A modest moral objectivism

Featured image is an iconic photo of the Nazi parade through Brandenburg Gate.

Usually the passion with which I hold a position is directly proportional to how concrete the stakes are. Defending moral realism/objectivism is an exception to this. It’s incredibly abstract, but nothing spurs me to the barricades like someone saying morality is subjective. To further incriminate myself, I’ll admit at the outset that I’m not terribly well versed in the topic. So with this post I want to lay out some ideas about moral objectivism because I keep thinking about them. In part this will be a reference for myself to come back to as I learn more, but I also want to submit these ideas to criticism. I’ll start with a naïve kernel morality that takes objective moral truth for granted based on intuition. I’ll then tack on various serious qualifications to the naïve kernel that, I believe, preserve objectivism. I use the term objectivism instead of realism because I think some people understand realism to imply some kind of spooky objects in some Platonic realm that I’ll have no part of.

Skepticism and the burden of proof

I don’t think there’s a formal burden of proof in this debate. That is, there’s no strictly logical reason to start as a(n) (non)-objectivist and then resist persuasion by the other camp until your defenses are overrun. But in my case, I  begin as an objectivist based on some powerful intuitions. Intuition demands we be able to condemn certain beliefs and actions as evil. To name a few obvious ones: slavery, genocide, torture, and oppression as exemplified by the American Confederacy, Hitler’s Nazis, and various 20th century communist regimes. On a smaller scale, murder, rape, theft, and abuse without overriding justification are widely condemned as immoral actions. These provisional commitments are nearly universal across human societies, and I take this as a good reason to begin with the belief that these evaluations are true with a confidence similar to my confidence in the truth of complex scientific theories like quantum mechanics or biological evolution.

Naïve morality

My own way of thinking about morality is a neo-Aristotelian eudaimonist framework, but I think the exercise of this post could start with other approaches (utilitarian, contractarian, whatever). The gist is that human beings are a certain kind of creature that needs certain conditions to flourish. We are rational, but also social and dependent, organizing ourselves to cooperate and live together while nurturing and raising of our young and infirm. We are mortal, and likely predisposed to fear death. Our bodies need nourishment, water, sleep, and shelter. Our bodies also share a set of senses with which we perceive the world in similar ways. We have a common palette of emotions (fear, anger, sadness, affection, etc), even if there is a lot of social construction in the emotions that are emphasized and how they are expressed. We communicate and reason with one another.

We have a particular evolutionary past that has hardwired in us certain moral proclivities. These proclivities are the result of millions of years of sculpting by environmental, game theoretic, and various other forces. But now these evolutionary pressures are functionally inert and we can take our evolved moral brains as given. We learn moral values with these evolved moral minds from our families and the communities we grow up in. But these values are provisional and contestable. When a value seems incorrect or incomplete, a eudaimonist asks what purpose it might play in advancing flourishing for the kind of creatures we are. (See table for an illustration of how these initial moral impulses might get off the ground.) A consequentialist or other moralist can interrogate moral values in their own way, although, ultimately, I think we’re all concerned with flourishing in the end. Moral objectivism in the eudaimonist framework means that human beings can learn and uphold values that promote human flourishing. These values—virtues—are appreciated and adhered to on their own terms and are merely justified by their ultimate role in promoting human flourishing. Eudaimonism is thus not egoistic since many of the virtues are explicitly other-oriented and concern themselves with the social aspects of the human condition.

Table lifted from Haidt and Joseph 2006.


The first objection that comes from the naturalistic basis for morality. If morality is just the result of our evolutionary history, then why should we think it’s true in any fundamental sense? If we had evolved along a different trajectory, then we would have a different morality.

Human morality is contingent on our evolutionary past,  but this does nothing to diminish the possibility for objective moral truth. It merely adds a conditional modifier. It is possible to learn and foster moral values that promote flourishing for the the kinds of beings we happen to be. Morality would be different for other morally sentient beings. Encountering intelligent aliens with possibly radically different moralities evolved to their specifications will surely be interesting. But aliens will not be the kind of creatures we are, and that experience won’t affect the truth of our conditional.

Naturalistic morality does not have to be reductionistic, a charge which would invite naturalistic Euthyphro and theodicy problems. In the Euthyphro problem, the anti-objectivist asks if some value is good only because it is natural, then how is it really good? And in the theodicy problem, the anti-objectivist cheerfully points out the myriad natural human traits that lead to evil, like our propensity for tribalism or our famous facility with violence. But the naturalism I have in mind doesn’t call good whatever is natural. It merely suggests that nature (evolution) has set the stage for our moral drama, erecting some hard and soft limits to what is realistic for humans. A realistic objective morality thus cannot pretend that, e.g., tribalism doesn’t exist, but must provide guidance for how to cope with our tribal tendencies in a way conducive to flourishing.

Emergence and “evoked” truth

Contingent naturalism leads us to ask just how something can be contingent on human existence and yet still be considered objective. Here I think there is a fertile analogy with games like chess. Lee Smolin (quoted by Massimo Pigliucci in this book review) rejects the false dichotomy that real objects (or facts) must be either discovered (and thus existed prior to human awareness) or invented (and thus did not exist prior to human action). Instead, true principles can be evoked by contingency.

For example, there are an infinite number of games we might invent. We invent the rules but, once invented, there is a set of possible plays of the game which the rules allow. We can explore the space of possible games by playing them, and we can also in some cases deduce general theorems about the outcomes of games. It feels like we are exploring a pre-existing territory as we often have little or no choice, because there are often surprises and incredibly beautiful insights into the structure of the game we created. But there is no reason to think that game existed before we invented the rules. What could that even mean?

When a game like chess is invented a whole bundle of facts become demonstrable, some of which indeed are theorems that become provable through straightforward mathematical reasoning. As we do not believe in timeless Platonic realities, we do not want to say that chess always existed — in our view of the world, chess came into existence at the moment the rules were codified. This means we have to say that all the facts about it became not only demonstrable, but true, at that moment as well … Once evoked, the facts about chess are objective, in that if any one person can demonstrate one, anyone can. And they are independent of time or particular context: they will be the same facts no matter who considers them or when they are considered.

Moral truth: Bobby Fisher was a jerk.

In the analogy with morality, the “rules” I’m talking about aren’t those handed down by human prophets, but the set of facts about human evolutionary history, biology, psychology, etc. True principles concerning how humans should live if they want to live well are evoked by what the facts of human nature just happen to be.

Morality as a hypothetical imperative*

As I have discussed before, embracing moral living is a choice, a kind of act of faith. Moral truth may be discovered and pursued rationally. But rationality itself does not compel a person to enter the moral universe. Part of our human nature involves a predisposition to moral reasoning. We’re naturally inclined to believe moral kinds of reasons, perhaps through evolutionary moral modules. But there’s nothing stopping a resolute immoralist from pissing on the whole endeavor. By analogy, one chooses to play chess, and once in the game, reason dictates what is allowed, but there’s nothing stopping an anti-chess player from upending the table, burning down the hall, or just refusing to start playing in the first place. Likewise, mathematics is well-understood to be about as objective subject as can be conceived, but a person can not be forced to accept mathematical reasons, however true they are. This no doubt seems lame. We seem to want morality to be derived from value-neutral rationality, such that one can only be immoral on pain of contradiction. But even here choice is inescapable: just imagine a consistency-masochist for whom the pains of contradiction are borne with relish.

Moral disagreement

A critic of objective morality can easily point to deep and persistent disagreements between moral actors and reasonably contend that this implies there is no truth to morality. This contention is strengthened if we point to, say, equally intelligent and respected disputants. Consider an analogy with science. There is no final arbiter in moral arguments the way scientists can ultimately appeal to data from experiments.

An inability to reach consensus does not imply there is no truth of the matter. People, even relevant scientists, disagree on scientific questions all the time. However, I agree that pervasive disagreement on core moral questions would cast some doubt on moral truth. But the key word here is “core.” Moral disagreement does exist, but it’s not nearly as deep or pervasive as it first appears when we focus on core elements rather than complex questions. Take abortion, a moral issue as resistant to consensus as any. If we zoom in on the details, nearly everyone agrees about the core moral question, which is that murder of persons is wrong. The disagreement comes from a controversy about how this principle applies. Are human fetuses (at such and such stage of development) moral persons, or do they become moral persons later? And there are really multiple core moral principles at play. The right to bodily integrity is a powerful intuition. How should the issue be adjudicated when this principle collides with the right to life a fetus-person might have (let’s suppose)? The point is not to answer these questions here, but to see how issues of moral disagreement often have moral building blocks that enjoy wide support.

The existence of irreducibly plural moral principles raises another concern. Does this just bump the problem up one level? If there are multiple moral values that can conflict, then does moral objectivity require there exist an objective way to reconcile these values in any given case? I think the answer here is no. The central idea I’m defending might be stated as follows: There exist evaluative moral statements that are true. If some such statements can be made on some questions, then that’s all that is needed. The domain of moral truth is not coextensive with with the domain of moral inquiry.

Postmodernism and Cultural Difference

One insight of postmodernism is that the detached observer is a myth. We don’t just perceive the world through our senses, we perceive the world through senses whose signals interact in complex ways with our brains. Our brains organize this information and pass it through models before we become conscious of anything. This is how sensory illusions work. And for complex interrogations of the world, this brain-world divide expands to a chasm. If Kuhn is right, then even hard sciences depend on paradigms that are necessarily under-determined by data. If there is no singular correct way to interpret scientific data, then what hope for objectivity does moral inquiry have? But rumors of the demise of objectivity in science have been greatly exaggerated. Just because scientific inquiry can’t be value-neutral doesn’t mean anything goes. There are still evidentiary standards that allow for disconfirmation of hypotheses. And even theories that are factually true may be discarded for bias, cherry-picking, or irrelevance.

This gestalt shift image breaks up the wall of text.

Moral inquirers are situated within their cultures and their traditions of thought, and this inevitably influences how they construe moral questions. But, just as with value-laden science, this doesn’t mean that you can choose whatever moral answers are desired based on your “choice” of culture. No culture is monolithic: within any culture a variety of conflicting voices are present. And there is communication and persuasion between cultures as well. Individuals seeking truth look beyond their own culture to gain a perspective on its gaps and deficiencies, and to see the wisdom that other cultures have achieved. This is one of the rationales for discourse ethics. As many different perspectives as possible should be brought to bear on moral inquiry to overcome the epistemic barriers of our situatedness.

It should also be noted that apparent moral differences between cultures do not always prove to be substantive. Cultural differences can instantiate the same moral principles in different ways. For instance, there may be lots of little lies involved in manners and etiquette, but within cultures these little lies are understood to be performances, not actions to be evaluated as honest or dishonest. This doesn’t mean the culture has no role for honesty. And another culture may have different little lies or none at all. But both cultures likely value honesty in the proper circumstances.

Reasoned discourse

I mentioned moral differences within and between cultures. This shows the structure of moral discourse. We seek reasons for our moral beliefs the same way we seek reasons for our beliefs about the external world. We ask others for reasons, and we entertain these reasons, testing them against our prior web of beliefs (both moral and external) to see if they fit. Contrary to popular hype, we are ultimately open to updating our moral beliefs, even if this doesn’t usually happen in the course of a single social media thread or smoke-filled dorm room conversation. If we take our moral beliefs seriously, we shouldn’t expect instantaneous conversion. After all, we know that just because we can’t think of compelling reasons to justify our beliefs during a heated dialogue doesn’t mean those reasons don’t exist. Instead, we take challenging arguments home with us and think about them over time and gradually we lose certainty of our prior beliefs and, in some cases, we do indeed convert to new ways of thinking. It does no good to point out that we all too often let our passions and fervent wishes keep us from accepting reason. Of course. This is just a moral failing of someone who is failing to cultivate intellectual honesty, one of those essential components to a life well lived.

To summarize, we are biologically evolved and embodied, morally hard- and soft-wired, culturally situated, fallible, rational creatures who are capable of understanding important truths about what it means to live well as such creatures.

5 thoughts on “A modest moral objectivism

  1. Andrew Fitzandrew

    Very nice. I agree with almost everything, so as is customary lets disagree violently on the few remaining bits.

    1) First you’ve rejected subjectivism in most places, but what’s left seems basically relativist. You can construct a morality entirely out of hypothetical imperatives only by taking for granted the existence of some telos. By taking games like chess as your example for thinking about situated facts relative to rules you are smuggling that in – part of the rules of the game include winning conditions. But flourishing is itself is contested. There is no single objective criteria for determining what flourishing *is*, and so no unified telos which we can use to determine objectively whether a disposition leads to or away from flourishing.

    2) You say “There is no final arbiter in moral arguments the way scientists can ultimately appeal to data from experiments”, which is certainly true. But the virtue of an entirely hypothetical imperative based system is that in fact it should be at least sometimes possible to empirically determine which result best leads to human flourishing, for any given definition of flourishing.

    3) You talk about moral building blocks enjoying wide support, which is often true. But many arguments don’t actually have this kind of symmetry. Are sodomy and premarital sex morally questionable for instance. Are prepubescent children off-limits sexually. Should menstruating women be physically segregated. Is lèse-majesté morally dubious. There are now and have been in the past cultures with wildly different responses to these questions, and it’s not clear what the fundamental agreement would be.

    4) You can retort that the existence of some disputes doesn’t disprove that some fundamental agreement at the very core is possible, that there are probably some facts which exist across the realm of all realistic conceptions of flourishing. But this has the basic problem that it’s basically impossible to verify, or at least seems that way to me. If moral facts exist, but we can’t actually know for certain what they are, that seems functionally indistinguishable from moral facts not existing.

    1. Paul Crider

      1) I was definitely interested to see if people thought all my caveats actually tipped me over to relativism. Flourishing itself is contested. And there is no single criterion to determine what flourishing is, but I think we can still speak rationally about it and discard certain conceptions. I think of flourishing as not One True Way (or unified telos) but a broad family of possibilities that share certain characteristics. It’s these characteristics I think we can speak objectively about.

      2) I think we can often empirically determine which results lead to flourishing (or failure to flourish). But these empirics, just like in science, don’t interpret themselves.

      3) I don’t think these examples are problematic. We just have to keep asking Why? on these prohibitions until we’re (provisionally) satisfied with the stability of our web of belief. There are always deeper reasons moral thinkers are willing to entertain (in a free society) to justify, e.g., premarital sex or sodomy that go beyond ::yuck:: or Thou Shalt Not.

      4) I’m more optimistic about the level of confidence we can have in our beliefs. We’re not ever *certain* about anything in science either. Everything is provisional. But in both science and a big part of ethics we can live our daily lives assuming these things are true (because they probably are!) quite successfully.

      1. Andrew Fitzandrew

        1) I think a unified telos is not the one true way, but the one true goal in the way that capturing the king is in chess, or scoring the most points is in ball sports, or cutting down and processing a tree is for logging for instance. There’s lots of different ways to get there, shaped by the rules, the metarules and the players. What you need is a sense that everyone wants to get the same thing out of ethics, but I don’t think that’s been shown.

        2) Sure, but this is what confuses me. The point of hypothetical imperatives is that the is-ought gap is explicitly bridged. If you want x do y, leaving whether you should want x out of it. It seems once you have an ethics defined entirely in terms of hypothetical imperatives ethics becomes basically a science, determining the best way or family of ways to acheive particular kinds of flourishing, though subject to all the same epistemic limits as the rest of the social sciences.

        3) Again from the abortion example we had a general acceptance that murder is wrong, but a disagreement about how to apply that core insight to particular cases, which is to be expected even if the core principle is objectively true. But many disagreements aren’t about application of widely accepted principles, but whether the principles themselves are legitimate, which is what all my examples were trying to get at. If some people accept an ethical principle and others do not, is that enough to reject the idea that the principle is indeed a core one? Are the true core principles merely those on which no one currently disagrees?

        4) But ultimately the question is one of process. If a core ethical truth is one that holds across all reasonable definitions of flourishing, how would you go about determining whether something is in fact true?

  2. Good post. It’s a shame you didn’t like my proposal to base our sense of moral objectivity on whatever produces the best mental health for the stakeholders. This would seem to encapsulate the “natural” and “emergent” qualities of morality, while allowing for cultural differences, moral disagreement, and discourse. In fact, it’s almost impressive how well this meets the qualifications you’ve outlined here.

    Regarding subjectivity, I wrote this:

    “While this seems like a radically subjective point of view, it’s actually as close as we can get to an objective standard of morality. I don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of your preferences in order to know what kind of moral behavior will help you achieve them.”

    So morality can be surprisingly objective while we fully allow for subjective preferences. This is what I consider to be a major strength of my idea. Maybe it’s worth reconsidering?

    1. Paul Crider

      Glad you think so. It’s possible I was being too pedantic about your system. But if I recall correctly I thought you didn’t allow for how much social construction goes into our understanding of mental health (thus making it always contestable) and you neglected the possibility of perverse forms of “happiness” (like the happy slave). But yeah, the way your system incorporated “naturalness” and emergence was one of the strongest features of your system.

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