Morality for Scientists.

Abstract: Scientifically minded types often conclude that morality is subjective. However, moral subjectivism is not proven by the failure of moral objectivism, and has drastic flaws of its own, Whereas there are unappreciated advantages to moral objectvism and realism.


  • Metaethics
  • Relativism
  • Realism

Prima Facie Case for Moral Objectvism

At first glance, morality looks as though it should work objectively. The mere fact that we praise and condemn people’s moral behaviour indicates that we think a common set of rules is applicable to us and them. Moreover, morality needs to provide the foundations of law: the rewards and punishments handed out to people are objective: someone is either in jail or not; they cannot be in jail from some perspectives and not others. Another problems is thst if ethics were relative at the subjective level anyone could get off the hook by devising a system of personal morality in which whatever they felt like doing was permissible. It would be hard to see the difference between such a state of affairs and having no morality at all. The subtler sort of subjectivist (or relativist) tries to ameliorate this problem by claiming that moral principles re defined at the societal level, but similar problems recur — a society (such as the Thuggees or Assassins) could declare that murder is Ok with them. These considerations are of course an appeal to how morality seems to work as a ‘language game’ and as such do not put ethics on a firm foundation — the language game could be groundless. I will argue that it is not, but first the other side of the argument needs to be put.

The Arguments against Realism

Argument From Descriptive Relativism

It is indisuptable that morality varies in practice across communities. But the contention of ethical objectivism is not that everyone actually does hold to a single objective sysem of ethics; it is only that ethical questions can be resolved objectively in principle. The existence of an objective solution to any kind of problem is always compatible with the existence of people who, for whatever reason, do not subscribe. The roundness of the Earth is no less an objective fact for the existence of believers in the Flat Earth theory.(It is odd that the single most popular argument for ethical subjectivism has so little logical force).

Argument from Universality

Another objection is that an objective system of ethics must be accepted by everybody, irrespective of their motivations, and must therefore be based in self-interest. Again, this gets the nature of objectivity wrong. The fact that some people cannot see does not make any visual evidence less objective, the fact that some people refuse to employ logic does not make logical argument any less objective. All claims to objectivity make the background assumption are claims to a truth that will be unserstood by, and compeeling to, individuals of a certain level of rationality.

Argument from Unsavoury Motivations

Some people insist that anyone who is promoting ethical objectivism and opposing relativism must be doing so in order to illegitamately promote their own ethical system as absolute. While this is problably pragmatically true in many cases, particularly where political and religious rhetoric is involved, it has no real logical force, because the contention of ethical objectivism is only that ethical questions are objectively resolvable in principle — it does not entail a claim that the speaker or anyone else is actually in possession of them. This marks the first of our analogues with science, since the in-principle objectivity of science coincides with the fact that current scientific thinking is almost certainly not final or absolute. ethical objectivism is thus a middle road between subjectivism/relativism on the one hand, and various absolutisms (such as religious fundamentalism) on the other.

Argument the Realism Requires Non-Physical Entities

This is the objection on that moral facts need to correspond to some kind of immaterial or non-physical ‘queer fact’ or ‘moral object’ which cannot be found.

Argument that Realism Requires an Ultimate Authority

Euthyphro: the say-so of an Ultimate Subject still isn’t Objective!

Argument from the Lack of an Object-Level Ethics

Physicalism does not require a final phsyical theory.

Argument from Circular Evaluation

Moral values do not need to be evaluated against other moral values, they can be evaluated against the values of rationality.

Argument from the Subjectivity of Value

I think there is a difference between it being objectively true that, in certain circumstances, the values of rational agents converge, and it being objectively true that those values are moral. A rational agent can do really “bad” things if the beliefs and intrinsic values on which it is acting are “bad”. Why else would anyone be scared of AI?

I don’t require their values to converge, I require them to accept the truths of certain claims. This happens in real life. People say “I don’t like X, but I respect your right to do it”. The first part says X is a disvalue, the second is an override coming from rationality.

Only rational agents, not all mindful agents, will have what it takes to derive objective moral truths. They don’t need to converge on all their values to converge on all their moral truths, because ratioanity can tell you that a moral claim is true even if it is not in your (other) interests. Individuals can value rationality, and that valuation can override other valuations.

Only rational agents, not all mindful agents, will have what it takes to derive objective moral truths. The further claim that agents will be motivated to do derive moral truths., and to act on them, requires a further criterion. Morality is about regulating behaviour in a society, So only *social* rational agents will have motivation to update. Again, they do not have to converge on values beyond the shared value of sociality.

It’s uncontrovesial that rational agents need to update, and that AIs need to self-modify. The claim that values are in either case insulated from updates is the extraordinary one. The Cipper theory tells you that you could build something like that if you were crazy enough. Since Clippers are contrived, nothing can be inferred from them about typical agents. People are messy, and can accidentally update their values when trying to do something else, For instance, LukeProg updated to “atheist” after studying Christian apologetics for the opposite reason.

Argument from Variation in Conditions.

It is unlikely that different societies would have identical ethics under different circumstances. Unlike the preceding arguments, this is a real issue.

Argument from unintuitiveness

Work you kill kittens if it was objectively the right thing to do? How could you know it was objectively right without knowing why. This objection presupposes the Tablet or Divine Command theory, where a moral truth is presented as a fait accompli. It doesn’t apply to versions of realism where rational agents are supposed to be able to arrive at and converge on moral truths by their own efforts. 8f you figure out a moral truth, you will have reason to believe it, those reasons being exactly the steps that brought you to the realisation.

Moral Objectivism based on Facts and Reason

Advantages and Disadvantages of Consequentialism

Deontology, unlike Utilitarianism can explain why moral claims are compelling, why one ,strong>should be moral.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Deontology

Deontology, unlike Utilitarianism can explain why moral claims are compelling, why one should be moral. Are rational grounds sufficient to tell us what we should do, rather than what we shouldn’t? Maxims and rules.

Analogies between Natural and Moral Law

Natural laws do not correspond in a simplistic one-to-one way with any empirically detectable object, yet empiricism is relevant to both supporting and disconfirming natural laws. With this in mind, we should not rush to reject the objective reality of moral laws on the basis that there is no ‘queer’ object for them to stand in one-to-one correspondence with.

There is, therefore, a semi-detached relationship between natural laws and facts — laws are not facts but are not unrelated to facts — facts confirm and disconfirm them. There is also a famous dichotomy between fact and value (where ‘value’ covers ethics, morality etc). You cannot, we are told, derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This is the fact/value problem.

But, as Hume’s argument reminds us, you cannot derive a law from an isolated observation. Call this the fact/law problem. Now, if the morality is essentially a matter or ethical rules or laws, might not the fact/value problem and the law/value problem be at least partly the same ?

(Note that there seems to be a middle ground here; the English “should” can indicate lawfulness without implying either ineveitability, like a natural law, or morality. eg you “should” move the bishop diagonally in chess — but that does not mean you will, or that it is unethical to do so. It is just against the rules of chess).

Sceptics about ethical objectivism will complain that they cannot be exactly the same because moral rules like “Thou shalt not kill” contain an ‘ought’, an irreducibly ethical element. Let’s look at what sceptics about natural laws say: their complaint is that a law is not a mere collection of facts. A law cannot be directly derived from a single observation, but it is not constituted by a collection of observations, a mere historical record, either. A historical record is a mere description; it tells you what has happened, but a law tells us what will and must happen. A description gives no basis for expectation — the territory does not have to correspond to the map — yet we expect laws to be followed, if we believe in them at all.

I do not propose to answer this challenge in its own terms — that is I do not propose to show that a collection of mere facts does provide all by itself the required lawfulness. On my analysis, all individual laws depend on a general assumption — a meta-law or ur-law — that the future will follow the same general pattern as the past. The sceptic will object that this has been assumed without proof. My reply is that each individual law is tested on its own merits. Since at least some laws are thus shown to be correct a-posteriori, the lack of a-priori proof of the meta-law is not significant.

My further contention is that there is a different meta-law that needs to be posited for ethical rules. Just as someone who is engaged in the business of understanding the natural world needs a basic commitment to the idea that nature has regularities, so someone needs a basic commitment to moral behaviour in order to be convinced by ethical arguments. Ethical arguments do not and cannot be expected to convince psychopaths, any more than mathematical arguments can be expected to convice the innumerate. Whilst it is essentially correct that an evaluative conclusion cannot be drawn directly from a factual premiss, such a conclusion can be drawn with the aid of a bridging prinicple, (which is of course just our meta-law) e.g

  1. I do not want to be murdered
  2. I should do as I would be done by
  3. I should not murder.

(2) is an example of a meta-law (or bridging principle or moral maxim), As ethical objectivism is a work-in-progress there are many variants, and a considerable literature discussing which is the correct one.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Consequentialism

It can supply positive goals, and provide motivation. When applied to judgements of individual actions, it leads to injustice.

Deontology and Consequentialism Reconciled.

They’re about different things.

Disadvantages of Relativism

Arbitrariness, lack of fulfillment of functional role.

Disadvantages of Realism

Ethical universalism is unikely. It is unlikely that different societies would have identical ethics under different circumstances. However, a compromise position can allow object-level ethics to vary non-arbitrarily. Strong realism is wrong, but it is not obvioulsy wronger than strong relativism. Utilitarianism does this automatically, but is disadvantageous at explaining where Ethical Compulsion comes from.

Realism and Relativism Reconciled: Non-universal, Non-Arbitrary-Ethics

My ideas about sexual conduct are in line with my instincts. A highly religious person’s ideas about sexual conduct are in line with the instincts that society drilled into them. If I converted that person into sex-positivism, they would shed the societal conditioning and their morality and feelings would change. Who is not in alignment with their instincts?

The convertee. In my expererience, people are generally converted by arguments…reasoning…system 2. So when people are converted, they go from Instinct to Reason. But perhaps you know of some process by which subjective feelings are transferred directly, without the involvement of system 2.