Moral realism or moral objectivism is a the view that moral values and statements are facts that are independent of the person who is uttering them.

For example the statement "Killing is bad" is True regardless of who is saying it, and even if nobody believes it. Similarly the statement "Rape is acceptable" is False regardless of who says it or who believes or doesn't believe it.

Now lets assume that one wants to defend the objectivity of morals without resorting to a religious argument, i.e. one wants to consider statements like "Killing is bad" objectively true without having to say "because God said so" or "because it is bad Karma", etc...

It seems to me that any secular argument that can be provided for the objectivity or morals can be immediately refuted by the fact that morals seem to change over time. Slavery was considered acceptable for most of human history, but now it is almost universally rejected. Pre marital sex was considered bad in most western societies for along time but is now accepted by many people in the West.

If someone is trying to prove that "Killing is bad" is an objectively True statement, another can respond "how do you know that in the future people won't find gratuitous killing acceptable? After all, a man and a woman living together without being married would have been just as horrifying to a person from 16th century as murder is now".

How can any argument for the objectivity of moral statements be defended against such a historical argument?

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    You're using morality in 2 different ways. 1. Morality as what ought to be done. 2. Morality as what we believe ought to be done. Just because 2 changes doesn't mean 1 doesn't exist. Similarly, the laws of physics "as we know them" have changed (newton to einstein etc.). But that doesn't mean the universe changed from a newtonian universe to an einsteinian universe. The universe always obeyed the same set of rules. Our knowledge of them has changed. Jun 26, 2017 at 17:53
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    @AmeetSharma you would be surprised. There are those who believe even the laws of science and math are "constructed" not objective. See The strong programme Jun 26, 2017 at 17:59
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    @jobermark, there's nothing to be solved. The distinction is obvious. How can "what ought to be done" be confused with "a person's opinion on what ought to be done" ? It's no different from "the events of Sep.16th" and "a person's opinion on what the events of Sep.16th were". The meanings are clearly distinct. You may say there is no such entity as "what ought to be done"... but the meaning clearly exists. If it didn't exist even "a person's opinion on what ought to be done" would be meaningless as well. If you believe that to be the case, then please define morality. Jun 27, 2017 at 17:30
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    @jobermark, I never said the question was stupid. The question is on "moral realism". I take "moral realism" to mean there are true moral facts independent of opinion. I gave a straightforward answer that our moral opinions (collective or individual) don't necessarily have a bearing on whether or not true moral facts exist. The same is true of science. Convergence of opinion is not evidence for or against moral realism or scientific realism. There has been convergence of opinion on many false ideas as well as true ideas. Jun 27, 2017 at 18:20
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    For centuries people and cultures disagreed about inborn talent, free will and disembodied souls. Says scientific realist: there were always facts of the matter as to talent, freedom and disembodiment, but only with the recent rise of genetics and neuroscience can we even conceive of potential empirical testing of such claims. Not only truth value is open to future discovery but even truth eligibility. And a moral realist says ditto. There are quite sophisticated accounts, McDowell analogizes moral facts to secondary qualities
    – Conifold
    Jun 29, 2017 at 20:56

4 Answers 4


Moral realism is defended against the fact that morals and values change, by the fact that those are independent things that coexist complementarily. Those are better explained by the philosophical concepts of objectivity vs subjectivity.

Objective vs. Subjective Reality:

Imagine an object that is being looked at. We place that object in the water, what you perceive of the object is your (you the Subject) perception of the (Object). The objective reality means reality as object, a thing of its own.

The subject that perceives the object, obtains a mental image of the object, this mental image is subjective, limited to the subjects ability to perceive the Object. That is the concept of subjective reality.

When we apply this concept of objective/subjective to morality, it means that while subjective understanding of morality changes, what is objectively moral remains the same. Just like reality remains the same no matter what is our understanding of it.

Now, how do we know a moral truth is objectively moral and not merely subjective? We don't really... we assume that the subjective morals we hold as truths are the objective ones based on a feeling of empathy. WE tend to identify as immoral the things or situations that we would not want to be subjected to, and Consent the key that makes an action or situation moral.

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    This is begging the question. You cannot assume objective moral reality as a defense of the possibility of objective moral reality. And then say, "but it is just an assumption."
    – user9166
    Jun 28, 2017 at 14:53
  • He is explaining how there could be objectively real morality and there still be changing subjective perceptions of morality. This explanation is true whether or not objective morality exists. Jun 30, 2017 at 23:52

By sheer evasion. Moral realism does not demand that derived moral facts are correct, stable, or universal, only that there really are basic moral facts that are real.

Utilitarians are still moral realists. They have a moral value, and they consider it real. Likewise Kantians are moral realists, mutual respect for autonomy is a moral value they consider real. The relativism of different individual pictures of the world cannot address their moral arguments. They are based in a real theory of human nature (or the nature of all intelligent beings, including humans).

How can their basic principles be attacked, when it is always possible that the reasoning of individuals unconsciously relies upon some similar principle, but is always wrong because of psychological or political manipulations? You have a more material repetition of the noumenon/phenomenon problem. If there is enough noise, you can't be sure there wasn't a signal.

I would fall back, as usual on pyschoanalysis and the philosophical traditions related to it (e.g. Schopenhauer's Will to Live and related consequents) We do seem to be able to take a composite of moralities, factor out local influences, and find things that are real guiding principles behind human actions.

(To my mind, obviously 'killing is bad' is not one of those, or war would get less common, not more common, over time. If we could clearly see a basic moral fact, we would observe some kind of convergence toward it, the same way sciences converge toward precision with regard to actual applications, even as their theories do not become more similar at root. We need to look for universals that are much less direct, and are purposely obscured, rather than focused by culture, politics and psychology. Welcome to the era of the conspiracy theory.)

Those principles do lead people to construct moralities, even if those moralities themselves have an ongoing evolution. If that is the case, you can't get past that 'noise' to address the underlying issue of moral realism directly. But it may all be wishful thinking.

  • I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around how moral facts can be real but still non-universal or non-stable over time. Granted they can be akin to some physical quantities that evolve over time, but that strikes me as far fetched. It's one thing to say that "the universe's background radiation decreases over time", tis another to say "the morality of slavery decreases over time". Jun 27, 2017 at 18:44
  • That is derived moral facts that do not need to be stable -- the ones that we actually use. Your examples of murder and rape are surface-level moralities. Theoretically the real basics are masked by a few layers of noise: culture, politics, and psychology. Basic moral facts have to be actual facts, but we may never meet one, unless someone like Mill or Kant happened to guess it against the odds. The answer really is completely evasive.
    – user9166
    Jun 27, 2017 at 19:09
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    @jobermark : I'm curious though -- if we can't know these "real morals", what good are they? They cannot be acted upon unless we know them, no? Jun 29, 2017 at 5:20

"Moral disagreement" figures in a few arguments, e.g. for moral skepticism.

Moral disagreements that are resolvable do not support moral skepticism, so any argument for moral skepticism from moral disagreement must show that moral disagreements are unresolvable on every issue. That will require a separate argument. (For further discussions, see Bergmann & Kain 2014, Besong 2014, and Vavova 2014.)

It also features in arguments against moral realism

The mere fact of disagreement does not raise a challenge for moral realism. Disagreement is to be found in virtually any area, even where no one doubts that the claims at stake purport to report facts and everyone grants that some claims are true.

But disagreements differ and many believe that the sort of disagreements one finds when it comes to morality are best explained by supposing... the supposition that moral realism is false

In response, we can

offer some other explanation of the disagreements. They point out, for example, that many of the disagreements can be traced to the distorting effects of the emotions, attitudes, and interests that are inevitably bound up with moral issues

or explained by

disagreements about the nonmoral facts

Disagreement against the backdrop of history, which I think is what you're asking about in the question, seems easier to explain than present disagreement.


You don't need ethic if there are no societies. Ethics is in place to enable reciprocal values to make sure that humanity not going to annihilate each other.

Despite criticism from scholars on Milgram experiment, all later variance of Milgram experiments shown that human being under authority pressure is not hesitated to harm a stranger.

Nevertheless, historical events show us that lack of fundamental ethics and banality will do more harms to human society than strengthen it.

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