After much discussion of my question, How could 'objective morality' be known/investigated?, I've come to think that two earlier questions must first be asked:

  1. Are there laws which govern how any individual mind operates?
  2. Are there laws which govern how minds interact?

The difference between these questions and one of morality is that any 'psychologically tenable' morality depends on the above laws, if indeed they exist. One could draw an analogy between morality and physical laws + initial conditions: many physical laws talk in terms of derivatives, which means that in order to actually compute with them, we need to assign 'initial values', or describe the 'boundary conditions'. Could it be the same with morality? For example, could value theory provide the initial conditions for morality?

A famous example of how to value things comes up in utilitarianism: how do we measure happiness and what kind of distribution do we want among the population? (Ex: How to prohibit harvesting the organs from one healthy person to save the lives of five sick people? If we add too many ad hoc hypotheses, we tend to destroy any unity to a theory.)

There is a Kantian tint to my question, as I am not limiting my discussion to human minds. It could be that one mind is simply so different from the next, that trying to come up with laws is unreasonable. That being said, I would appeal to the stories written by science fiction authors which imagine that human interaction with aliens will often not differ too much from interaction between humans of vastly different earth-based cultures.

While reductionist answers are welcome, I'd be interested in non-reductionist answers as well—for example, ones which rely on teleological reasoning.

Here's an example which will hopefully clarify some things. Consider a child who puts together train tracks in such a way that parts of the track would cause the train to derail. The child would want the train to follow the tracks he/she laid out—that is, his/her rules for how things ought to work—but the train would actually follow the tracks as they work in reality. Similarly, any morality which violates the laws I am asking about—if indeed they exist—would, if imposed on humans, have them "go off the tracks". A 'psychologically tenable' morality wouldn't have tracks that would cause the train to derail.

  • You might be interested in Kant. He made a careful study of the limits and conditions of experience by focusing on the relationship between mind and the world. Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 18:04
  • @MoziburUllah: I've read some Kant, but there is a lot of him! Do you suggest anything in particular?
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 18:16
  • You write "any 'psychologically tenable' morality depends on the above laws, if indeed they exist." Why? That looks false to me, as the major forms of consequentialism I can think of, for instance, can get along just fine without such laws. "Love your neighbor as yourself" morality would seem to be able to, too. Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 19:23
  • @ChristopherE: I mean to talk about laws which don't get violated, like the conservation of energy. I don't mean human-constructed laws. We can violate human-constructed laws, but [energy-producing] perpetual motion machines can't be made.
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 20:05
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    Yeah, okay, that's what I thought you meant. Why would such laws be a prerequisite for morality, or psychologically-tenable morality? Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 20:26

6 Answers 6



If you mean Are there ideas no mind can think?, then that would seem to be by definition false, unless you mean ideas that are too complex, in which case there's no reason that some kind of mind — perhaps a distant descendent of ours or a synthetic mind — couldn't in principle think them.

If you mean Are there ideas minds must think?, I've never heard of one. Immanuel Kant suggested some possible features of all thoughts, but his arguments were limited by eighteenth century psychology, and I don't think there's any reason to accept them.

If you mean Are there true laws in the science of psychology?, in the same way there are probably laws in the science of physics, Jerry Fodor (1991) suggested "You can fool some people sometime, but you can't fool all the people all the time." But I think more philosophers accept arguments like John Beatty's (1995) that there can't be absolutely true universal necessary generalizations (to cite a common definition of "law") about evolved and evolving organisms. Because organisms are evolving, any such generalizations are merely contingently true, and perhaps temporarily true, and so not laws in the above sense.

  • Your last item seems intuitively disproved by the observation of history that if you oppress people for long enough, they will revolt. But perhaps there could be some sort of argument that if they were only oppressed in just the right way, said oppression could last indefinitely?
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 23:11
  • Your argument also seems to indicate that humans can be infinitely manipulated, which doesn't seem quite right. I mean, some kinds of manipulation work better than others, right? Can we really say that what works better and worse is 'merely' because of the given societal structure/culture/etc.?
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 1:36
  • Evolving? I thought modern biology had established that humans haven't evolved that much in over a hundred thousand years? What we are doing as humans is not so much evolving but mainly still figuring out what to do with what we have already after having barely clawed our way out of the jungle. Social evolution is the problem we're solving. If you're waiting for us to genetically evolve into better people, don't hold your breath. That's why this problem is so fascinating because it's so darn difficult. Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 7:24
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    @GeoffPointer Nope, certainly not waiting for us to evolve. My point has nothing to do with the rate of evolution, and is fine with it being near zero. It is based on humans having evolved and/or being capable of evolving, both of which are clearly established in biology. Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 13:07
  • @ChristopherE why do you say that there cannot be ideas no mind can think? Of course, any narrowing on example/definition of such idea will be it's creation. But inability to define them doesn't mean they cannot exist. As an exercise, can you think of an idea that would prove the existence of ideas, that cannot be thought of. Commented Jan 21, 2014 at 15:34


Can we agree on semantic substitution of 'principle' over 'law' ..? If we agree with Beatty (1995) .. that universal, necessary generalizations (ie., "laws") don't apply to adaptive organisms ..

This let's us continue to pursue the query. To follow down this path a bit ..

First, taking the human case, which we (hopefully!) understand a bit better, substituting 'principles' for 'laws' and looking within our social epistemologies for some grounding, we might reasonably say:

  1. What are the fundamental principles of human pscyhology?
  2. What are the fundamental principles of human sociology?

For 1. my initial ideas range from Maslow to Aristotle:

  1. seek survival
  2. seek procreation (perpetuate the species)
  3. seek eudaemonia, a fulfilled and perfected happiness

For 2. amplifying the comment on "evolving organisms" with "contingencies" takes us deeper into an assessment of complex adaptive social systems, which are in a constant, emergent state of flux. That doesn't mean there can't be general principles (social expediencies?) at work, aka "simple rules" .. many of them derived from the individual case:

  1. maximize well-being of the whole
  2. minimize constraints on personal freedom
  3. protect community from outside threats
  4. seek survival of all community members
  5. nurture offspring

Many of these are reflected in our cultures and legal systems .. aka "laws" (there's that word again). Here we are tapping some vernacular references that in this case seem quite to the point ..

Since minds and societies are evolved and evolving, I'd argue that these laws/principles evolved out of the survival necessity of our species. They did not exist a priori. So they are not immutable, but perhaps they represent a "best practice" for the state of our species to date. Can we know them? Yes. How do we learn them? Via socialization (parents! peers!) though some of the above seem pretty deeply infused in our mental and emotional DNA, again a nod back to Maslow .. and of course Darwin ..

Taking the non-human case (preferring animals and insects to aliens!), we can argue that many of the same behaviors can be seen to work in other species. So these proposals aren't exclusive to the human case.

A religious view of course is that some of these principles/laws are in fact divinely inspired (along with quite a few others ..) .. but they remain laws of mind and culture all the same.

My maybe has become a yes, it seems .. if we haven't run too far afield. The semantic intent of "law" and "to govern" (influence? guide?) are all important here ..

  • What is the difference between a 'principle' and a 'law'? Perhaps the discussion in WP: Scientific law#Introduction is helpful? For example, Bernouli's principle "do[es] not apply in case of compressible flow such as occurs in transonic and supersonic flight..." But in this case, Bernouli was working ceteris paribus, and couldn't deal with supersonic flight. Even F = ma doesn't hold for high gravity or relativistic speeds. Perhaps you could draw some explicit analogies with science to clarify the distinct you're drawing?
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 4:37
  • So, you can switch over to talking about claims that apply to a lot of cases, sure. And maybe that's more fruitful. But OP clarified that the question was "about laws which don't get violated, like the conservation of energy." Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 13:14
  • @labreuer my distinction is the one that separates "soft sciences" like sociology or pscyhology from the "hard" or natural sciences, such as physics. I think we may be attempting to apply semantics ("laws") and rules ("it's immutable, it can't be changed") from natural sciences to a domain where discrete causality is generally difficult or impossible to validate. Essentially, in this space, the scientific method (S.M.) doesn't work. In hard/natural science, we can validate F=MA. In the soft sciences (dealing with people) we can't isolate variables, which the S.M. requires.
    – sourcepov
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 21:51
  • @ChristopherE .. I believe my respones to labreuer addresses your point as well. It's difficult/dangerous to generalize, of course, but natural science has long taken a dim view of a dearth of precision that the soft sciences are left to work with. That's changing a bit. Neuroscience is introducing new data via fMRI brain scans. But it's been a difficult journey since (to pick a sample inflection point) William James launched a branch of soft science with the "Principles of Psychology in 1890 ..
    – sourcepov
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 21:56
  • @sourcepov: The fact that the 'soft sciences' haven't discovered any laws doesn't indicate that they never will. Furthermore, it seems like assuming that there aren't any laws may torpedo discovery of them. Indeed, I'm privileged to be married to someone who is doing hard, numerical research in biology, coming up with real laws and not just the kinds of categorizations that Darwin did with barnacles. Her grad advisor was a physicist-turned biologist who insisted that numerical laws could be found.
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 4:10

It seems to me that every time I come across a philosophical discussion it ends up boiling down to the same fundamental question that has been argued throughout the history of thought. Basically: Idealism vs Materialism. People may believe this question has been resolved, but so has evolution, right? While you still have a significant percentage of humans who don't accept evolution their position has an impact on social progress. In there is the clue to an answer to the OP's question.

If we are materialists and we accept that the human brain is a material result of evolution then we surely must in turn accept that it will have material limitations. But that's only talking about the human brain as if it's one thing with a complex yet discernible nature. But it's not. Allowing for environmental shaping as they grow, most human individuals come out of the gene pool with slight yet significant variations in their brains that determine the difference between one becoming a brain surgeon and another a waiter and so on. Sometimes the genetic differences are really significant, producing deranged psychotic killers and so on. (BTW, of what use is philosophy to the latter other than to accept what they are and accept being restrained for the public good? And if they don't accept it?)

This whole panoply of variations is what makes the existence of the modern world possible. If we were all the same we wouldn't be able do anything much better than just produce honey and fly around stinging people when they get in our way. These differences between humans are more and more being explained by reference to the environmental realisation of specific sets of genes.

In this sense I believe, modern psychology, the branch that studies how the brain actually works, and the branch that in turn discusses what this makes possible and how to fix it when it goes wrong, is what discovers the rules of the human brain as opposed to what determines them.

That's the crux of the matter, the human brain is not some abstract concept, it's a real living organ that is capable of planning spectacular things and when it goes wrong it goes wrong spectacularly.

On the other hand, if we are idealists, I suppose we can imagine the human brain to be anything we want it to be and baffle everyone else with the kind of sophistry that the human brain is vastly capable of. By which I mean principles are all well, if they're realisable in reality, but try and convert a lion to a vegetarian.

I'm a materialist and in conclusion, I don't think you should make up rules, which you then try to follow, instead you should investigate the nature of this real thing before you, and seek the best things we can actually do with it. Within reason, don't waste your life "trying to go faster than the speed of light", find better ways of living with what you know you can do already and invest your spare energy on discovering more about the material nature of the human brain. Maybe that way you'll come closer to your ideals, but not the other way around.

Addendum: My badly expressed and oversimplified point is: materialist ideas of the brain will look at solutions bounded by the current real world understanding of the upper bound of what one can reasonably expect from individual real world human brains. If you don't accept materialism you are somewhat freer to come up with unrealistic expectations. You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear is not that moronic a cliché.

I thought the OP, in brief, was intimating at a set of rules that was achievable and not setting ourselves up for failure with too high expectations. I totally agree with this sentiment.

I'm sorry that my attitude may seem too flippant towards idealist philosophies in general, but life is too short. And, just in case: I'm using the traditional definition of materialism implies matter is primary over mind and idealism implies mind is primary over matter.

Many people believe that debate is a historical one that's been decided already and maybe there are more worthy idealism proponents than Bishop Berkeley to knock down, but my point about humans who don't believe in evolution, having the potential politically as a group to be socially damaging, applies also to people who believe that that historical debate is not over and mind is in fact primary over matter.

There is another discussion on this site where quite a few people are still taking Bishop Berkeley seriously and I've lost count of the number of people I've come across who think materialism is untenable.

Ultimately, precise, accurate, academically defined philosophy is only of use to those who understand it. If you want the world to change for the better, you won't have me as a party to Platonic solutions where only those who get it are in charge. I'm only interested in solutions that anyone can understand and anyone can happily be a part of. Now that could be considered idealistic, but it's just a desire, not a hint that I believe mind actually might be primary over matter.

That's a kind of idealism I can subscribe to, but it's powered by a belief in the existence of real solutions to real world problems and this keeps me busy enough without arguing with idealists and the people who come to my front door trying to sell me their god of whichever variety on whichever day.

Hence, as I said, I actually agree with the sentiment of the OP. My flippancy towards almost any kind of idealism is not an implicit 'No' to the question.

Has anyone read Pinker's "The Blank Slate"?

  • Does idealism really claim to be able to imagine whatever it wants? Can you provide some sources which back up your idealism-based comments? I'm not sure the dichotomy you draw between idealism and physicalism is accurate.
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 4:32
  • @labreuer I'm not saying that idealists are claiming they can make up what they want I'm just loosely saying they may as well. See my answer here. I personally believe that anything other than a materialist basis to philosophy is absurd, whatever fruits it may bear. Accepting a material basis doesn't prevent you from having flights of fancy that may end up fruitful just as abandoning belief in some god is not simultaneously abandoning a sense of morality. Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 4:40
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    "I'm just loosely saying that they may as well"—this seems to be an unargued, implicit 'No' to my question. It seems like you are caricaturing idealism instead of dealing with the best form of it that you can. This is generally quite looked down on in the field of philosophy, because if you don't attack the best version of an idea, you're attacking a straw man. Now, if there is a good argument by someone that all idealism must lead to what you "suppose", I would be interested in reading it.
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 4:49
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    @labreuer Please see the addendum to my answer, I think you might be taking this too personally and getting the wrong end of the stick. The problem with the word idealism is the moment someone figures out what's wrong with it someone else comes up with a new definition and we all go round the mulberry bush once more. Life is too short and I care too much about real people- all real people. Me and materialism: 'til death us do part. Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 7:14
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    Let's take this to chat :-)
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 7:46

I think you need to take more steps back. What are laws? Can there be absolute objectivity, or what limits are there on approaching this?

Nancy Cartwright in 'How The Laws Of Physics Lie' demonstrates that truths are about abstractions, and can only be as true as the given abstraction or system of them, are valid.

I would contend objectivity is unreachable, it is only ever reified intersubjectivity. This is illustrated in the ancient metaphor of Indra's Net.

Happiness cannot be externalised and quantified as the utilitarians wished, rather it is a value judgement applied to causes of wellbeing, to things which support 'flourishing' or eudaimonia, the achieving of our potential, as previously established and reaching beyond it to define new potential (it is in the nature of minds, and evolution, to go beyond what is recursively enumerable inside a current system). Happiness is like a compass direction, or gradient, in navigation - it can provide instant information, but it is not a map, and it cannot give us the full picture about wellbeing. 'Ought' is map, 'Is' is local evaluation. We need history, and cosmology, map, to navigate.

I would argue morality, what is moral, is the product of both historical insights into what supports wellbeing, and aspirations based on ideas about future wellbeing. We require both a history, framed in terms of moral lessons, and a cosmology, based on our understanding of where our decisions are situated in their possible impacts or significance for the future. Historically, that has been called religion. Cultural myopia around the local dominance of Abrahamic ideas, has limited the understanding in modern (& post-modern) Western philosophy of the significance of different practices in history, and future scope of this sphere.

Durkheim who founded sociology as an academic discipline, had to contend with increasing understandings of the sophistication and literature of Vedic Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism, which profoundly challenged Western ideas about what religion is, and thinking about Shintoism, and shamanism in complex societies, no longer frameable like in Fraser's Golden Bough as an adolescent phase of society. Durkheim's definition:

"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them" - The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology, 1915.

at first appears uncontroversial. But, ideas like habeus corpus, or freedom of speech, fit this criteria of forbidding certain behaviours to the community, with the community bound together by heroes of these values, by statements of them and oaths to those, and by placing them in prominance as part of a given community's identity. And, making challenge to them or ending adherance to them, risk dissolution of the community. This is a kind of moral generalisation of the social contract.

Nietzsche understood that the challenge to the religious tradition of Christian Europe is of a different type than previously encountered, because it goes beyond a reforming of ideas, a shift in history & cosmology that encompasses and reframes the old ideas in a new system that has some additional scope. Instead, it has to be both a return to something older, hero narratives and exemplary individuals, and a kind of unravelling of their scope to create new capacities, that there is a great risk to social cohesion from the loss of a shared history and cosmology, and that dismissing or unpicking can result in nihilism for some, for increasingly many.. And their alienation from the social system. For the risk of decoherence and destruction of societies and specific capacities they have developed.

As well as issues of social cohesion, of communities being defined by adherence to a shared interpretation of history and social cosmology, I would also point to game theory, for understanding morality as objectively as we can. These approaches are not at odds. 'Sacred' values are higher level concepts, which incorporate histories of social learning. Frequently this has been about how psychopathy and narcissism in leaders, can create a free-rider problem, destabilising a society, ie game theoretical dynamics. So by organising a 'social immune system' against these behaviours, the complexity of the social system is able to continue increasing.

Joseph Tainter in 'The Collapse Of Complex Civilisations' describes how both hard military, and soft cultural power, allow civilisations that can solve new problems better to keep taking, and generating, more resources to solve future problems better than their neighbours/competitors, in the 'imperial cycle'. Until, there is a mismatch between disruption or perturbation, and capacity of a society to reform, typically into a state with higher costs or more fragility which must be balanced by more resources or resilience, or else over-reach - this has happened to every complex society of the past. We wish to believe in our era progress is inevitable. In Dark Age Europe, and much of Indian history, the opposite view held. Tainter argues civilisational collapse is not simply bad luck, but inevitable, and will happen to our civilisation or it's inheritors also.

It seems obvious that has a parallel to moral progress, and that the social reality that for instance makes slavery impossible, and the death penalty almost impossible, should not be considered permanent, or irreversible. Moral verities about them rely on social realities, which can change.

I would challenge the concept of any truly 'individual mind', by reference to the Private Language argument. But also point to a universality of awareness itself, the basis for intersubjectivity, as in our ability to go beyond Turing Machines into evaluating truth values beyond what can be recursively enumerated in rules - that is, through being 'strange loops', beginning wherever we are but seeking versatile resilient rules. They may sometimes converge, like in convergent evolution. But more often not, they will form a landscape of contender mutants.

Languages and their culturally shared concepts, implicitly embody salience landscapes, sifting out and highlighting what kinds of thing are pertinent, for a context, in a culture. Selecting for local & system 'fitness', or tendency to get replicated or be resilient. Like an evolutionary pathway, that compounds a set of abstractions and behaviours with an environment, into an ecosystem, a dynamic collaboration of these.

A new mutation or technology or social behaviour, might provide scope for powerful new capacities. Like say the development of mitochondria: that doesn't mean it is the only future way for all cells to be. Some prokaryotic organisms have developed a more efficient form of photosynthesis since plants split from the lineage. And our own blood cells don't have mitochondria. Similarly a moral system is not about what is 'more true' or 'more objective', but how it increases capacities of the social system.

Consider how the system of concepts 'game theory' allows an analysis of both ants, human societies, bacteria, viruses. A candidate system of historical explanation and cosmology, that explains more and allows more effective future action, we call: a 'better' theory. Not a final truth, or fully objective. Science has abandoned those absolutes. There is only, better. A gradient, towards increased capacity of a system of explaining the past & predicting the future - with cultural goals and salience landscapes embodied, but, an aspiration to get more universal, explain different cultures, religious practices, species, and look toward alien contact that may well shake all our ideas.

In so far as we share a language, and develop it together, we contribute to and draw from a collective intelligence. A moral community, with it's maintenance of it's cohesion, and capacities, is also a kind of collective intelligence. We can aspire to maximum generalisation and versatility of these cultures, these systems of abstractions. But there will always be other evolutionary routes - we may turn out to be dinosaurs, with the future inheritors of the world beneath our feet, or trilobytes dominant for a time but destined to leave no impact at all except biomass and gas exchange.

Morality is a system of heuristics to create higher-level abstractions about game theory, and buy-in to these have allowed social systems to increase complexity like new cell types, or multi-cellular collaborations. But there cannot be a best way to be, only better. And that lesson converges with our deepest insights: stay humble, respect other systems that support wellbeing, beware hubris.

And choose systems which support continuous improvement, rather than seem to be fossilising - because however successful a morality is at one time, it might leave nothing behind but a few strangely shaped rocks, if it cannot face the unknowable challenges of the future.. Get busy growing, or get busy fossilising, you might say.


1 Yes, the "laws that govern how any individual mind operates" are the ones that an individual receives through genetics and the development environment.

2 Yes, the "laws that govern how minds interact" are the ones created by the society in which the minds grow and develop.


If you think of human mind as an object, stationary or kinetic, which won't change its status until a force is applied to it, maybe you can have a path to go down.

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