudo- or ‘as-if’ moralities. In particular ‘choice theory’ — the theory according to which the opportunity to choose for one self is the primary human good, which serves as a foundation for every person’s basic right to autonomy — presents itself as liable to such a reduction. For according to Rist the value it allots to choosing for one self is itself an arbitrary preference. Quasi-realist theories, which stress the social benefit of acting as if there were real moral values ‘out there’, are even explicit varieties of ‘nihilism’.

Rist’s argument for the superiority of realism is in fact a reductio ad absurdum of anti-realism. He is perfectly clear about the epistemological problems of the Christianized system of Platonism described above. Yet he rejects Thrasymacheanism in favour of a theory which, alledgedly, explains our moral experience better. Following the tactic of Zeno, the pupil of Parmenides, he concentrates on the consequences if ‘Platonic realism’ should prove to be false, that is, he sketches the world we would live in if ‘Thrasymachean nihilism’ should turn out to be true. That world, according to Rist, would be unintelligible and dreadful. It would be a world of deception and self-deception about standards which once were thought of as moral, but which, on reflection, appear to be instrumental. It would be a world that is non-moral.

The main reason for the title of the book — Real Ethics — should by now be clear. It expresses nothing less than Rist’s attempt to vindicate what he considers the ordinary, realist conception of morality against the mainstream of contemporary ethical thought, which, according to Rist, transforms ‘common morality’ into something else. Assuming that this ‘common morality’ exists and that it is realist indeed, this aspect of the book deserves approval. For the fact that in contemporary ethics moral experience is mostly subordinated to the whole of moral theory and that, as a result, the experience is adjusted in view of the theory, is often passed over in silence. Moral thought shapes and reshapes morality; so it should be clear that successive transformations may be so fundamental as to imply discontinuity in morality itself as well as in moral thought. It may be true to assert, as Rist in fact does, that contemporary, anti-realist ethics has nothing to say about an older form of moral experience, which, expressed in a realist conception of morality, is still ‘common’ with the ‘man in the street’ today. The present reviewer at least cannot avoid the impression that e.g. John Rawls’s influential theory of justice, which happens to make its correlation between experience and theory perfectly clear,2 for all its virtues has little bearing on his own moral experience.

This, of course, is not to say that Rist’s plea for realism is cogent. On the contrary, in line with human experience in other fields, moral experience cannot be thought of as definitive and as an ultimate point of reference outside corrigible theory. That, however, or so it appears, is just what Rist does. In the end his argument depends on the veracity of ‘our’ moral experience. Yet there are powerful reasons for distrust. One need only think of the evolutionary approach to morality, mentioned only once by Rist,3 although it should figure as a most important and perhaps the most radical contemporary version of ‘Thrasymachean nihilism’. Many interesting and even socially vital questions arise from its exposure of morality as inter alia a many-sided biological means to biological ends. Rist does not enter into these questions. Instead, he vindicates moral experience and, to the present reviewer disappointingly, without any argument to demonstrate its veracity, returns to ‘Platonic realism’. However, he may have felt no need for such an argument, for in several parts of the book he gives the impression that he has no real intention of persuading the non-realist but in fact is guilty of preaching to the choir. Several times he discusses the attitude realists should display in their dialogue with contemporary anti-realists; his intended audience, therefore, may not be his opponents, but his philosophic partisans.

In conclusion: the book is well-written, the argument is clear and discussions of other views are mostly accurate. Its main thesis, however, at least to the present reviewer, is rather unconvincing.


1. Rist does not rest his case on his interpretations of Plato or Augustine, but he does believe in their historicity (p. 7). In fact, he is a recognized a specialist in the field of ancient philosophy, and his numerous publications have earned wide-spread recognition. In recent years his interests appear to have shifted to philosophical ethics.

2. Cf. J. Rawls, A theory of Justice, Oxford 1972, sections 4 and 87.

3. Rist (p. 53) mentions R. Dawkins, The selfish Gene, Oxford 1976. Dawkins has little to say about morality; cf. R.D. Alexander, The biology of moral systems, New York 1987 or W.A. Rottschaefer, The biology and psychology of moral agency, Cambridge 1998.