If nature were amoral, we, who come from nature, and everything we do would be amoral. Unless nature can be moral or immoral. My question would then be: how can something be intrinsically moral or immoral? What is the source of this intrinsic morality that does not depend on opinions and consciousness?

Amoral = not moral or immoral

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    Non sequitur. Moral rules do not apply to physical things or nature. Only human actions are subject to morals. Morals follow a human goal: actions are either moral or immoral, depending if they fit the goal, which can be, for example, living a good life or living in peace.
    – RodolfoAP
    Apr 28, 2022 at 23:22
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    Look up Objective Morality Apr 29, 2022 at 10:34
  • Is anything intrinsically moral or immoral? Apr 29, 2022 at 14:25
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    @DikranMarsupial - Nope. It's all cultural. The Spartans would have considered not murdering a disabled child to be the height of inhumanity. Swiss doctors regularly kill people who are fit and healthy. Pick something that someone considers "immoral" and you can almost always find a culture that's perfectly okay with it.
    – Valorum
    Apr 30, 2022 at 18:53
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    "Swiss doctors regularly kill people who are fit and healthy." citation required. Apr 30, 2022 at 19:06

6 Answers 6


That's not true necessarily. Your argument is textbook fallacy of division.

A fallacy of division1 is an informal fallacy that occurs when one reasons that something that is true for a whole must also be true of all or some of its parts.

Hence, what is true of all nature, isn't necessarily true of a part of nature. Think about it, a choir is a group, but a member of the choir isn't. :D

As to intrinsic morality, that depends on your views regarding externalism. Suffice it to say, under a naturalized epistemology, morality extends from a genetic predisposition towards eusociality. In plainspeak, people are wired to treat each other individually and collectively morally with the exception of tribal competition. Morality inheres to the organism and manifests collectively as ethics and religion.


Mary Midgley once wrote an essay, "Duties Concerning Islands", in which she asks us to imagine that Robinson Crusoe blithely desolates the island he was on, as he departs. No humans are harmed, Crusoe presumably feels satisfaction that his efforts worked (he is successful in destroying the surface forest of the island), so "where's the harm"? She argues that it is intuitive for us that the ho-hum ruin of the island represents something perverse or even depraved, though, and goes on to say:

Yet the language of our moral tradition has tended strongly, ever since the Enlightenment, to make that objection unstateable. All the terms which express that a claim is serious or binding—duty, right, law, morality, obligation, justice—have been deliberately narrowed in their use so as to apply only within the framework of contract, to describe only relations holding between free and rational agents. Since it has been decided a priori that rationality has no degrees and that cetaceans are not rational, it follows that, unless you take either religion or science fiction seriously, we can only have duties to humans, and sane, adult, fully responsible humans at that.

One environmental ethicist with a strong human-independent standard of morality was Aldo Leopold, who conceived of something called a "land ethic," which invokes quasi-teleology to define goodness relative to things like plants, IIRC. Deep ecologists generally try to work out human-transcendent standards; see this SEP article's subsection on deep ecology for a gloss of them. John Rawls focused on the kind of duties Midgley assessed as dubiously framed, but even he says (A Theory of Justice, 1999 ed., pg. 448):

Last of all, we should recall here the limits of a theory of justice... no account is given of right conduct in regard to animals and the rest of nature. ... A correct conception of our relations to animals and to nature would seem to depend upon a theory of the natural order and our place in it.

Nicholas Rescher's Axiogenesis is an example of an attempt at such a "correct conception," with impractical applications to be sure, but still, he forms a theory where value can be intrinsic to not only the reality, but even the very possibility of things in our world. That is, if they had no such value, they would not only be unreal, but impossible.

At the end of the day, though, I would suggest that, "How can something be intrinsically moral?" suffers from a shortsightedness issue, since it is an example of the scheme, "How can something be intrinsically [property x]?" That is, intrinsicness even for nonmoral properties is/can be an amorphous description (see the SEP article on the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy). I will leave you with Kant's relevant remarks (in a first-Critique section regarding the "amphiboly" of our a priori judgments) (Meiklejohn translation, B-ed.):

The Internal and External. In an object of the pure understanding, only that is internal which has no relation (as regards its existence) to anything different from itself. On the other hand, the internal determinations of a substantia phaenomenon in space are nothing but relations, and it is itself nothing more than a complex of mere relations. Substance in space we are cognizant of only through forces operative in it, either drawing others towards itself (attraction), or preventing others from forcing into itself (repulsion and impenetrability). We know no other properties that make up the conception of substance phenomenal in space, and which we term matter.

  • Lol "I will leave you with Kant's relevant remarks (in a first-Critique section regarding the "amphiboly" of our a priori judgments)" And this why this site is fun! So, to what extent is the moral anthropocentrism of the West an epigentic bias, technological separation from nature, or to what extent is it Judeo-Christian normativity do you reckon?
    – J D
    Apr 29, 2022 at 20:09

Morality stems from the ability to consciously choose one action over another. So until something in nature developed that ability, it was amoral (non-moral). But then consciousness developed, and here we are.

There is a relation to suffering and joy existing only because there is something that can experience it. Before creatures existed that could suffer, there was no suffering. But once suffering exists, and someone can recognize that suffering and make choices that increase or decrease it, those choices become a morally laden.

So, no, I do not think there is an intrinsic morality that does not depend on consciousness, because I already think morality intrinsically depends on consciousness.


Nature is non-moral, i.e. without moral. Otherwise, does anybody believe:

Before the existence of humans, values and intrinsic morality lay sleeping for billions of years, waiting for human or other species as the prince to kiss them alive?

Values and even more morality develop from social interaction of individuals with vital interests and the capability to make decisions.

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    what is the distinction between amoral and non-moral? Apr 29, 2022 at 12:28
  • @Dikran Marsupial Please see merriam-webster.com/dictionary/amoral: The word 'amoral' has two different meanings. Here I mean 'non-moral' = lying outside the sphere to which moral judgments apply. It is Merriam-Webster's meaning 1b of 'amoral'.
    – Jo Wehler
    Apr 29, 2022 at 12:39
  • Ah, that is obviously the meaning of amoral in the question, so I was wondering if some distinction was being made, but evidently there isn't. Apr 29, 2022 at 12:48
  • It isn't clear to me that morals do not apply to higher apes and perhaps cetatians. They have social interactions and the capability to make decisions. Apr 29, 2022 at 12:58
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    @Dikran Marsupial You are right. I made an edit :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Apr 29, 2022 at 14:08

If we distinguish between the personal choices a person makes, from those which come from the group or culture he/she is in, we could differentiate the following (with arbitrarily chosen words to fit the definition)

  • Ethics: The personal choices which an individual makes based on their own sense of right or wrong
  • Justice: What the group does to, or about, an individual who makes choices which damage the group (ie, choices which are "wrong" from the group viewpoint)
  • Morals: The personal choices which an individual makes based on some kind of tradition, code or law which the group has established

From this, I would point out that something like a wolf pack, as a group, most definitely has justice. I'm no expert in wolf psychology, but I understand they have a pack leader and obedience hierarchy or similar. A wolf which disagrees with the pack is brought into line by "wolf justice" (I imagine - my whole argument could be brought down by a wolf expert correcting me)

So an individual wolf makes choices about compliance with the "morals" of the pack, ie, if wolf packs have justice, individual wolves have morals.

But perhaps an upcoming alpha wolf thinks that the truly "right" thing to do is to take over the pack. Perhaps this wolf considers he/she can make better decisions (for the group) than the current leader. This wolf is making an ethics choice (and had better be strong enough to follow through against the group justice)

In other words: I'm challenging that nature or natural things are necessarily amoral. I would argue, only the laws of physics and chemistry are obviously amoral. Biology may be, but it's not obvious.

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    You've picked the words arbitrarily in a different way to the usual conventions in philosophy, which makes your answer a little confusing. I suggest reading Wiktionary's usage notes and editing your answer to match.
    – wizzwizz4
    Apr 29, 2022 at 14:10
  • @wizzwizz4 Thanks for pointing this out to me. Reading the wiktionary, I actually don't think I'm too far off. I think a decision based on your own personal "inner" sense of right and wrong fits the idea of concepts "good and evil and right and wrong"; while traditions, codes and laws fit the idea of "proper conduct". Whether something is "proper conduct" or not is a social judgement, a group thing. Whether I feel I did right is a personal thing, my own inner concept. It's close enough for me.
    – Stewart
    Apr 29, 2022 at 19:48
  • I think you've got "ethics" and "morals" the wrong way around. I'm not certain, though. (And anyway, it doesn't terribly matter, since you've defined your terminology at the top of the answer.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Apr 29, 2022 at 21:20
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    @wizzwizz4 I didn't see them as reversed, I saw them as orthogonal but related. "theoretical, abstract" is not opposite of "coming from the group" or "coming from within the individual". It's a different axis. Anyway, my point was to create an example where morals, justice and ethics all exist in a non-human nature world. A wolf may not be able to articulate the nuances of ethics theory, but I bet he has an instinct for right & wrong in the context of a wolf pack.
    – Stewart
    May 1, 2022 at 13:26

If “moral” refers to something like “What we imperatively ought to do or value regardless of our needs and preferences” then it seems at least likely that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral.

However, if what is “moral” is defined by the function (the principal reason they exist) of cultural moral norms and the biology underlying our moral sense, then behaviors that solve cooperation problems are “intrinsically moral”.

There is a growing consensus that the principal reason that cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist is that they define and motivate elements of strategies that solve cooperation problems and they were selected by the benefits of cooperation they produced. This hypothesis is supported by its remarkable explanatory power for virtually all cultural moral norms and judgments and motivations produced by our moral sense, no matter how diverse, contradictory, and strange. See References below.

Here, ”intrinsically” refers to “innate to our physical universe” in the sense that strategies such as indirect reciprocity and the cooperation/exploitation dilemma are as innate to our universe as the evolutionary game theory mathematics that define them. All species in our universe are faced with the same cooperation problems and must solve them to form highly cooperative societies. So, it is at least highly likely that all intelligent, highly cooperative species in our universe will understand the importance of reciprocity strategies for cooperation and be familiar with the powerful moral norm “Do to other as you would have them do to you” which effectively advocates initiating indirect reciprocity.

Some of the above is my own thinking, but I argue it is supported by:

  1. Bowles, S., Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
  2. Curry, O. S. (2007). The conflict-resolution theory of virtue. In W. P. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral Psychology (Vol. I, pp. 251-261). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  3. Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality. Springer.
  4. Harms, W., Skyrms, B. (2010) Evolution of Moral Norms. In Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Biology ed. Michael Ruse. Oxford University Press.
  5. Nowak, M., Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Free Press.
  6. Tomasello, M., & Vaish, A. (2013). Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 231-255.

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