I'm studying ethics and I have Shafer-Landau's fundamentals of ethics. I'm familiar with moral realism and moral skepticism. Moral skepticism is divided into ethical relativism and moral nihilism. Ethical relativism is further divided into cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism. I understand all of them; however, since I'm writing a paper I want to make sure I'm not incurring in any mistakes. The definition of objectivity I'm dealing with is that a claim is objective to the extent that its true value can be determined independently of what a person might think of the claim.

I'm describing the view of moral nihilism and I'm trying to explain why it is that a moral nihilist would deny the existence of objective moral standards. This is my explanation:

Moral nihilists argue that moral standards cannot be objective to the extent that moral truths do not exist; the existence of moral truths would imply these are objective, and thus to deny the existence of objective moral standards a moral nihilist must deny the existence of moral truths.

Would it be accurate to say that the existence of moral truths implies objectivity? Or are there any instances in which a moral turth can be subjective?

Please let me know if I'm wrong or if theres anything I'm missing, and thanks in advance.

  • 1
    What research have you done already? Is there some text you're writing about or in response to? What is the definition of "objectivity" you're working with? Can moral relativists make true claims about morality, albeit only true relative to something or another?
    – Dennis
    Sep 29, 2017 at 2:35
  • 1
    Also, are you familiar with the distinction between Moral Realism and Moral Anti-Realism?
    – Dennis
    Sep 29, 2017 at 2:42

2 Answers 2


I think you're doing something interesting here, but you need to be more careful to distinguish between moral epistemology and moral metaphysics. And the word "objective" is not always your friend in making this distinction.

Let's go through it piece by piece:

Moral nihilists argue that moral standards cannot be objective to the extent that moral truths do not exist;

First off, you are right that, definitionally, moral nihilists do not believe there are moral truths. But it does not follow that on such a view "moral standards cannot be objective."

There's at least two reasons why. First, we need to consider the work done by the term "moral standard". If this merely means "moral truth," then we don't need it in the claim. If it means something more, then it would seem it means something like the standards that a society claims are or are built on moral truths. A moral nihilist needn't have a commitment as to what "moral standards" qua social entities are and how they work except that they clearly have no basis in truth.

Second, we need to think carefully about the use of the word "objective" to see what sort of work it's doing for us and whether it's the best word for that. Or maybe to put it another way, are there sense of objective that nihilist can accept vis-a-vis these standards? My answer is yes -- depending on what we mean by "objective." One meaning of "objective" stands in contrast to the idea that "subjective" means non-transferable from the subject. Or "objective" = out there in the shared world. But there's no reason a nihilist cannot accept that "moral standards" are out there in the shared world -- or even that they are held by everyone in the world. (There's also several other senses of "objective" that can be added). Consequently what I'd suggest is that you mean "universal" or "universally valid" giving something like this:

Moral nihilists insofar as they deny moral truths exist also deny that universal moral standards exist.

Moving to the second half:

the existence of moral truths would imply these are objective, and thus to deny the existence of objective moral standards a moral skeptic must deny the existence of moral truths.

I think here again we need to be careful about "objective." One meaning of objective is that everyone could know them or they would not vary by the person. As Dennis' answer mentions moral subjectivists believe moral truths exist but are subject dependent, so it seems false to suppose that the existence of moral truths implies that they are objective.

But perhaps you could argue that the moral nihilist and the moral realist are kin in sharing an assumption that moral truths would be universal and accessible if they existed the same way that libertarians (about free will) and hard determinists are kin in sharing an assumption about the nature of free will but taking the pro and con sides.

I still think this is not ideal, however, for a second reason. Here, I think we need to distinguish metaphysics and epistemology. Whether a moral truth exists is a metaphysical question; whether anyone knows it is an epistemological question. The word "objective" seems to relate more to the epistemological axis then the question of existence.

Most (all?) moral realists also believe these truths can be known. But the distinction between moral skeptics and moral nihilists is that the former attack our ability to know and the latter the existence of moral truths themselves.

To push further, the moral nihilist does not need to deny the moral standard is objective -- instead, the moral nihilist is denying that "the moral standard" is moral, because morality does not (he or she contends) exist. The nihilist can accept something people call a "moral standard" exists and that it is "objective" in at least some sense, but they would reject that it has any connection to moral bedrock -- because qua moral nihilist they don't think such bedrock exists.

In my view, you'd be better off avoiding the word "objective" and also focusing carefully on distinguishing the metaphysics and epistemology.

  • 2
    +1 Objectivity in Ethics is confusing at best, so I'm inclined to agree that "objective" should be avoided. Assuming this is a paper for an (undergrad) class, though, I'd also avoid introducing new terminology beyond what has been discussed in class without citing something like the SEP and strictly adhering to the definition given there. It's hard to define these terms correctly and a good way to lose points is to introduce ill-defined (or undefined) terminology. (This doesn't count against your suggestion at all, though, I'd just advise OP source the definition of "universal".)
    – Dennis
    Sep 29, 2017 at 15:01

Since this seems to be a class assignment I'll be a bit more restrained. You know of relativism and subjectivism. Can those theories accept moral truths, so long as they aren't objective?

Consider a non-moral case. I'm good at math. Some people say that math is hard. I don't think it is all that hard. Does the person who says "math is hard" say something true if they really struggle with math? How about my denial, is that true? It seems like both are, and that there's no contradiction. Why? These aren't objective truths. Are they subjective or relative?

By contrast if I say that diamonds are hard and you say they're soft then I've said something objectively true and you've said something objectively false.

So, you need something beyond simply truth to get you to objectivity. What is it about relativism/subjectivism that prevents such truths from being objective? (Strictly speaking, I think the definition of objectivism you give is compatible with relativistic truths being objective. That's a possible definition but not super common, so make sure you have the definition exactly right.)

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