Are moral obligations real?

For examples of moral obligations, I raise politics: to hold elections that allow voters to determine a change in government authority seems to be a moral obligation for democracies. Likewise, large powerful countries, having committed not to do so at a place like the UN, seem to possess a moral obligation not to invade their weaker neighbors in order to take their stuff, ports, and natural resources.

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    In which sense do you mean "real"? Your text states that moral obligations exist. This implies the answer that they are real: To be real = to exist. - Possibly your question is a different one.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 5:46
  • Hmmm, I didn't mean to shortcut the answer... let me rephrase that. Now it says, "seems to" instead of "does". Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 6:15
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    A point of clarification is in order about the question: are you asking whether individuals have moral obligations or whether states do? These are distinct. Some groups think only the one and not the other.
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 8:55
  • Are moral obligations real between states? Won't the UN help us? It would probably be safer to answer "no" to both questions.
    – Gordon
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 13:41
  • moral obligations are relative and vary from culture to culture, from one time to another, from location to location. if they were real, they would not vary. Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 14:39

3 Answers 3


The question is: Are moral obligations real? Perhaps what can be answered is: What are rational ways to justify belief or disbelief in the reality of moral obligations?

G. E. M. Anscombe, in her paper "Modern Moral Philosophy", provided three general perspectives from which one might rationally justify belief or disbelief in moral obligations.

First, Anscombe claimed that Aristotle's ethics did not have the idea of an obligation not to be unjust. Some may be blameworthy, but they are under no obligation not to make a mistake: (page 1 of the linked file)

Now has Aristotle got this idea of moral blame, as opposed to any other? If he has, why isn't it more central? There are some mistakes, he says, which are causes, not of involuntariness in actions but of scoundrelism, and for which a man is blamed. Does this mean that there is a moral obligation not to make certain intellectual mistakes? Why doesn't he discuss obligation in general, and this obligation in particular?

Regardless whether one accepts Anscombe's view of Aristotle, she raises the possibility with Aristotle of the existence of a rational ethics without moral obligation.

Second, Anscombe references a "law conception of ethics" which requires a divine law and legislator: (page 5)

Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians.

Given a law and a legislator, one can rationally justify the reality of moral obligations to obey that law.

Third, she mentions that with the Reformation the idea arose that, although there is a divine law, it is not something humans have the ability to obey although they may be obligated to do so. This over the centuries created the positions of modern moral philosophy where only the idea of moral obligation remained, but neither the divine law nor the legislator. She describes this situation as like the following: (page 5)

It is as if the notion of "criminal" were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.

If she was right, this may be the situation we are be in today. Rather than a divine law, moral obligation comes from such psychological sources as conscience for Butler, legislating for oneself for Kant, pleasure for Bentham and Mill or consequences for Sidgwick. (pages 2-7)

From these three perspectives come three rational ways to justify belief or disbelief in moral obligations.

  1. From an Aristotelian perspective, moral obligations are not necessary for ethics.
  2. From a law conception of ethics, moral obligations are as real as the divine law and legislator.
  3. From a modern perspective, moral obligations are real, but they have a psychological rather than a divine ground.


Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19.


Moral obligations are rules established in a given society. They are established either explicitly (e.g., 10 commandments) or implicitly by convention.

I do not consider moral obligations laws like laws of nature, which hold without exception. Nor do I consider moral rules alike to juridical laws with an imposed sanction when broken.

From a philosophical view point, moral rules are the subject of ethics. Here Hume's principle holds: One cannot derive an "ought" from an "is".

However, the state of moral laws is much-debated. For more information see


  • I feel that this use for "morality" within a given society limits its application too much, making it impossible to say (as is necessary from time to time) that "the actions of such-and-such a nation in doing such-and-such a bad thing to their neighbors was wrong." Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:10
  • Possibly the moral assessment of certain international actions has changed. In19th century colonialism was considered a legitime political goal by many European governments and people. Today the assessment of colonialism in these countries has changed to the opposite moral assessment.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:28
  • But by the "in a given society" definition for morality, such an assessment is either apart from morality or senseless, considering that Europe is indeed a discontinuous place, especially at its borders. But I don't see that either is correct--- such assessments have got to be made from time to time, or at least, when they are made, moral assessments of other societies (related to their handling of neighbors) are no less convincing than the ones made within a given society. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:32
  • I think you as well as others are confusing the term ethics with morality. In philosophy the term normative ethics is what people consider morality. That is normative claims are the you better not so act x. Society has nothing to do with normative ethics. The society is run by authority and that authority is usually unquestionable, blindly followed, & customized to the scenario. Morals on the other hand is supposed to be universal. When anti abortion protests occur they don't express just their feelings. They express abortion is murder EVERYWHERE. This is the point of making moral claims.
    – Logikal
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 18:26

This falls under the overall umbrella of "To what degree are social constructs real?" which would get exactly the same answer from me as here

Social constructs are real because they have effects. Moral authority is a "language game" just like social status.

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