Without any context of time, situation, or people involved, or any other situational variable is it possible to tell right or wrong, good or evil? Why/ why not?


2 Answers 2


Moral realists like Kant surely think so.

And from a more naturalized Kantian position, we can accept the basic argument in a modern framing -- we get something like Freud. Humans have a certain fund of expectations which come down to us genetically and through the shared layer of culture that hold the species together and keep it functioning. Respecting those and allowing them to do their work will be seen by most people as a reasonable definition of good. The remainder are lying.

Something like the thoroughgoing empathy of Kant's Categorical Imperative is hard to see as evil, or even neutral. One has to work very hard to make situations where one wishes to ignore it, and even then, there are always slightly more productive paths out of those staged dilemmas, which respect the rule. We resent the degree to which such a notion would constrict our behavior, but we cannot really claim we do not expect the principle to be followed by at least the people most important to us. We expect those we love to be fair, and although we play with contextual details, we do have an overall sense of what fairness is.

Any applied theory that works is still going to be negotiated on top of some shared base. Its underlying notion of good is still ultimately going to trace back to shared opinions that arose over time out of these principles. So disowning the idea that a few basic principles are not always good is just casuistic evasion. If there were no basis to morality, different cultures could not make peace on a regular basis, which they simply do.

At the same time, we have a strong tendency to focus on only one side of human nature as good, the one that works longer term, and accept more basic competing drives as necessary evils. But there is not really a place for that bias. Conflicting drives that are productive and universal should be seen as competing good impulses to be reconciled, and not viewed in terms of good vs evil drives.

It is this intricate balancing act that makes morality seem baseless, because we are too firmly attached to the simplicity of negation. Morality may not be, in and of itself, logically consistent. That does not mean it does not exist or have structure. The same can be said of all forms of taste, but overall, we have not seen the basic nature of things like food change in thousands of years.


There are two differing opinions on this:

  • Moral Realism (or Moral Objectivism): right and wrong, etc...are objective truths independent of individual perceptions or beliefs, of social circumstances, etc....see this post and Jobermark, Virmaior and Quentin's responses to it.

  • Moral Relativism: the opposing position that all values and ethical propositions are dependent on social, historical, cultural factors, etc....see this post and answers within.

  • Could someone have a "middle of the road" taking the strengths of each of these positions for different types of actions? Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 13:10
  • @JesseCohoon: The problem with 'middle of the road' is a slippery slope: Once you allow for moral judgements not to have an absolute standard, it is impossible to argue that one position is better than the other. So if you think it through, you end up in either more or less well conceiled moral realism, or some kind of 'absolute' relativism, where it's only up to factual status (e.g. cultural setting you were born in) or even taste what is right and wrong and you can hardly argue against ANY position.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 16:40
  • Sorry to post the same idea concurrently. Another way of looking at this is that logically any moral relativism with a tiny bit of moral realism mixed in is still moral realism, just with a smaller set of axioms and more construction. There is never any 'balance' between a limited principle and an absolute one. There is a strong motive to keep the realist part as compact as possible, and leave as much space relative as is workable, but that is not a 'middle of the road' position.
    – user9166
    Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 16:41
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    @JesseCohoon one might resort to intersubjectivity (agreement on subjective experience between multiple individuals), but as Philip pointed out, that tends too easily to swing into one direction or the other. What Jobermark mentions seems to be the current pragmatic solution adopted by pluralistic societies (reducing the number of objective ethical axioms to a very small core and agreeing that the rest are all relative), but even those get challenged...see the current American culture war. Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 17:28

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