Judgments of good and judgments of beauty have a lot in common. In both cases, there is no generally agreed objective yardstick yet people who make the judgments often seem to believe that the judgment is objective and that everyone ought to agree with them. This sense that the judgment is objective is less common among intellectuals, but it is quite common among the general populace. Furthermore, in both cases the judgement is really quite difficult to reduce to anything that is not a judgment of the same type.

This parallel seems to create a difficulty for anyone who, like me, believes that moral judgments are objective while esthetic judgments are subjective. I can't think of a principled distinction in kind between judgments like "anyone who thinks torturing babies for fun is evil" and judgments like "anyone who doesn't like Mozart is oafish".

Has this problem been discussed in philosophy? If so, what terms should I search for to find discussions of it? Are there any good defenses explaining why it is still reasonable to think that moral judgments are objective and esthetic judgments are not?


The two answers so far are meandering discussions that do not address the question I'm asking. Just to clarify: I'm not asking any of these questions:

  1. Is ethics objective?
  2. Is esthetics objective?
  3. Is there a relationship between ethics and esthetics?

My question is specifically about the question of whether philosophers have noted the difficulties that seem to attached to taking the stance that ethics is objective but esthetics is not, and what they have said about that issue.

  • A distinction that comes to mind is people who like to harm other might one day harm me or someone i care about, therefore i am objectively interested in their behavior, while people who don't like Mozart will never affect me by just not listening to his music. The perception of harm itself is subjective, but every body can agree on the fact that, by the very definition of "harm", if I feel I could be/am being harmed I have an interest in preventing/stoping the harm). I.e. ethics is about what affects others, esthetics about what affects only us?
    – armand
    Jun 21, 2023 at 1:06
  • 1
    Sam Harris TED talk concerning the science of the moral landscape: youtu.be/Hj9oB4zpHww. Quote from article The Aesthetic Landscape: "Morality is aesthetics writ large — a criterion for valuing certain arrangements of molecules over others. This is The Moral Landscape's deepest insight. Yet it is also the clearest refutation of Sam Harris's thesis." My aesthetic theory is that the young child brings beauty into the world, as a property of the innocent body and mind, and the child projects beauty onto the mother, who keeps the child alive. Human aesthetics mix with moral experience. Jun 21, 2023 at 1:29
  • Both are subjective. Morals are not objective rules. The difference is this: morals and ethics rule social interactions, aesthetics determine individual behaviors.
    – RodolfoAP
    Jun 21, 2023 at 10:14
  • Kant anchored his critiques in an ethical or moral imperative founded in universal human rights. Aesthetics enjoys no such anchor or ground truth(s), e.g., "one man's poison is another man's tea", and the many, many similar expressions.
    – DJohnson
    Jun 21, 2023 at 10:33
  • @DJohnson, Kant claimed that the faculties behind ethics and esthetics were completely different. That just doesn't strike me as credible given the similarities I outlined. Jun 21, 2023 at 12:18

2 Answers 2


Well, it depends on what you mean when you say "moral judgements are objective". If you mean that in general morality is an objective fact, then radical post-modernist mumbo jumbo and what Pinker in The Blank Slate calls the sociologists' obsession with tabula rasa, is bad philosophy. Evolution very much supports the notion that altruism, and therefore all morality derived from it, is an objective fact. In fact, if "objective" is taken as a largely universal moral belief, for instance frowning on killing or practicing monogamish sexuality, then evolution provides deep seated neurology almost universally among people to observe moral behaviors subject to in-group-out-group morality. Morality is absolutely objective in the sense that our biological nature predisposes us to certain forms of eusociality and Edward O. Wilson covers that in his On Human Nature and The Social Conquest of Earth at length. Of course, while the reality of moral behavior is even measurable with neurological correlates of consciousness, specific judgement is itself open to interpretation in the mind of the individuals and societies.

This of course is no secret to cultural anthropologists who catalog both universals in behaviors, but also a wide range of diversity often concomitant with elaborate systems of deontology and ethics. The Jews of the Old Testament, for instance practiced slavery, rape, and genocide, and slavery as an institution extended right into the foundation of the United States until the Civil War killed around 700,000 Americans to decide whether or not the institution would stand. One might ask, how could a Jew or Christian condemn killing, but then buy, sell, and execute chattel slaves like animals?

The obvious answer is what Sellars calls the Myth of the Given which inspired conceptual realism. A good Christian Southern woman could attend Church, praise Jesus, and then celebrate a good lynching while trying to elbow her way to a burnt body part as trophy because our realities are built on our categories, and our categories are used in determining moral belief. Breeding, torturing, and executing African-Americans wasn't immoral because slaves weren't people. It is this aspect of a malleable sense of categorization morality that makes morality subjective. In typical spirit of Wittgensteinian Sprachspiele, the language of morality serves the players of the game. This is why a prosperity gospel preacher preach parables of poor women giving their last copper coin, and then turn around and ask for a jet. Televangelist Jess Duplantis is infamous for asking for a fourth private jet, even if it is much more reasonable to interpret the historical Jesus in line with liberation theology. People generally have strong emotional impulses, and then construct elaborate teleological language games. This is why A.J. Ayer famously argued for emotivism as a metaethical theory. People generally reason instrumentally.

Frans de Waal has written a number of books showing that the Great Apes essentially have the same altruistic impulses people have. Chimp leaders of bands, much like human leaders of nations, will engage in a variety of behaviors that are hurtful and violent, or peaceful and restorative when they practice their politics. Successful alpha males have a lot in common with virtuous leaders, and can be found negotiating the peace when there are conflicts, and using force to maintain order. The key distinction between the psychological altruism of Great Apes and that of Homo Sapiens is the use of language. One of his examinations of the origins of human morality comes from a book entitled The Bonobo and the Athiest. In fact, de Waal talks about how the origins of humanism were very much in line with Judeo-Christian values. He says on page 236:

Early humanism did criticize church theology, which it regarded as disconnected from practical life, but it was by-and-large compatible with Christian values... It rather seems that universal human values have been appropriated by various religions, each supporting them with their own narratives and making them their own.

And there in lies the origins of the objective aspects of morality. We human beings have evolved in very specific ways to behave morally towards each other, except when threatened by outsiders, in which case it's typical to see in a system of morality the full barbarity of a male chimp in a raiding party smashing a baby chimp against the rocks. This, after all, is essentially what we still see, for instance, in the genocide the Russian invasion has wrought in the Ukraine.

So, unlike appeals to supernatural corn gods, deities living on Olympus, or burning bushes with a mastery of human grammar, a naturalized epistemological appeal to the universals of intuitions that the philosophy of psychology and mind explores, shows that morality is indeed objective by the standards of contemporary science. Any claims that human beings are free to invent whatever morals they'd like because the mind is a blank slate, is simply incoherent philosophically.


Search Terms

  1. Objectivist Ethics (Ayn Rand shows up)
  2. Objectivist Aesthetics

Ethical Subjectivism and Objectivism:


In ethical subjectivism moral values are dependent on a will, human or divine, a willing subject. If the will is human, then one has the basis for modern moral relativism, in which humans together (e.g., a legislature) decide what is right and wrong. If the will is divine, then one has a divine command theory of ethics. In this view moral law is a freely chosen creation of God. In cases of infractions against this law, God can freely choose to mete out punishment or no punishment; or, as in the mystery religions and Christianity, God or his agent can decide to take the punishment upon himself. Those who violate the law are still sinners, but God can grant grace and forgiveness for wrong doings. It seems, then, that any doctrine of grace or forgiveness must have its basis in this form of ethical subjectivism.

In ethical objectivism moral values and virtues are intrinsic, not dependent on anything outside of them. In ethical objectivism moral law is uncreated and eternal and not subject to any will, divine or human. (One form of ethical objectivism is moral absolutism.) No will can lessen the consequence of acts against the law. There is no grace in ethical objectivism. In order to avoid punishment, one must perfect one's life and follow the law perfectly. The law of karma, continuous birth, death and rebirth until such moral perfection is reached, appears to be the ultimate expression of ethical objectivism. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, for most people one lifetime is not enough for such moral perfection.

Something has intrinsic value is its value is not dependent on anything outside of it.

A thing with extrinsic value does depend on something outside of it for its value. The former is an “end in itself,” while the latter is a “means to an end.” Intrinsic value is found in persons, nature, and works of art. Extrinsic value in money and consummables. Immanuel Kant's second form of the categorical imperative states that we are to treat persons always as ends in themselves never merely as means to ends.



Abstract - It is quite generally acknowledged now that the cognitive and aesthetic dimensions of experience cannot be sharply distinguished from each other since understanding may have aesthetic influence and aesthetic experience functions cognitively. Nelson Goodman, for instance, strongly emphasizes the latter direction, and he even says that aesthetic experience is a form of understanding since it is cognitive experience. It follows, in particular, that the aesthetic qualities of one's environment, or rather, how one feels about them, have consequences concerning how one comprehends its meaning. Conversely, interpreting the environment, that is, bringing out its symbolic and cognitive meaning and significance, may in turn have an effect on how one continues to aesthetically experience it. According to Goodman, then, aesthetic experience results in an interaction between the subject and environment, and arguments for its interactive character have been presented by some other philosophers, too, such as John Dewey and Arnold Berleant. In what follows, I shall briefly study this interaction and its consequences for the problem of aesthetic subjectivism and objectivism and state some additional arguments against the meaningfulness of this dichotomy.

The Context of Cognition and Emotion in Multiple Human Minds

Consider the thought experiment called Galileo's Ship. In this conceptual model Galileo assumes that other humans, let us call them Natural Observers, could duplicate and replicate his measurement methods; and he imagines that these multiple Natural Observers can witness the same event from different locations in relative motion; or that a Natural Observer can witness events in isolation inside the closed cabin of the moving ship with no ability to sense anything outside the cabin.

  1. Multiple Natural Observers
  2. Common Cognitive and Measurement Methods
  3. Multiple Distinct Natural Observations
  4. Multiple Distinct Descriptions of Motion

In my view objective agreement in empirical science depends on the assumptions and application of common cognitive and measurement methods. These are assumptions about the self and about other natural observers as what I cal "Creatures like the self".

Moral observations do not seem to replicate the common assumptions but must have some common biological, emotional, and cognitive basis for the concept of multiple "humans". I hate evoking the name Sigmund Freud, because I judge him to be a perfidious authority on human nature, but he does describe a model for the development of the superego memories within the human ego. He describes the functions of the superego as the ability to observe moral behavior; as the development of the ego ideal or the ideal type of ego in the mind of the child; and as the conscience. The ego ideal strives to imitate and become like some idealized external and internalized dramatic figure. The conscience is limited to the sense of guilt for transgressing moral principles imposed by external sources of moral authority.

My model includes the observer function and the ego ideal stored only as associative memories that form during early life. There is no possibility for a deterministic or objective model of how associative memories form due to the complexity of the individual drama and the social drama. My model is a parallel construction of Galileo's Ship where I try to empathize with the perspective of various observers in the context of moral drama:

  1. Moral Observers
  2. Experiences of Moral Drama
  3. Reenactment Patterns of Drama
  4. Descriptions of Moral Judgment

In terms of biology the human must be equipped by natural instinct, or by the natural ability to learn, to make a distinction between moral experience and natural events. If moral judgment is biologically objective then it maps to something like a universal human conscience. Don Carveth, a Freudian psychoanalyst, argues that the conscience is a separate function from the superego. These functions, for example, can be seen in the dramatic pattern of Saint Paul who first attacks and persecutes the Christians and later experiences a conversion wherein he advocates the theory of Jesus as Savior. This would be a psychological conversion, in Carveth's terms, from identification with the sadistic superego to the identification with human conscience.

The problem is we do not have empirical measurement models for moral experience. We only have the experience of moral drama, the experience of moral judgment, and the reports of moral judgment on the parts of others. One may infer that something like the conscience, as described by Carveth, is a biological drive that can be developed or distorted in the "nurture" patterns of drama.

The ego ideal has attributes which seem to be a mix of aesthetic and moral judgments that form in the dramatic context. Bruno Bettelhiem, in The Uses of Enchantment, says that a child hearing a Fairy Tale does not ask of the characters, Who is good?, but rather, the child asks, Who do I want to be like? Prudence, the ability to govern action by the use of reason, is emergent in humans around age seven, so moral observation begins in the context of aesthetic drama before the capacity to reason emerges during maturity. If the mother and father and adult institutions use the child and children as the means to an ideological end, rather than treat the child as an emerging end in the self, then the ego ideal becomes an escape hatch from the cognitive dissonance inside the child's drama. Jesus tried to remedy this problem by teaching everyone that what they really seek is knowledge of the ideal Father in heaven and this does not mean one is satisfied merely to imitate the dramatic patterns of the fathers (and mothers) on earth.

The psychologist too is enmeshed in their residual ego ideal which forms early in life and this motivates both the desire to be paid (to work and earn money like a figure in their infantile drama) and to be the healer (to be like the nurturing mother or providing father or the medical doctor like a figure in their infantile drama). The psychologist and patient in therapy are always reenacting infantile roles with role reversals whether they know it (conscious drama) or do not know it (unconscious drama). Suppose one does not feel compelled by this message on some cognitive imperative, "You have to pay for social intercourse!" Then one does not charge others for therapy or agree to seek therapy in the Kingdom of heaven!

  • +1 "I hate evoking the name Sigmund Freud, because I judge him to be a perfidious authority on human nature"
    – J D
    Jun 21, 2023 at 18:32

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