What I have in mind is a non-utilitarian alternative to Sharon Hewitt Rawlette (a summary from a podcast) which would propose something like:

Morality is objective because moral facts are equally as fundamental as physical laws.

According to Rawlette, the defining element of something bad is the sensation of ought-not-to-be-ness. This most naturally leads to utilitarianism because this sensation seems to be easily describable on the pleasure-pain axis.

However, has someone argued that deontological intuitions express something similar - as real and fundamental as physics? For me, the most natural way to argue this would be to assert the universe experiences negative qualia when someone breaks a commitment, for instance.

EDIT: Kristian Berry's answer rightfully hinted that many religious philosophies could be described along these lines, so I'm starting the bounty to also cover some which aren't rooted in traditional religious assumptions.

  • Most moral realists are not utilitarians. Kant's deontology is arguably a form of moral realism, and so is divine command theory. Ross is a moral intuitionist with a deontology, Foot and McDowell developed realist variants of virtue ethics inspired by Aristotle's.
    – Conifold
    Dec 19, 2022 at 9:20
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    I'm more of a boo-hooray sort of guy, but you might find some leads, if you haven't searched, in SEP's moral epistemology.
    – J D
    Jan 13, 2023 at 15:16
  • Trying to sort all this out, since my technical vocabulary is pretty limited, and so much, as always, depends on how you define this or that. Here I'm stumbling a bit over your key terms, from "non-utilitarian" to "phenomenology." Do they comprise a contradiction? One way of defining "objective" is simply "impersonal." Perhaps "utility" in relation to a collective subject? I am wondering if Hegel might be in play here. We are still rooted in phenomena and a defined "ought," yet the necessary "slaughter bench of history" is hard to square with standard utilitarianism. Still pondering... Jan 19, 2023 at 5:00
  • how do boo-hooray guys account for moral disagreement @JD without even intuitionism (boo... no actually now you say it, hooray)?
    – user64279
    Jan 20, 2023 at 21:08
  • @vices If accounting is a synonym for justification, then boo-hooray needn't concern itself with moral disagreement. Different folks have different gut reactions based on individual psychologies. Boo-hooray is anti-philsophical in its radical form. Of course, it also makes a great foundation for pluralistic meta-ethical theories too. If your psychological intuitions don't match mine, we're bound to differ.
    – J D
    Jan 21, 2023 at 3:01

3 Answers 3


I got as far as the first few highlights of the transcript, but so I wonder how far what Rawlette says is from what you say about a negative quale attaching to promise-breaking. Whatever reasons Rawlette has for hedonism do not automatically translate into reasons for utilitarianism, since utilitarianism isn't about just, "What is good?" but, "What is right?" And these are different questions, though answers to them admit of a deep ordering, and this ordering problem is one of the most fundamental in metaethics.

Kant has been styled a moral constructivist, which is something of a cognitivist, but not "traditionally" realist, point of view (though see Allen Wood for a more "realist" interpretation of Kantian metaethics). At any rate, for Kant, the moral law is tantamount to a law of quasi-physics on an analogy between ethics and physics (this difficult-to-parse claim is most acutely crystallized in the section of the second Critique that goes over "the type of the moral law"). Insofar as Kant holds transcendental freedom to be as or more fundamental than physical determinism, he has a non-utilitarian cognitivism in place, then. More specifically, his second formulation of the categorical imperative adverts to the Aristotelian definition of "substance," taking, "A subject that cannot objectively be a predicate," and giving a counterpart notion of, "An end that cannot only be a means to something else" (this is due to the parallelism between categorical propositions and categorical prescriptions in his overarching theory of logic).

So in that sense, Kant's "end in itself" is "as fundamental as" the notion of (physical) substance.

Theological voluntarism, the heading under which "divine-command theory" falls, can also be cognitivist, non-utilitarian (perhaps even essentially non-hedonistic, supposing that God doesn't passively feel things), and as/more fundamental than physics. Also, it would seem relatively easy for a divine being to maximize Its happiness under almost any conceivable circumstances, so it would be hard to get utilitarianism about rightness out of that deal. (Not impossible, though; e.g. suspend the impassibility thesis enough, and...)

Going back to the issue of the good vs. the right, the most schematic account of either adverts to the difference between cardinal and ordinal numbers, i.e. the concept of goodness is of deontic information best described using "amount of" talk, the concept of rightness is more about "degree of" talk. For finite numbers, amounts can always directly map back into degrees; for infinite sets, you need choice axioms or other special well-ordering principles to guarantee the fit. Arguably, then, though, the things that are good are right actions first, and these must be identifiable apart from how independently productive they are, of pleasure or anything else.

But there are also dual usages of numbers—numbers used in a way that is at once both cardinal and ordinal, i.e. surreal/surdinal numbers—and then usages of numbers as arbitrary indexes (a sort of "haecceitic" use). That latter kind of usage play into Rawls' objection to utilitarianism that it omits adequate consideration of the differences between persons (A Theory of Justice, 1999 ed., pg. 24), which is echoed by the question of replaceability in theories of romantic affection.

Addendum. One fanciful method of implementing the "as fundamental as physics" idea would be to suppose a sort of deontic field permeating spacetime, though how this would actually play out is beyond me at the moment. Another analogy might be drawn with the cumulation of the normal set-theoretic universe from the empty set, though this metaphor would suggest starting out from may-be-ness (permissibility, or even sheer gratuity) instead of ought-to-be-ness.

  • Thanks! To clarify, Rawlette is a utilitarian. The idea someone could argue for a non-utilitarian philosophy from the same meta-ethics is mine, afaik
    – Probably
    Dec 18, 2022 at 20:08
  • @Probably, I would wonder if/where Rawlette infers consequentialism from hedonism, then, since to get utilitarianism on her terms you need to combine hedonism and consequentialism. G. E. Moore's belief about rightness modulo goodness is consequentialist but non-hedonist, for example. Dec 18, 2022 at 20:18
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    Right, thanks! IMO one only needs to do a tiny intuitive step to get from moral realist hedonism to utilitarianism - the realization that value of any state can be fully expressed as a rational number, which implies aggregationism, impartiality or trade-offs
    – Probably
    Dec 20, 2022 at 0:01
  • @Probably, interestingly, Kant "foresaw" the modus operandi of aggregationism via hedonism, for he put hedonism under the counterpart of the axioms of intuition in the tabulation of heteronomous ethical theories. I.e., each of the four families of moral theories he counted as heteronomous corresponds to one of the types of principles (axioms, anticipations, analogies, and modalities) of the understanding. But see also Rawls, AToJ, 1999 ed., secs. 27, 30, 49, 83, and 84. Dec 20, 2022 at 2:39

Basically, ALL moral philosophizing does this. Moral thinking presupposes that our moral intuitions show us a real part of our universe, then fit a model to those intuitions.

And while utilitarian hedonism is the most commonly held model among moral philosophers, there are a significant number who are deontological (our moral intuitions reveal a universe governed by moral rules) of which the majority are Rights thinkers, but there are two notable non-Rights deontologists, Kant and Rawls, who came up with their own alternative rule set other than "rights" that they think better fits our intuitions.

Other non-utilitarian consequentialist alternatives include all the Darwinian consequentialists (law of tooth and claw, alpha male dominance, social Darwinism, eusociality, deep ecology), and Virtue consequentialists (virtue ethics prioritizes the outcome of improved character over physical welfare). Virtue consequentialism includes suites of virtues as diverse as wisdom traditions such as the Greek or Confucian ethics, warrior virtues such as the Samurai, Truth and Love virtues in more modern virtues thinking, and agency/creativity in Nietzsche and Ayn Rand's ethics.

You asked for, specifically, to put this in indirect realist terms -- where one empirically infers reality based on best working model of observed phenomenon. But few ethics thinkers explicitly spell out this step of applying "Indirect Realism with resulting empirical inference to reality based on best working model matching our perceptions", even though that is what they are doing. Don't toss the multitudes of moral thinkers who make that step intuitively rather than explicitly. You can just make that step of their arguments explicit in your own reformulation of their views, and it is going to basically be the same step in all realist moral thinking, whether stated explicitly or not.


Plato developed a Theory of Forms. Forms exist and inform our ability to experience objects and ineffable ideas. It follows the path from the “Realm of the Forms” (which are the perfect whole and unchanging aspects of the universe) to “Particulars” (which are the tangible aspects of the world we experience). He discusses that morality is one such Form, understood a priori, and not out of convention. He can be described as eudaemonistic; pursuing natural perfection of one’s self, as opposed to utilitarian evaluation of collective utility or a social normative system.

I do believe however he believes that the “Realm of Forms” is definitively outside the “Realm of Experience” (where the Particulars exist). We cannot interact with Forms, so our understanding will always be incomplete, or perhaps described as unsure.

Here is a more complete description of his theory of Forms. I have set this for the third video, “episode 4”. Plato’s theory of the Good. If you return to “episode 2”, you can listen to the whole explanation.

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