So far, I've concluded for me that moral is only based on axioms. And those axioms are essentially arbitrary as the axioms in mathematics are. Hence, I've to choose my axiom system, e.g. be an utilitarianist or 'murder is wrong in any case' and so on and so forth and consequently build up all my moral decisions on them.

But if all the axioms are arbitrary, don't I have to embrace them all equally? That is, consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics and others ought to be treated equally. Surely, I could add the axiom that my moral axiom system is the only right one, but this seems unreasonable to me.

  • 1
    No, I'm not asking for opinions. Rather, I'm looking for arguments against arbitrariness or, alternatively, arguments why moral theories do not all have the same status. Note that I only consider moral systems which do not contradict themselves, i.e. show inconsistencies.
    – Zetaman
    Jul 6, 2016 at 11:34
  • "But if all axioms are arbitrary don't I have to embrace them all equally". I don't see how the second part follows from the first. If something is arbitrary it's dependent on the perceiving subject. I'd argue that this is the case for morality: you can follow any moral framework you like, but ultimately the result of that framework depends on how your community perceives your actions that are based on that framework.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jul 6, 2016 at 17:13
  • Perhaps you could explain why you think that the axioms of mathematics are arbitrary. Those in widest use, e.g. of Zermelo-Frenkel set theory, are very particular, and condense centuries of successful practice, not just of mathematics alone, but of all the fields where it was and is useful. There are less popular alternatives that take a somewhat different perspective, but not that different as they still aim to accomodate the same practice. The same is likely true of moral and ethical systems, there is some variation, but mostly in abstractions, and they are hardly arbitrary.
    – Conifold
    Jul 6, 2016 at 20:28
  • @Conifold Yeah, but those of little use, e.g. the K axioms of algebraic K-theory, or the axioms of set theories based on well-founded references that allow certain kinds of referential loops, are not wrong, they just don't get used much. I would dare say wrong ethical theories can be wrong, in a way real scientific theories can be and mathematical axiomatizations cannot.
    – user9166
    Jul 6, 2016 at 21:05
  • @jobermark The question is not whether they are wrong but arbitrary though, K-theory and its axioms serve well-defined purposes in topology, etc. If anything, ethical theories could be "wrong" in a sense closer to mathematical than to empirical theories, because the "test", if any, is for them to "work" in practice rather than to "match" facts. Like (consistent) mathematical axioms normative prescriptions can not be "wrong" the way factual claims can be. But "work" or "match", either way they are not arbitrary.
    – Conifold
    Jul 6, 2016 at 21:39

7 Answers 7


Your primary conviction appears to be this: without some way to escape the arbitrariness of [allegedly] axiomatized moral systems, we have no way to ground the superiority of one moral system over another.

Perhaps you've labeled this question with the tag "moral skepticism" because you feel that such a position might exemplify a skeptical outlook. However, I believe that if you adopt a more thorough skepticism, you will find the need to abandon moral claims (and those fictitious 'moral axioms') altogether. One incarnation of this approach is emotivism, a variety of moral fictionalism.

In other words, there is no need to establish the superiority of one set of axioms over another (in the realm of ethics, at least) because all claims about good and bad behavior can be reduced without remainder to claims about emotion and preference.

Of course, if your main goal is to retain ethics as a legitimate field of study...or to retain God as the supreme rule-giver, then there certainly be some leftover after the reduction I've suggested above. However, doing this would amount to the unscientific attempt to bolster some previously-selected perspective. Additionally, we have no reason to accept ethics as legitimate and no reason to accept the reality of a Creator.

Consider for a moment that in this world there are no moral restrictions...and, of course, no hideous axioms from which philosophers and theologians are forced to infer hideous rules. There is fear, disgust, pain, happiness, and a bunch of emotions. There are also laws that differ from place to place and pieces of advice passed down from parent to child...from friend to friend. Some people approve of x, but not of y...and some of these people prefer to parse these feelings in terms of laws given from God or in terms of laws that were uncovered by way of mathematical deduction. The main goal of this sophistical trend appears to be this: if you can trick mankind into thinking that he must adhere to system A or system B, you can reduce those behaviors you consider offensive and encourage those behaviors you consider beneficial.

To answer in a different way. No, morality is not based on axioms but this does not imply that one system must be superior to another. The third option is that ethics itself is a towering pile of nonsense. A person, like myself, who subscribes to this line of thinking does not refrain from murder because it interferes with some immaterial law or because it implies some contradiction or because it originates from some superior ethical system; he decides not to murder because he finds the act to be a disgusting one that causes great harm.

  • Very good answer!
    – Zetaman
    Jul 7, 2016 at 6:56
  • @JohnAm, philosophical conversation (and any scientific talk that aims for precision) benefits greatly when justification rather than bare assertions in large quantities are deployed. Of course people will disagree; what I've said is not popular in universities. But merely disagreeing is uninteresting. Jul 8, 2016 at 19:42
  • So are you saying that murder is similar to rotten food? (as it is disgusting and can cause great harm). It is not surprising such opinions are not popular in universities. lol
    – John Am
    Jul 8, 2016 at 23:49

Well no, you don't have to embrace them all equally. You use the phrase have to, which is normative language implying that you already have chosen a moral axiom saying that you ought to embrace all arbitrary things equally. You are right that all moral decision making must start with the acceptance of axioms. Therefore it is illogical to chose an axiom or axioms based on some moral framework, which you may not have realized you were doing when you used the phrase have to. Words and phrases like "have to", "ought to", "should", and "must" generally imply a moral or ethical imperative. To have such an imperative, one must first have moral axioms. Thus saying that you "should choose moral axiom X or Y" before you have any other moral axioms is an instance of circular reasoning.

If you are to choose moral axioms, it cannot be done this way without logical contradiction. If you have no moral axioms to start with, nothing can rationally compel you to choose any axioms. But I am compelled to choose certain axioms for psychological and biological reasons. I have not chosen my most basic moral axioms because of reason or logic. They cannot possibly start with logic.


An axiom or postulate as defined in classic philosophy, is a statement (in mathematics often shown in symbolic form) that is so evident or well-established, that it is accepted without controversy or question. {..} The word comes from the Greek axíōma (ἀξίωμα) 'that which is thought worthy or fit' or 'that which commends itself as evident


http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/arbitrary based on chance rather than being planned or based on reason

Why do you think axioms are arbitrary?

I think no one builds his morality according to morality theories but it is more or less an eclectic construction based on reflections of ones life, social-historic demands and values, cultural etc.

My personal view is that some parts of ethic systems are crucial parts of humanity and others are not so important and change. About your question how to treat the different theories i think one rationalizes the premises of each one and judge the value of the "arbitrariness" of the proposed axioms.

  • Ok let me clarify: I mean the choice of axioms is arbitrary. Like in mathematics where I could also start off with the negation of the axioms currently used.
    – Zetaman
    Jul 6, 2016 at 12:36

I would choose a different, non-"exact" science to compare moral axiom sets to -- in fact any one of them.

Moralities do not just have to make us feel good, they also have to work. A society in which all of the prevailing moralities did not support social order consistent with human psychology would collapse, and the moral theories would have failed.

Math can't fail, it just turns the page and creates a new branch, and the less helpful branches get forgotten and no longer taught.

So I would suggest that moral theories are exactly as arbitrary as theories in the (observation-based, non-mathematical) sciences. The basic forms of scientific theories are not set by nature, they are contrived by a social process. They are a consequence of the directions of past decisions, the order in which those decisions got solidified, and the ways in which facts have been rolled into the theory or left out as special cases (q.v. Kuhn). But they are rigidly bound by the requirements that they do, in fact, help us cope with their intended domains. Once they stop doing so, or even stop improving fast enough, we replace them with better ones.

Virtue ethics, for instance, given our more cosmopolitan exposure to cultures with different sets of virtues, can only be seen as a meta-theory that does not specify any clear morality. It has lost its claim to be a workable, whole ethical theory because choosing a given set of virtues will unfairly besmirch the actions of obviously good and important historical figures without whom the world would be a worse place. It is a good rule of thumb that needs a real ethics to support it. It can't work anymore, at least on its own.

That puts it in a place like Newtonian physics. It works for most of us, but we know just a little bit too much to consider it true at its root. If you choose it as your dominant basic theory, you need adjunct theories for cases of astronomy and particles.


The answer is yes... and no.

Moral theories are indeed arbitrary, in that there is no observable, universally correct morality in the universe. There is no factual, objective answer to whether stealing is morally "incorrect", et cetera.

Moral theories are not arbitrary, however, once one takes into account preferred outcomes. There is a factual, objective answer to whether stealing is morally correct, if society (or even just an individual) has an agreed upon preference for civil order and fair trade for services/goods.

Whether a society values civil order/fair trade is (somewhat) arbitrary. Once that goal is accepted, any moral choice may be measured as helpful, harmful, or neutral regarding that.


Axioms are not arbitrary. They are supposed to be considered "self-evidently true"

You only have to embrace those axioms you see as self-evidently true equally.

If the axiom "my moral axiom system is the only right one" is self-evidently true to you then you can add it, however, the fact it "seems unreasonable" to add that axiom, is a strong hint, that this particular axiom is not self-evidently true to you.


Moral values are learnt and unique to each individual therefore they can never be objective but a person's moral values can be determined objectively if we know all the factors which result in moral values.

  • Even if moral is learnt this doesn't justify the moral attitude. A rational individual can still reflect on its moral values, through them away and adapt others.
    – Zetaman
    Jul 6, 2016 at 11:44
  • That applies to some people but not all and only if they are given the tools and information required to do so. Not all people are rational individuals and what you are exposed to growing up plays a major part in determining your attitude and even your personality. I'm not even gonna go into how the subconscious can take over in certain conditions, reducing even rational individuals into violent animals. If you have ever gotten annoyed during peak hour traffic you will know what i mean. So yes, a rational individual can reflect on its moral values and adopt others, but it only applies to them. Jul 6, 2016 at 12:40
  • Sure. And this should by no means stop us from thinking rational.
    – Zetaman
    Jul 6, 2016 at 12:48
  • Us? You mean those able to think rationally. Jul 6, 2016 at 13:20
  • Will you at least admit that in some situations, some people are not able to think rationally? And even if they do decide the action was not moral, it's too late because they already did it. Jul 6, 2016 at 13:22

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