It seems to me that one possible grounding for objective morality is in the inherent badness of suffering.

Suffering is inherently bad, I believe, by definition, and non-instrumental suffering could be specified in order to strengthen the position.

It then follows, perhaps, that if suffering is bad (for the sufferer), then there is a moral duty to prevent it, and statements such as "it is morally wrong to unnecessarily inflict suffering" reflect objective moral facts.

I would like to know how moral non-realists argue against the general argument I presented. I know the specific argument I presented is weak, so I'm more so looking for an argument against the general idea.

  • 6
    Suffering is inherently bad, I believe, by definition - My suffering is bad to me, by definition. Your suffering may not be bad to me by definition.
    – TKoL
    Apr 4 at 7:11
  • 3
    In philosophy there are no "obvious" truth/facts by "constitution": philosophy is the art of elucidating non-obvious issues and discussing "obvious" issues in order to understand their non-obvious aspects. Apr 4 at 7:42
  • 2
    Is all suffering bad? I suffered quite a lot to get my black belt in karate, and learning to play guitar hurt my left hand fingertips for a year before my skin became hard enough, which is after all nothing but the scars of an injury I self inflicted. In both cases the suffering is consubstantial to the learning experience. Also as TKol said suffering is inherently subjective. I don't suffer when a stranger suffers, and what is unbearable to them might be bearable for me and vice versa.
    – armand
    Apr 4 at 7:46
  • 2
    Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) "argued that the supreme principle of morality is a principle of practical rationality that he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative” (CI). Kant characterized the CI as an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must follow despite any natural desires we may have to the contrary. All specific moral requirements, according to Kant, are justified by this principle, which means that all immoral actions are irrational because they violate the CI." This is still the best starting point . Apr 4 at 8:54
  • 2
    @Aph002 Thank for accepting my answer, but may I suggest that in future you wait at least 24 hours before accepting any answer. Questions with accepted answers tend to get less attention and fewer additional answers. You never know whether someone is going to come along and post a better answer. Apr 4 at 11:28

3 Answers 3


A moral non-realist would probably agree with you that "suffering is bad" (in most circumstances, at least) however they would deny that this is an objective statement of fact about the universe.

Most moral non-realist also don't disagree with moral reasoning from premises. A piece of reasoning can be objective even if its premises are not; it's just that your argument about reducing suffering has a conclusion contingent on accepting your premise rather than that conclusion being an objective fact about the universe.

Caveat: moral non-realism covers quite a large range of philosophical positions. The precise answer those different positions will give will vary, but I think this answer covers most of them reasonably well.

  • What does a non-realist mean when they say "suffering is bad", just that they personally think it's bad? Now, take the following: "Some types of suffering are always bad for those who experience it" To me, this appears to be factually true, am I correct in believing that the reason is fails to entail moral realism is that it's a descriptive statement, not a moral claim? It seems as though I'm forced to conclude that someone is undergoing an experience that is objectively harmful for them, but then concluding I have no moral duty, because the harm doesn't extend to me, i.e. egoism.
    – Aph002
    Apr 4 at 9:40
  • 4
    @Aph002: There are too many different non-realist positions to give a simple answer to that first question. In terms of the objectivity of your claim, I think there is an equivocation here between "bad" meaning "this makes me feel bad" and "bad" meaning this is morally wrong. It may be objectively true in the former sense; but that doesn't make it true in the second unless you agree that people feeling bad is morally wrong. Apr 4 at 9:48
  • So it sounds like moral arguments are inherently question-begging? No way out of that? The best we can do is to say we won't do something because it doesn't sit well with us. Which is still a reason. And still inarguable. Maybe we should take that and run with it?
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 5 at 15:05

Nearly all humans try to avoid suffering. How to support the moral duty to prevent suffering without assuming the existence of objective values?

You can argue on the basis of Kant’s Categorical Imperative as a moral principle of generalization:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.


Suffering is inherently bad, I believe, by definition...

Wrong. Skipping simple relativist proofs (easy to find), many philosophers (and simple mortals like me) think suffering is good. When you make sport, your body suffers, and so it becomes stronger. When you eat salads, your body suffers because you are ingesting toxic substances, and so, your body becomes stronger. When you suffer mentally, you purify your soul, you learn about life, and you expand your potential of happiness, etc. etc.

"You must submit to supreme suffering 
 in order to discover the completion of joy".
- John Calvin.

It then follows, [...] that if suffering is bad [...], then there is a moral duty to prevent it.

Wrong. If you prevent your child of (a sane dose of) suffering, you are growing him weak. The first circumstance he'll lack of your protection, he might emotionally or physically crash and die. A good education involves a bit of suffering, so to develop strength and find equilibrium and mental/emotional stability.

Another case: nature inflicts suffering to those who break its rules. Any social group follows the same rule, that is, inflicting suffering to those who act against it. If "there is a moral duty to prevent it", we should free all prisoners immediately, give all our money to thieves and promote drug overdosing.

I would like to know how moral non-realists argue against the general argument I presented.

All human groups have different and relative moral rules, and natural selection allows surviving of some, even with opposite moral rules (e.g. some groups with few resources will kill murderers (rule: it is OK to kill), while groups with more resources allow murderers to survive (rule: it is NOT-OK to kill) but in controlled environments, where they change or at least they can't kill anymore).

  • 4
    I usually define suffering as persistent pain. However, it would be more accurate to state that suffering is intense, persistent, unwanted pain. The idea that all suffering makes one stronger is absolute non-sense. Feral children are examples of extreme social neglect. If there is a human appetite for social interaction, because it is necessary to develop social cognition, then suffering would accompany social neglect. But the body has adaptive systems to block unwanted pain in early life. Maybe the feral child suffers intense pain in the short run and relative cognitive disability long run. Apr 4 at 20:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .