I'm reading Sabina Lovibond's book "Ethical Formation". She writes that moral judgments seem to possess two features: Practicality and Objectivity. Some philosophers think that these two features are incompatible.

I don't understand why some philosophers think that these two features are incompatible. Can someone explain me why these two features may be incompatible?

Here are some fragments written by Lovibond:

She writes:

But it is unclear how moral judgement can possess both [practicality and objectivity], because the very idea of objectivity can seem to conflict with that of an internal relation between judgement and action.

I don't understand why the idea of objectivity seems to conflict with that of an internal relation between judgement and action.


If Hume was right to protest against the attempted derivation of “ought” from “is,” then we had better respect the thought on which his protest was based — namely, that awareness of how things stand in a reality independent of the thinking subject is compatible, indifferently, with any motivational attitude towards the reality apprehended (including a simple lack of interest).

I believe that Lovibond is here trying to explain why objectivity seems to conflict with the internal relation between judgement and action. However, I still don't see the conflict. Can someone 'translate' for me, what Lovibond is saying?

  • Because practicality implies that the choice is adjusted to subject's pragmatic ends, and hence not objective. Hume raises another objection, even if objective values were somehow factual (whether this even makes sense is dubious) why should awareness of this fact motivate action according to them? Facts just stand there, they do not turn into motives to act on their own.
    – Conifold
    Feb 15, 2018 at 21:09
  • @Conifold Is it safe to say, that our desires (according to Hume) are independent from our beliefs? Or is that a different matter? Feb 15, 2018 at 23:30
  • They may well be empirically dependent, but the question here is not what we desire, but what we ought to do. Except in hedonism ethical motivation is distinct from self-gratification.
    – Conifold
    Feb 16, 2018 at 0:30

2 Answers 2


The central tension between practicality and objectivity is this.


A moral judgement involves some commitment to action. I can't sincerely say, 'Animal experimentation is wrong', without the motivation to act in certain ways : to stop animal experimentation if I can, to intervene or protest against animal experimentation if I have the opportunity, to refrain from such experimentation myself, to feel guilt or shame if I could have prevented animal experimentation but did not do so. This is common ground between philosophers as diverse as Hume and Hare.


You don't have to accept this kind of 'internalism' but if you do, and it rings true to me, then there is a problem if moral judgements are true or factual - objective in that sense. The problem is that facts or truths as such do not motivate - more strictly, knowledge or belief about facts or truths does not motivate. If you tell me that the price of broccoli has risen 50% in the last week or that FD Roosevelt died in 1945, these mere (non-moral) facts or truths as such are motivationally irrelevant to me. I accept them, I don't doubt them, but they have no motivational impact. They don't interlock with any desires or emotions that I have.


Likewise, so one view goes, the fact or truth that one ought not to lie, all else equal, is no more relevant to action than are the facts or truths about broccoli or the death of FDR. I can believe or even know that it is morally wrong to lie, all else equal, but have no desire to act morally.

To put it bluntly if a non-moral fact or truth does not per se motivate, and it appears not to, why should a moral fact or truth do so ?

Objectivity one hand and, on the other, practicality, are not as such incompatible, which is why I have talked of 'tension', the permanent possibility of a clash, but there is an actual incompatibility if someone accepts the facticity or truth of moral judgements and repudiates all motivation to act morally. It is just as possible to regard morality as irrelevant to one's practical agency as it is to regard the price of broccoli in the same way. This is a logically possible, and practically not infrequent, state of mind.

[The point of this answer is to explain how morality can be understood in a way that produces a potential tension and even incompatibility between practicality and objectivity. This is a conceptual exercise, not a personal statement about the moral life.]


Here is what a friend wrote to me:

Lovibond starts her book “Ethical Formation” with the discussion of the problem that moral judgments possess two features which seem to be incompatible with one another. These features are objectivity and practicality. Why do they seem to be incompatible? If moral judgments are objective, then there must be some moral facts which render moral judgments true or false. Next, according to the Humean theory of motivation, an agent is motivated to do something if and only if the agent has a desire and a belief that doing that something would satisfy that desire. If moral judgments are practical, then moral judgments have to be motivating. But how can moral judgments be both, practical and objective? In order for there to be moral judgments that are practical and objective, there had to be facts that motivate us. For if there are no facts, moral judgments would not be objective and if facts don’t motivate us, moral judgments would not be practical. The question then arises: Are there motivating facts? John Leslie Mackie famously argued that the very idea of motivating facts is a queer and strange one and that there are no such things as (unconditionally) motivating facts. Therefore, objectivity and practicality are incompatible.

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