There are many who assert that morality or moral principles are "objective," by which they mean that to say that, (1) "theft is wrong," is just as true as propositions like, (2) "the Eiffel Tower is in Paris," or (3) "all bachelors are men."

What troubles me about this claim is that we have a perfectly good understanding of what makes (2) & (3) true, but it's impossible to see how (1) could be true in the same ways. Clearly (1) isn't an empirical claim about the world, nor can its truth be verified by merely reflecting on the meaning of the words used to express it. In what sense then can an ethical proposition be objectively true?

  • 2
    is (3) even true ???
    – virmaior
    Mar 19, 2018 at 21:14
  • 1
    @virmaior I think (3) is an example of a statement whose truth value can be evaluated, and the truth value happens to be "false". Just like (2) is true. The real question is about (1).
    – user935
    Mar 19, 2018 at 21:33
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    I'll cheat and say (1) is an overly general statement because it's doubly unquantified. Valid alternatives (not the only ones): "all people think that all theft is wrong", "there exists at least one person who thinks at least some form of theft is not wrong". Of course, you could argue that, by definition, theft is wrong, and if you take something from someone morally without permission, it's not actually theft (it's seizure or forfeiture or something)
    – user935
    Mar 19, 2018 at 21:35
  • @barrycarter my big worry here is whether the OP is genuinely asking under what conditions people would think such claims have truth values or asking a pseudo-question.
    – virmaior
    Mar 19, 2018 at 21:38
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this seems to be a pseudo-question that begins with (1) there are no objective facts about morality and then asks (2) why does anyone make statements about morality believing they are true or false? (the answer of course is that people who do this deny (1)).
    – virmaior
    Mar 20, 2018 at 21:34

4 Answers 4


The way the question is worded makes me hesitate to believe the OP is interested in the answer, but I'll give it a go. I'll answer this by specifying the parameters necessary to make assertions like (1).

First, I'd assume that people who believe we can state moral propositions are going to be moral realists. This means they believe that morality (or at least some part of it ) is real, meaning non-arbitrary.

In other words, they are going to be committed to the idea that moral rules are not merely rules produced by society or by optimizing for pleasure. (Though the latter may have a propositional commitment to the claim that "pleasure is the standard of right and wrong" which might then commit them to other propositions).

Second, they would need to believe moral realities can be captured and assessed propositionally. Not all moral realists are committed to the idea that moral realities are best captured propositionally.

Stated at their core, to use moral propositions, you must:

  1. be a moral realist (or meta-realist).
  2. have a moral epistemology where the goodness or badness of claims can be evaluated as true or false.

This is a big topic for philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries. A.J. Ayer for instance asserted that moral propositions are meaningless. Other names that are important for debate are Moore, W.D. Ross, and Elizabeth Anscombe especially "Modern Moral Philosophy."

Anscombe's work is extremely on point to your question and looks at it from the angle of language usage, arguing that "to be a bilker" is precisely to engage dishonestly with a shopkeeper and that by definition bilking is not morally neutral but wrong.

  • As I indicated in my opening post, to say that X is true is just to say that, "it is a fact that X". Now pretty obviously neither the coherence nor correspondence theories of truth applies to moral claims. Moral claims are not facts as we understand them, so to assert that, "theft is wrong" or "charity is good," are objectively true seems unintelligible. It seems to be making reference to a theory of truth which doesn't exist.
    – Aurelius
    Mar 20, 2018 at 15:07
  • Now pretty obviously neither the coherence nor correspondence theories of truth applies to moral claims. -- not at all obvious. In fact, the entire point is that those who make such claims disagree with you about the very point.
    – virmaior
    Mar 20, 2018 at 18:09
  • Moral claims are not *facts* as we understand them. At least some of the people who are moral realists disagree with you on this exact point.
    – virmaior
    Mar 20, 2018 at 18:09
  • seems unintelligible (to you) does not mean unintelligible to everyone.
    – virmaior
    Mar 20, 2018 at 18:10

Just look at a judicial code. It sets out what is wrong as being illegal. It is defined, objectively. Problem solved?

  • Even if laws were intended as moral propositions (I do not think they are) there is a difference between a moral proposition being objectively written and a moral proposition being objectively true. This would be like me writing "a light year is 20 miles long" on a piece of paper. Objectively written but not objectively true. Mar 20, 2018 at 19:36

I understand that your asking: how can we prove the truth of (1), and since we cannot prove the truth of this proposition then it obviously cannot be true.

I think the answer to your question may be the theory of intuitionism. According to intuitionism moral propositions are self-evident and unnecessary of proof, we simply know that certain acts are morally wrong and attempts to prove them or justify them will not be fruitful. That is not to say that arguments of some sort cannot convince us of its truth, only that they need no proof. In fact this has been Prichard's (20th century intuitionist) main criticism on moral philosophy which according to him rests on a mistake. The mistake is that the philosophers are searching proofs for self-evident propositions. He states that there is no proposition which will justify propositions like "harming others is wrong" in some way stronger than it justifies itself. And i think that he is absolutely right in saying that.

Consider for example the moral proposition "pleasure is good". It is self-evident and we all know that it is true. But can we prove it? Obviously self-evident propositions do not need to be proven, we apprehend its truth and no proof need to be provided. Intuitionism asserts that we all know that "theft is wrong", the fact that some would disagree with this does not prove that we do not posses intuitive moral knowledge just like not everyone would agree with the obvious mathematical proposition: 1/4 + 1/2 = 3/4. The fact that there is mathematical disagreement does not lead us to say that there are no objectively true mathematical propositions, and neither should we conclude that there are no objectively true moral propositions based on "moral disagreement". There are other factors that may explain why moral disagreement arise, like human error, miscalculations, confusion, hasty judgement, false and incomplete information.

And lastly the argument is self refuting, as Huemer puts it, "if the argument from disagreement is sound, then it refutes itself, since many people do not agree with the argument from disagreement" (2005: 146).

The material has been taken from intuitionism, David Kaspar, bloomsbury ethics, 2012.

  • You say that the proposition, "pleasure is good," is a self evident truth. I'm inclined to think otherwise for the reason I've already given. Even if it were universally agreed upon, that wouldn't mean that it's objectively true. At most, it would mean that pleasure is a sensation that everyone happens to find desirable. And even that is contingent on the existence of beings capable of experiencing pleasure.
    – Aurelius
    Mar 20, 2018 at 14:51
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    It is self evident to me and I think most people would agree that it is. That certain moral propositions are self evident is a prerequisite for any fruitful debate on the subject. You can read more about this in the book i referenced, and also in the works of G E Moore. It seems like you have already made up your mind that morality is not like any other study and it is preventing you from seeing things as they are, but i think that nihilism rests on false premises. In any case i have answered your question of how they 'can' be objectively true.
    – Bach
    Mar 20, 2018 at 15:23
  • But what is "self evident"? That pleasure is good or that pleasure is objectively good? This is an important distinction that you are totally avoiding. OP asked for an affirmative defense for the proposition that moral propositions can be objective and your response is that no defense is needed for justified belief in moral propositions (regardless, it seems, if they objective or subjective). Mar 20, 2018 at 19:42

Can an ethical proposition be objectively true, empirically? I am persuaded no. An ethical proposition is a statement of meaning, and a meaning without objective reference. Our meanings arise mentally. There are those Intuitionists who say there is an inner sense of right and wrong. But there are indications that this stand is very fragile. Human beings frequently show themselves very manipulable by group thinking and pressures, most obvious in such things as civilized Germany's descent into barbarism under totalitarian pressure and propaganda. Important experiments like the Stanford experiment, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment have shown further evidence of this human trait. Very quickly, under group pressure and persuasion, so-called deep sourced ethical meanings are dislodged. There are some brave and heroic (cf: Dietrich Boenhoffer) that stand with great decision and character against and hold out even to death But it is not the rule.

The ideas of Emotivism would seem to fit here also: "Motivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes. Hence, it is colloquially known as the hurrah/boo theory." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism

Stoic philosophy is built on the belief we can by choice and practice choose our ethical actions, and finally I am persuaded that this is what happens. There is no "moral reference stream" out there or in us but only our rational decisive faculty. An ethical position is taken in much the same way as we choose this car or that to drive around in. Of course, consequentially, the type and state of the car will determine our ride and those that ride with us. To stop everyone riding around in lemons, and ploughing into everyone else, we need laws which are a communal social choice by way of government. Consequentialism fits nicely with this understanding of ethical decision making.

"Before the sacred, people lost all sense of power and all confidence; they occupy a powerless and humble attitude toward it. And yet no thing is sacred of itself, but by declaring it sacred, by my declaration, my judgment, my bending the knee; in short, by my - conscience." - Max Stirner

For me the 'conscience' of Mr Stirner is an inculcated social conditioning or alternatively our own, owned and developed one.


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