We humans have not always believed in objective reality, or at least we have not always believed that reality is rational without any discernible bounds. For, the instant that reality ceases being rational, science would hit a wall, or at least [asymptotically] approach an upper bound. Our confidence in the existence of an objective reality is given great weight by the extraordinary success of science.

Assume there exists an objective moral standard. Could we ever know it?

Recall that the word 'know' is a bit tricky. Arguably, we don't actually know objective reality, we just model it increasingly well over time. I argue that this just transforms the word 'know' from "know truly" to "know increasingly well". My answer to 'What is the difference between Fact and Truth?' may help clear up remaining difficulties on this, so please go there if you still have quibbles.

  • Well, technically since you can't know reality (I take Kant's position), you can't know whether your models of reality are "increasingly well" or not. In fact, we have no basis at all to say whether what we receive through our senses has any bearing on reality. At best, science can posit a collective subjective view, and this is what we call "reality". But I digress. My main question is, what do you think would form the basis for an "objective" morality (that is, if you truly do mean outside merely the scope of sentient beings). (continued)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 8:24
  • This notion is so foreign to me because all morality today as we conceive of it is a product of our sentience and our conclusions about how we should thus act in a world with other sentient beings. Your question relates very closely to this one: Are there any non-divine objective standards of good/evil? and you might find my answer there useful (useful in and of itself, and to clarify my confusion here).
    – stoicfury
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 8:27
  • @stoicfury: My insight (I do not know if it is novel) is that regardless of whether you take Kant's position or a different one, you are forced to recognize some progression in scientific understanding. That GR subsumes F = ma is indisputable afaik. Given this, I claim we ought to apply the same standard of knowledge to morality, as we did to reality. If you're a Kantian with regard to reality, you should be a Kantian with regard to morality. If you believe there is an objective reality, you should allow the possibility of an objective morality. Does my demand for symmetry make sense?
    – labreuer
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 18:02
  • There is a changing in our understanding of what we call science; and while it seems forward towards something (a better grasp of reality), we technically have no way of knowing. Imagine if a evil demon causing all of our senses, and simply having us sense a false reality, one different from the actual reality that he's in. We could never know this; thus our morality can never be wholly "objective", only collectively subjective (you can redefine 'objective' henceforth to mean that, and that'd be fine).
    – stoicfury
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 19:03
  • 2
    I would recommend reading David McNaughton's book Moral Vision for an argument that one can we can perceive what is morally right—that morally sophisticated people develop a kind of moral vision. Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 1:30

2 Answers 2


I think what you mean is "Can there be a knowable objective system that captures the significant portions of our intuitive moralities (while also improving on the same)?" The reason for recasting the question is that there is not widespread agreement on morality or the foundations of morality currently, so any more objective system would have to be seen as replacing what we already have --analogous to how chemistry replaced alchemy.

Assuming that as the question, I would argue the answer is yes, depending on which intuitive morality we are trying to make objective, and what portions of that morality we decide are significant to retain.

  • There was no widespread agreement about objective reality in the 1st Century.
    – labreuer
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:11
  • That doesn't contradict my position, unless you want to argue that what we now call "objective reality" is identical with the intuitive realities of the 1st Century. Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:19
  • My point is that it is unknown whether there is more order/law than at least "a bit more than we think exists now". IMHO, this applies to both science and morality. Given this uncertainty (e.g. we are not guaranteed that science will fail at some point), we can either (A) stop using the term 'objective'; or (B) understand what we are actually indicating with the term 'objective'. I object to using different definitions of 'objective' between (i) 'objective reality'; (ii) 'objective morality'.
    – labreuer
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 21:23


The scientific enterprise works because two claims are true:

     (1) Our external-facing senses match reality more enough of the time.
     (2) Enough people can intersubjectively agree upon their models of reality.

These may be necessary but not sufficient, but I don't think that is a problem. Note that people unable to or unwililng to do science do not disprove the claim that there exists an objective reality which can be increasingly well-known.

I claim that there exists an analogous situation vis-à-vis morality:

     (1′) Our internal-facing senses match morality more enough of the time.
     (2′) Enough people can intersubjectively agree upon their models of morality.

Eric Schwitzgebel's 2008 The Unreliability of Naive Introspection is an important work, as it supports the claim that just as our external-facing senses need a lot of 'tuning' before they can be called 'reliable', our internal-facing senses (i.e. 'introspection') also need a lot of 'tuning' before they can be called 'reliable'. Science has demonstrated that people can sufficiently circumvent their own cognitive biases, especially when they work together. But does there exist an 'internal order' to the human psyche, which is comparable to the observed order of external reality? I claim that there is law-like behavior of humans even when the label 'irrational' is used; else the book Predictably Irrational would not be possible. My answer to 'What arguments have there been on the relative merits of praxeology vs rationality?' may be of interest, here.

An argument against (2′) is that there is exists a terrible amount of disagreement over how people ought to behave. I propose that this is because much 'research'/discussion of morality has been verificationist, where we ought to at least have included a much larger component of falsification. Compare the two claims:

     (A) X is a good way to treat people.
     (B) I feel hurt by the application of X.

Do not be misled by the word 'feel'; the introspective words are inherently more subjective-sounding than the words we use to talk about the perceptions our external senses deliver. I claim that too much application of (A)-type thinking fails to construct hypotheses which are allowed to be falsified. If the analogy,

external-facing senses : reality :: internal-facing senses : morality

holds, then we should expect objective morality to be researchable, just like objective morality. The term 'research' connotes "a hypothesis might be wrong". Claims which might be wrong must have established tests for knowing if and when they are wrong. Failure to properly utilize (B) would hinder research; it would be a form of confirmation bias.

I define 'objective morality' as the demarcation line between:

     (I) Behavior which brings about pleasure/happiness/etc.
     (II) Behavior which brings about suffering/sadness/etc.

It is an open debate as to whether there is a way of believing/behaving which would allow every person to experience (I) more and more, and (II) less and less. But even this does not falsify the existence of an objective morality, because there exist people who cannot do science, and that does not falsify the existence of an objective reality. See the accepted answer to 'Does the existence of psychopaths pose a problem for moral realists who argue we have a moral intuition?'

  • Did you just answer your own question? I must consider a certain bad faith in its asking, should that be so.
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 22:30
  • 3
    The Philosophy.SE help entry Can I answer my own question? has the answer "Yes! Stack Exchange has always explicitly encouraged users to answer their own questions." If you think this is bad for Philosophy.SE in particular, I suggest talking about this on meta. I was just abiding by what I saw to be the spirit of the rules. :-|
    – labreuer
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 22:47
  • Well, I suppose whether the spirit of the "rules" has been adhered to or otherwise, the letter seems to have been, so I can't really fault you there!
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 23:38
  • There is a Phil.SE meta question: Policy on asking and answering one's own question. It sounds like you should post a 'No' answer and argue for it.
    – labreuer
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 6:46
  • You can answer your questions, that's fine. StackExchange is a knowledge database, adding to it more (quality) knowledge is always good.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 8:14

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