I've been pondering an intriguing comparison lately, drawing parallels between the Copenhagen Interpretation in quantum mechanics and a hypothetical "Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics". As most of us are familiar, the Copenhagen Interpretation in quantum mechanics posits that particles can exist in multiple states until observed, at which point they adopt a specific state.

Similarly, imagine a theoretical ethical framework where engaging with a problem or situation instantly places a moral responsibility on the observer. Even if the observer's involvement doesn't exacerbate the issue and perhaps even alleviates it, this ethical viewpoint still asserts accountability. Essentially, one becomes ethically entangled with the observed problem upon interaction, akin to how observation influences quantum states.

While this interpretation may resonate with some, personally, I hold reservations about subscribing to such a notion. It raises thought-provoking questions regarding the nature of responsibility, causality, and the interplay of our actions with the ethical fabric of the world.

I'm keen to engage in a constructive discussion and hear your thoughts on this analogy. Do you find this parallel compelling, or do you think there are limitations to drawing a direct comparison between quantum mechanics and ethics?

  • My immediate concern is that wave-function collapse belongs not only to the microscopic world, but that any act of measurement induces collapse. That other agents are already involved and observing the situation means that adding yet another observer wouldn’t cause collapse of an already observed situation. I’m not seeing the application of this to philosophy, after one considers the relevant physics.
    – Hokon
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 22:50
  • See Ethics in a Quantum World: "Quantum principles such as entanglement and indeterminism challenge the notions of individuality and subjectivity and the validity of universal principles as sufficient guidelines for agency, all notions that constitute the foundations of modern deontological ethics." C.f. Daniel G., "The Case for Quantum Morality." Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 22:57
  • What you suggest is not quite the Copenhagen Interpretation. That a moral agent is responsible, to a degree, for what they can affect is more analogous to the classical law of action and reaction, and is rather broadly accepted ("injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere", etc.). A "Copenhagen Interpretation" would be that the agent can remain ambivalent on how to act in morally challenging hypothetical scenarios until they are faced with one. But then they must choose, collapse the ambivalence. And that too is fairly uncontroversial. Even inaction is a choice and a form of action
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 2:49
  • If you observe a crime, or something that goes against your framework of morality or the moral framework of your community then you have to question your self, if, for instance you observe the Contents of your living room on a daily basis you have no moral responsibility over the contents of your living room!
    – 8Mad0Manc8
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 18:17

3 Answers 3


QM is a mathematical model of aspects of reality that allows us to perform very precise calculations. The possible outcomes of a 'measurement' in QM are strictly limited in most cases to a particular set that depends on specific physical characteristics of the system being observed and its environment, and the probability of any particular outcome is determined in a precise way. There is no meaningful parallel there with ethics. The only connection is the trivial point that a person becoming involved with a set of circumstances might influence it, which is true of every type of activity and is not limited to ethics in any way. You might as well argue for a Copenhagen Interpretation of dining out, in which a person observing a menu at a restaurant 'collapses' the possible outcomes to a particular dish being cooked and served, or a Copenhagen Interpretation of betting, in which a punter 'collapses' the runners and riders to a specified fancied choice.

Separately, the Copenhagen Interpretation doesn't say that a particle exists in multiple states. It says that a particle has an associated mathematical wave function which represents its state, and that the wave function can be expressed as mathematical expansions over other sets of wave functions, rather as the vibration of a string can be expressed as an overlay of pure tones.


No such absolute ethical framework of ethics can be created where act of observation immediately lays the responsibility on the observer. Suppose you saw someone(including friends and family) bribing police officials to bypass laws then you can not be held responsible for keeping quiet because not all observers have same belief systems. For example I may believe in compassion for all whether it is deer or lion , I need to be compassionate to all and therefore I will ignore any such observation and have best wishes for all. In such cases you can not be held responsible for observation of crimes committed by others. If I am actively involved in committing the crime then I will be held responsible. In that case I may or may not be forgiven based upon my past karma and nature of crime. Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and ethics are too rudimentary to be applied in real life.

  • Is there evidence for this assertion? Inaction can also be culpable. Bystander guilt. The OP simply puts forward an idea worthy of consideration. Personally, my compassion is not universal, nor need it be. Human ethical frameworks are too limited to have universal application.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 19:00
  • @Meanach In India you have the right to remain silent. Since posting this answer I have evolved. Now I think morality and ethics are merely tools to create civilised societies. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 4:43

Interesting speculation. QM seems to require an observer of the process you describe. Do ethics require conscious apprehension by an observer? I have no idea. But the requirement for consciousness in both examples is intriguing.

  • 1
    QM observation does not in any way require consciousness. A photoresistor, for example, is quite sufficient.
    – Ray
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 17:11
  • @ Ray Perhaps you might consider posting an answer? I cite the von Neumann-Wigner interpretation. Also the quantum mind. And the observer effect.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 17:28
  • I don't have an answer to the question. I only point out that you can cause wavefunction collapse in, e.g., the single particle double slit experiment, using nonconscious sensors as the observer.
    – Ray
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 17:51
  • Can a unconscious sensor make an observation? If I read a thermometer who makes the observation - the instrument or I? I would recommend that you read about the matters that I cited. Only a conscious observer can make an observation.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 17:58

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