I used to be fairly convinced that morality existed - because of the numerous different ethical systems available, I was sure that even if I did not know which system was right, that morality, in some, abstract, superfluous sense, existed. I have become dispossessed of this because I have realised that morality is nothing more than a consolidation of "ought" statements. So we ought not to steal, we ought not to kill, etc. However, I realised that it is close to impossible to justify an ought statement. I'll try and prove it by playing a little game.

So let's start from a fairly non-controversial moral rule: we ought not to steal. I could ask "why?" and you would say "because the property isn't yours." I could ask "why should I not take things that aren't mine?" and you could say (if you were a Kantian) "that society could not function unless we agreed not to steal." I could then ask "why should I act on the basis of allowing society to function?" and so on and so forth. I think you probably get the idea.

If someone could help me figure out why this stuff is rubbish, I would be truly grateful - I can't speak for everyone, but I would much rather live in a world where I believed that morality existed.

  • 3
    Your own second paragraph shows that morality is more than consolidation of "ought" statements. There are logical connections between them, they are attached to values and emotions that move people to act, etc. As for the regress of why questions one can ask them without end in any field, including science and mathematics. It does not mean that atoms and numbers do not exist.
    – Conifold
    Dec 31, 2020 at 5:34
  • "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them" -Hume. Morality must motivate; reason cannot. Morality is a system, it involves reciprocity, and the development and maintenance of unstable game-theoretic equilibria, over lose-lose equilibria.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 13, 2021 at 16:42

8 Answers 8


"in some, abstract, superfluous sense"

Yet, moral or immoral behaviour within societies, has real consequences.

Emile Durkheim analysed societies as held together, cohering, through the shared holding of, enactment, and celebration, of sacred values. He took this view, to try and understand religion in it's broadest sense, well beyond Abrahamic practices, to inclyde Confucianism, Daoism, Jainism, Shinto, and shamanic practices like among the Sami & on the Mongolian steppes.

This approach can help us to understand, that sacred values, those put beyond questioning, like habeus corpus in England, or free speech in the USA, perform community-defining and bonding roles, and that to challenge them is to challenge the basis of coherence of a given society. The emergence of values held sacred by the scientific community, replicability, peer review, and falsifiable hypothesees, can be understood as more than simply organisational, but as the nature and means of binding the community, through shared holding of these. The contriversies about Nazi physics & Soviet agricultural science can be better understood in this way, and the power of scientific solidarity in regard to Mutually Assured Destruction.

What is held sacred by a community is not frozen in time. Christmas and Halloween still exist, though they celebrate changed values to the ancestors who started these observances. They are meme complexes, and exist as cultures, lived, renewed, enacted. Religions are not just sets of statements, or cosmological claims, but that - and so is morality. There is continual revision, with continuity, through enacted behaviour, and what a community celebrates and defines itself by.

A local moral culture, is like a language. Cultural change, may help make a language more versatile, like the magpie nature of English, or the conscious simplification involved in creating Spanish & Chinese where multiple kingdoms had to adopt a new hybrid.

Jonathan Haidt has the ideas of a moral matrix, and appeal to a moral menu. He links different patterns of morality to herder pastoralists who must defend their herds or flocks through threats of vengeance, vs rice & wheat growers who must plant & harvest together and have more community-orientated rather than individualistic ethics.

I would identify a key meme complex, as being one that allows trade. Hospitality to strangers, settling disputes through arbitration, a commitment to settling debts. These are crucial enablers of accruing wealth, and whoever adopted them earliest and most consistently has prospered most. The Beaker People seem to have spread a culture of communal beer consumption that deepened the trade network. Alexander The Great was able to conquer only and exactly as far as roads had been built. The British Empire suceeded through trading cloth instead of spices, a commodity with a far greater opportunity to develop a network. The Cold War was won by the largest trade network.

I would follow anthropologist David Graeber's argument in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, that fundamentally wealth is the accruing of capacities for trust and cooperation, and when those evaporate tokens and materials are revealed for what they were - representations of those capacities, and entirely dependent on them.

So morality is a culture, with enacted systems of behaviour like a language, with real consequences for adopters like the capacity to maintain trade networks, which has played a decisive role in human history, in regard to which cultures spread.

Why shouldn't you steal? Because you risk a criminal record that will harm your job prospects, is the back-stop. But our behaviour in practice is mostly shaped by peer groups - will they reject or celebrate the behaviour? Game theory accounts better, than declaring axioms, for actual moral behaviour. And choosing to maintain unstable equilibria, over sinking to stable equilibria, can best account for what we 'ought'.


It might help to make clear what we are to understand by 'morality', a term with a variety of senses. In one widespread sense of the term to be moral is to consider the interests of others beyond the mere promptings of inclination or self-interest. I am not saying that this is 'the' essence of morality but it is basic to a broad range of ethical theories and to much ordinary moral thinking. This broad characterisation of morality seems to me a better starting-point for thinking about morality than a consideration of putative moral rules, and this not least because there are ethical theories (e.g. ethical particularism and virtue ethics) in which rules (at least of the form, 'we ought not to steal') play no part or little part but which still fit my characterisation.

I should say that there is not much reason to doubt that morality in this sense exists - that there are genuine cases in which in deliberating about what to do or not to do, some (and I'd hazard indefinitely many) people do consider the interests of others beyond the mere promptings of inclination or self-interest, and act accordingly. Since morality is actual, it is possible.

Now, this point - about the possibility of morality - needs to be separated from your quizzing about why anyone should do what morality requires. When a moral reason for acting, x, is put forward, you launch a regress of questions about the reason, y, for acting on x, and the reason, z, for acting on y and so on. The regress could be a moral regress or a rational regress, but either way you are now asking the question, 'Why should I be moral?' or 'Why should I act morally?'

This is quite different, I'd suggest, from the question which appears in your header, whether morality is possible.


Man cannot know the intrinsic value of what he cannot know beforehand, which may explain why it can be difficult to formulate a reason why, for example, morality is something worthy of consideration.

The assumption that the laws of physics (Nature) are static and that facts differ from truths on a fundamental level is a dogmatic belief in uniformitarianism. Therefor, all that can be seen in the world is value.

Morality is a retro-perspective for the origin of valuing which cannot be value because of the simple logical truth that something cannot originate from itself. Therefor, while it can be made evident that morality is worthy of consideration, it cannot be said that it 'exists' in an empirical sense.

Kant argued that although it is not possible to have knowledge of morality, reflection on the moral law leads to a justified belief in them, which amounts to a kind rational faith. In answer to the question, “What may I hope?” Kant argues that morality is evident.

The answer, therefore, of the first of the two questions of pure reason with reference to practical interests, [p. 809] is this, ‘do that which will render thee deserving of happiness.’ The second question asks, how then, if I conduct myself so as to be deserving of happiness, may I hope thereby to obtain happiness? The answer to this question depends on this, whether the principles of pure reason which a priori prescribe the law, necessarily also connect this hope with it?

I say, then, that just as the moral principles are necessary according to reason in its practical employment, it is equally necessary according to reason in its theoretic employment to assume that everybody has reason to hope to obtain happiness in the same measure in which he has rendered himself deserving of it in his conduct; and that, therefore, the system of morality is inseparably, though only in the idea of pure reason, connected with that of happiness.

In an intelligible, that is, in a moral world, in conceiving which we take no account of any of the impediments to morality (desires, etc.), such a system, in which happiness is proportioned to morality, may even be considered as necessary, because freedom,as repelled or restrained by the moral law, is itself the cause of general happiness, and rational beings therefore themselves, under the guidance of such principles, the authors of the permanent well-being of themselves, and at the same time of others.

Critique of Pure Reason - Chapter 2 / Section 2

With regard to your example.

The potential for ethical consideration in an individual - when made evident - can become a requirement or responsibility.

Can it be said that someone could have considered the well-being of an other person or the law set by, or the well-being of, a community of people?

It may be considered a sign of higher intelligence when the human shows potential for ethical consideration. As such, it can be demanded on behalf of human dignity. A lack of care or ethical consideration can become unjust when the potential for it (in an individual) can be made evident.


Your example is correct, but you didn't considered it to the last consequences. If someone steals, finally, people work for nothing, they might not afford a house, eating, and at the end, perhaps, surviving.

So, we don't steal in order to allow our human group to survive and persist along time. Morals, ethics, religions or formal law are just forms of systems of regulation that allow survival. Each one has different perspectives, and there is no one better than other.

For example, US law in some state could consider that criminals should be killed, and US morals in the same state that they should survive in jail. That is difficult to decide, because the it is difficult to notice the difference in the impact of such act regarding such US state group survival.

Regarding the "existence of morals": it is a system of rules, in your head, and in my head. Therefore, it just exists. That is different to consider that it is a bad rules system, which is also inconsistent: me and you could disagree about some rules.


Rather than morality, let's talk on the meta-level. Let's talk about moral arguments.

  • Sometimes, people hear moral arguments and decide they agree. This can cause them to change their moral values.
  • For example, a moral argument may show how a person's current values are inconsistent with themselves. The person may want to have consistent values, so they alter their values to resolve the inconsistency.
  • For example, someone may believe animals feel pain and have moral value, but they eat meat. If they think enough about this, they may be convinced to stop eating meat. (Myself, I eat meat; I'm not prescribing views here.)
  • For example, someone may read a book on deontological ethics and decide that makes sense to them. From that point on their values are altered to be consistent with deontological ethics.
  • People do not have a fixed value system that they obey all their lives. They can be persuaded to change their values in a way that they judge better serves their higher goals or is more self-consistent.
  • Sometimes an individual judges that his own values are inferior to some alternative values, and then adopts the alternative.
  • The claim "People just have different values and there is nothing more to say about that" is not the full picture. Sometimes there is a way to reconcile them, by a moral argument persuading them to adopt different values.

Now the question is, what values would a person (such as yourself) hold if you spent years and years considering all possible moral arguments? Are you sure these views would be the same as your current views, or would you be likely to find a new set of moral views that you prefer to your current ones?

Imagine that two people have significantly different values. Now imagine that they converse until they each fully understand the other person's reasons for holding the values they do. They share their life experiences that shaped their values so that they each understand the other's experiences as well as their own. Would they still disagree, if they both fully understand each other?

We might expect that if person A fully understands moral argument R, and person B also understands argument R exactly as well, and person A and B share all evidence they think of as relevant to R and each fully understands all of the other's evidence, then they would not still disagree over whether R is valid, unless there is some irreconcilable difference in the structure of their minds.

We might even think that if two people spent enough time considering all moral perspectives, they would come to converge on the same set of values. Perhaps not; perhaps there are uncrossable moral gulfs between some groups of people. I don't say what this convergent set of values might be.

Anyway, I hope I've convinced you that there is something more to the question of morality than just each person having their own selfish and immutable value system and that being that.


I'm going to start with something that may or may not sound painfully obvious: morality is predicated on the idea that we are a community. One of the major failings of (Western) moral theory throughout history has been its tendency to focus on the individual, as though a community is nothing more than a collection of individuals who just so happen to occasionally interact. But in reality, human beings aren't much of anything outside of a community. It takes a tremendous amount of skill, energy, and fortitude to live in the absence of others, and even those who are capable of it cannot manage much more than subsistence living: providing for one's own needs for food, clothing, and shelter is full-time, back-breaking labor.

Once we acknowledge that fact, the entire moral project coalesces around the creation of a community in which everyone can comfortably live and thrive. One person's misery becomes the misery of everyone; one person's problem eventually creates problems for others. People like to make rules, but morality isn't captured by rules, and while you can endlessly question any particular rule, what you can't question is the general principle that the rule is meant to create a community in which we can all live in relative ease. 'Ought not' rules are always riddled with exceptions, but the heart of an 'ought not' rule is the idea that if you do this kind of thing, someone is going to take it badly; they'll be hurt, or angry, or frightened, or sad, or dead... And if one person in the community is hurt, angry, frightened, sad, dead, etc., it affects others, and that affects still others, and life in the community — even for the person who took initially broke the 'ought not' rule — becomes lessened. Thieves don't want more police chasing them, but it is exactly what they will get if they are too prolific in their thieving.

Many people have a hard time seeing a community as a 'thing'; many people are spoiled and selfish, and only think about what's best for them immediately, regardless of consequences. That's why moral theory often seems relative, and often has a hard time gaining traction in the world. But ultimately we are all the same human animal, and we all want the same basic thing: to live a good life, without undue worries, stresses, or problems. All the different moral positions you might find in the world converge on that one idea.

  • In addition to the rules you imply, there are also parasitic rules and rules that make it easier to live only to few people at expence of others.
    – ttnphns
    Feb 5, 2021 at 22:12

I believe what you are describing is the Is-Ought Problem. 'Is' statements are about the state the world. 'Ought' statements are about what we should do in response to the state of the world. The Is-Ought Problem is about how do you get from the former to the latter.

The most famous answer was provided by Hume; you can't. He said that a logical deduction can only conclude with an an 'Ought' statement if you started with at least one 'Ought' statement. Even if you accept Hume's argument, that does not mean that morality does not exist. Rather, every system of morality must be based on at least one 'Ought' statement:

Aristotle started with "Humans ought to seek eudaimonia."
Kant started with "Humans ought to be rational."
Mill started with "Moral actions ought to bring happiness."

Hume is arguing that morality is like mathematics. In order to prove statements about mathematics true, you must first assume at least one axiom about mathematics; in order to prove statements about morality true, you must first assume at least one axiom about morality.


Morality exist because of the need to maximize happiness, and happiness exists because that's how we are programmed by biology to ensure our survival. But if we don't survive (EDIT as a species) we dont have to worry about morality anymore

  • What about people who gain happiness by immorality? Please reference philosophical schools and stances, in answers on this site.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 13, 2021 at 16:48
  • @CriglCragl my answer was based on biology, not philosophical school. Your comment to my answer doesnt seem to either contradict or confirm it. So i'll pass. Apr 13, 2021 at 16:57

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