How are moral decisions made in such contexts? For example, if x believes old people are more important and y believes young people are, how would they make a decision where they would have to choose one life over another? This is just one example, but in general, is it best to choose randomly in such circumstances? I mean, it's impossible for one to say to the other you are wrong; because it is not objective or logically deduced which life matters more. How then?

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    There are shared values, at least some: no society can "survive" without some basic "common goal"... In a "normal" society, politics has the duty to find compromises and to manage conflicts between different points of view (old vs young) and interest in order to maximize benefits and (hopefully) long term goals. Commented May 17, 2020 at 9:01
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA, I think that point can be overstated. At least in the present moment it doesn't appear to be an accurate representation of politics as it operates - it seems more true to the facts to say that politics does not so much have a duty to find compromises and manage conflicts so much as it does merely to resolve them. Politics is equally discharged through power and oppression in the current world, and through marginalizing others, if that settles the potential for disruption on the part of those who present threats.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented May 17, 2020 at 10:44
  • one of theh strangest books i've read was an attempt to combine levinas and habermas. actually, it worked for me
    – user46524
    Commented May 17, 2020 at 12:36
  • You are confusing terminology. There is a difference between moral values & ruling from authority. Most human communities are authoritarian ruled, not moral based. The field that distinguishes MORALITY from authority is NORMATIVE ETHICS. This is not ruled by a person's authority or rank. How to decide right from wrong then? Well you argue & offer a justification. You are not allowed to use false premises as some forms of logic allow. You would need to understand what objective truths are & I am not referring to the science definition either. Argument soundness & objective truths are used.
    – Logikal
    Commented May 17, 2020 at 13:56
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    It is very possible for someone to say that the other is wrong, and for the other to return the favor. People do it all the time, even in science when the issue is controversial. It may well be that they are talking past each other in such cases, as they have incompatible fundamental moral principles which both believe to be objectively right. As they say, the toughest conflicts are not between right and wrong but between two rights. But it can also happen that people do not think their moral principles through, then they can be persuaded that their judgment in a particular case is wrong.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 1:33

4 Answers 4


We can know understand right from wrong the same way we understand anything else -- by coming up with a mental model for it. And in general, that model is as simple as "act in the best interests of others".

It is just as obvious, however, that no one can be comfortable using it until they achieve a sufficiently deep understanding of themselves, their lives, and the world they live in.1

Or, as Socrates would put it, "Knowledge is the only true virtue".2

1 starting with a profound appreciation of the pavement job they've been doing on that one-way road

2 in case you're wondering if it's even realistic to expect that a person can know enough, you can stop right there


There are multiple assumptions in your question which, when examined, may not be valid. Examine them, and the nature of the problem you are wrestling with changes. Note that identifying, then questioning assumptions, is an essential core skill for doing philosophy.

The first questionable assumption I saw was that you seem to think that the world, and pretty much any course of action in it, can be established "objectively", and that "subjective" is an unacceptable/bad appellation. But everything we know about the world is knowledge we have gained subjectively, through our individual personal senses, and then processed and evaluated through our subjective minds, and subjective reasoning process. We don't actually have access TO anything "objective". We INFER an objective reality, based on inter-subjective consensus -- but that isn't actually "objective". Instead of working with "objective" we have instead developed a pragmatic set of tools and methods to live with everything actually being subjective, and only cross-checked to some degree with other subjective evaluators.

What the subjective/objective discussion shows, is that there are pragmatic, practical skills and techniques, that lead to better success in this world and this life, and plausibly to better understanding of an inferred objective reality. Wisdom and skills matter then -- and are what one should be looking for in life, rather than "objective truths".

Applying our subjective circumstances to moral questions is one of the most difficult, and most important, of skills to develop.

There are multiple authors, over millennia now, who have written a lot of useful and interesting thought on how to do morality wisely. The best of the ancient writing is often included in "wisdom traditions", such as are in Aesop's fables, or the precepts of Confucianism. These treat morality not as a theory, or an abstract reality, but as a set of skills and precepts that lead to a wise/good life.

There are many other approaches to morality. Sociological ones, look at social stability and community consensus. Biological/evolutionary ones look at what promotes human species survival, or sometimes Gaia survival. Moral Theory approaches start from consciousness, derive welfare from that, and assume that an objective moral reality compels our adhering to it in our treating others who have a welfare. This approach has many variants from there, including Utilitarian, Rights, and Virtue ethics.

That these many approaches don't agree, is typical of the information and theory uncertainty we have to deal with and live with in an uncertain world. What is our MORAL obligation with moral questions? That is UNCERTAIN! But the recognizably WISEST among us have sought to come up with better and better sets of moral systems and advice. As a philosopher, one should seek out that advice, sort it by your own best judgement, and then try to implement the best of it in one's own life.

  • You can define objectivity, within limits. For example, the scientific method is a way to identify facts divorced from human frailties, and so long as the rules it sets forth are followed, you can rely on its results. This is possible because the world we inhabit with our senses and subjective minds is governed by reliable rules.
    – user319
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:27
  • The scientific process relies upon a consensus of experts in a particular field, making many judgement calls in concert. What problem is being investigated, what are the relevant key issues and questions, what observations and evidence there is, how that evidence is to be interpreted, how that evidence should be most usefully analyzed, what are the derived consequences that one can test, how to conduct such a test, and what are success/failure criteria for such a test, etc. These are all intersubjective consensus. And an expert community CAN be subject to groupthink blindnesses.
    – Dcleve
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:44
  • @RobertHarvey -- so no, science does not deliver objectivity, what it delivers is the best method we have developed to date to approximate objectivity through intersubjective cross-checks. Relying on it is WISDOM, but is not "objective".
    – Dcleve
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 17:46
  • Like I said, "within limits." I doubt that there is anything truly "objective," so we accept a certain degree of subjectivity in our objectivity. Otherwise, there would be no need for the word in our language, and there would be no need for philosophy, since in all human endeavors we must ultimately make value judgments for those endeavors to be useful.
    – user319
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 20:18
  • @RobertHarvey -- the question presupposed that one must be either objective/logical, or random. My answer is to reject that false dichotomy, and spell out how one instead can wisely exercise judgement while living with uncertainty in this world.
    – Dcleve
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 20:27

(1) It is actually the case that everyone has different moral values?

Moral values diverge according to groups, societies, social classes, religions, political parties, communities rather that according to individuals.

(2) The fact that people think differently does not imply that everyone thinks correctly. Moral values are the values people should accept (even though, in fact, they do not). In some sense, what people think has nothing to do with the truth of the matter. (Though, when it comes to morals, things are more complicated. Due to the fact that an ethical code is aimed at being applied, and therefore, should be accepted by most people in order to actually "work".)

(3) Even though it may not be possible to reach a consensus regarding the Good (the good life, the good life plan) it may be possible, and even necessary, to reach a consensus regarding the Right (what is just). It is reasonable to say that everybody should admit that:

a society is just iff it allows everyone to live according to his/her favorite (reasonable) conception of the Good

So, the very fact that we diverge as to the Good forces us to reach a consensus as to the Right.

Note : Rawls, A Theory Of Justice and its applications to health care problems , and more particularly, to the problem of "triage". https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/11c3/bf025673a033add9a148cf1ef446bf077ebb.pdf

(4) As a matter of fact, wrong and right are decided by law that regards vital human interests. Laws leave room for ethics regarding less important questions.

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    But even while making laws how can a panel decide on something like, say for example, abortion laws so simply? It has been clearly shown by world events that some people value the woman's choice while others value the life of the unborn baby. How is it fair for people whose viewpoint the law is going very brutally against, to sit and comply with these laws? This is just one example. Commented May 18, 2020 at 15:51
  • Rawls, for example, would propose to rephrase the question as follows : " Under a veil of ignorance, not knowing whether they are men or women, would rational agents interested in realizing their life plans ( without knowing the content of these plans nor their own conception of the Good) consider a law against absortion as right or wrong". Maybe this procedure allows to reach a reasonable agreement.
    – user37859
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 16:04
  • Rawls does not claim that such agents exist, this is a fiction aiming at providing an objective test regarding what is right and what isn't.
    – user37859
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 16:06
  • Rawl's approach does not actually help relative to abortion, or carnivorism, as the question of whether one should include fetuses, or cows, in the deliberation of the rational agents behind that veil has a huge effect on the resulting answer. Your para-phrasing of him presumes not, for both.
    – Dcleve
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 15:42

Humans will generally tend to take a position on any subject based on factors such as familiarity, upbringing, and what is better suited to themselves. There is no right or wrong answer necessarily. Just an answer that is right by the standards of how / what lens and individual views the matter through based on the knowledge and experiences they are subjected to. I would suggest that in the proposed "Young v.s. Old" they compliment eachother and you cannot have one without the other. So it sounds more to me like the age old question of "What came first? The chicken or the egg?"

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