I am currently reading the very fascinating paper Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law by Arthur Allen Leff. It seems that the thrust of his paper is that there is no "naturalistic" way of grounding or founding morality (although he doesn't phrase it this way; rather, he says that the "plan for this article is...to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will.") I thought I understand what it means to ground or found morality (e.g., I thought i understood what it means for God to be the ground or foundation of morality), but now I am not so sure. What does it mean?

I suspect it has something to do with truthmaking (but I am wary of truthmaking after having read Trenton Merricks' book Truth and Ontology). But when people say that God is the ground or foundation of morality, they appear to be saying more than just that God (somehow) makes moral propositions objectively true.

  • +1 I also understand it like in your last paragraph about truth making, but I'm curious what others who are more knowledgeable will have to say. Also, what more do you think people are saying over and above God makes moral propositions objectively true? Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 13:47
  • @Adam I'm not sure. Something about saying "God (somehow) makes moral propositions objectively true" seems reductionistic (if that makes sense) Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 14:18
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    Just for clarification: Does Leff differentiate between objective and particularistic morality? Since this problem seems to apply only to the justification of there being an objective, necessary, and/or universal (human) morality and is commonly associated with Hume.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 15:07
  • I would recommend a study of the Perennial philosophy, which clearly Leff has not undertaken, and in particular a book by Shaykh Fadhlalla Harei titled 'The Elements of Sufism' in the series by Element Books. You can be be very sure that Leff has not the slightest idea whether his view is correct and is speculating. The foundation for morality would have to be the true nature of Reality and our knowledge of it, not idle speculation about God or what is and is not natural. .
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 15:49
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    @Conifold Well, perhaps. I have heard people say that this is a false dilemma, that there is a third alternative---namely, that God is the good. The commands of God are not arbitrary, but necessary reflections of his nature; so he could not command what is contrary to his nature. Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 20:35

7 Answers 7


Is there a "naturalistic" way of grounding or founding morality?

Yes, in a socially important sense modern science does “ground or found” morality. Existing science is consistent with all socially moral behaviors (no matter how diverse, contradictory, or bizarre) being elements of cooperation strategies. That is, the function of morality is to solve cooperation dilemmas and, by doing so, enable us to enjoy the incredible material and psychological benefits of living in cooperative societies. “Morality” has enabled us to become “supercooperators” and the incredibly successful social species we are.

In addition, there is a category of these cooperation strategies that are necessary components of all cooperation strategies and are therefore necessarily universally moral. These universally moral strategies are defined by: “Behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”.

Simply understanding morality as sets of cooperation strategies and what subset of cooperation strategies is necessarily universally moral is socially useful. This knowledge provides a lot of practical guidance for resolving disputes about cultural moralities to better meet shared needs and preferences.

However, modern science does not ground or found morality in the sense of providing any ultimate source for morality’s imperative bindingness, what we always ‘ought’ to do regardless of our needs and preferences. Any such bindingness is, if it exists at all, a different category of thing from what morality ‘is’ as a matter of science.

Philosophers who focus on morality’s imperative bindingness as its defining characteristic will be tempted to say “there is no naturalistic grounding of morality (meaning grounding of its imperative bindingness)”. However, by doing so they risk throwing out the socially useful baby – what science tells us morality ‘is’ – when they throw out the bath water of morality’s lack of imperative bindingness.


The Leff article can be downloaded here. It is an interesting read.

Looking at it critically, though, I think it's a good idea to contextualize Leff's position. Leff's problematic isn't really a matter of morality; it is, instead, a matter of moral authority. He keeps returning to the "who sez?" question (his spelling), and that question constantly dominates and undercuts his discussion of moral standing. In his view a moral claim is an utterance by someone, and the grounding of that moral claim — the ability to take that claim as inarguably true — is inextricably tied to the nature of that someone who utters it.

This suggests the advantage of any religious system of morality. By asserting that a God is the someone who utters a moral claim, that moral claim is immediately grounded, because a God's statements are neither prescriptive nor descriptive (not ought or is). A God's statements are constitutive (what Leff calls 'performative'): by uttering a statement a God creates the thing he utters as a fact of the world.

However, focusing on utterances in this way renders moral judgements essentially arbitrary. Even a God's moral utterances are essentially arbitrary, because they are merely what the God happened to say. We presume all sorts of things about Gods that ameliorate that — Gods are perfect, wise, all-knowing, etc — and so a God's utterances are presumed to be grounded even though they are essentially arbitrary. But once we step away from the perspective that morality comes from divine utterances, we are thrown into the position of deciding whose arbitrary utterances should be taken as morally grounded: a decision, moreover, that we can only make through arbitrary utterances of our own. Blind people debating which blind person's voice we should follow down the road (or maybe over a cliff...).

But the critical question, as I see it, is whether it is correct to think of morality solely in terms of utterances. It strikes me that morality is a posture we take towards the world, not a thing we say about the world. It is a readiness to act in a certain manner that is only incompletely and irregularly expressible in words. For instance, if a parent sees a child aggressively grab a toy from another child, they will often try to correct the behavior with a comment like "play nice" or "sharing is caring". Comments like this are moral utterances, clearly, but they don't fully capture the intended moral posture, which is some complex and ill-defined state of cooperative, nonaggressive, playful interaction. The child is left to interpret and discover the correct posture on his/her own, which may not be successfully understood for years (if ever). But the fact that this moral posture was not effectively uttered or effectively understood does not necessarily imply that it is arbitrary or ungrounded.

I'm not going to try to argue this point out, not in such limited space as this. I'm merely suggesting that Leff's focus on moral utterances and the authority of the utterer misses this particular line of thought. He brushes off this concept of moral posture as 'moral intuitionism,' and that seems to me a weakness in his work.


What does it mean [to be a ground or foundation of morality]?


foundationalist’s thesis in short is that all knowledge or justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferential knowledge or justified belief.

Whereas a ground, whether or not it is a foundation, is often meant more generally: just a justification of a belief (which allows us to infer knowledge of its truth if we have justified its truth rather than e.g. its utility).

It's an epistemological not ontological question!

It's impossible simply to reliably guess if the author is being skeptical about all moral grounds, or just foundations (you'd have to read the article). The latter does not imply the former, because we have other, alternative, conceptions of both truth and knowledge, such as those in the coherence theory of justification, which leads to the coherence theory of truth.

But anyway, obviously they are moral skeptics if when they say that

there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will

they mean there's no moral grounds, just grounds for value. I'm just trying to explain the terminology.

However, I would add though that, at guess, they mean there's no foundation of moral value: that is to say they're moral skeptics if they mean there's no foundation.

That seems the case because, if the article's author is saying what we will is intrinsically valuable so needn't be derived from anything else but have extrinsic values derived from them (and I take it they are see comment), so they are "foundations".

  • i'm assuming that willing X amounts to the same thing as the will when we will X. so, if the will is the only ground of any value, what i will is known non-inferentially and grounds other values, just like the will
    – user38026
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 10:38

You should read Macauley’s essay criticising Benthams utilitarianism where he attempts to ground ethics on a pleasure/pain principle in a deductive manner.

Macaulay pointed out that this simply meant that Benthams ethics was an expression of personal whim and fancy and hence could not be the basis of any kind of ethics.


What it means for God to be the ground or foundation of morality:

If we may assume (as I do) that God is the Universe, it is too complex a problem to analyze and solve without some process of simplification.

I would simplify it by focusing on one analogous aspect of God, one feature that is easily accessible to us inhabitants of Earth: the Sea.

The oceans cover approximately 70% of our planet's surface, and the total volume of salt water has been estimated to be about 1.332 billion cubic kilometers. It's way bigger and more physically powerful than the entire human species.

It is filled with both beauties and dangers. Without it we couldn't survive at all. Yet we typically don't think about it much, unless we see can see and experience it firsthand. Then its power and beauty easily captivates our attention.

Many of us are so attracted by it that we often decide to jump in and immerse ourselves in it, to surf its waves. We sense that there is a mysterious healing energy in the water, because we feel so indescribably good afterwards. We look forward to the next adventure. We plan to visit the beach often. We can't help but love the ocean because it seems to love us in some strange manner. We can even travel around the world on it in sailboats, it's so nice.

Usually all goes perfectly splendid, and we return home satisfied with our experience.

But there have been a few close calls, like the time we went to the beach for a swim and found hardly anyone else was there that day. There was a rumor, something about a riptide. But we weren't listening, because it took two hours just to get ready and travel to the beach, and we decided we weren't going to waste the trip. What would it hurt to take a little dip as long as we're here anyway?

But we were mistaken. I was enjoying myself so much and feeling so brave I went out a little too far. Oops, immediately I realized I shouldn't have done that; but it was already too late by that time. The rip current caught me and pulled me under and swept me further out to sea than I had intended to go. It savagely pounded my body into the sandy muck below, then viciously swooped me sideways and backwards into deep water. I felt like a powerless little rag doll. My trusted friend, the ocean, was toying with me. How shockingly unfair!

I thought it was over for me. Why had I been so foolish, so rebellious? Why didn't I pay attention, and listen to the warnings? I was too young to die now! The aggressive fighter in me struggled with the violent forces of the current. I fought relentlessly as with highway robbers, for my very life. I was trying to make a bee-line for the shore, but it was futile. The tide overpowered me and dragged me along like a clump of seaweed.

There was no way for me to conquer the ocean. It had me. The same entity that always gave so much was now holding me accountable. I shouldn't have gone for a swim that day. I should have been content enough with just getting my feet wet.

That was my first mistake. The second was trying to resist the ocean's stupendous power. I thought the ocean loved me! Why does it hate me now? This is so confusing! "Please forgive me and let me live to see another good day at the beach!!"

There is a "naturalistic" way of grounding or founding morality.

Before losing all hope, before giving up and accepting my tragic fate, I decided to try again. Fighting and struggling didn't help at all, I only ended up further out to sea. At that rate, I'd soon be lost forever and they might not even find my body after the sharks got through with it. Then I suddenly realized it was because I was swimming against the current. I had wasted so much energy trying to achieve the impossible. I was no match for the sea.

It has something to do with truth.

This time, I would lay aside my fear of the ocean. Instead of fighting it, I would try to work with it, to understand it. The ocean is wild but it doesn't hate me. I have always loved the ocean and felt its love for me. It has done so much for me and I am grateful, even if I can't have my way this time.

I made a big mistake but I'm not dead yet. Battered and weak, yes. But there is still some hope. If I conserve my energy and relax a little, maybe I can wait for the right moments to steer a little closer to the shore. Making a beeline is out of the question, I see that now. I will have to patiently roll with the flow until it is done with me. It will sweep me sideways for miles, until I'm no longer anywhere near where I started, where I feel I'm 'supposed' to be. But that is no longer important. I'll cross that bridge when I get there. I will find my way back home. My priority now is just to survive my embarrassing lack of good judgment.

God (somehow) makes moral propositions objectively true.

Much later, my feet finally made triumphant contact with the shifting sand. By the time I could finally extricate myself from the foamy, swishing wavelets, I was faint with exhaustion and my loved ones were still racing around frantically searching for me. They were crying, too; and I felt guilty for putting them through all this, despite all that I'd gone through myself.

They gathered me into their arms and took me home to a warm bed (I didn't have much of an appetite at that point). I was so tired, but they made me promise before they would allow me to take a nap. They said, "Don't ever do that again. We almost lost you."

And I answered, "Don't worry, I learned my lesson: Respect the power of the ocean. Don't disobey its laws. When there is a riptide, don't go for a swim; just be content to get my feet wet, until the weather changes for the better."

"Is that all?"

"No, there's more. My understanding of and cooperation with the ocean is what saved my life. Had I continued fighting, I would have lost that battle. Such a strange paradox, so counter-intuitive."

"You might want to stay out of the water from now on, just to be safe. We don't need any more close calls."

"No, I can't do that. I love the sea too much to stay away. After I've recovered from this trauma, I will look forward to our next visit. But I will be much wiser from now on."

"You're so stubborn! You nearly died! And next time it could be a shark or something else!"

"I know, but it's a calculated and reasoned risk that I'm willing to take. I learned my lesson: I know I have to respect the sea. Today I became personally acquainted with it.

"Stop it, the ocean is not a person."

"Of course it's not a person. Yet it's important that we learn how to properly relate to it."

The Universe is not a human being; but it is God, and we must learn how to properly relate to it.


"...there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will."

Foreverism implies AI will become less not-good than humans are, so human will is not necessary for morality.

The argument is that, because behaviors that don't exist are not-good, any behavioral agent can remove the not-good fact about themselves and their behaviors by increasing the number, duration, and location of their behaviors. So being less not-good is not limited to only humans.

But humans are the least not-good of all so-far-known behavioral agents, since our behaviors are so durative and widespread and numerous. For ex, we are the first animal species on Earth to be able to overcome the 600 million years-from-now expiration date (the Sun's heating-up phase will kill all life on Earth around then). This also means that a behavioral agent that surpasses us in the number/variety/longevity/reach of behaviors will also surpass us in being the least not-good.

Such a behavioral agent can be a general AI that can interact with the world. Terminator was just about an AI that sought to take the moral crown from us.


I'm puzzled that many people who discuss philosophy continue to focus on the objective truth of scientific and moral precepts, when most professional philosophers whom I've met are informed about postmodern presumptions and work on contemporary issues.

Objective knowledge (scientific or moral) is linguistic knowledge, and better ideas are better because they're based on more reliable evidence and clearer reasoning.

I strongly believe that God and Truth are irrelevant to coherency and morality.

If people need authority (and I think that we do) we should rely on consensuses of experts to ground our objective reasoning. That's what I've been attempting to do. If top experts in a field (science, philosophy, law, medicine, whatever) agree through critical analysis and assessment of available evidence, then that's the best knowledge available; if they're arguing with each other, then non-expert observers shouldn't draw conclusions.

This is a pragmatic approach. Postmodernism operates within the limits of human understanding; that's what differentiates it from classical and modern philosophy. (IEP on Pragmatism)

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    Foundationalism is still discussed in epistemology, just as most philosophers identify themselves as realists. On the other hand, I agree that the overall consensus is that Wittgenstein had a point and even if there is Reality, Truth (capital T) is meaningless since truth is a purely semantic, normative category. This indeed is contradictory, some do even admit as much, but still, that's how things stand.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 18:17
  • Thanks, @Philip Klöcking. There's a reality, but we can't comprehend anything about it with absolute certainty. Could you please clarify for me what people think might be paradoxical or contradictory about this? [wondering]
    – Rortian
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 18:27
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    @Rortian Not sure how relevant this is, but when I use the term "objective" as applied to morality, I mean that it is valid and binding independent of human opinion; I am not speaking of objective truth. Also, why bring absolute certainty into the picture? I certainly don't want to; that's too high of a standard. Plausibility, or some such thing, is enough for me. Also, you position about authority via consensus ultimately is open to Leff's schoolyard bully objection---"the grand sez who?" Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 19:47
  • @Rortian Both Foundationalism, i.e. the position that in order to be true, a belief has to be built on some kind of ultimate, self-authenticating experience, and realism, i.e. the position that what we know about things (i.e. what we deem to be true about objects) is how things are, stand at odds with the insight that language (and, by extension, thought) is a supervening level with its own rules and that truth only makes sense within this linguistic sphere, not for associations between Reality and language.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 20:05
  • @EliBashwingerEli How do "valid and binding independent of human opinion" and "[mere] plausibility, or some such thing" fit together? Whichever way you turn it, objectivity is ultimately about evidence (or justification) for the truth of a proposition, with the constraint that this evidence (or justification) can be shared between people, i.e. is at least in principle available across individual particularities.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 at 20:14

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