My interest is in presenting results from the science of social morality in ways that will be culturally useful. (This science is the study of the origins and function of behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral codes.) But these ‘facts’ about socially moral behaviors are the normal kind in science – they have no innate imperative bindingness. Does that rule them out as “moral facts”?

On the other hand, it seems silly to insist these science derived facts about morality and the cultural moralities that can be built on are not “objectively” moral since they are as objective as the rest of science.

Just as an example to clarify my question, one proposed universally moral principle within social morality is “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”. As a product of science, it is objectively universally moral within the category of social morality but it has no innate bindingness. Could any morality built on it be coherently called an objective (mind-independent) morality?

  • A mind-independent morality is the one that is applicable to mindless entities. I see none of such, people don't even think that morality is applicable to primitive animals. Your example is in the form of command, why is it not binding? How is it objective? If it was "To increase your own benefits, increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others" it could be objective if true. And it's non-binding.
    – rus9384
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 7:23
  • Facts about morality and moral facts are two completely different things. Science can provide the former, more or less objectively, but they are just empirical generalizations from what is historically observed. At best, they can suggest what "objective moral facts" might be, when some norms are particularly widespread (like "do not murder"). But science can not even establish that any such facts exist, let alone any one of them in particular. It is said that one can not derive an ought from an is, imperatives from facts.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 8:17
  • I think the mere existence of values imply that one ought to act effectively to achieve those values, and to act effectively implies that one ought to do a bunch of other things... collect evidence, behave in accordance with reality, etc... I think that's a bit of a fringe view, though. Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 17:37
  • You are using the terminology incorrectly. Morality is not a science. By you stating science I will guess you are referring to a field like Psychology, Sociology or Anthropology. Secondly there is no such thing as a scientific fact. A fact is a claim that has a truth cannot change. If I say x is a y and the value fluctuates how is it a FACT? If x is only true less than 50 percent it's not a fact. Science has probability only. Objective fact is what I described as Fact before. Facts are objective & cant change. If abortion is immoral isn't the claim forever or do pro lifers mean each Tuesday?
    – Logikal
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 18:20
  • 1
    Morality falls under Philosophy. Under philosophy morality is under the field of normative ethics. This means popular opinion doesn't count, culture doesn't count, authority and rules dont count. Facts about a specific act will count. Facts are permanent truth values with specific criteria. No going from general to specific to fish for data only to then add new data to a normal question. Tou must give specific data if you have it. no crossing bridges when you get there. This way the answer will be permanent and then we will evaluate if the answer always is true or not always true.
    – Logikal
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 18:27

2 Answers 2


Welcome, Mark

Facts as such have no motivational force and create no imperatives. President Kennedy died in 1963. Broccoli is nutritious. Chicago is closer to NY than NY is to London. None of these facts motivates me to do anything and none creates an imperative. Kennedy died in 1963 - so what ? It's a fact but I carry on typing; it's motivationally inert. Broccoli is nutritious - so what ? I don't like it and can get adequate nutrition in other ways.

Unless a fact, which informs a belief, can link to a desire, want or preference I have, it's motivationally irrelevant. Broccoli is nutritious - fact. Eat broccoli ! - imperative. The fact becomes relevant to my motivation, as does the imperative, only if I want a more nutritious diet and want in the light of this to eat this vegetable. If I don't, the fact about broccoli and the related imperative impinge not at all on my motivation. This is a Humean position of moral externalism; it is not necessarily wrong for that reason. Intentional action is the product of belief plus desire. Moral facts unless combined with desires, wants or preferences are external to motivation and cannot determine or even influence it.

Now, it seems to me that moral facts, if there are any, are motivationally in the same place. Suppose it is a moral fact that stealing is wrong or that one should not deceive one's partner. I can perfectly well recognise such facts, as I can the fact about broccoli, but without any motivation to act on them. I have, let us say, no desire to act morally; correspondingly, moral imperatives addressed to me have no motivational force. You may not think very well of me but where am I at fault ? Where is the irrationality in not being motivated by moral facts or moral considerations in general ?

If moral facts are binding on me regardless of my needs and preferences, this bindingness is just another moral fact to which the arguments above equally apply.

This answer is not an exercise in moral autobiography, only in moral argument.

  • Well, facts in the form "Do X in order to get Y" can cause people to do X. Or the opposite. But they are not imperatives. Yet, they are inner imperative activators.
    – rus9384
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 17:29
  • 2
    @rus9384: Actually, one of the main arguments in moral philosophy is that without inclination, there is no motivation to act according to any kind of imperative or practical rule. Hence, the complete practical syllogism goes like this: "You have to do X in order to get Y" - "I want Y" - "Therefore, I ought to X (since/if I want Y)". The exact formulation is not important, most sentences of the form "have to", "must", etc. can be transformed into imperatives that are semantically equal.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 20:39
  • I am a fan of Hume’s wisdom and make no attempt to explain how to bridge the is/ought divide. What I am asking about essentially is “Could it be useful to expand the meaning of ‘moral fact’ to include facts from science about what is universally moral about ‘socially moral’ behaviors but have no innate bindingness?” This expansion would be useful because knowing objective facts from science (and calling them moral facts!) about what is universally moral within “socially moral” behaviors can be culturally useful for refining cultural moral codes to better meet shared needs and preferences.
    – Mark Sloan
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 22:09

Your moral intuition seems to be close to that of Immanuel Kant:

IF I (morally) ought to do something THEN this should have an impact on my faculty of desire (motivation).

The thing you are missing is close to the criticism of Kant developed by Hegel: Principles alone do nothing. They are purely formal. Any kind of bindingness or motivational form can only emerge in your active application of a principle, i.e. in the active determination/judgement that I actually ought to do this because the principle applies to the particular situation at hand (aside: Hegel's criticism is misguided since that was one major aspect of Kant's practical philosophy).

In other words: Your "fact" is about the universality of certain guiding principles and values, not about the effectiveness of them actually motivating people to act morally.

Hence, there is a difference between

  1. It is a fact that X is a moral principle across cultural differences and
  2. All persons are bound by X in the morally relevant situations

The simple reason is that as long as they do not judge the principle to apply to their current situation as morally relevant, they will not feel compelled by it. That not all people are moral is actually not speaking against objective principles but against people recognizing these principles as morally relevant in situations that actually are morally relevant (and deciding to act accordingly).

In fact, the only compelling aspect of principles is the consciousness of an ought (see Kant's Fact of Reason in his Critique of Practical Reason) - which may follow from or be expressed in principles or "moral laws", but is not identical with them - it needs this recognition per judgement. Kant argued for the objectivity/universality of this recognition of morality, but the universality of morality that is based on non-empirical principles is highly controversial (see early criticisms of Kant by Sidgwick and Schopenhauer). And even if you recognise this ought as morally binding, the very idea of "ought" and responsibility implies that you can choose to do otherwise.

Mind, this all is in our moral language (including the idea of a free will). It should not be misunderstood as an assertion regarding the ontological status of freedom or values. Indeed, determining the "absolute" or "real" ontological status of any object of thought (beyond cultural/interpersonal agreement like e.g. "scientific consensus") may simply be beyond us (as Kant held).

  • There seems to be issue with the answer as written. You make the case that there could be objective facts that make up a moral principle but people might not follow them --just because. Well the issue is that Rational human beings ought to follow the objective principle to get the result. You are bringing into play an irrational human response. Moral rules are not from authority. One ought to follow the moral principle because if the principle is objective the results are guaranteed. If you say there is no guarantee then I would question the principle being Objective --it's not.
    – Logikal
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 15:00
  • @Logical: There are two problems I see with your comment: First, what is the end that is fulfilled by following a moral imperative? Is it social peace, self-perfection, a better world? None of this necessarily is of interest for everybody, even less superseding all other inclinations. Secondly, not all imperatives are practical rules, nor is the standard of objectivity you imply feasible. The moral imperative may very well be objective in the sense that people more or less universally accepted it as a moral principle, which does say nothing about a) the end b) the recognition in the situation.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 16:25
  • The issue is not agreement. Morality does not depend on votes, popularity or authority figures.You must be referring to descriptive ethics while I refer to morality in philosophy as normative ethics. In philosophy having rationality is highly important. You are talking about everyone not liking a moral rule. The rule or principle should guarantee the end result if the principle is objective from the start. Objective means if one deems late term abortion as immoral there is no going back to say it is permissible later on for instance. You are stuck with the value or be called inconsistent.
    – Logikal
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 16:35
  • Correction: the example “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others are universally moral” is not a direct product of my moral intuitions. It comes from evolutionary game theory and is as objective as the mathematics that game theory is based on. Objective facts from science about what is universally moral within “socially moral” behaviors can be culturally useful for refining cultural moral codes to better meet shared needs and preferences even if those objective facts have, as a part of science, no innate imperative bindingness.
    – Mark Sloan
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 22:04

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