What are the Criteria for a True Morality or a True Moral Judgment?

A lot of people talk about whether or not morality is real and whether it is binding on people. Many of these discussions are more obscure and less productive than they should be because one of the most fundamental semantic questions gets unaddressed. Even to properly pose this question, I am finding one needs to break it down into component questions that need to be answered roughly in a certain order before one can get to it clearly. Also, not to prejudice the substantive answers to these questions, I feel the need to pose them at a fairly high level of abstraction. So please bear with me. I think that if you can get a hold of the questions I am asking and chew them over for yourself and with other commenters here, this can be an unusually valuable exercise for creating clarity about an often confused topic.

1. Which phenomena in our experience are it valid to call “moralities” from a descriptive historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, biological, or computational perspective?

1A. There are (and have throughout history been) a wide range of social arrangements. Which ones should we call attempts at “moralities” and which ones not? Which ones should we say are descriptively “moralities” regardless of whether we personally endorse the codes or believe them “genuinely moral”, if we even believe in such things as “genuine morality”? By what normative standards and using what empirical techniques can we draw such lines?

1B. There are a lot of psychological states of mind. Which ones are characteristically “moral” in nature and which not? How do we make such discriminations rigorously, accurately, and as matters of “truth”? Is it a scientific truth whether a given psychological state of mind is one related to “morality” or “moralities”, or not? If it is not a scientific truth, can philosophy at least clarify the issue? What conceptual distinctions should be brought to bear here?

1C. Do our judgments about whether a given psychological disposition, behavior, attitude, or belief is one related to “morality” vary when we consider its sociological context? Or are patterns of behavior and thought which are worth seeing as related to morality in ways significantly distinguishable and independent from such behavior and thought as socially determined?

1D. What psychological and/or social capabilities are or are not necessary in determining which beings morality relates to? Can any being, including ones that are apparently non-conscious like autonomous military drones, be engaged in morality for as long as there is a decision procedure? Or is sentience requisite? Is the ability to feel pain sine qua non to morality? Is the ability to make consciously recognized decisions or to understand responsibility necessary? Might different moral beings be engaged with morally relevant factors in distinct and non-overlapping ways even?

1E. A major part of how we come to understand the idea of morality in the first place is that our brains engage in moral reasoning–which, with moral feelings employs distinctively moral categories of thought, follows moral rules, and/or expresses moral habits that are psychologically and/or socially engrained in us. Some broad, basic tendencies for moral reasoning seem to be innate and a product of biological influences. Those basic tendencies obviously interact with cultural influences to make for greatly divergent specific moral categories, theories, practices, habits, attitudes, particular judgments, etc.  So we not only reason about moralities but inevitably we reason in moral categories. And we not only reason about cultures’ moralities but inevitably reason through our own culture’s morality.

So, in light of this, how much should we let our morally shaped beliefs about what moralities are determine which of the various intertwined sociological, anthropological, psychological, historical, and biological phenomena that we observe, in our own culture or in others, should properly be classified as phenomena of “moralities”? How much do particularities of form and matter that constitute our own moral thinking within expressly moral categories have to be present in other institutions, minds, or behaviors, for them to be what we would call “moralities”? And is it okay (or how, why, or to what extent is it okay) that our normative judgments about morality should influence our semantic judgments about what even counts as “a morality phenomenon” within the natural world? Can we (or should we even want to) ignore the internal logic of our internally experienced moral reasoning in trying to explain what moralities are as a broader category of naturally arising bio-psycho-social phenomena?

2. What criteria would a morality (or a specific moral judgment) need to meet in order to be called “true”?

2A. People frequently make both the judgments (a) that particular moral propositions are true or false, and (b) that particular existing or proposed moral systems, practices, attitudes, behaviors, ideas, etc. are or are not “truly” moral. These are normative judgments. By this I mean that they make a claim about what should or should not be called moral if we (or others) are to get morality correct. This judgment seems to say that at least some social institutions, psychological judgments, behaviors, ideas etc. that have effective moral functions and characteristics from the perspectives of history and social science, are not in fact properly what they (or maybe all of us) should consider moral.

Some people say that such judgments about a true or a false moral judgment, practice, system, institution, idea, theory, etc. are utterly mistaken because there is no true or false with respect to moralities. Rather there are just existing institutions, practices, and psychological tendencies with shared characteristics that we call a person (or a people’s) “moral” life, “moral” psychology, “moral” practices, etc.

For the purposes of this discussion, I do not want us to debate whether or not any morality is true or could be true. What I want to know is, “What criteria would a morality or moralities have to meet such that you could say true or false statements about morality were possible?” These are the criteria we need to be justified in holding before we can judge that a particular morality or all of morality is not in fact possibly a matter of truth and falsity. So these are the criteria I would like to see us debate in the comments section.

2B. You may not think any morality meets the criteria for being capable of providing moral judgments that are “true”. On that account, you may judge that one cannot say a moral system, idea, institution, judgment, practice etc., is truly moral or not truly moral, or that a given moral proposition is either “true” or “false”. I am not as interested at the moment in the reasons you think morality is incapable of true or false statements. I am interested in your criteria for “true” and “false” statements itself, and I am interested in your account of what something would have to be in order to count as a morality that could have “true” and “false” statements. Whether or not such a morality exists is a separate question. I want to know what it would be.

2C. Regardless of whether you believe true morality is in fact possible, another question arises. Is your criteria for assessing whether moral judgments can be “true” or “false” the same as your criteria for assessing whether other kinds of judgments can be “true” or “false”? Should those criteria be the same or should they not? In what ways should they overlap and in what ways shouldn’t they? Do you think that moral judgments have a distinctive form such that, were they to be capable of truth and falsity, they nonetheless would be capable of it only in a different way than how other kinds of judgments are? Or maybe is moral reasoning like some other forms of reasoning that yield possible good judgments of true and false, while yet still being different from, say, matters of fact? Or would moral judgments be true or false in a comparable or identical way to how more uncontroversial fact statements are?

2D. In everyday reasoning, ethics is thought to be concerned with a rather wide range of features of experience. These range from social structures to intimate feelings and relationships to rule-adherence, and countless other things in between. Attempts to explain the reality of morality typically have to give some account of at least some of these phenomena that explains their natures and their ideal interactions. Sometimes these accounts of the reality of morality try to defend the legitimacy of truth statements about morality by saying that received institutions, practices, ideas, and judgments which are often thought to fundamentally characterize morality are either mistaken altogether or badly misconceived, and as such need to be modified in order for the possibility of moral truth statements to become clarified.

For the record, I reason in such a “revisionist” way about morality myself. Sometimes when I have explained my moral philosophy, people have said to me something like the following (below is my own phrasing of their objections, not a direct quote of anyone else–though in a future post I will reprint a previous post’s comments section exchange in which I received and answered these sorts of objections in a preliminary and extemporaneous way, a while back):

Well, yes, there can be truth statements about the things you are talking about–but those things are different than “morality”.  So you are being deceptive when you say there can be moral truth statements. You are illicitly substituting something different than what normal people mean when you say ‘there are moral truth statements’. So when you tell people you believe in ‘moral truth statements’ they think you mean what they have in mind, whereas you actually think that what they have in mind is confused and technically false. So you should stop using the word ‘morality’ and use another one. You are trying to deceptively advertise what you do believe in by using a word with meanings you do not believe in but which people are attached to, while knowing ordinary people would reject what you mean if they only understood it.

Now, without getting into the specifics of my moral philosophy or its defense, let me spell out in formal terms how I formally defend my revisionism against this charge. There are many phenomena that, prior to learning, we have words for and only crude understandings of. When natural scientists or social scientists or philosophers investigate these phenomena and come up with good discoveries about them, they tell people “this is what the natures of these things are really like”. In many ways the natures of things, understood with sophisticated expert clarity, are quite different than everyday experiences of them indicate. Sometimes how things really function is extraordinarily counter-intuitive to everyday thinking.

So when a scientist refers to a commonly experienced phenomenon about which she has an expert’s understanding, she may really mean all sorts of things that never cross the layperson’s mind when using the same word. And her understanding of the phenomenon might very well disqualify the muddled concept in the layperson’s mind as even really being at all a substantively true representation of the phenomenon in question. In other words, the untutored, lay understanding of the phenomenon might be so fundamentally mistaken about the true essence of the phenomenon at play, as scientifically understood, that he almost might not be legitimately entitled to use the word at all.

But, if communication is to be clear, the expert needs to bridge the gap between technical knowledge and everyday knowledge. So she must make clear that even though the formal, expert understanding she has in mind wildly revises common sense assumptions, it is still rooted in the same basic reality the layperson is also engaged with in at least some comparable way. She can seek to make the layperson’s understanding increasingly sophisticated by gradually correcting conceptual errors and creating new models of understanding by which to process information about the phenomenon.

But she would also in many cases be unhelpfully misleading to imply to the layperson that she was talking about a wholly different phenomenon than the one he has in mind and to say that he has no true access to the thing at all just because his conception was muddled and backwards in many ways. He is engaged with this reality in some common sense, workable way, that has a real relationship to the fundamental workings that the expert can explicate more adequately, even if a lot of work needs to be done to reconcile the two conceptions.

Now, in some cases, the disconnect between reality and common sense is just too great. The layperson’s concept so insufficiently maps the reality it aims at that the concept itself should have to be thoroughly abandoned rather than corrected. In such a case, the layperson needs to be told that a feature he thought to be part of common sense reality is just illusory and has no place in our understanding of reality once we look at it sufficiently critically.

Now some opponents of the idea of true morality want to say that revisionistic philosophical accounts of morality (or at least that my own such account) are not just like the case of the expert who understands a common phenomenon in a truer way that happens to be counter-intuitive to laypeople. They think that, rather, morality is a concept which inherently is false because what it conceptually means at its core is false or illogical or does not map to reality in any analogously true way.

They think the situation between the expert and the layperson is like the situation I described where the layperson has in mind a concept so confused and so unfounded in reality that the concept should be admitted to be utterly untrue–at least when we are being philosophical. They may recommend we carry on with ordinary moral language and reasoning and not try to disabuse laypeople out of their errors. They may even recommend not trying to opt out of our own senses of moral responsibility or moral obligation (or think such a thing impossible to try anyway). They may recommend participating in moral communities and  debates as before, letting their beliefs about morality’s irreality make no practical difference–if this is possible.

So the two part question this has all been building up to is this:

2D1. What features must a morality have to be truly a morality such that any revision that did away with them would make the resulting theory “not sufficiently like what laypeople call morality to be honestly called ‘true morality’”?

2D2.What kinds of “moral truths” must a morality be minimally capable of generating for it itself to be worthy of being called “a true morality” and not just a “fictional” one? 

Now, notice, your answers may allow that more kinds of possible theories of morality might work than your favorite. This is about criteria of what a true morality would incorporate or what kinds of justification standards it would meet. This is not about what theory incorporates the minimally necessary criteria in the best ways or about how to determine such a thing. This is also not what justification there is or is not for thinking there is any “true morality”. It’s about the criteria by which we settle the question. People with allegiances to opposing moral theories may agree at minimum about what a “true morality” should account for or how it would have to be justified, even if they disagree about the particulars of what theory or what means of justification best satisfy the criteria. Both those who believe in true morality and those who do not may agree on what must be true for it to exist but not agree on whether those factors exist.

Finally, it is worth noting that criteria need not be conceived of in essentialistic or “all or nothing” terms. It may not be some simple one property that is utterly decisive apart from all others. It may be that any combination of a range of possible criteria would be sufficient, such that two different “true moralities” could even both be true while not even meeting the same exact criteria but each meeting a valid subset sufficiently. The question about how to weigh criteria is open for debate in a lot of ways.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W. Symonds

    Fo me, the issue boils down to whether or not we believe we have a Moral Instinct or not (like the Chomsky/Pinker “Language Faculty/Instinct).

    If we are in the Moral Instinct ‘Camp’ then a certain line of thinking follows (eg Hauser’s ‘Moral Mind’ or my ‘Mega Instinct’).

    If we are in the Non-Moral Instinct ‘Camp’ then a certain line of thinking follows.

    If a person is in one ‘Camp’, they are unlikely to be persuaded by the other ‘Camp’ – and vive-versa (Atheist – Theist could be seen as similar, opposing ‘Camps’.

    So, for me, if any intelligent progress is to be made (eg philosophically), the we have to be clear ourselves which ‘camp’ we are in.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I am not sure how this relates to the question of whether or not moral judgments are true. Would having a moral instinct give us an arbiter to decide the truth or falsity of moral judgments? Lacking one, are moral truths impossible some how? Could there be other ways to have moral truths in lieu of a “moral instinct”? Could there be moral truths that our moral instinct does not know? Could our moral instinct make judgments that we can correct with greater moral knowledge? Our instincts in other areas in life are only rough guides, sometimes importantly improvable by increased knowledge. Is any such corrective knowledge possible with respect to a moral instinct–assuming it exists?

      What are the general criteria of true and false in moral judgments such that the moral instinct would matter one way or another. That’s the question. Please don’t skip it.

  • MurOllavan

    I’d be looking for objectivity, meaning two reasonable people using the theory should come to very similiar if not the same conclusion about specific questions.

    I’d also be looking for real-world value changes that can be shown to match up to better/worse evaluations the theory makes about moral questions.

    • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W. Symonds

      One criteria for “true” morality and/or “true” moral judgement is embodied in Mega Instinct Theory :

      If one of the 7 objective Values (Beauty, Freedom, Happiness, Life, Love, Peace & Truth) ‘match’ one of the 7 subjective Instincts (Beauty, Freedom, Happiness, Life, Love, Peace & Truth), that which is is “true”.

      If the 7 Values & 7 Instincts don’t ‘match’, that which is is not true.

  • eric

    1 – I am more interested in hearing what you have to say about these questions than opining on them myself. Particularly since (AIUI), you are the one presenting a formal theory about morality which, presumably, is partially based on the answers to 1.

    2A – Seems to me, you can make a judgement as to ‘true moral’ or ‘false moral’ within a moral system the same ways you might judge truth/falsity in other systems. I.e., you have an external referent to which you compare the object under question, to see in which category it fits. The referent could be a book of rules (“thou shalt not…”). Or it could be an algorithm for decision making (“do unto…,” or “ask Bob,” or even “draw a tile from the T/F bag.”)

    That’s the way most human systems work, from aesthetics (lots of “ask Bob” type rules) to science (the external referent is “empirical observation”).

    The real tricky question is, what system do you adopt? What’s your referent, and why that one?

    2C – the answer is yes an no. Yes, in that other peopl ewill probaly at least recognize what I described above as a legitimate way to proceed (even if they think there is a better way). If you tell someone “I judge movie quality based on what Roger Ebert says,” they may not agree that that’s a good system. But they will at least recognise that you are using the sort of system that people might use. Or failing that, they will at least recognize it as a (fairly common) aesthetic system, even if they prefer the “draw a tile from the bag” system.

    But the answer is no, in that you would not expect the specific referent of one system to be used in every other system. It doesn’t make alot of sense to use the “ask Ebert” criteria for the mass of the Higgs boson, or the “compare to the decalog” criteria for determining whether Air Supply rocks (p.s., they don’t).

    That’s enough for now.

    The question comes back to, what sort of decision-making system (about how to determine what’s moral) and referent are you proposing? ;)

  • David Ellis

    ” What criteria would a morality (or a specific moral judgment) need to meet in order to be called “true”?”

    I’d say Sam Harris is on the right track when he says that what morality is for, at least for a reasonable person, is promoting well-being/flourishing for societies and the individuals that make them up.

    In other words, if it promotes misery it ain’t moral….no matter how much it may be ingrained in one’s culture. And, assuming one means my moral those values which it’s sensible to hold in order to maximize well-being (which I don’t think needs to be justified—if anything’s worthwhile for it’s own sake surely maximizing well-being qualifies).

    • David Ellis

      I meant to say “that is” rather than “and” at the beginning of that last sentence.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      So any morality which does those things is truly a morality and all judgments made properly according to its criteria are properly called true?

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin


    For the purposes of this discussion, I do not want us to debate whether or not any morality is true or could be true. What I want to know is, “What criteria would a morality or moralities have to meet such that you could say true or false statements about morality were possible?”

    I want to say that you have skipped something, to wit, what does it mean for a moral statement to be true? We have a pretty clear definition of truth in formal logic, and hence, mathematics: A statement is true in a formal system if it holds in all models of that system. See, for example:


    Once one leaves logic, the notion of “truth” gets harder to define. For a scientific theory, one might say that it is true if it fits all past and future experience. I suspect it doesn’t matter much, because scientists are too busy extending and testing their theories, to worry much about a precise definition of scientific “truth.”

    Before I can understand the claim that a moral statement is “true” or “objective” or any of that good stuff, I need to have a definition that tells me what those mean. Now, maybe that is the question you’re asking, taking the truth conditions as definition of “true” in this domain.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I am asking what people’s criteria of truth in morality is. When people say there can be no moral truth, I need to know what criteria of truth they are assessing it by. I also need to know what possible candidates for morality they think exist. Because sometimes I explain all sorts of components of morality have fairly objective truth conditions and I give an account of how they could make what I take to be an comprehensive enough moral theory that accounts for most of what we usually mean by morality and suggests revisions to common sense in other places. Then people just say, “well that’s not morality“. So, I’m curious to people’s prior conditions of what they think a morality cannot be revised from being and still be a morality and I am curious about truth conditions insofar as others agree with my account of morality in many respects but then say “not true”, and I find that puzzling.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      My own view is that whatever criteria are proposed inevitably will be value-laden, i.e., they define a sense of “truth” only by reifying certain values. There are rational arguments to be made over values. I’m just not convinced that meta-morality neatly separates from plain old morality. We are moral agents not just in that we think from moral principles, but also in that we invent and criticize the moral principles that gain our loyalty.

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      I’ve just come across this, which might be useful – from a “Dr Teutonic” :

      I ran across an interesting essay that says all ethical systems can be put into three categories: deontology, virtue ethics, and consequentialism.

      A deontological system judges actions as good or bad according to whether or not they adhere to a set of rules or laws. The rules themselves are givens; they are axiomatic, not derived from within the system.

      A virtue ethics system is concerned with the character of the actor. If somebody intends to do good, then the action is morally good, and vice-versa. The characteristics of a good person are again axiomatic.

      Consequentialism judges actions based on their outcomes. Did the action result in a net increase in some metric of goodness (generally taken as human happiness)? Then it was good.

      There are also hybrids, like voluntarism, which says that actions are good if they are good under both a deontological and a virtue ethics system: you have to follow the rules AND mean well to do good. And you can nest virtue and deontology within consequentialism by regarding them as guidelines that generally (but not universally) lead to good outcomes; caching the results of your ethical calculus, as it were.

      Which is well and good if you only ever contend with a single ethical system. But the nagging question is: how do you choose between competing systems? If I’m presented with two deontologies, one of which has rules that say that X is good and Y is bad, and the other of which says the opposite, how do I decide which one is right?

      Obviously, you can just say “oh, this is the one I grew up with, so I’m going to stick with that”. Or pick an authority figure to delegate your agency to. But if you honestly want to give each one a fair shake, to say “what if?” and sort through the implications and weigh the systems using some method that isn’t just pure subjectivity, to use some kind of consistent framework that you might expect other people to use to come to a similar conclusion — or to come to a different conclusion, but in such a way that you’d at least be able to understand where your differences are coming from…

      It seems like the only way to do that intercomparison is using something that’s basically consequentialism. In which case, it seems like you can take a very handy shortcut and just skip straight to the only self-consistent solution. Happily, it’s also the one with axioms that are the closest to universality we can get, being rooted in the commonality of human experience, which makes it a lot easier to bridge the gap between people with major differences. Maybe this is why it’s so pervasive in the modern world.

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds
  • beth

    My answers to most of your questions are simply “I don’t know”. In some cases, it depends on what definitions are chosen for terms like ‘true’ and ‘morality’.

    2. What criteria would a morality (or a specific moral judgment) need to meet in order to be called “true”?

    The word true can have different meanings dependent on context. For example, consider the statement ‘smoking cigarettes causes cancer’. Clearly not true for all smokers, but as a shorthand for a lengthy and more precise statement about causal effects and probabilities, it is usually considered true.

    In mathematics, true indicates that a particular statement is both verifiable and consistent within the pre-defined system it resides in. However, the mathematical systems themselves are not considered true independent of any context. Consider Euclidean and non-Euclidean Geometries. They are mutually exclusive, so according to the typical meanings of true and false, if one is true, the others must be false. But that doesn’t fit what we know about the application of such geometries. They are all internally self-consistent. Each can be considered true in certain contexts although no two of them can be considered true within the same context.

    So if you are thinking of ‘true’ in a rigorous sense and/or ‘morality’ as a large system of self-consistent ideas, then like mathematics, I don’t think that they can be considered ‘true’ outside of any context anymore than Euclidian geometery can be considered ‘true’ without any context.

    However, this type of moral system could presumably be independently discovered by others regardless of their background and culture. We can expect intelligent space-faring aliens to have discovered many, if not all, of the same basic mathematical systems that humans have explored. Can we expect aliens to have discovered the same moralities too?

    That idea actually makes some sense to me, but it leaves true statements of morality in the same position as true statements of mathematics: they are dependent on the context they reside in and mutually exclusive moralities could all be true in differing contexts.

    Morality seems generally less like mathematics to me and more like shorthand approximations. When someone makes a statement like ‘killing humans is wrong’, I assume that they are giving a ‘rule of thumb’ rather than a precise statement because most people hold that there are exceptions to that general rule, such as killing someone in self-defense. I consider it a true moral statement the same way that I consider statements like ‘smoking causes cancer’ true.

    At any rate, you posed some interesting questions. Thanks for the food for thought.

    • colinhutton

      Very nicely said. As an atheist, it seems incoherent to me to propose that there could be a “truth” or a “morality” which is not entirely context dependant. So I am hoping to see a specific response from Dan to this comment of yours.

  • Michael R

    Not sure I understand the question but my general approach to morality is …

    - Morality is an arbitrary subset of values/desires. Desires are the products of emotions/feelings.

    - Morality is therefore about satisfying emotions/feelings/desires.

    - Science can study emotions and tell us what makes people happier and sadder.

    - Therefore, theoretically, one day, science can tell us what is the most moral (most emotionally satisfying) way to live – for an average person.

    - This means true or false statements about what is more moral. This is an objective morality.

    - But such science is only about a typical/average human.
    At the end of the day it still falls to an individual’s subjective emotions to decide whether or not to follow such advice.

    So, if Daniel says something like “maximal functioning” is the arbiter of morality/value, that’s not exactly true. Our desires are the source of values. If maximal functioning translates to maximal emotional satisfaction, then OK, but if not then maximal satisfaction is more accurate.

    To the question of “what values/desires make up morality?”, well that’s arbitrary and not interesting at all. It’s just a definition and nobody really cares, so long as you explain yourself clearly.

  • Patrick

    Why do you care so much about this?

    Its not like you’re elucidating anything new about the world. You’re just arguing over what words we’re allowed to use for things. Well, in philosophy, you can define things pretty much however you like, as long as you’re clear. So, go ahead.

    The facts aren’t going to change. You still won’t be able to extrapolate an “ought” from an “is” without another “ought.” And being human beings will still constrain, to a degree, the scope of things we feel, and therefore the “oughts” that we care about.

    Those will still be our facts. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about what words we should use to describe them, but they’re still going to stay the same.

    We don’t see this same conversation happening about any of the other things people reify. We just accept that we reify them, recognize that doing so is technically wrong, and work around it. People can manage to acknowledge that “deliciousness” isn’t objectively real. Even schoolkids figure out, all on their own, that something can be delicious to one person and not to another without creating a contradiction as to whether the thing is imbued with objective deliciousness. The fact that so many people are so emotionally driven to avoid doing the same thing with our impressions of “moral” valence makes me less confident in their efforts, not more so.

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Thank you for introducing me to the term “reify”.

      I am in no way wishing to ‘stir it’ here, by provoking anima, but could someone be able to make a philosophical case that Theism is a reification of Atheism ?

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Thank you for introducing me to the term “reify”.

      I am in no way wishing to ‘stir it’ here, by provoking anima, but could someone be able to make a philosophical case that Theism is a reification of Atheism – or vice-versa?

    • John Morales


      Richard, Patrick is actually misusing the term ‘reify’; it refers from considering an abstractum as a concretum (that is, an idea as a physical thing), not to considering something subjective as objective.

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      OK John – thanks for clarification. Good word though. After 58 years of swivelling around on the crust of this molten rock, hurtling round a big ball of fire, I’ve never come across the term ’til now!

  • John Moriarty

    Morality needs to function as rules of a co-operating society, even a society of two. The desire to co-operate I take as axiomatic, given the relative benefits.

    Do the rules work well or not? would seem to be a simple basic criterion. How is wellness defined? By satisfactions effectively, efficiently, equitably derived, such as enhanced life quality, freedom from many sorts of ills.

    Many rules get thrown out or radically altered when survival, especially of the more powerful, is at stake. Somewhat cynically, morality is for the good times of plenty. After that, apply jungle law.

    P.S. I cannot visualise a morality for a society of one, unless one wishes to be one’s own judge jury and executioner.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    It occurred to me that another term that needs to be defined in this discussion is “binding,”, where you write, “whether or not morality is real and whether it is binding on people.” What does it mean for a morality to be binding?

    That the individual thinks they themself ought to adhere to it?

    That you think they ought to adhere to it?

    That there is some consequence to them adhering or not adhering to it?

    Something else?

  • http://intuitivebleep.blogspot.com John

    Here’s my present thoughts on the matter:

    1a. What things can be “moralities”?
    - A morality is a way to weigh different actions. This makes moralities useful both predictively (what should I do) and retroactively (knowing what things were mistakes, and learning from them). They can also be used to help others and take corrective action.
    - Often this takes the shape of goals and strategies for achieiving them (rules). Some moralities set a goal of “pleasing God”; most include “increase my well-being”; and many include “increase peoples’ well-being.” Some strategies might include “don’t hurt people,” “don’t have sex until marriage,” or “only eat vegetables.”
    - The goals in moralities need to be broad enough to help you weigh actions covering a WIDE area of experience. Moralities are useful to the extent that they help you make decisions. A complete morality would tell you, given enough information, how to make *any* decision. I suspect such a morality is in principle impossible.
    - Interestingly, by this definition, “buy low, sell high” is part of morality. I think this is justified–if you consider money to have a positive use, it is immoral to make less money than you otherwise could. But it takes a comprehensive way of thinking before you consider things like this moral rules.

    1b-d. Who can have moralities?
    - Any entity capable of weighing different actions is capable of making moral decisions; this implies ants have a morality (though it may or may not be a good one). It also implies that collectives (which can also make decisions) can have moralities distinct from the individuals.
    - As to brain states, the same thing applies. People can adopt different moralities in different brain states.
    - Relevantly, people can act under moralities that they did not choose (moralities do not have to be logically derived, or optimal, to register as morality).
    - If ants can have moralities, robots certainly can. :)
    - This is distinct from the question of whether there is a “best” morality that fits all moral creatures. Most moralities only talk about what humans should do, which sidesteps this issue in a practical way.

    1e. Can we divorce our definition of morality from our instinct/intuition/culture?
    - We can certainly divorce our definition of morality from our culture. I think I’ve done so here in a general way.
    - Whether we can follow an actual morality that differs from our instincts, physical body or culture, is an entirely different question. A species that has hundreds of children, many of whom die before adulthood, will value life and children in entirely different, alien ways than us.

    2. Can we say whether one morality is better than another?

    - Yes, I think we can judge other peoples’ morality as good or bad, given that we know what outcomes (goals) they would value most.
    - Because someone might not know what they would value most until they get it, people can have all *manner* of bad moralities–not just strategies, but right down to the goals they think they have. You do have to consider what they would actually value most, and test whether their strategy helps them reach that.
    - I think humans in particular have a leg up judging each others’ moralities, because many of the things we value arise from our very similar physical, emotional and mental systems (our physical selves).
    - My criteria for assessing a morality is to measure outcomes (see how people feel in certain states), and experiment to see what behaviors help them get there, and refine the model as we gather more data. I think it’s the same way I assess other truths.

    I hadn’t thought of a collective as having its own morality distinct from the individuals before this; it’s an interesting idea that I am going to have to mull over.

  • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W. Symonds

    Interesting. This I found quite useful too :


    “Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy which deals with decision-making, how we separate correct from incorrect action.

    A moral philosophy, or ethical system, is the set of criteria by which an individual judges whether an action should or should not be taken.

    All ethical systems can…be separated into three categories…

    The three are :

    1. Virtue Ethics (note, does not necessarily involve any concept of “virtue”),
    2.,Deontology (no relation whatsoever to “ontology”), and the younger sibling..
    3. Utilitarianism, aka. Consequentialism”

    Then, the ‘hybrids’ of the three systems are looked at…

  • Braavos

    “What criteria would a morality or moralities have to meet such that you could say true or false statements about morality were possible?”

    Maybe I’m missing something that should be obvious to me, but why even think there are such criteria in the first place? What if there are no such criteria? If a true morality does not exist, why think that there exist criteria about what would need to be the case for morality to be true? Wouldn’t that be like asking what criteria would need to be met for phlogiston to exist? Phlogiston doesn’t exist, so how can we have any idea about what would have to be the case for phlogiston to exist?

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Well Braavos, my personal view is that it would have been impossible for you to have written a single word of what you have just said, without you (& others reading it) having a Moral Iinstinct.

  • Braavos

    @Richard: Why would it be impossible to write or read what I wrote without having a moral instinct? Also, the existence of a moral instinct doesn’t entail that a true morality exist, so I’m doubly unsure of its relevance to my question.

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      @Braavos : Because, I would maintain, we are uniquely moral beings.

      Can you imagine a monkey writing or understanding this?!

    • John Morales

      Richard, your retort to Braavos seems like a non sequitur.

      (Non-human nimals may not have advanced cognition, but they sure have instincts)

    • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W.Symonds

      @ John M. You like that word “non sequitur”, don’t you ;)

      Well, I do not consider my comments non-sequitor, irrelevant or logically fallacious, so I disagree with you.

      Why ?

      Because, I would maintain, we have a Moral Instinct – a little more advanced than the “advanced cognition” of a clever animal : we are a moral being.

      Quite what is the source of that morality has been a bit of a problem for us all (as a species), for rather a long time – well before Plato & his ‘Republic’ – and certainly well before the modern ramblings of Atheists & Theists alike.

      So, my approach to the questions posed pre-supposes an innate Moral Instinct (possibly similar to the Language Instinct) – without which we simply wouldn’t have a clue how to answer…much like the most clever monkey around.

    • consciousness razor

      Richard W.Symonds:

      So, my approach to the questions posed pre-supposes an innate Moral Instinct (possibly similar to the Language Instinct) – without which we simply wouldn’t have a clue how to answer…much like the most clever monkey around.

      But you didn’t answer any of the questions posed. I think you’re pointing to answers to different questions, which is okay, but it’s confusing.

      It’s not entirely clear what you mean by an “innate moral instinct”, but I’ll grant that in some sense we do have instincts which are at least relevant to different forms of morality. However, that by itself doesn’t seem to imply there is a true morality, or that morality is a matter of true or false propositions. Those could both be the case, but if the existence of an instinct does entail that, you haven’t shown your work, thus it at least looks a whole lot like a non sequitur, so you’d need to clarify how one follows from the other (if indeed they do).

      For example, we have sexual instincts. We certainly have a clue how to have various kinds of sex and even to approach answering some basic questions about it. However, that by itself doesn’t mean some sexual acts are true or false. If it did, what would that even mean?? Now, I’m not suggesting morality is like sexuality in every sense, just that having an instinct by itself doesn’t tell us all that much, because so many different kinds of phenomena are described as “instincts” (accurately or not) that we have to be more specific and say what’s unique to morality (rather than, say, language or sex) to get some of the answers we want.

    • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W. Symonds

      @ consciousness razor

      Well, I’m not surprised you don’t think I’m answering the questions posed; that might be because there seems considerable uncertainty – not just from me – as to what exactly are the questions posed ;)

      So help me CR; lay out for me clearly what the questions are, and I’ll attempt to answer honestly & straight. I promise.

    • John Morales


      You like that word “non sequitur”, don’t you ;)

      Not particularly; it’s more like people keep inviting me to use it.

      (Would you prefer I wrote that you didn’t actually answer the question posed to you)

      Because, I would maintain, we have a Moral Instinct – a little more advanced than the “advanced cognition” of a clever animal : we are a moral being.

      You’re indulging in mystical thinking; we are a social species, like hyenas, and we are just a clever animal.

      Quite what is the source of that morality has been a bit of a problem for us all (as a species), for rather a long time – well before Plato & his ‘Republic’ – and certainly well before the modern ramblings of Atheists & Theists alike.


      (BTW: I’m not an Atheist, I’m an atheist — it’s not an ideology, it’s merely a belief)

    • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W. Symonds

      @ John M

      Just because I think Man is a Moral Being with a unique Moral Instinct, I am accused of “mystical thinking”.

      Ummmm…interesting concept.

      I do not consider my arguments to be “non-sequitur” (irrelevant/illogical) – I am trying to make my case, and you are simply disagreeing with me (whether you are an ‘Atheist’ or ‘atheist’)…..now that’s what I call “non-sequitur” ;)

    • http://poundhillnorthindependentcrawley.freeforums.org Richard W. Symonds

      Oh, BTW John M, is Richard Dawkins now an An Atheist, atheist, Agnostic or agnostic? I’m a little confused here :


    • John Morales


      Richard, it’s more your inappropriate capitalisation and your anthropomorphisation of a natural tendency that makes me think you’re thinking mystically.

      I do not consider my arguments to be “non-sequitur” (irrelevant/illogical) – I am trying to make my case, and you are simply disagreeing with me (whether you are an ‘Atheist’ or ‘atheist’)…..now that’s what I call “non-sequitur” ;)

      To what argument do you refer?

      (It takes more than mere assertion to make an argument; if you care to make some sort of case for why one cannot write about morality without having a Moral Instinct [sic] (whatever that is, since you’ve not defined it), then I can dispute your argument — otherwise, a mere repudiation of your claim suffices)

      Also, Dawkins has made it explicitly clear that he’s an agnostic atheist.

      PS http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalization_in_English

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Well John M, in 2006, it took evolutionary biologist Marc D Hauser 489 pages in “Moral Minds” to make the case that “we evolved a moral instinct, a capacity that naturally grows within each child, designed to generate rapid judgements about what is morally right or wrong, based on an unconscious grammar of action”….so please forgive me for not answering your question(s) in a paragraph or two.

      You say : “Make some sort of case for why one cannot write about morality without having a Moral Instinct”

      My answer to that would be for you to first answer this :

      Make some sort of case for why one cannot write about moral consciousness, without being morally conscious.

    • John Morales



      You say : “Make some sort of case for why one cannot write about morality without having a Moral Instinct”

      My answer to that would be for you to first answer this :

      Make some sort of case for why one cannot write about moral consciousness, without being morally conscious.


      I don’t care to try to make a case for a contention I did not make.

      BTW, as far as terminology goes, I consider morality to be applied ethics, where one’s ethics is the set of beliefs about the proper actions one should take when others may be affected by them.

      (IOW, morality is what one does, ethics is what one believes)

    • consciousness razor

      So help me CR; lay out for me clearly what the questions are, and I’ll attempt to answer honestly & straight. I promise.

      Read Fincke’s article. It is littered with dozens of questions, which are meant to be the topic of this thread. You haven’t answered a single one, unless you think one or more of them is in some way answered by “there exists a moral instinct.” If you don’t want to, I don’t care. I leave that decision to you; but if you think you’re responding to what Fincke wrote, you haven’t specified how, or which claim(s) or question(s) it would be answering.

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Read my first post to Finck’s question, CR.

      There you will find me not answering the questions posed, but simply saying the answers
      given will depend on whether or not it is believed there is a Mioral Instinct or not.

      Then, I answered as someone who believes we have a Moral Instinct :

      The “criteria” thus being a set of 7 Values & 7 Values (of the Moral Instinct) ‘matching’.

    • John Morales

      Richard, what is the difference between your purported “Moral Instinct” [sic] and other animals’ social instincts?

      (Did you know spotted hyenas’ society is matriarchal?)

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      As a moral being/animal with a moral instinct, we have moral choice – free will – which sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom with instincts.

    • John Morales


      As a moral being/animal with a moral instinct, we have moral choice – free will – which sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom with instincts.

      That’s terminologically incoherent, then: instincts (definitionally) aren’t conscious choices.

      (You must therefore be referring to a moral consciousness rather than to an instinct)

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Now THAT is really interesting John M – especially considering my proposed book title is :

      “THE MEGA INSTINCT – The Moral Instinct As Consciousness”

      And if you are right, I might have to re-write the book – damn!

    • John Morales

      Richard, note that I qualified it as terminologically incoherent, not conceptually-so.

      (The semantics are a different thing to the semiotics; the map is not the territory)

      PS You should consider why much of morality relates to guiding (and indeed, suppressing) our instincts towards consciously-desired outcomes.

  • qbsmd

    1. Systems based on mitigating suffering or potential suffering are real moralities. Other standards of behavior (based on following a religious text, authority figure, or disgust based social mores) are pseudo-moralities. But of course this judgement is the result of my own moral system, and I wouldn’t expect everyone to agree.

    1B. I tend not to believe in human altruism: apparent altruism occurs when individuals best interests involve behaving in a way that requires making sacrifices in order to look good to themselves and their communities. Scientific study of psychological states may be able to determine whether this is true. If altruism doesn’t exist then thoughts about what actions fit expected social rules are the only “moral” thoughts. Otherwise, thoughts analyzing what action an individual should perform, based on criteria other than what is in the individual’s best interests are moral thoughts.

    1C. In 1B, I first tried to define moral attitudes entirely in terms of sociological context, so the question makes little sense. For my second attempt, determining whether thoughts are morally related would be independent of social context, but conclusions about individual beliefs or behaviors would vary based on social context.

    1D. I’ve never been clear on the difference between sentience and consciousness, but I would assume they’re necessary for something to have direct moral value. I like to define “pain” as a perception of damage that provokes reactions to prevent or accommodate that damage. This has the advantage of applying to things that appear to “feel” pain, but are unlikely to be conscious. As a side effect, I’ve been able to refer to work I’ve done with damage detection systems on certain machines as making those machines able to feel pain. I’d use “suffering” to denote pain experienced by a conscious entity, and make that the requirement for moral value. I’m not sure whether consciousness is required for something to be a moral agent, because I don’t believe in the reality of free will, so a decision process involving motives as discussed in 1B is the only available criterion.

    2. I would interpret any moral statement (s is right, t is wrong) as being shorthand for (according to moral system X, s is permitted, t is not), so moral statements could easily be evaluated as true or false. Unfortunately this results in a situation where one person could say s is right, (according to system X s is permitted), and another could say s is wrong (according to system Y, s is not permitted), and both have made true statements. I don’t know how it would be possible to make the argument that someone should abandon their moral system and use mine without finding contradictions in their system and subsequently finding that my system is consistent with whatever is left of theirs after removing the contradictory parts. That is, I don’t know how anyone could argue for an objective moral system. I guess I have to say that the criterion for an objectively true moral statement would require that it be from a moral system that any reasonable person could be convinced to adopt over their own.

    2C. my criteria for judging whether claims are true or false are scientific ones: if any trained observer can examine the same evidence or perform the same experiment and come to the same conclusion, then that conclusion is valid. I think my criteria for moral truth is about as consistent with that as possible.

    2D. I’m very sympathetic of Sam Harris’ attempt to define morality based on what actions lead to suffering or well-being and then scientifically determine what actions are objectively right or wrong, but I understand the difficulty (practical impossibility) of convincing anyone who disagrees to accept that definition or the conclusions that result.

  • John Morales

    Here is a moral argument:

    Premise: Some brockprevs exist.
    Premise: Some blucktovs exist.
    Premise: All brockprevs can pontrativate.
    Premise: When a brockprev pontrativates, some blucktovs suffer pain.
    Premise: No brockprev has a need to pontrativate.
    Premise: To cause needless pain is a bad thing.

    Conclusion: Pontrativation by brockprevs is a bad thing.

    I submit that, given one accepts the above premises, the conclusion is true — that is, it is a moral truth though it is not binding.

    (The point?

    That moral truth-claims require acceptance of certain premises)

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      That moral argument is sound, if – and only if – the premise “no brockprov has a need to pontrativate” is true.

      It has not been proven to be true, therefore the conclusion is not sound – so the moral argument is not sound,

    • John Morales

      Precisely. :)

      So. you grant that moral arguments depend on the soundness of their premises, such that their validity is not sufficient for their being compelling?

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Indeed John M.

      For me. a “moral argument” can only ever be a theory – llike Popper’s ‘conjectures’ – so it can never ‘compel’…it’s a moral choice for each individual.

      That’s perhaps why my Reason tells me I’m an agnostic; my Faith tells me I’m a theist; and my Reason & Faith tell me I’m not an atheist ;)

    • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

      Indeed John M.

      For me. a “moral argument” can only ever be a theory – llike Popper’s ‘conjectures’ – so it can never ‘compel’…it’s a moral choice for each individual.

      That’s perhaps why my Reason tells me I’m an agnostic; my Faith tells me I’m a theist; and my Reason & Faith tell me I’m not an atheist.

      So. I suppose if Dawkins is calling himself an ‘agnostic atheist’, I suppose I’m calling myself an ‘agnostic theist’.

    • John Morales

      PS To put it into topical and concrete terms, I put it to you that no person has a need to insult another.

  • http://GatwickCityofIdeas Richard W. Symonds

    I would agree with that.

  • Richard Wein

    Good post, Daniel. I see it as a challenge to moral error theorists, so, as a moral error theorist myself, I’ll try to answer. You asked:

    2D1. What features must a morality have to be truly a morality such that any revision that did away with them would make the resulting theory “not sufficiently like what laypeople call morality to be honestly called ‘true morality’”?

    Well, there are the well-known (but disputed) ones like being absolute (as opposed to relative) and cognitivist (as opposed to non-cognitivist). But I don’t think those are what you’re looking for. I would say that the most fundamental feature of an objective morality would be that it obliges people to do things. In other words, moral obligation is fundamental to morality. In my experience, moral naturalists tend to focus on assertions of “good” and “bad”, rather than on assertions of moral obligation. I think that if they focused on giving a reductive definition of “moral obligation” (or “morally obliged”) they would find it much harder to convince themselves that they’ve given an adequate one. Have you attempted to define “morally obliged”?

    You will probably have observed that I’ve used some moral language in describing the feature in question (“moral obligation”). I haven’t attempted to reduce a moral property to a non-moral one. That’s because I think it’s impossible to do so. If you replace a moral statement with a non-moral one, you’ve lost the unique properties of non-moral statements. It’s somewhat analogous to replacing a command with an assertion.

    Unlike genuine knowledge, our moral beliefs are not rooted in epistemic success. They don’t help us predict observations, or tell us which actions will produce which outcomes. Instead, their success lies in modifying the behaviour of the believer. This is particularly apparent if you accept the adaptive evolutionary origin of human morality.

    There’s one exception to the fact that moral beliefs don’t help us predict observations, but it’s not one that helps the moral realist. We may reason: action A is morally wrong; therefore person P probably believes that A is morally wrong; therefore P probably won’t do A. That sort of reasoning can deliver successful predictions. But our moral discourse is not rooted in the success of such predictions. And, more importantly, this sort of prediction doesn’t require the premise that A is morally wrong. Our prediction can just as well start from the premise that most people believe A is morally wrong. The additional premise (that A actually is morally wrong) has no epistemic value.

    If moral properties really exist, the only effect they have on observable reality is via the phenomenon of people believing in them. Looking at it another way, there’s no evidence for the existence of moral properties, apart from the fact that an awful lot of people believe in them. These facts should make a good skeptic very suspicious. I think moral naturalists (and many other meta-ethicists) are too concerned with saving the concept (of moral truth), at the expense of their skeptical search for knowledge.