What distinguishes moral rules from other arbitrary normative statements? Kant's moral law which states we should not use others merely as means to an end. This rule, how is it different from other arbitrary normative statements such as that you should not eat pork? How do you distinguish them? What features do you look at?

  • You should not eat pork is not arbitrary. It belongs to a moral law just as you should not use people as a means to an end. Jul 10, 2021 at 13:30
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    @Deschele Schilder, does “You should not eat expired pork” belong to a moral law as well? The original poster is trying to sift through those differences to find what makes things moral laws Jul 10, 2021 at 14:35
  • @CottonHeadedNinnymuggins Expired pork...Eeeh. You mean pork meat that is over date? Then the OP should have asked that. But even "expired" pork is tied to a moral law. Mores just means habit. What to do and what not to do. No arbitrariness involved. If you said that you shouldnt walk the streets on the sunny side naked with only an umbrella it would be pretty arbitrary. Maybe that is what he (they) means. Jul 10, 2021 at 14:42
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    Moral norms are unconditional, they are to be followed because that is "the right thing to do" in itself. Non-moral norms do not have to be arbitrary, but they are ends oriented. They are to be followed to achieve an end, explicit or implicit, not for their own sake. For example, epistemic norms prescribe what to do to gain knowledge, prudential norms prescribe what to do to avoid damage and loss, and so on. However, these are not crisply separated, some conditional norms may be aimed at a moral end, for example, and so are derivatively moral.
    – Conifold
    Jul 10, 2021 at 21:38
  • First off get rid of the assumption that Philosophy is a field that operates from authority. There are no drill instructors keeping people in line of the rules. Second the field you refer to is specifically called NORMATIVE ETHICS. Here there is no SUBJECTIVITY. Now combine what I mentioned: no authority telling people these are the rules & NO subjectivity in the statements. This means the statements need to be OBJECTIVE with no counter examples. By universal I mean apply everywhere on the planet simultaneously with no counter examples. Morals without universal application is just bable.
    – Logikal
    Jul 12, 2021 at 19:08

5 Answers 5


You don't make clear what distinction you are making between a 'moral law' and an 'arbitrary normative statement'. This could be taken several ways. What distinguishes arbitrary normative statements that are moral rules from arbitrary random normative statements that aren't? (Like 'Don't murder' versus 'Don't eat lemons on Tuesday'.) What distinguishes 'true' moral rules from 'false' ones? What distinguishes universal moral rules from local or temporary rules specific to an individual culture? What distinguishes rationally justified rules from unjustified ones? Given that, I can't tell what would answer the question.

Morality is a universal human instinct like language, and like language, has both universal and arbitrary aspects to it. Where language has evolved to enable social animals to communicate plans and intentions and thus work together cooperatively, morality has evolved to enable to live together in dense social groups, with overlapping territories and sharing resources, minimising conflict. Both are created jointly and collectively in social interaction - they only function if they're widely shared. We have a very strong urge to 'fit in' with the culture we're born into. Both are adaptive, allowing societies to adjust to a wider variety of circumstances.

So both have universal features, that are related to their evolutionary purpose. Moral systems pretty much all include rules governing property ownership, and resolving in-group conflict without violence. Where there are conflicting interests, they will generally take a side, and require one party to defer to the other. They will forbid behaviours that annoy, harm, or put at risk other members of the social group. They will often forbid acts that risk self-harm. They will also impose punishments on those within the group who break the rules, and recommend behaviours to exclude, resist, or take over those who are not members of the group. But they will also contain much that derives from historical accident, or rules in the private interests of the rulemakers, or that otherwise depends on the circumstances when the rule was made.

The ruling against eating pork, for example, has several possible origins. It has been suggested that because pigs are biologically so similar to humans we share a lot of the same parasites, and so eating pork could lead to illness. Another is that it simply codifies the instinctive 'disgust' reaction to foods we're not familiar with that was extant at a particular point in time. We learn what foods are good to eat from our parents as children - any food we haven't tried in early childhood subsequently evokes feelings of disgust. (Westerners don't like eating insects, but scampi is fine.) So it's a safety mechanism. But the most probable explanation is that it is like many Biblical rules - a proscription against the practices of pagan outsiders. Non-Jews ate pigs, and wore clothes of mixed fibres, and worshipped idols, so those were forbidden as a way of distinguishing members of the tribe from outsiders.

As with language, it is common for people who have only been exposed to one culture, one moral system, to assume it must be both universal and 'obvious'. The stereotype of the Englishman abroad who thinks he can make himself understood by speaking English very loudly and slowly is an old joke, but the same observation applies to morality, but with even more devastating effect. Genocidal wars are started when different moral systems collide. Moral rules we today think of as universal and obvious, history shows to be anything but. So for example, for most of human history we have practiced slavery. The pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves. The Bible tells of how Moses brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and then took slaves themselves as they invaded and destroyed the tribes of the lands they moved into. It was also practiced in the ancient cultures of Africa, India, China, the Middle East, Central America, and Europe. So Kant's rule "we should not use others merely as means to an end" is most definitely not universal. There have been (and still are) many moral systems that don't hold to it. Many countries still practice slavery and human exploitation even today. Many countries who do so think it is the West that is immoral, for not adhering to their mores. Like people who speak different languages, people of different moral systems are incomprehensible to one another.

So you can use evolutionary game theory to try to identify moral rules that are more likely to be 'universal' or 'true' because they serve the evolved purpose of enabling social cooperation. So for example, 'tit-for-tat' and 'forgiveness' have been shown to be sound strategies in game theory. But pretty much every moral rule has exceptions.


It is the nature of a normative rule to be a moral rule: both create a value structure that differentiates between 'right' action and 'wrong' action. And no rule is ever purely arbitrary. Rules are imposed for reasons. We might disagree with the reasons — think they are silly, dated, selfish, etc. — but our disagreement doesn't imply they are not factually reasons.

The rules we tend to view as 'moral rules' in the colloquial sense share a few characteristics:

  • They are universals: meant to be applied by all people, to all people, in all contexts
  • They are coherent: fitting and consistent within an overarching moral worldview
  • They are reflexive: meaning they are applied to us by others in the same way that we apply them to others

Something like the proscription against eating pork may seem less like a moral rule than Kant's Categorical Imperative, but only because the first is universal solely within the Judaic and Islamic worlds, while the second is meant to be universal within any worldview. The more that rules are restricted in scope, the less overtly universal they seem; but within their proper scope they are still universals. Even something as trivial as the rules that govern the movement of chess pieces are technically moral rules within the extremely limited scope of the game of chess (and anyone who has played chess knows that breaking chess rules can produce something much like moral outrage from an opponent).

  • That rules are adopted for a reason do not mean they can't be arbitrary. When in 1933 Hitler regulates the way German people should great each other, he might have good personal reason to do so yet it is totally arbitrary.
    – armand
    Jul 10, 2021 at 21:50
  • @armand Do you mean the greeting or the way of greeting? Jul 10, 2021 at 21:59
  • Both. A greeting is a way of greeting, after all.
    – armand
    Jul 10, 2021 at 22:12
  • @armand: "he might have good personal reason to do so yet it is totally arbitrary." If he had a reason, it wasn't arbitrary for him. It may be arbitrary for you, but that only means you don't understand or agree with his reason. Jul 10, 2021 at 22:29
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    "Universal within my views" isn't it kind of paradoxical? What is more concerning rules that have to be abided only by followers. At this rate the Nazi salute too was universal only for German people in the nazi views. It does not appear like you thought this through. Also that the rule made sense at what point is irrelevant. The point is it's obsolete now but still enforced for no reason but tradition, which is arbitrary.
    – armand
    Jul 11, 2021 at 4:09

How can we tell what is moral?

By Conscience, which literally means "the knowledge with you". Conscience cannot be substituted by any algorithm and it cannot be explained away. All people have a Conscience.

What is moral is defined as what is consistent with Conscience. The Conscience can be searched, examined and applied to any circumstance. Often this highlights the need for additional knowledge of truth which, once gained, clarifies whether a course of action would be right or wrong in a given circumstance. This implies the reality and the need for God, the Revealer of truth. In no other way could anybody know anything for certain, except to receive more knowledge from the one Being who knows all things and who cannot lie. All knowledge is centered in and attached to the Conscience, and grows from that seed. Otherwise all men were ignorant.

A person who acts according to Conscience can improve his discernment of right from wrong over time. A person who violates Conscience destroys it, and loses his insight on this matter with time and wrongful action. Right and wrong are absolute, meaning they do not change from person to person or with time. What changes over time is the degree to which a person is aware of right and wrong, or the degree to which we give heed to the moral compass. This is why some people today have moral insight that others do not.

"Normative" is a meaningless term except that it implies a rule. Indeed, rules are arbitrary in general. Whatever God says is right. By this means we can learn more about what is right that we didn't already know. Moreover, it comes with a self-proving mechanism: It will be consistent with what we already knew.

In summary, there are two prerequisites to having a complete map of morality: One is to have and use the moral compass (which we all have from birth), and Two is to have and use a means of obtaining additional knowledge of truth, that is, by study and revelation.

  • Right and wrong are not absolute. They can only be defined wrt to people. What I find good you might find wrong. There is no external truth or world that gives you the only way of right and wrong. Everybody has its own objective truth and associated right or wrong. It could even be that good deeds exist only within one culture. Jul 11, 2021 at 0:43
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    Right and wrong are absolute, otherwise you are presupposing the question to be absurd. You are illustrating the point that not all people hold themselves equally accountable to the moral compass, nor do all people esteem it equally. The use of the term "objective" to convey a notion of relativism is a self-contradiction.
    – pygosceles
    Jul 11, 2021 at 2:43
  • Absolute for you. Or for whoever wants to follow it. Others have different absolute right and wrongs. Their wrong could even be your right. Or the other way round Jul 11, 2021 at 2:47
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    @DescheleSchilder That's doublespeak and no rational person will take your claim seriously.
    – pygosceles
    Jul 11, 2021 at 2:58
  • What is a rational person? The person who think that his right and wrong should be the right and wrong of everybody? Jul 11, 2021 at 3:07

There's a question of how to interpret the question.

I interpret this question as being about the linguistic distinction between moral norms (thou shalt not kill) and norms that have little to do with morality (mow your lawn biweekly).

I interpret it as not being about the distinction between moral norms, and norms that are called moral but really aren't. That's the bigger question of "what is really moral?" which I'll decline to address here.

Moral norms are those that have to do with harming people (or sometimes animals/other non-human beings) or helping them. Is it right to execute a murderer? Do I have an obligation to save a drowning puppy? Those are moral issues. Sometimes moral norms extend to causing harm or benefit in a sense disconnected from people; for example, it may be considered immoral to deface the Mona Lisa, independently of any distress the action might cause people. Harm or benefit is the focus of moral norms.

Other norms are simply social customs - tradition, protocol. How shall I paint my house? How should I address a judge? What clothes should I wear to the party? These norms often have to do with displaying one's social status or in-group membership, or respecting the social status of others. They are arbitrary in the sense that they vary between different societies and could be changed, if people agreed, without causing much harm. If everyone agreed that instead of suits, men should wear togas to formal events, society would carry on generally unchanged, without substantially harming anybody. This is why the wearing of suits is a norm, but not a moral norm.


Arbitrary normative statements are just, well, arbitrary. Not eating pig is clearly not arbitrary. The rule stems from a well defined moral system of rules. The pig lives in terrible conditions and that is the ground for the rule. It belongs to a more comprehensive moral rule system that bases it's rules on the sufferings of animals. Is not putting on lipstick that in its development stage involved in systematic animal torture an arbitrary rule? Certainly not.

A normative rule is arbitrary if the rule is about arbitrary statements. Not flying when the Sun ecclipses on a moonday at 12 while eating pork of a questionable origin would be a rather arbitrary normative statement. It is the question if these statements exist in real life. There are always well defined grounds (moral laws) at their base.

If not eating pork is considered part òf a religeous system (as seems to be the case here) then the rule (statement( seems rather arbitrary. But who knows how this was once. It maybe continued its life as part of a complete system. But in general such rules (which might be different for different people) are part of a system that is rationally defined. There exìst different kinds of ratios. What is rational for one can be madness for others. The one man's good or right is the other woman's bad or wrong.

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    'hust' = 'just' - a typo?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 10, 2021 at 18:11
  • @GeoffreyThomas Yes indeed! Thanks. I type everything on a phone. My laptop is still dead. My fingers are a bit too big for the small letters. Jul 10, 2021 at 18:16
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    I think by "Not eating pork" op referee to the religious rule observed by Muslims and Jewish people. And in that sense it is totally arbitrary. Pigs might live in disgusting conditions and eat our garbage, it does not make their meat improper for consumption as can be seen everyday in countries where they are not taboo. Whatever sanitary caution people might have had at the time of writing the rule in the holy books is gone, yet the rule remains because it's in the book. What is more, other non taboo animals are raised in conditions just as disgusting in industrial farming nowadays.
    – armand
    Jul 10, 2021 at 21:38
  • @armand Why is the pig in relation to the Jewish religion arbitrary? It considers its meat as non-kosher. It could have chosen every animal indeed. But the moment it is chosen counts. This was already done a long time ago. In the present day the choice seems arbitrary. I dont know if this choice was arbitrary in the past. If it was chosen without ground then it is an arbitrary normative statement indeed. But I dont think it was. Or it was that they needed an animal anyhow. Then they could have taken a holy cow or a chicken too. In that case it was an irrational choice. Not an arbitrary one. Jul 10, 2021 at 21:57
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    AFAIK, the only reason given in the holy books is that it's impure. Yet what is impure about it is never explained. And the sanitary reason we might speculate are now known to not be valid. Yet the rule is not retracted nor amended. A rule set in place or maintained for no explicit reason is an arbitrary rule in the sense OP uses the word.
    – armand
    Jul 10, 2021 at 22:11

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