Moral anti-realism claims that morality and ought statements are psychological and cultural inventions. Morality would be mere opinions. Nothing would be in and of itself moral or immoral and if we feel like something is moral or immoral; we would be objectively incorrect as everything would be in and of itself neutral and amoral. What are the secular arguments against moral anti-realism?

According to some moral realists or objectivists; as much as mathematics and logic exist in the fabric of the universe; morality and normative ought statements exist in the fabric of the universe. They are independent of mind, opinions and consciousness. But what evidence is there for the moral realist position? We should be able to sense the mind-independent logic, mathematics, morality and ought statements. I do not see or feel such thing

What makes morality and normative ought statements objective and mind-independent?

Could moral realists and objectivists help shed light on the subject?

7 Answers 7


What distinguishes a mere opinion from an objective fact is that it's possible to be wrong about an objective fact. For example, if you say that worker bees only live for about six weeks, and then find out that during the winter they can live much longer (months), then your original idea was wrong. Whereas, if you say you like pumpernickel bread better than sourdough, there isn't really anything that can contradict you.

So, is it possible to be wrong about a moral question?

Well, certainly sometimes people change their minds about moral questions on new information. They may personally experience a situation that gives them a new perspective on the moral question. They may read a persuasive book or essay about the moral question. They may reflect on their own moral views and decide some of their views are inconsistent with other of their views, and then change their views to resolve the inconsistency.

So it does seem possible to be wrong about moral questions, or at least for a person to judge in hindsight that he was wrong. It is thus more than a mere opinion; there is some element of thought and inference involved in moral reasoning.

Does this make it objective? I'd refrain from claiming that. But consider the moral views that you would hold if you theoretically had all the relevant experiences, and had read all the persuasive essays and books on the topic, and reflected as long as you wished upon your own position. Those moral views would likely be different in many ways from those you currently hold. Wouldn't those moral views be in some sense "better" than yours? They'd be more informed, at least. Whether you want to call this "objective" or not, it is at least something beyond mere opinion.

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    The OP's question asks for secular arguments supporting moral realism. Which arguments do you give in your answer? Do you support moral realism at all? I cannot recognize how you answer the OP's question.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 8:37
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    @JoWehler The truth is what would be concluded after sufficient investigation. There are things one would conclude about moral questions after sufficient investigation. This means there are moral truths. What are you having trouble recognizing about this?
    – causative
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 15:21
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    People would likely continue to disagree given that exposure & debate, because of different foundational values that are cultural & time-bound - & which people generally can't falsify.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 13:51
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    @CriglCragl Maybe so, but I like to think that a reasonable person would eventually start to realize, "Oh, I only think X because of my arbitrary circumstances of birth and culture. And that's not a good reason at all! So I guess I'll stop thinking X."
    – causative
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 15:02
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    @CriglCragl Most people never deeply study and examine their ethical beliefs in a rational way. So what's "permanent" for most people is not necessarily permanent for someone doing sufficient investigation. It is possible to train impulse control; for example, Zen Buddhism involves this training. And certainly, philosophers of ethics often adopt different moral beliefs than they had as teenagers or young adults.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 16:14

I think this question contains half of the answer you are looking for:

as much as mathematics and logic exist in the fabric of the universe; morality and normative ought statements exist in the fabric of the universe.

Then comes a claim I would like to examine:

They are independent of mind, opinions and consciousness.

There is a subtlety here: Math & Logic are developed by us. There are variants of logic besides Classical, Fuzzy and Boolean which exist, and there may be some variants we have not developed yet. The strength of these fields is that they have universal notation, and anyone developing a part of math or logic which comes upon a proof can show-case with great ease.

However, when we get to ethical claims we rely on things such as Kant's Categorical Imperative, or Rawls's Veil of Ignorance. These try to form some formulas for individuals to create an objective morality and law. Rawls addresses the fact that different individuals come from different backgrounds, actually. Human Rights are another go at this, yet it is consensus based. Reflecting upon morality within human-like primates, it seems more like an emergent property which served as the basis for out social norms to begin with.

Positivism is your philosophical doctrine to follow if you want to get in to this deeper: its main claim is that the facts of the world are imposed on the mind by experience. For me, it proves that there is objective sociology, but that it is the least exact, due to it's complexity. Once the third stage of spiritual development is achieved, all of humanity would be perfectly moral and live in eternal peace. However, religions and cults do exist. Many people simply live their lives holding cultural values close to heart, due to the fact that they truly did grow up in their environments. Even with the positivity stage being just, true and it is really the final stage of social evolution, the road for it's full realization hasn't been structured on a universal level. There are, factually as you experience in your mind, beings who hold entirely different moral values. Islam calls for Jihad, whether you believe in the Quran or not. And some Muslims believe in this. The Torah calls for the Jewish people to reside in Israel. And some Jews and Christians believe in this.

Kant, at least for me, proved that reality is structured by the mind through some categories which are necessary and sufficient for our understanding and scientizing it: All STEM depends on our ability to learn from others alongside our creativity and utilizing the tools we acquire. Kant also proved that antinomies, such as the debate about beings such as gods, can continue eternally without resolution. They are undecidable by nature, and we might never develop a narrative in all of society which will impose itself as true, objectively, although I do hope we will.

One may be a realist, and still see morality as mind-dependent.. and evolution-dependent. Hope I answered your question, I felt ought to try!

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    The OP's question asks for secular arguments supporting moral realism. Which arguments do you give in your answer? I do not find the focus.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 8:31
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    @Jo Wehler: Some people take Kant as secular. Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 22:39
  • What do you mean by asking that 'Islam calls for Jihad"? It generally means 'to expend effort' and this in the way of Allah and this means to pursue the good. In war, it means to pursue a just war. However, in the media it has become a synonym for terrorism. This is not correct. It's also not listed in the five pillars of Islam, which is a succint summary of the beliefs and practises of Sunni Islam. Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 22:45
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    @Jo Wehler: Also Rawls is secular. Commented Apr 8, 2022 at 22:45
  • Taken from wikipedia: Jihad (/dʒɪˈhɑːd/; Arabic: جهاد, romanized: jihād [dʒiˈhaːd]) is an Arabic word which literally means "striving" or "struggling", especially with a praiseworthy aim. In an Islamic context, it can refer to almost any effort to make personal and social life conform with God's guidance, such as struggle against one's evil inclinations, proselytizing, or efforts toward the moral betterment of the Muslim community (Ummah), though it is most frequently associated with war. Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 11:00

The Kantian categorical imperative is a secular argument in favour of moral realism. The SEP states that Kant characterises it as "objective, rationally necessary and unconditional".

This is simply a secular restatement of the Christian ethic of 'love thy neighbour' where love is to be understood as agape, that is fellow-feeling or empathy.

It's also worth pointing out that the Kantian utopia is the 'kingdom of ends' where every man or woman is taken as an end and not a means. This is not a million miles away from the utopia held by communists or anarchists.

  • I have never understood the use of the word 'end' in reference to a being. Perhaps that is why I don't understand utopias or ideals?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 2:29
  • @Scott Rowe: It comes from Aristotle and it means their final or end cause. Roughly, purpose. Plenty of people have understood utopias without understanding the notion of end. I don't understand your logic or lack of it. Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 13:51

The Golden Rule seems to be the most widely shared and persistent moral guide. I argue it, and Kant's imperative, and Rawl's veil, depend on their role in amplifying intersubjectivity. Discussed here: Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :)

We find intersubjectivity is key to the physical mimicry of tool use (by mirroring actions), and the sharing and preserving of experience in language (eg a narrator or hero that is identified with). Discussed here: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from? and Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)?

In this intersubjectivity perspective, we can justify Peter Singer's proposal that expanding the circle of moral concern constitutes the direction of moral progress, because sharing our world with animals expands our minds. For instance, it may have been critical to our evolution through early hominids going North copying cave-bear survival strategies. And this paper also gives support: Bigotry and the human–animal divide: (Dis)belief in human evolution and bigoted attitudes across different cultures. The capacity to picture the experiences of others, supports collaboration (but following Haidt's work on moral foundations theory, maturing under threat or in conflicts may reduce the adaptiveness of this).

We can understand approaches to morality as having functional consequences through this intersubjectivity perspective, and so morally real consequences. That's not an 'Ought from an Is', but it can help better understand that morality is not simply a matter of taste. I would describe intersubjectivity as peer-to-peer rather than 'objective' (which smuggles in 'the mind of god' experiencing it - objectivity is just reified intersubjectivity, as I see it).

The other angle to approach moral realism from, is game-theory. This answer links it to social-contracts and free-rider problems: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate? What is called moral or advocated socially or culturally that is opposed to individual advantage, can typically be understood as supporting unstable equilibria of mutual advantage, vs a lose-lose stable equilibrium - comparable to versions of the Prisoners Dilemma and choices and consequences there. We can use this to understanding specific examples, like: How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer? and the emergence of different moral equilibria in different places and times: Is artificially generating images of minors in sexual positions unethical?

These approaches to moral realism do not impose specific moralities, which is inevitable given the Is-Ought distinction. But, we can use them to understand how and why morality emerges, and take a deeper view of the consequences of interventions and changes, in ways that different people can agree on, using evidence.

I would add a cautionary note about Sam Harris' approach to attempting secular moral realism, basically by ignoring Hume's point, discussed here: Is Sam Harris's view of morality innovating? What philosophers innovated specifics on morality?


Good and evil (or ought) can't care what we call them any more than up and down. What we should call the direction farther from the center of the planet is subjective. The relationship between that direction and the rest of physical reality is objective. Characteristics of physical processes are relationally defined, not indelibly associated to mouth noises or the squiggle pictures we draw (write) to represent them.

If you define good and evil in terms of relationships between physical processes and/or their characteristics; you avoid tautologies (the relationship shouldn't be reducible to X = X or X ∈ {X, Y, Z, ...}); and your definition comports well enough with the common-language meaning that other people can understand you, then you've got definitions of good and evil that are every bit as objective and absolute as your definitions of up and down, and the fact that somebody else can map similar mouth noises onto other parts of physical reality is irrelevant.

If moral realism is taken to demand more objectivity for good than for up I think it's asking for something that's logically incoherent, regardless of religion.


Other answers have mentioned the Kantian response of appeal to the categorical imperative. Here are a few other considerations.

  1. Although different cultures and societies have different laws and moral codes, there are many core features of moral codes that are common. Most cultures have proscriptions against murder, theft and rape, for example. Most cultures value honesty and integrity. There seem to be more commonalities than differences.

  2. Some moral virtues are essential, or at least conducive, to a successful society. So it is fitting for a society to inculcate virtuous behaviours into its members and to punish those who deviate from them. A society without any moral virtues would not thrive.

  3. Moral virtues are not an arbitrary choice, even among those who are immoral. As the saying goes, there is honour among thieves. Even people who care nothing for moral codes or strictures may find it to be a practical necessity to behave in an honest or prudent fashion, at least among those of their own tribe.

  • So virtuous behavior is simply practical, you might even say selfish, because it works best overall. Game theory shows that everyone does better overall when they cooperate. It would be good if people were also smart enough to see that being selfish in this way would be most advantageous to themselves. Then we would not have to teach cooperation, reward it, or punish transgressions: it would be natural.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 2:24

People act like moral questions are difficult. There are some vexing moral questions, but not many.

Kant explained it very simply: “Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.”

We say an act is evil when the actor who commits it would not want to the world to be such that he could be the subject of that act. A murderer does not want to be murdered; a thief does not wish his own property to be stolen.

A cat kills a mouse she has no intention of eating and moral people are repulsed, but we do not call the cat or her behavior “evil”, because the cat cannot conceptualize what it would mean to be the mouse in that situation. You and I can, and therefore we are subject to moral laws. If we violate them, we are, in fact, evil.

There are some people who do destructive, unlawful things to others that they would cheerfully endure themselves — but those people are insane, and not evil. They are detained, hospitalized if possible, but not imprisoned or executed.

Imagine the only possible choice in life were to drive on the left side of the road or the right. Which one is chosen is utterly arbitrary, but a world in which each driver made the capricious choice to drive on whichever side struck his fancy would be a world where the roads would be dangerous to the point of impassible. There has to be some rule that everyone follows.

Thus an arbitrary choice — made by majority vote, by some bureaucrat, or just by custom — becomes a moral imperative.

Notice that the Categorical Imperative arises without any reference to specifics. If everyone in the world desires to be protected by a rule, then everyone in the world is subject to that rule, whatever the rule is.

The specifics depend on the population being governed. It would be interesting to speculate what would happen if there were two intelligent species on a planet, and the members of one species had no objection to dying and therefore regarded killing or being killed as being of no more significance than touching or being touched on the shoulder, while the other species felt as humans do on the subject. How could rules be established to govern everyone?

In the absence of such species though, knowing how to live a moral life is pretty simple, even in the absence of a supernatural lawgiver, although actually doing so is not necessarily easy.

  • I was hearing there were groups defeated by Mexica Aztecs, who refused to be saved from being sacrificed by Conquistadors, apparently because meeting death fearlessly was so valued, & a far more positive attitude to death. Also, fluctuating El Nino cycles & highly rain-dependent corn crops meant the sustainable population varied wildly. Hive species will rapidly kill an injured queen, & eject or constrain sick or contaminated individuals. Multicellular organisms practice apoptosis ruthlessly during development. Game-theory can help even where foundational values aren't shared.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 14:03

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