I am curious about the concepts of morals and justice. Do they have any objective reality, or are they just subjective illusions that we create for ourselves? Are they meaningless? How can we define them in a precise and consistent way? Is it even possible to do that?

I don’t think justice and morals are something that we can define rigorously and precisely because they change over time and vary from culture to culture. I think they are meaningless. I don’t think if something is “absolutely” true in the first place, it will change over time or depend on individuals. So I think morals and justice are not consistent and I think they are very close to a "lie" that we convinced ourselves that they exist and one can determine what is good and what is bad.

I think justice largely depend on morals. If we say something is bad, like, for example, kidnapping is wrong from a moral perspective, then we can pass some laws that punish kidnappers But even if we know something is bad how do we make a system of punishment for crimes? Let's for a moment imagine that we made a precise system of morals and we can with 100% certainty tell what is good and what is wrong even in the most complicated scenarios; then what is the purpose of justice? Is it to punish criminals? Is it to spread fear in people to not commit that crime? Is it to rehabilitate criminals? Different answers will involve various kinds of definitions of justice. Assume that the purpose of justice is to spread fear in people to not commit crimes; then a lot of crimes will have a public execution as punishment. Another question is how to determine what is the proper punishment for a crime? Does it depend on how that certain crime is widespread?

I think that most people think of morals as an absolute thing, like lying is bad and killing is bad, and so on. But this is in very basic and elementary scenarios. In more complicated scenarios, like wars, it will be very hard to define what morals and justice mean and how to describe what is good and what is bad.

I like to compare everything to Pure Mathematics. What I mean by objective truth is that if we can create a system of moral axioms then anyone who agree on these axioms can't disagree with its conclusions. I like to think that mathematics is the closest thing to absolute truth because I can imagine people disagreeing in anything in the world except a proof in math (if they agreed on the axioms ) but what I see in social concepts like morals, justice etc. is the quite opposite. People's reasons will depend largely on their beliefs, religion, etc. It is very hard to make a conversation with someone who believes in some idea to convince him that he is wrong.


12 Answers 12


Yes they exist and no they are not objective. As you correctly point out, the practical meanings of morals and justice vary from person to person and from time to time. What is considered moral or just in one society might be considered unacceptable in another. Societies themselves are fragmented, with opposing views on all kinds of matters.

Defining any kind of abstract social principle can be difficult; morality and justice are no exception. It is rare in life that we are presented by circumstances that do not involve the weighing up of competing considerations, and the judgement you might reach about the rights and wrongs of one case might not be applicable to another because of all kinds of nuanced contextual differences. Morality and justice are therefore inherently fuzzy concepts- what philosophy can provide is a set of tools for thinking about them, so that fuzziness of thought does not compound the fuzziness of the subject.

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    Lack of agreement =/= lack of an objective standard. Basic confusion between the epistemological vs ontological status of morality and justice.
    – Mutoh
    Commented Jan 18 at 18:17
  • @Mutoh what does "= / =" mean? Commented Jan 18 at 20:44
  • @MarcoOcram "doesn't equal", like a slash through an equals sign
    – Idran
    Commented Jan 18 at 20:58
  • @Mutoh but it does mean lack of an agreed standard, which is my point. Commented Jan 18 at 21:21
  • @MarcoOcram and your point says nothing about the objectivity of justice and morality, it's a non sequitur. The statement that it's not objective remains effectively undefended.
    – Mutoh
    Commented Jan 19 at 2:09

From a very general point of view the Roman Codex Justinianus defines justice as

the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due,

see justice.

Historically there are two approaches how to change this general principle into the small coin of concrete rules, or more precisely into precepts and prohibitions of law. One approach, the natural law, claims that law derives from the human nature and can be discovered. The other approach, named positive law, considers law as a set of rules negotiated between the people of a country and then established by the state.

A basic principle of today’s international law are the human rights, which ascribe to all humans some basic rights, see human rights. These rights are encoded in the UN-declaration of human rights.

Law is not the final aim. Law serves as a tool to reach a higher goal: It is a means to ensure peace and stability in a society or between different states.

Also morality deals with general rules of social behaviour. But moral rules are not formally encoded and cannot be enforced by legal action. Moral considerations form part of philosophy. They often provide the basis to establish specific rules of law.

For further thoughts about the broad field of your question I recommend the entry morality.


My take on this as a working-class philosopher:

Yes, I agree morality is not objective. There is no scientific experiment to determine if gay marriage is moral or not. There is no morality without subjects and their wants and desires, which are, by definition, not objective.

Morality is a social contract. You agree on something: I will not do X to you if you do not do X (or Y) to me. Social animals have unconscious morals, in humans it is both conscious and unconscious. With regard to conscious morals, these indeed change over time and by location, as they are the result of large scale social negotiations.

Yet in history, there have been constant claims of 'objective morality'. These are, in my opinion, manipulative. They are an attempt at amplifying your own voice in the negotiation, and at silencing your opposition.

'Objective morality' usually means the regular 'dumb' people should not question it. The king says so. God says so. The grown-ups say so. What is and what is not 'objective' is determined by people in power, usually to their advantage.

Once you free yourself from this illusion, it is understandable to think all morality is an illusion. It is not. We are a social species and morality is part of us. Free of the deception of 'objective morality' you can see the reality of democratic morality. With all its struggles and difficulties. It's not easy to get a large group to think and agree on something...

  • Out of the frying pan into the fire. "Democratic" morality is what Nietzsche called herd morality, and it is even more manipulative than objective morality, because while objective morality purports itself to follow rules independently of who's saying it (which have to be contested rationally, claiming they're deceptive is not in itself an argument), by following the herd you're simply forfeiting your will to the motions of the mindless masses. There's greater freedom in knowing that truth is not decided by vote and following it contra all, even if you may be wrong, than in that.
    – Mutoh
    Commented Jan 25 at 13:19
  • Ah Nietsche. The philosopher embodying the fall of aristocratic rulers. No wonder his quotes were so popular with the self-proclaimed uebermenschen.
    – Bgie
    Commented Jan 26 at 14:08
  • But addressing the content: truth is not decided by vote, but who was implying that? I sure did not And who was implying one needs to forfeit its will to the masses? That is black-and-white thinking of an aristocrat. Either you rule the masses, or the masses rule you. The third option: we are all equals, is completely alien to aristocrats...
    – Bgie
    Commented Jan 26 at 14:13
  • The only way you can escape the black-and-white thinking is if you actually have objective morality, because good will remain good regardless of who's in power: the few or the many. Otherwise the alternatives are indeed just being a beast of a herd, or an Übermensch carving your own values. If "we are all equals" is meant to be objective, by your own standards it's manipulative. The deceit behind it is pretty clear for Nietzsche. Is he wrong because he's an aristocrat? That would be what you call "silencing your opposition". Very well.
    – Mutoh
    Commented Jan 26 at 14:54
  • "Good will remain good" is not objective morality, it is freezing time, plain old conservatism. Which is a valid opinion but again: do not claim that to be the objective truth. I for one am glad we did not freeze morality at the era where slavery was accepted, or punishing a child for the crimes of the parent (Hammurabi). "Carving your own values" is all good and well, but you are not alone on this planet. And no, other people are not beasts of a herd to me. My jab at 'aristocrats' was a response to condescending words like 'herd', it is not my core argument.
    – Bgie
    Commented Feb 5 at 10:23

Jurisprudence means the knowledge, science, study, or philosophy of law. These are my conclusions after studying jurisprudence 30 years ago and subsequently contemplating my cognitive experience of moral actions, justice, and injustice. During law school I rapidly concluded, "There is no justice! There is only a justice system!"

Moral judgments are products of a cognitive process arising in the dramatic context. Baruch Spinoza provides the means to reduce and analyze patterns of moral judgment. He describes an affect as a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause.

I refer to an idea of cause as a source of cause. A source of cause is a generic concept until it is further specified in the dramatic context. Spinoza maps generic sources of cause to generic terms for God, Nature, self, and others. Moral judgments are absent from the drama when we contemplate Nature as the ultimate source of cause. Moral judgments and sentiments are present when we contemplate God, self, and other(s) as the sources of cause. The lines between moral and non-moral (natural) sources of cause are fuzzy or vague in the human drama. A wolf can howl at the moon. A person can wonder at the beauty of Nature or rage against the fates in the midst of the tempest storm!

Common law refers to the legal reasoning of judges in the context of resolving societal disputes. Common law is thus a body of historic reasoning, about the sense of justice and injustice, in the context of actual disputes between the plaintiff (who files the complaint seeking a remedy from the court) and the defendant (who must respond to the complaint or risk the downside outcome of an adverse default judgment).

Common law courts divide sources of cause into these generic distinctions. First, the distinction between a remote (ultimate) and nearby (proximate) cause. Second, the distinction between a human (moral) and non-human (natural) source of cause. Third, the distinction between a sole or joint source of cause. A joint cause is the recognition of two or more independent sources of cause. Moral judgment applies only to the actions of humans in the dramatic context of law. Courts cannot hold God or Nature accountable for their actions.

Common law is a government-like function where the courts are the source of authority concerning the outcome from the justice system and the police stand ready to enforce the judgment of the court. These functions have been organized under the formal State with the legislature, executive branch, and the court system paid for by taxes as services that in a just or moral society are intended to provide for the public good. Legal autocrats attempt to populate the courts and police force with a political group that bends the justice system to its own political agenda.

Anarchic libertarian philosophers imagine a more just world operating without State coercion. Libertarians value individual liberty and wish to minimize or eliminate police coercion. Coercion is a means employed by the system(s) of justice and yet it is also an evil or harm to the will of the coerced individual. In terms of law, then, the justice system, whether formal or informal, is concerned with the justified use of coercion under a claim of right to use such coercion. When I am a teenage my older brother often says, "Who died and made you the authority?" My younger brother, in response to external source of authority, often says, "Bull-dinky!" Property rights, for example, allocate authority to individuals concerning activities that relate to scarce economic resources. The justice system or rules of law attempt to allocate authority to do or not do some action in the context of social drama.

Common law courts stand ready to enforce valid contracts, which are not against public policy, and common law defines non-contractual actionable harms as crimes or torts. Contracts and torts are called civil law because the complaints, and legal remedies, concern the award of financial damages and/or injunctions. An injunction is a court order which states what a party to the dispute must do or refrain from doing. Financial damages mean payment of (legal transfer of title) economic resources typically stated as a sum of money in the human money cultures. Crimes are actions that harm other individuals against the conscience of society punishable by fines and confinement.

In the so-called free market economic system the Sovereign government defines the accounting unit ($, dollar) then creates money by deficit spending (financial expenditures in excess of receipts over a period) to increase the both government debt and the private sector financial savings. The modern banks are authorized to create money from thin air by making contracts which increase bank assets (loans due) and money supply (bank deposit liabilities). The non-bank sector generates economic wealth and income by forming contracts, and executing contracts, with other non-bank agents, with banks, and with governments. The moral agents in these games have public duties or obligations as officers of government, and private interests. We see that contracts, torts, crimes, liberty, disputes, and coercive powers of government or government-like officials are inherent in the so-called free market system. This is because we experience moral judgments with a sense of justice or injustice. I think the other alloparenting apes (so-called lower apes) also experience our basic moral sentiments but without formal concepts or social institutions.

Concerning the parties to a civil dispute or the outcome of a criminal trial often both parties are not satisfied with the outcome. Therefore, I say, There is no justice! There is only a justice system!

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    Wow, great, comprehensive answer that is easy to follow.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 17 at 23:29

Do morals and justice exist?

Yes. Whether you conclude that they exist depends on your criterion of reality. You could use that of physicist David Deutsch, for example, which he presents in his book The Beginning of Infinity, chapter 1:

[W]e should conclude that a particular thing is real if and only if it figures in our best explanation of something.

Note that by "thing", Deutsch doesn't just refer to material objects but also concepts and other abstractions. Morals and justice figure in our best explanations of human behavior, goals, and society at large, so yes, they do exist. For example, when you ask why a criminal was put behind bars, depending on the circumstances, some will give an explanation that refers to justice, eg by saying that he got what he deserved (which is what justice means).

Back to your post:

I don’t think justice and morals are something that we can define rigorously and precisely because they are changing over time and vary from culture to culture.

I follow philosopher Karl Popper in thinking that precise definitions aren't all that important. Also, note that, just because something changes over time and varies from culture to culture doesn't mean we can't define it, much less that it doesn't exist. Cars change over time and different cultures drive different cars, but cars are still clearly definable and absolutely do exist.

I caution you against adopting some sort of relativistic stance here as that waters down any meaningful concept of morals and favors bad ideas over good ones.

What do philosophers think about [morals and justice]?

Objectivist philosophers such as Ayn Rand see instantiations of justice in trade and property rights. Again, justice is when you get what you deserve (good and bad). If you produce something of value to others, and then sell it at a profit, you have earned that money (justice) and should get to keep it (property).

Societies that implement justice by allowing trade and protecting property rights are the most successful societies in the world, whereas those that limit and undercut these rights, and with them, human flourishing, are the worst places to be.

So you can see how morals and justice aren't just real. Your survival and thriving depend on them.


Our own consciousness appears to have no objective existence. However, our ability to experience and reason depends upon it. The human sense of justice appears to have evolved as our society evolved. But can justice be universal? John A Leslie introduced the concept of axiarchism, the idea that justice is a universal value. In my view, the fundamental value is existence, and justice develops from this.


There is a commonality between all of us, regardless of our moral conviction and/or justice. What would you consider to be a lie, or what would you consider to be stealing, and is it right or wrong? Of course, a lie is a lie and stealing is stealing, and they are both wrong. You ask anyone that question and your likely going to get a similar answer.

Morals are a philosophy, like Christianity. Depending on your philosophical (if you have one) outlook, what you would consider to be moral, or just, will vary from person to person.

It is about perception. Like I was saying, there is a commonality between all of us, and we do share some parts of our perceptual reality, but what we think of the world we live in is totally inside our heads, and we can have misconceptions about what we think reality is.

At work, I hear people complaining all the time about what someone else is or isn't doing, and whenever I hear this, I always ask them if the person they are complaining about cares. Now, would you consider it to be injustice towards the person complaining in their own ignorance of the reality of what is really happening? What is happening within their own ignorance is their reality, and they don't even realize the complexity of what is actually going on. Is this injustice?

Another one would be a person getting mad about stuff that got left behind from the night shift that didn't get taken care of. Now the day shift has extra work to do on top of what they already have to do. Would you consider it to be unjust that this person doesn't even realize that they are emotionally upset over something that is completely out of their control?

Let's be honest, don't lie to yourself, and think about this one. Do you care about any kind of moral conviction? Can you truly claim that you don't lie? If one day you find yourself telling a white lie would this be injustice?

What I see is just is this. I don't like the phrase, "Fake it until you make it." The phrase I do consider is, "Fake it until you become it." Try and keep trying, sooner or later it'll become you. Sooner or later it'll become a habit, and you'll start doing it without thinking about it.

This is a bit off-topic but, my moral conviction is honesty. I'm not a Christian, but at a point in time in my life I did go to church. I asked my pastor one day what parts of the bible I should read first. He told me to read the book about Exodus, so I did. Toward the end of the book I had an epiphany. The people Moses was trying to help while he was on the mountain were being dishonest. Moses had told them not to do this stuff, and they did it anyway. At that moment, it clicked in my head that the 10 commandments were all about honesty. So you know, I don't consider all the 10 commandments to be part of my moral conviction.

If I strive to be an honest person, then I wouldn't have to worry about breaking any kind of what I would consider to be moral. From my perspective, there is only one moral and that is honesty, telling the truth, not stealing, respect, following the law, including following every rule in the driver's manual. Extreme, but it is honesty.


Terms like "moral" and "justice" certainly are not meaningless - they critically influence the daily life and death of basically all humans who are not complete recluses.

They also clearly do not exist as physical objects; just like all other "concepts". There are whole swaths of philosophy that concern themselves with what it means for something to be a "concept" or a "category" or an "entity"; and there are plenty of different aspects for what it means to "exist", even.

Many philosophers have spent their whole life ponderting these, some have gone crazy over it (at least judging by how their books read!).

If you want to start with relatively modern interpretations, you could do worse than check out John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, who are referenced by many of the newer philosopher. Both had their own theories about why and how human power structures (which are obviously related to morals and especially justice) evolve. You obviously have to see them in the light of their days, but they are (hopefully) much more accessible than later philosophers. Starting roughly there (if you wish to skip the old Greeks...) there are plenty of very dense philosophical treatises by the big names, and it gets very complicated very quickly. As usual in philosophy, a general consensus is not what it's about. ;)

The source material is maybe a bit arcane to be read as very first foray into the matter, but reading books or other media about them can be very enlightening. Heck, I'll just leave you with Episode #3 of the Partially Examined Life as an entertaining but still didactically great (in my opinion) introduction so you get a feel of what philosophers back then and also today thought about these matters.


A definition of justice might be something like, "to maximize the interests of all while minimizing their conflicts," where conflicts include conflicts of weight, imbalance or priority. Here interests may be thought of as values that have been objectified / deconstructed / demythologized to the primitive psychology or biology of our organism, thereby overcoming some subjectivity and relativism to the extent that such objectification is practical. It still leaves situational relativism, but many situations can also be objectified. A theory of ethics might also be based on such a definition of justice (rather than justice based on ethics).


These are both objective, one has to factor in things like honesty and education. Science isn't about perfection, it's about being good enough to be useful within limits. Even animals can have a sense of justice, it comes from fairness. There was a study where two monkeys did the same task, but one was rewarded with a grape, the other with a cucumber. The one with the cucumber threw it away, clearly an injustice had occurred.
Morality comes from what people need and want. Basically the golden rule, since people are gregarious and depend on each other. What causes seeming subjectivity is due to dishonesty and lack of information.


A lot of people struggle with this, but it has a simple answer. Kant put it best:

Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.

This can be translated into English as, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Or, as they probably told you in kindergarten, “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Concepts like morality and justice flow directly from that.

Is this concept “objective”? Does this “exist”? It depends on your exact definition of those words. It is very rare that there exists a genuine dispute on how the specific case should be generalized and most supposed moral conundrums can be trivially disposed of:

“How do we know slavery is wrong?” “Do you want to be enslaved?”

“Should I tell the bank it made a $100 error in my favor?” “If the bank found you made $100 error in its favor, would you want to be told?”

That last is an example of a problem of generalization: some people might argue “I am an individual and the bank is a huge company with lots of money.” Personally, I regard that argument as special pleading — you would not accept “He is a Jew and I am a Christian and therefore he has more obligation to me than I have to him”, even though the argument is roughly of the same form — but obviously others disagree.

Does a pretty solid consistency qualify as objectivity? I think it does.


Your approach of trying to define axioms on which to build a system of philosophy is a very good one. I believe that morals are definitely absolute. I think it is a fallacy to say that because moral ideas have been inconsistent over the years, this means that they are meaningless and totally relative. Despite some differences of varying sizes, there are a lot of things that have stayed constant, even in ethical frameworks of very different origins. Things such as murder (no society that I know of has ever accepted killing of innocent people for no reason; even though many have come up with sickeningly scanty reasons to do so).

Going back to the concept of philosophical axioms, I believe that the Bible presents the most best set of axioms to base a philosophical system on. In fact, much of the legal system* is based on principles that ultimately came from the Bible, such as the idea of innocence until proven guilty, and the importance of evidence in establishing guilt (The Bible stated specifically that any accusation of murder should be corroborated by 2 or 3 witnesses). (* in Europe and the US ('The West') at least, and Australia, where I'm from.)

The universal nature of moral law is central to the gospel (the central message of Christianity). Everyone has transgressed the law in many ways, and true and perfect justice cannot just overlook this. Just imagine a judge letting guilty criminals go free because the judge just wants to be nice. That is injustice. The punishment for breaking the moral law is hell, because God cannot allow imperfection into his pure and perfect presence. That's why Jesus came to Earth and died. Because he didn't break the moral law, he was able to be punished in our place. That way if we trust in Him, we can be forgiven. And trusting in God is not just a purely mental effort; we should actually turn our life around and seek to do good.

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