To me Physicalism seems to miss some aspects of animals, such as that their behavior may not be entirely physically explained.

How does Physicalism treat "non-physical" things such as ethics?

  • 1
    It's impossible to cover everyone, but many physicalists are also consequentialists and view happiness and/or suffering as measurable things we can maximize/minimize. In other words, these thinkers don't take ethics to be non-physical. Similarly, feelings of right and wrong are understood sociobiologically by some accounts.
    – virmaior
    Dec 26, 2016 at 13:49
  • @virmaior see The Evolution of Morality by Richard Joyce for a moral anti-realist take on the sociobiology of morality. Presumably a physicalist would have no problem taking such a stance. Dec 26, 2016 at 18:39
  • @mavavij The way physicalists deal with terms that are otherwise hijacked by idealism and dualism (like consciousness). One can perfectly claim that ethics are a set of behaviours that emerge from the evolution (darwinian evolution) of a social species. That is, physical patterns that evolved with our brains for millions of years. From a physicalist point of view, nothing is exempt from physical and natural laws, in this view : one can reconcile physicalism with ethics the same way we can reconcile the fact that software is a product of matter, although doesn't appear to be material.
    – SmootQ
    Aug 30, 2019 at 22:28
  • @mavavij Theories of ethics do not address the question whether ethics are physical or mental more than they address what ought we consider moral and on what basis : its consequences or the act itself? or the character of the person committing the act? this is what most debates are all about in ethics.
    – SmootQ
    Aug 30, 2019 at 22:30
  • @virmaior I am a physicalist (materialist) and I am a deontologist too , because I think that good actions are intrinsically good (they are enforced upon us), but not made so by God. They are just moral truths that are true by necessity : that is, these exact truths are what drives the evolution of our societies, and specific values are intrinsically morally true, we did not decide on what we should consider good based on its consequences , but natural (evolution) is what decided for us , hence : deontological ethics combined with naturalism.
    – SmootQ
    Aug 30, 2019 at 22:34

5 Answers 5


They do not need to deny non-physical things. They could hold that these seemingly non-physical things are epiphenomenal and actually supervene on the physical.


Presumably a physicalist would be skeptical of any non-naturalist metaethical programme, so they would be either a metaethical naturalist or a metaethical anti-realist (either error theorist, subjectivist, or non-cognitivist). But since all forms of moral realism seem in some respect to rely on a variety of intuition, presumably the physicalist could rule out said faculty of intuition as being one from which knowledge could be attained, implying a wholesale rejection of abstract objects and non-natural properties. But this is not necessary. While there is a correlation between physicalism and non-(non-naturalism), one can have their cake and eat it too here if one supposed, though a metaethical non-naturalist would presumably reject metaphilosophical naturalism, allowing in such views as property dualism and mathematical platonism (which can in some conceptions of naturalized epistemology still be accommodated).


(This is a more detailed response that agrees with 'They just assume supervenience upon the physical.' Some people try to go farther than presuming and demonstrate the nature of the supervenience.)

This is the reason for perspectives like Critical Theory. Their chosen place to put all of the effects that would ordinarily be considered idealist material is in social relations. This redirects the whole range of things that we traditionally have considered to be consequences of pure ideas, including ethics, mathematics, ontology, etc. to all need sociological causes elaborated on a biological and political base. The way that we can imagine language as arising out of sociological forces upon early non-speaking humans, this approach suggests this is the nature of all seemingly ideal phenomena.

Contrary to the perspectives of their critics, and the table-pounding extravagance of many of their followers, the point is not to challenge Conservative politics with oversimplified theories of Realpolitik, it is to free descriptive discourse from attachment to foundationalist idealisms that have been kept in place through mechanisms of social control despite our clear realizations that it is not really possible for them to be true on their own terms. (Just for the record, we do not have to interpret these social control mechanisms as lies. In fact, to do so dismisses a good part of the goal. And we don't need to entirely rearrange society to get rid of them. We probably shouldn't.)

This requires a far more precise notion of social relations than we ordinarily take, and digging into oppression may never provide that precision. But overall, such postmodernist communication theories seek to replace idealism with the insight of Wittgenstein into 'language-games' and the insights of people like Lacan and Dessasure into the stability of feedback and the lack of foundational contents in definition systems (To my mind, insights cunningly captured by Douglas Hoffstadter in the notion of 'strange looping' much more recently.)

Since social constructs are the side-effects of social systems made of material beings, then, everything would be material, but we would still have a place to put the evolution of ideas into the scheme of physics.


A take on this:

On How Physicalism And Physicalist Value Avoids Naturalist Fallacy (Epistemology, Physicalism) https://noncontradictingpolitics.blogspot.com/2019/08/on-how-physicalism-and-physicalist.html

So in my view,

  • Physicalism and moral exist in separate epistemological types and thus are not compatible given current level of science. They may be merged, when moral can be explained by psychology, biology, physics.
  • It may not be possible to demonstrate the existence of "moral mind/body processes", given current knowledge. There exists some "naive" one's such as, "if you attack someone, then its likely to rebound against you".


  • General moral rules cannot be expected, without a contradiction somewhere.
  • Thus moral remains pretty much fundamentally subjective.


such as that their behavior may not be entirely physically explained.

I think this is a "misnormer" in physicalism. Physicalism should expect that "there's nothing more than physical". Or "what's not physical, is not there".


When addressing ethical questions there are theories that try to answer : "What makes a good act good?" .

Now, your question is : How does physicalism deal with non-physical things like ethics.

I personally think that ethics, consciousness are being hijacked by non-physical theories such as dualism and idealism. Without giving any account of how they work, and yet dualists and idealists demand that physicalists give an explanation (it is always physicalists who bother explain things in detail).

What do you know about the physical to assert that such and such is not physical ? You do not actually know what matter/energy/quantum fields that constitute our reality are, to conclude that properties such as ethics and consciousness...etc cannot emerge from them. The best we know about matter is the standard model of particles, which itself poses many questions : matter, physics are just names that have gained a bad connotation. And about this thing we call "physical", we know next to nothing, other than it exists.

So why presume somehow that this thing we call "physical" cannot give rise to some favored patterns in our behaviour that we call "ethics"?

Ethical theories have different stances, but let me mention two : Consequentialism and deontological ethics.

It is easy to reconcile concequentialism with physicalism, because consequences provide a good definitional measure of what to consider good and bad based on measurable physical criteria .

For example, consider this thought experiment : A man steals 100 dollars from a poor husband, so he could not afford buying medicine for his wife who died after 2 weeks.

The measure that says : it is bad to steal is the consequence an innocent woman died . A physicalist has an observable measure, and because he can project on the future, he can anticipate what would happen, and decide that it is wrong to steal based on the future potential consequences.

Deontological ethics on the other hand are tricky, I am a physicalist/materialist myself, and I deontologist at the same time.

It is difficult to see a possible reconciliation between physicalism and deontological ethics (an act is good in and of itself, not because of the consequences), but here are some :

  • As long as you are not an atheist, you can perfectly be a physicalist (materialist), while believing that deities are also physical, and that God is the one who has setup the moral code and made it so that Good is good in and of it self. (Actually, many ancient greek pre-socratic philosophers were theists and materialists, Thales believed that Gods are also made of, guess what ... water)

You do not need to go too far, some religions today believe that God is light (I mean : light, like in photons.). As long as you hold the doctrine that matter is the ultimate truth of everything , you are a materialist (and a physicalist).

  • If you are an atheist AND physicalist (because there are atheists who are not materialist/physicalist), then another process, that you know or may not know, can take over the role of God, and establish a set of behaviours that we consider Good or Bad.

Our brains for example, took millions of years of evolution to take their current shape, and our human societies are also subject to these changes. Any behaviour that increases your chances of survival and reproduction in a social setting are selected for, this process underlies the evolution on the level of societies and communities as well : any society that fails to give rise to a set of mutations that yield a specific set of behavioural patterns increase their chances of failure, in communities and tribes..etc, there are specific values (commandments if you will) that should take shape of behavioural patterns in order for that tribe or that community to survive (in a social species).

After this evolutionary process, we see what we have today : moral values, societies, laws, culture and religions.

Now back to deontological ethics, I said that it is easy for a physicalist to hold a consequentialist point of view.

Now it has become easy for as to see where deontological ethics lie in our picture about societal evolution.

After the evolutionary process yielded these behavioural patterns we categorize as morals , the evolutionary process itself did not select for these patterns based on their consequences (because natural selection does not care about consequences)

And we do not have any control over these behaviour patterns for us to decide that stealing will be right from now on in case you want to buy medicine and save a life. Because the evolutionary process of societies has already "decided" (by means of statistical success and failure) that this behavioural pattern is Bad.

Therefore, there is a basis of morality that is forced on us by nature, we have no control over it, even if we think that taking consequences into consideration would be of great use.

And this is what deontology asserts.

For example : let's suppose that Adolf Hitler's mother somehow knows what he would become. A (supra?)-consequentialist would likely agree that it would be right to kill Adolf Hitler as a child.

Deontological ethics says that it is wrong because killing an innocent person is wrong.

Based on what I said about evolution, this moral truth is already decided by nature (not by us), because societies where innocents are killed are not as stable as the ones where innocents are protected by the community (always in a social species)

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