What Are Objective Moral Values and Duties, Anyway?

What Are Objective Moral Values and Duties, Anyway? August 3, 2015

The concept of “objective morality” is notorious for its ambiguity. You might even say that people–or, at least, philosophers–have a moral obligation not to use that expression unless and until they first give a very nuanced definition of what it means! Because the concept is often misunderstood, I’m going to try to offer a “layman’s guide to moral objectivity” in this post.

Morality and Moral Concepts

Let’s start with “morality.” The average person who is not a philosopher probably thinks there is just the one ‘thing,’ morality, and that’s the end of it. In fact, the topic is a little bit more complicated than that. Non-philosophers might be surprised to learn that philosophers make a distinction between the good (values) and the right (duties). 

Value concepts can be positive (value), neutral (indifference), or negative (disvalue). Honesty and fairness are examples of (moral) values, while dishonesty and unfairness are examples of (moral) disvalues.

Duty concepts can describe actions which are mandatory (required or obligatory), optional (permitted), or prohibited (wrong or forbidden). A moral duty which expresses a required action might be, “Unless there are mitigating circumstances, tell the truth.” An optional action (i.e., an action for which  there is no moral duty to perform or not perform) might be, “Sell your house and give all the money to the poor.” Finally, a moral duty which expressed a prohibited action might be, “Do not hurt another person for fun.”

Something’s moral value doesn’t necessarily imply a corresponding moral duty. For example, it would be good if I were to sell all of my belongings and donate the proceeds to the poor, but no one would say I have a moral duty or obligation to do so. Rather, that action would be optional (i.e., neither mandatory nor prohibited but merely permitted).


Philosophers also use the word “objectivity” to mean different things. Two of the more common meanings have to do with ontology (read: what exists) and epistemology (read: what we know or can know).

Moral ontology is the branch of ethics (specifically, meta-ethics)  which studies whether any moral properties and facts exist and, if so, what metaphysical status they have, such as whether moral properties and facts are natural, supernatural, or non-natural or moral properties and facts are objective, inter-subjective, or subjective. Statements like,  “Objective moral values exist,” tell us that the speaker/writer is talking/writing about moral ontology.

Moral epistemology is the branch of ethics (specifically, meta-ethics) which studies whether, when, and how substantive moral claims and beliefs can be justified or known. Statements like, “We don’t need God to know the difference between right and wrong,” tell us that the speaker/writer is talking/writing about moral epistemology.

Let’s try to make these distinctions more “real” by working our way through a concrete example.

Example 1: “Honesty is morally valuable while dishonesty is morally disvaluable.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you believe Example 1 is a proposition or, in other words, is a sentence which can be either true or false. Let’s also assume that you believe the sentence is, in fact, true.

Now ask yourself, “What makes Example 1 true?” Here are some options.

(1) Brute fact. One option is that nothing else makes Example 1 true; it’s just true. Period. In that case, we would say, “Example 1’s truth is a brute fact.”

(2) Necessity. Another option is that Example 1 is true by definition, i.e., it would be a contradiction in terms to say, “Honesty is not morally valuable,” or, “Dishonesty is not morally disvaluable.”

(3) Inter-subjective fact about human nature. The vast majority of human beings throughout history and across cultures have believed that Example 1 is true.

(4) Subjective opinion. You might say, “I think Example 1 is true just because it expresses what I (the speaker) value and disvalue.”

(5) God’s nature. You might say, “God’s nature or character is the standard of moral goodness. Since God is essentially honest, it follows that honesty is morally valuable and dishonesty is morally disvaluable.”

For each possible answer we can ask a follow-up question, “Does that answer say that the example’s truth is dependent upon the beliefs, desires, wishes, or other subjective states of a person?” If the answer is no, as is (arguably) the case with the “brute fact” and “necessity” options, then we would say that the Example 1 is ontologically objective. If the answer is “yes,” then we need to ask one last question: “Does the answer say that the example’s truth is dependent upon the subjective states of a single person or a group of people?” If the answer is “a group of people (even including an entire species),” then Example 1 is ontologically inter-subjective. If the answer is “a single person (either a human or God),” then Example 1 is ontologically subjective.

You may have noticed that options (1)-(5) aren’t the only options. For example:

(6) Evolution. You might say, “Our evolutionary history explains why we tend to have the moral beliefs we have, including our beliefs about honesty and dishonesty. Social primates have rules to function in primate society. ”

The problem with answers like (6), however, is that they are actually answering a different question. They do not answer the question, “What makes Example 1 true?” Rather, they answer the question, “Why do we believe that Example 1 is true?” The former is a question is about moral ontology while the latter is about moral epistemology.


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