Suppose that:

  • (some form of) moral realism is true, that is, there exists at least some moral claims/assertions/principles that are themselves 'true', in some adequate sense
  • a person knows/is aware that a specific moral assertion P is true
  • this person knowingly/deliberately acts in a way to violate P

Now... what's supposed to happen to this person? I mean, of course they may be punished by their community if someone else finds out, or they may feel a sense of shame/guilty for their action, but is there anything else besides this? More playfully, is there anything 'the universe' itself would do to somehow punish this person?

I ask it because I guess that if something were to happen, then maybe the truth of moral assertions would become a testable, empirical matter, and conversely, if nothing whatsoever happens, then well... the existence or non-existence of moral truths could be brushed aside as a non-issue, a la Sagan's dragon, so it would be odd if every strand/school/proponent of moral realism were silent on the matter

Note that the possibility of acting in disaccord with P is essential, for if it were simply impossible to violate it, it would likely be best described as a law of physics or something ('thou shalt not decrease entropy in an isolated system' comes to mind)

Also, I'm looking for non-theistic answers, so please refrain from answers involving deities, hells, reincarnation and stuff

[Of possible interest, here's a conversation with chatgpt using the text of this question]

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    There are lots of different varieties of moral realism including most religions. Since each religion has its own answer to this question, the question is too vague to answer in its current form, and if you make it more specific, it will not longer belong in a philosophy group. Commented Apr 4 at 20:32
  • the last line is precisely about excluding religous arguments
    – ac15
    Commented Apr 4 at 20:33
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    Theological ethics posits some retribution for immorality, like karma or hell. But in general, moral realism is about moral truth, not retribution. Nothing is "supposed to happen" to moral offenders other than them being objectively immoral, just as nothing is "supposed to happen" to non-elementary particles other than them being objectively non-elementary. Of course, some further conclusions can be derived from either immorality or non-elementarity, and they may give us some information about their possessors' status and prospects, but it is not like law enforcement: behave or else.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:26
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    I have not seen naturalistic moral realists pose the question this way. The closest they offer is how moral facts reflect some natural facts and, by implication, what sort of circumstances would accompany immoral life. For example, in naturalistic Aristotelianism moral goodness derives from "flourishing" (eudaimonia) characteristic of the kind of being in question, so human moral offenders will not "flourish", live a life impoverished in the sense characteristic of human nature.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 5 at 6:58
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    @Conifold Those Aristotelian ideas are very attractive. But it gets very difficult to rely on concepts of flourishing in practice, because different societies, while they may have some things in common (the need for food shelter safety) but beyond those basic needs have very different ideas about what it means to flourish. Perhaps some of these differences are pragmatic and contextual, but it seems unlikely that they all are.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Apr 6 at 13:25

4 Answers 4


It's as well to point out that the Stanford Encyclopedia - Moral Realism gives a central place to truth in these theories: -

.... Moral realists .. think that moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true.

But truth is complicated and SEP admits that moral realists do disagree about: -

.... which moral claims are actually true and .. what it is about the world that makes those claims true.

We get to the point of your question when you ask: -

if something were to happen, then maybe the truth of moral assertions would become a testable, empirical matter,....

I take it that you are thinking of a science of ethics. But the causal laws that a science can develop are, by definition, not moral laws - or at least recommendations based on causal laws are prudential, not moral.

However, you make it quite difficult to provide an example when you (correctly) add:-

Note that the possibility of acting in disaccord with P is essential, for if it were simply impossible to violate it, it would likely be best described as a law of physics

Certainly it must be possible to violate a law if it is to count as a moral law. So I suggest that the only possibility for your scenario is a probabilistic or statistical consequence. But this is not straightforward, because the empirical testing of such relationships is far from straightforward - and yet it is perfectly rational to take an umbrella with you when you go out and rain is forecast. But in any case, this is a prudential recommendation, not a moral law.

You set aside what I would call the social consequences of immoral actions in the paragraph beginning "Now... what's supposed to happen to this person?" and I can see why.

they may be punished by their community if someone else finds out, or they may feel a sense of shame/guilty for their action...

However, punishment is an interesting case here because it seems to combine prudential recommendations with moral consequences. I mean that sometimes people deploy these consequences as factual consequences of actions and suggest those need to be taken into account; and indeed, such arguments may sometimes deter people from acting immorally. But many people would agree that such people are not really acting morally.


Your caveats on the question are too constraining, and your view that religion advocates for "punishment" is also too narrow.

Taoist thinking would hold that behaving immorally would lead to disquiet, plus being out of sync with the universe, hence unable to be efficacious in it. Taoism is a religion, but not a theistic one. Its guidelines are basically prudential.

Confucian thinking, which is basically an atheistic religion, is likewise prudential, but is instead focused on societies not individuals. Societies will not thrive if they are not run under the precepts of Confucian thought.

Buddhism, another mostly atheistic religion has developed a diverse suite of theologies, but in its most basic form, it too is prudential. One will remain trapped on the wheel of life, and continue to suffer for eternity, unless one adopts an unemotional attitude of benevolence toward others.

All of these hold that there is a degree of moral realism to our world, and all are religions, yet none involve punishment/retribution.

  • i didn't say anything to the effect that religions advocate for punishment, just that i wasn't interested in examples coming from religious punishments... the bits about taoism and confucianism are in fact very interesting and informative; the "wheel of life" bit in buddhism falls under reincarnation, or am i mistaken?
    – ac15
    Commented Apr 7 at 23:41
  • @ac15 -- Buddhism holds that it is a fact of our universe that we reincarnate forever, until we learn to break the cycle.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Apr 8 at 0:07
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    I was saying you were overconstraining in your question, because any worldview that holds that the universe is efficacious morally, is effectively a religion. So what you are looking for I think is religious thinking, just without the religious wrapper. But most of our moral thinking over history HAS been within a religious wrapper, so the constraint seems inappropriate. I am glad you found the non-theistic religions of interest.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Apr 8 at 0:25

Moral Realism is a claim about the measurability or logical necessity of right and wrong, not about the measurability of reward and punishment, whether natural, human, or divine in origin. There is nothing at all that is according to moral realism pertaining to the body question. It's a category error.

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    So once you know right and wrong, is there a field that describes the commensurate reward or punishment? Justice or something? Saying, "Not my department" is not a complete answer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 4 at 22:07
  • hi @g s, the second paragraph is a guess that rewards and punishments potentially could work as an indirect measure of right and wrong, you're right. given your answer, could you please add something about how we instead could try to do direct measurements?
    – ac15
    Commented Apr 4 at 22:18

Philosophy, generally, will discuss what ought to happen based on reason. What does happen to their soul is a matter of theology, what does happen to their mind, of psychology, and of their body, biology and sociology.

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