Please explain what counts as non-arbitrary in the context of motivations and moral imperatives (e.g. thou shalt not kill, create the greatest good for the greatest number, etc.).

Dictionary definitions of "arbitrary" are: "based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system", "depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law",...

While comprehensible, these seem feeble and vague in the case of moral imperatives. For example, the principle "thou shalt not kill" can be explained by evolutionary processes and its effect on human psychology that causes aversion to killing. Or by sociological strategies: a community that kills its own members tend to be weaker and have less solidarity than those that do not. These explanations state the physical/psychological justification of the moral principles, but can nevertheless be argued to be as arbitrary as the processes/strategies explaining them.

As for motivation, biological justification for the motivation/compulsion/desire for things like sex and sugar consumption is mountainous, yet one may say that these desires are only meaningful for organisms with internal fertilization and the ability to digest sugar, and thus arbitrary.

  • 1
    Anything can be argued to be arbitrary. The sticking point is where those arguments fail to stack up against the significance of the thing itself. Evolution is, in a sense, arbitrary in the whims it has imposed on us over so many millions of years. But, that's how it's come out. It's just how it is. What do we get out of dismissing it all as arbitrary? You cannot repel reality with recalcitrant syllogisms.
    – commando
    Sep 25 '16 at 6:27
  • @commando first, thanks for contributing. Second, please make this a formal answer. It makes discussion easier. Third, I believe that within a deterministic system, all events can be seen as predestined but not some events are determined by the laws (physical laws) that govern the system, while some others arise only from the initial conditions. All organisms need energy, because thermodynamics, but leaves need not to be green, their colour is determined by the frequency of sunlight. I want to know if such distinction can be further generalized.
    – user289661
    Sep 26 '16 at 17:49

Is number of eyes arbitrary? I would say no. It's not just as likely that we could have ended up with 1 or 3 eyes each. The specific evolutionary pressures and distinct advantages that binocular vision provides led to humans having two eyes. The case with moral intuitions seems to be similar.

I know where you're coming from with this question, but arbitrariness is not exactly the concept you're looking for. Instead, there are a few specific points to be made:

  • The origins of moral intuition are biological and cultural.

  • Moral intuitions are specific to individuals-- by their very nature, they only exist as a thought or feeling, which are specific to individuals.

  • The extent to which a given moral principle is accepted by people depends on the time and place.

  • Morality does not have a purpose except in the contexts of human preference and evolutionary fitness.

This adds up to say that, at the very least, morality is not the kind of thing that people have historically thought of it as. Indeed, if you believe that morality evolved rather than being handed down from God this is already the case.


This seems to just be a telescoping problem of frame. On a certain level, everything can be called "arbitrary" but then on a level of analysis where certain things are assumed, these same things are non-arbitrary.

For instance, why do pawns move forward in chess? On the one hand, this is an arbitrary choice in the design of chess. But on the other hand, in the game of chess, this is a rule that is determinative for the sort of moves that pawns can make in chess.

The same telescoping feature of how arbitrary works seems to be at the core of your question here. Your prompt is Please explain what counts as non-arbitrary in the context of motivations and moral imperatives but then you follow this by looking at things in other scopes.

On the level where moral imperatives and choices happen, an imperative is non-arbitrary if it can be shown to have a rational basis in that system. Working from Kant's theory, we can provide a rational basis for a rule against murder by supposing that the things murdered are rational creatures and that it's a rational end to keep these around.

A further question is whether motivations are on the same level or a very different level. For Kant, moral motivation is special and is an objektiv Gefühl called respect, but if we view moral motivations as just like any other motivations as physical drives, then it doesn't make much sense to call some non-arbitrary. On my view, Kant gets a lot of lifting out of that adjective "objective." But what makes it non-arbitrary on his view is that the basis for this feeling is nothing in the individual but only in reason alone.

To generalize and move a bit away from Kant, views that are concerned with our moral choices being non-arbitrary often means that

  • These choices are in our control (as opposed to being spasms that just happen)
  • These choices reflect our reason rather than merely our drives (which is of course debatable but is intended both as a claim within a frame of reference and a meaningful presupposition of those who believe moral choices should be non-arbitrary)
  • Whether the origin of the rule of arbitrary in some frame, it is perceived as a rule in this frame.

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