Personally, I believe it's fair to assume nature/reality has no purpose. Quite often, people that, like myself, have some interest in natural sciences, agree that there are good reasons to believe nature/reality has no purpose.

However, when asked whether they believe morals are therefor relative, quite often they seem to disagree. I've never really asked them how they want to defend that position though.

But now, I just wanted to ask people who might recognize them selfs in said position (rejecting moral relativism while at the same time assuming no purpose in nature). How does one intellectually defend such a position?

To be clear; I'm not talking about what is an emotionally desirable position to take, but rather the intellectually honest position to concede. I can totally understand that if one intellectually comes to the conclusion that morals are indeed relative, there may still be an emotional need to reject moral relativism and for instance prefer a utilitarian approach to ethics.

However, is there an intellectually honest approach to construct moral axioms that are still ultimately logically defensible?

I, for instance, haven't come up with any logically convincing manner to extrapolate judgment values (good, bad, nice, beautiful, ugly, etc.) from the logical values true or false.

Are people that reject the idea that morals are relative, when conceding the large probability that nature/reality has no purpose, fooling them selfs intellectually?

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    There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of introductory ethics textbooks that give an overview of numerous competing attempts to ground ethics, pretty much all of which could be considered "intellectually honest". I suggest you take a look at a few; perhaps that can be a first step. – Michael Dorfman Aug 5 '11 at 8:54
  • @Michael Dorfman: Would it be fair to say though, that all these attempts to ground ethics (in logic) have failed thus far? I mean, after centuries of moral philosophy, it seems we still haven't found the "General Theory of Ethics" (compared to numerous demonstrable theories in physics), so to speak. At least, I would think I would have heard about it already then, through numerous news outlets, just like I became aware of the General Theory of Relativity in physics, for example. Not saying that this is a decisive indicator, but isn't that a plausible indicator that it probably is undo-able? – Decent Dabbler Aug 5 '11 at 9:54
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    I wouldn't say so, no. Most philosophical questions are still open questions-- that's why we're still doing philosophy. And I don't think that analogies to physics are generally useful-- there are significant differences between the two domains. If ethics actually interests you, there are a lot of resources out there. If your interest is not serious enough to warrant further investigation on your part, what are we doing here? – Michael Dorfman Aug 5 '11 at 12:11
  • @Michael Dorfman: I am interested in arguments against my proposition that objective morals cannot emerge from purposelessness. Do some of the philosophical bodies of work you are referring to posit that nature has no intrinsic purpose? If so; do you know of any of them that, in your opinion, make a compelling case that objective morality can nonetheless still emerge from that kind of nature? I'd love to read those, since that is what my question boils down to. And "significant differences between the two domains"? What significant differences are there in applying logic vs. applying logic? – Decent Dabbler Aug 5 '11 at 13:50
  • Before we could even begin to answer your question, we'd need to pin down mutually acceptable definitions of "purpose"/"purposelessness", and "objectivity", to begin with. But the short answer is, yes, there exist ethical systems that do not rely on the notion of a purpose-directed natural world. But as I said, I suggest you start with a basic textbook on ethics, to get an overview of the field. – Michael Dorfman Aug 5 '11 at 16:45

Axioms by definition cannot be logically defended: logic is the process of applying reasoning to a set of postulates. So, in mathematics, Euclid took as axiomatic that parallel lines never meet: that cannot be mathematically proved or disproved, but without it geometry cannot get off the ground. Other geometers took as axiomatic that parallel lines meet (e.g exactly twice, as on the surface of a sphere), and came up with workable, non-Euclidean geometries.

Ethics is similar: you take what you consider to be ethical imperatives, and deduce what actions are moral. Ethical imperatives include "act for the greatest good of the greatest number", "act in accordance with the wishes of the Creator [defined in some way]" , and "act so as to ensure the survival and growth of the human species". All of these are valid bases for systems of morality (you may even recognize them), but intellectual honesty only comes into it when you claim to believe in one imperative, but dislike or refuse to accept that this action is the logical consequence.

And yes, in a sense this is entirely subjective; but it is also subjective that you choose to speak English (not Latin or your own invented language), and say that 2+2=4, not 17.


The distinction between relativism and objectivism is, pragmatically, not particularly important when there is only one thing that one needs to relate to. Thus, aside from various thought experiments, the distinction collapses when talking about e.g. innate morality in humans or evolutionary pressures on social organisms (two very powerful sources of justification for morality).

You don't have to start from scratch when using logic; you've got the entire world of observations to work with. For example:

  • Creatures that try to survive are better at surviving than those who don't.
  • We are descended from an amazingly long line of survivors.
  • Therefore, we have been shaped to try to survive.
  • Therefore, if you try to kill someone, it is likely to provoke a very negative reaction from them.
  • As social primates, we rely upon positive reactions from our social group.
  • Value judgments help us maintain mutually positive reactions
  • Since trying to kill someone is so negative, it is entirely sensible to judge that as bad
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    I understand your line of reasoning, but I believe this is exactly what I refer to with logically indefensible moral axioms. Because I believe this line of reasoning is based on the moral axiom that the human species must somehow survive. But when one concedes (for arguments sake) that reality has no purpose, then reality couldn't care less whether the human species (or any other species for that matter) survives. Only moral agents (like our selfs) care about it. And that, in itself, make these types of moral axioms subjective, no? – Decent Dabbler Aug 5 '11 at 9:05
  • @Rex - This is exactly what I started to write but then I realized that technically it was outside the scope of his question. But I do agree with your thinking. :) – stoicfury Aug 5 '11 at 15:21
  • @fireeyedboy - Non-nihilism is logically indefensible, depending on what you mean by "logically indefensible". Asking for too much and then failing to get it is a bad way to increase one's knowledge of the world. – Rex Kerr Aug 7 '11 at 1:02
  • @Rex Kerr: I think I got your first paragraph perfectly fine Rex, but I can see why you feel I didn't; I just was a bit too eager to dish out my "nihilistic" argument. ;-) As long as opponents of moral-relativism at least subscribe to what you said, I don't think I would blame them of being "intellectually dishonest". – Decent Dabbler Aug 7 '11 at 1:19
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    @fireeyedboy - I was critiquing both you and nihilists. The surest way to nihilism is to demand more from your epistemology than the world can provide. Anyway, if you read carefully, I don't assume that our species has to survive; rather, I make the educated guess that we evolved value judgments in order to help us survive, and that if we abstract away one level from actually feeling that something is bad, we can logically assess that, yes, this is "bad" (by the metric that selected for the feeling). If you reject that style of reasoning, I think you'll find yourself halfway to nihilism. – Rex Kerr Aug 8 '11 at 1:21

In short, yes. It doesn't make sense to reject both moral objectivism and moral relativism at the same time. It would be like believing in something and not believing in something simultaneously.

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