I know It's difficult to speak about objectiveness of moral values but if we think about a really simple case, for example: could a lawful priest demonstrate, without objection from anyone, that his moral values are better than those of a serial rapist?

Reading into Buddhism is what inspired my question, I find that the moral values teached in the Dhammapada are far supperior to those found in the Catholic Bible (The one religion I have deep knowledge of). I wanted to know if there were any guidelines to evaluate moral values that would be universal to everyone and thus, undeniable.


6 Answers 6


I add to Ingos answer that you can at least kick some ethics out. Sidgwick in his third book, chapter 11.2, proposes a test for moral intuitions. Every intuition that passes the test is true. There are 4 steps:

  1. The terms of the proposition must be clear and precise. The rival originators of modern methodology, Descartes and Bacon, both stress this, and Bacon’s warning against the ‘badly defined notions’ is especially needed in ethical discussion. My chief business in the preceding chapters has been to free the common terms of ethics, as far as possible, from objection on this score.

  2. The proposition must be found to be self-evident by careful reflection. Most people are liable to think they have an intuition when really it is only an impression or impulse which doesn’t look like a dictate of reason when it is carefully observed, or an opinion to which the familiarity that comes from frequent hearing gives an appearance of self- evidentness—an appearance that attentive reflection disperses. [...]

  3. The propositions accepted as self-evident must be con- sistent with one another. Obviously, any collision between two intuitions proves that at least one of them contains some error. [...]

  4. My confidence in the validity of something I have asserted is likely to be weakened if someone else denies it. And in fact ‘universal’ or ‘general’ consent has often been thought to be, all by itself, sufficient evidence of the truth of the most important beliefs; and in practice it’s the only evidence on which most of mankind can rely. [...]

I think it looks like a good place to start with. Maybe not everything that passes is really good, but those not passing can be dismissed.

The serial rapist probably fails on 2, 3 and 4.

  • I think the serial rapist could satisfy 2 and 3 with a "law of the jungle"-type position. General consent for such a position is lacking, though (and in fact it's often raised as a bogeyman to be avoided), so point 4 stands. Though... I don't really know how many serial rapists bother to adjust their beliefs into a self-consistent system based on overemphasizing certain undeniable truths.
    – Brilliand
    Aug 18, 2014 at 21:25

No, for the simple reason that "better" is itself a moral judgement.

You could, however, show that one ethics is free of contradictions, but not the other. Or you could show that one ethics rests on arbitrary assumptions that are unlikely to be shared amongst men, while the other rests on assumptions that are widely accepted.

The rapist, for example, could claim one of two things:

  1. It is ok to hurt someone else against the consent of the victim.
  2. It is ok for me to hurt anyone I like, but it is not ok for anyone to hurt me.

Clearly, norm 2.) is not acceptable to anyone except the rapist itself, and maybe even the rapist agrees that ethical norms should be acceptable for anybody.

Norm 1.) is also not exactly acceptable to peaceful men, but it at least does not violate the idea of equal rights for all. And, btw, the peaceful men that don't want to tolerate rape and other violent crimes could say: "Ok, while we do not agree with your ethics, we hold that everybody should get treated according to its own ethics, which is why we now hang you right away. You'll find that treatment justified by your own ethics."


Yes, assuming you have both agreed on a basis for comparison and a system of reasoning.

That is, if you both (for example) agree that a better set of morals is one that ensures the greatest happiness for the greatness number of people, and you both agree that Western logic would be used to judge the arguments on either side, then yes, you could.

It would still be difficult I'm sure because most scenarios dealing with morals are challenging to quantify, but in theory you could. I can see on the face of it how serial rapists do not ensure happiness in the same way that a lawful priest might, and I think you could reasonably argue that. Comparing one set of morals (actions, behaviors) to another under a common end goal is not the challenge — it's proving what the "common end goal" is (the "purpose of life") for all things. That's where it becomes seemingly impossible to prove one's position. But if you can agree on that, you're just arguing numbers at that point.


Sam Harris discusses exactly this question in his talk at the University of Notre Dame in a debate with William Lane Craig.


Also, this is a major theme of his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.


I'm giving my own view of the matter which is the answer that Ayn Rand might have given.

I will have to reformulate your questions, as otherwise the "without objection from anyone" will make any attempt moot: You cannot prove even the simplest and most obvious things in a way so that everyone agrees with you.

But agreement isn't the standard of objectivity. Just take modern science. I'd say that having landed on the moon and created the internet with sites such as this one makes a case that at least some of the sciences have objective truth, as they are used extensively in the technology that brought these things about.

That doesn't mean that no person on the planet still holds superstitious beliefs. In fact I would even claim that a great many people exhibit a strange attraction to the irrational rather than a curiosity about the unknown.

The question whether morality is objective has to be asked under the same light: Not if you can convince a majority (or in fact anybody) of the objective correctness of certain moral values, but whether they are of use to you - in other words, whether they are practical.

The objective standard of correctness for your science of engineering is whether you can built cars with it and airplanes - the objective standard of your science of morality is whether you are guided by it through your life on a path that makes your life good.

The question of what a good life is is much harder, but in this context it suffices to show that there is something of an objective standard: To be sick, unhappy, and to die is bad, to make pleasurable experiences, to be healthy and happy is good. This goes for animals and humans alike and those things are objectively true - I doubt that anybody disagrees here.

The difference to non-human animals is only that human beings have more reason, plan more ahead and thus need rational guiding principles to lead a good life. For example, if someone simply doesn't understand the concept of ownership and just takes what he pleases, he will find his victims to organize against him. This is independent of a specific legal framework and holds in modern societies as much as in the most primitive of tribes. In fact the legal frameworks in modern societies are this organized defense against (objective) immorality to a great extent.

It's more difficult to give a positive example, but say someone was a curious child, learned as an adolescent, became productive, made rich life experiences, founded a company and a family and eventually died of old age among his loved ones. That's better, and fairly objectively so. If someone begs to differ even here on this last example being better than the former, he shall prove so by starting to steal.

There are two more interesting concerns generally raised at this point. The first is that it's not clear what exactly constitutes "better" in many cases. Let's not be distracted by this question: It's also not clear how one would order "mistakes" in natural sciences. That doesn't mean that there is no right and wrong, no more or less fitting models of the universe or the weather. It is completely sufficient to understand that death is bad and life is good - objectively so - and that all more complex questions have an answer in between, no matter how difficult the answer might be.

The second concern is regarding the clash of this view of ethics with the conventional one in cases where they contradict. For example, one often hears: "What if I can steal without getting caught? Is it moral then?"

Yes. But you can't. At least not for long.

Everyone needs other people, but career criminals need other people as victims: That means they need someone who doesn't benefit from this "relationship". Maybe the criminal can overpower or outwit his victims' resistance for a while, but ask yourself honestly: Given the game theoretical setup here, do you think becoming a career criminal is an intelligent career choice? At least it's obvious that most people don't choose that path. Many might claim altruistic motives for such a decision and I concede they might themselves even believe that. I would still hold that the fear that such a decision probably is a really bad idea helps them in their choice. Such a selfish motivation just doesn't sound very heroic - in fact it sounds rather cowardly - which could be one reason why people often really don't like that kind of reasoning.

There are a lot more objections along that line that would justify being answered, but I don't want to make this answer excessively long. I would maintain that I said enough to make a point for objective morality. The most important thing to realize is that morality isn't just "rules we can all agree on" (although that can be a part of it). In doesn't start with other people at all. It's how you, the researcher of ethics, can improve your life - and getting along well with others will obviously be only a part of that, just as defending yourself from certain other individuals is too.

  • "agreement isn't the standard of objectivity" - true, but that doesn't mean that it is not important. To take up your example, would it still be science if "denialists" could be forced to agree on some theory? No, the only "force" applicable here is that of reason and logic. It is not the question how many people actually agree to a theory, nor makes overwhelming agreement a theory true. It is just that force does not work in such matters: you can't force someone to think, and you can't force him to accept the truth.
    – Ingo
    Dec 15, 2013 at 12:58
  • @Ingo Nobody said anything about forcing anybody to accept anything. I merely said something about defence.
    – John
    Dec 15, 2013 at 13:20

I would tend to think not. 'Better' in this context denotes achieving a particular goal or something more efficiently. However, this presumes that the relevant moral values are all shared and viewed the same, and clearly they are not. A Kantian deontologist might say that lying is immoral period, but a consequentialist may have more leeway if the well-being of conscious creatures are at stake.

And I think this cuts to the heart of the matter. Talking about the objectivity of moral values to me is a non-starter. Values are, after all, subjective preferences and values. Whether or not something is 'objectively' better is going to be relative to the moral framework and values in question. And it won't make much sense to argue against particular moral values without trying to appeal to further, deeper values that one presumes are commonly held.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.