Is morality objective, yet relative?

Jason Mckenzie Alexander at makes an interesting proposition, that morality is a social technology, one that goes out of date and frequently needs to be upgraded.

He first describes the common sentiment that morals are objective in some timeless platonic sense.   I discussed the problems with this view in a post a while back on the various scopes of morality:

  1. personal
  2. cultural
  3. legal
  4. objective

In that post, I noted that the first three undoubtedly exist and are constantly interacting with each other.  They can be studied through psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, etc.  But that if the fourth existed, we don’t seem to have any good way to determine it.

Another sense of morality is that it’s simply personal preferences.  Discussing emotivism, the idea that the statement “murder is wrong” is equivalent to “boo murder”, or that “charity is good” is equivalent to “yay charity”, Alexander notes it makes most people uneasy.  After all, if morals are completely subjective, then by what basis can we condemn immoral acts?

Alexander attempts to bridge this divide by reference to game theory.  The idea being that the optimal set of rules to maximize social order and welfare is context dependent, and changes as the environment changes.

I think there’s some merit to this.  The morals of a desert community tend to be very different from the morals of society living on freshwater shores.  For example, people’s attitude toward wasting water will be very different.  Many hunter-gatherer cultures have expectations of children euthanizing their parents when they become too old and feeble to keep up with the tribe, while agricultural societies tend to expect that people take care of elders in their senescence.

But while these types of factors definitely affect a culture’s mores, it seems clear that not all desert societies are the same, nor all agricultural societies, or hunter-gatherer ones.  Environmental factors do lay down a moral landscape of sorts, but the details can still vary tremendously.

And game theory itself is only useful in regards to whatever the goal is.  Of course, we all desire to survive and flourish along with our friends and family, but while “survive” is unambiguous, words like “flourish” and “welfare” leave a lot of room for interpretation.  A woman raised in a traditional Pakistani household is going to have a very different idea of what it means to flourish than a woman raised in Sweden.

So I think the idea that there is an objective morality, that we just need to factor in all the correct variables, is dubious.  It’s a variation of the notion of a science of morality.  At the end of the day, morality is about how we should live together, which ultimately comes down to our collective psychology of how we want to live, a collective psychology that’s going to change depending on who’s in the collective.  Societies have little choice but to hammer out a consensus on what their principles should be.

I do think there’s a lot to be said for a society finding a consensus that meets the instinctual needs of as many of their members as possible.  With the proviso that our instincts are often in conflict with one another, and where to land on the tension between them often not anything that can be objectively determined.

And meeting the needs of as many as possible could itself be considered a cultural value.  But if so, it appears to be one that more and more cultures are adopting, leading to what Martin Luther King described as the arc of history bending toward justice.

What do you think?  Is there an objective morality?  If so, how can we learn about it?  Or is the whole idea of a universal morality misguided?

32 thoughts on “Is morality objective, yet relative?

  1. My own “belief” (for it is of course only a belief) is that there is an absolute morality but we are only beginning to grope our way towards it. I keep going back to that kindly old buffer at the recent royal wedding: love he said. Love is all. And I believe that, very firmly. That we are groping our way towards it seems indicated by the fact that in general we are becoming better behaved towards each other. I will tell you a funny tale. I was having a drink with an ancient colonel one night at his house down in Kent. He was talking about Africans, black Africans. Can’t remember in which country on that sad continent but this mad old buffer was talking about “blacks” and how the only way to keep them in their place was to shoot them. Or a few of them anyway. Few people think like that from later generations; hopefully anyway.

    Yes, different ages have different standards, different morals. Read the books of john Buchan to see how things have changed in the past hundred years. But I like to think we are changing for the better and not just for utilitarian purposes. I am afraid that like Teilhard de Chardin I see us heading towards the Omega point.

    But that is mere belief. And wishful thinking no doubt. Nonetheless the old African American at the Royal Wedding had it right. Love. That is the essential and immutable moral from which all else should flow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can’t argue against love, although that term also seems open to a lot of interpretation.

      It does seems like we’re getting better in the ways we treat each other. Steven Pinker wrote a whole book on that. In my more optimistic moments, I see progress throughout history. In my more jaded ones, I wonder if I’m not just seeing the progression toward my society’s norms, and whether I would think the norms in 200 years would be an improvement.


  2. Based on your description, I’d say Jason Alexander is either spot on, or very close. He must be my long lost twin separated at birth. My own perspective is that there’s a core that makes morality different from, for example, personal hopes or ambitions – roughly, that morality is about people reasoning together about how to live. But within that core, there is an extremely wide variety of possible solutions. That can include leaving behind stragglers in a hunter-gatherer tribe, to use your example. And what is an optimal solution does depend on the specific likes and abilities of those in the society. That is a kind of subjectivity, in a common use of the word “subjective”, but it doesn’t generally make a social policy stand or fall on a single person’s whim. It has to pass the test of general acceptance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, you might want to read Alexander’s piece before you declare him a long lost brother 🙂

      But I agree that morality is about living together. It would make life so much easier if it could just be scientifically determined, but I haven’t seen any indication that it can. We have no choice but to work it out, all of us, together.


  3. And now for something completely different, i.e., my viewpoint.

    I think there is an objective morality. In fact it is like a utilitarian morality, except for the utility part. Scientifically, objectively, there is a reason why life came into existence, and that reason is that life accelerates the increase in entropy. Entropy always increases but life increases it faster. More life increases it more faster, and technological life will increase it even more faster. The purpose of life is to increase entropy.

    That said, this knowledge is not useful for us to determine how we should act. There is no way to determine how any given action will impact the bottom line. Any given action which seems to increase entropy now may actually slow the overall increase.

    So here’s the good part. All we can do now is develop our rules of thumb, and Darwin will determine whether our rules are the best rules. Darwin will be working at both the individual level and the group level, so cultures are being chosen as well.

    Now there’s an interesting phenomenon that I have seen from more than one angle. The first angle was explained by E. O. Wilson in his book “The Meaning of Human Existence”. He talked about two different strategies in how to act. You can compete or you can cooperate. His main example of cooperation was the organization of bees. In general, groups wherein the individuals cooperate are more successful than those in which more members compete with the other members. But then you get to the paradox (not sure it’s a proper paradox, but humor me). Within any group of cooperators, a competitor has the advantage.

    This tension is seen on many levels. Take single cells for example. They can compete with others for resources, but when they join together and cooperate as organism they gain certain advantages. Nevertheless, in a community of cooperators like an organism, competitors can arise that out-compete the other members of that group. We call those competitors cancer.

    You should be able to see how this tension will exist at every scale. Within a group of people there will be rules on how to act, and then those who don’t follow the rules will have an advantage. And so the groups try to create mechanisms to discourage that kind of competitor, just like organisms try to create mechanisms to manage cancers.

    The other angle where this concept of competition vs. cooperation arose was in the prisoner’s dilemma. And when they had the competition for strategies for that situation, the strategy that won was tit-for-tat. Cooperate first, then do whatever the other guy did last time.

    So it appears that the best strategy to begin with is cooperation. You could also call that Love. And I think that is why social norms are steadily improving. But you will also have to deal with competitors, sinners, criminals, both outside the group and inside. All things being equal, a group of cooperators will have the advantage over a group made of competitors. But within your group of cooperators, competitors will have advantages, and they may use those advantages to say, gain wealth, or maybe power via public office. The best you can do in such situations is create rules to manage such competitors and hope they don’t destroy the group. [fingers still crossed here in the USA]


    Liked by 2 people

    1. One of the problems with tying morality to any aspect of nature is that it seems to lead to craziness. For example, if the goal of morality is ultimately to maximize entropy, then wouldn’t it be virtuous to maximize runaway green house effects so that we achieve Venus like conditions on Earth as soon as possible?

      That said, I do agree that cooperation is better than competition in many cases. As you note, complex life is cooperation. But it should be noted that the cells in a complex organism have more or less the same genes*. And the cooperation is generally organized so as to compete with other complex organisms with different genes (relatively speaking). So a lot of cooperation amounts to alliances against other alliances.

      * Well, not all the cells since bacteria commonly also inhabit complex organisms, with which we sometimes have a symbiotic relationship, except when we don’t.

      As I noted in the post, the issue with game theory is that it only only works in relation to common goals. The iterative prisoner’s dilemma is an orchestrated scenario. And while I have found that tit-for-tat does generally work well, there are times where goals and values are so out of alignment that it doesn’t. I occasionally encounter people that it doesn’t matter how cooperative I am because they’re pursuing an agenda that forces them to be uncooperative, and I’ve been on the side where I was forced to do something regardless of how nice the other person was to me.

      [Totally agreed on keeping fingers crossed for the USA, and western democracy in general]


      1. ”For example, if the goal of morality is ultimately to maximize entropy, then wouldn’t it be virtuous to maximize runaway green house effects so that we achieve Venus like conditions on Earth as soon as possible?”

        That is why I said “There is no way to determine how any given action will impact the bottom line.” We cannot ever calculate the full effect, so we should never try. But your example is easy. If we make Earth like Venus before we escape Earth, then all those planets out there, all of those asteroids, all of those stars will just sit out there and decay at their very slow rate. On the other hand, if we send robots out there to mine the asteroids, terraform planets, capture all that low-entropy light from the sun (and other stars) and turn it into higher entropy light we will be accelerating the rate of entropy increase throughout the solar system, then the galaxy.

        It reminds of the paper clip maximizer. If it was your goal to maximize the number of paper clips in the universe, with no deadline as to when to stop, what would be your first step? Mine would be to play my part in creating a society that colonizes the galaxy, possibly while proselytizing the aesthetics and usefulness of paper.



    2. (Whoops. Accidentally sent this to Steven rather than James, so if you could delete the last one Mike…)

      Interesting James. So Darwinian! To be sure, my own ideas concern sentience rather than entropy, though I do otherwise endorse your theme. I wonder if you could spin it to address something that might colloquially (or vulgarly?) be referred to as “cock blocking”?

      I consider us all to essentially be cock blockers here, though we of course like to consider ourselves objective. Technically I make efforts to confine my cock blocking to the big names. I’ll block Lisa Feldman Barrett’s cock all day long! 🙂 But unfortunately that can cock block regular supporters as well. It’s in my own interest to support regular people like us wherever I can, and this is given the potential that I’ll be somewhat less cock blocked by them. That can be challenging however. Yesterday I supported Wyrd at his site, though that effectively cock blocked you!

      In an ideal world our ideas would be rationally assessed without the unseen jealousies which provoke our cock blocking, but we’re only human products of our circumstances. So you and I seem to have reached relatively futile conclusions. (Sigh…)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There are only two types of morality, master morality and slave morality, both individually and collectively. Furthermore, both of those models are underwritten by the paradigm of power. Which ever discrete system possesses the most power dictates the morality, a morality which is always predicated upon self-interest. In a social structure, that self-interest is control. There it is again, power and control. It’s not complicated folks, it all goes back to fundamentals. The only objective aspect of morality within a collective is to be a member of the ruling class.

    Do I have any reason to believe that this model will change? The model is a blueprint for corruption and abuse of power, the slaves will continue to hang out, patiently waiting for an angry mob to follow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So “Might makes right” Lee? There’s a lot to be said for that in a functional sense. But then I’m not sure that moralists speak in terms of what’s functional anyway, or at least not when things get inconvenient.

      Try this one: “Might makes might, though nothing’s right”. I like to speak in terms of good and bad existence (based upon a given subject’s sentience), though not rightness and wrongness itself. This gets to the self interest idea that you mentioned. I fancy my ideas neither moral nor immoral, but rather effective descriptions of reality.

      Still if we’re speaking of the feelings of rightness and wrongness that a given person has, well I can’t deny that they exist. I feel them just as I presume you do. I consider these feelings to exist as a social tool which somewhat moderates our selfish behavior given social influences.

      Does any of that mesh with your ideas?


  5. I have no problem with anything you’ve stated here Eric. I would elucidate your statement: “I consider these feelings to exist as a social tool which somewhat moderates our selfish behavior given social influences.” by saying that this social tool is still a tactic and/or stratagem of power whose objective is control, a control which is always driven by self-interest. Morality is always contingent upon, thereby defined by the discrete system which has the most power in a given circumstance.

    I like to use the example of a boulder sitting upon a ledge, content to be sitting there expressing the power of its own unique structural qualitative properties. A tectonic plate expresses its own unique structural qualitative properties by shaking the ledge and dislodging the boulder. The boulder again expresses the power of it own unique structural qualitative properties by rolling down the hill. A little girl just happens to be walking along a trail minding her own business thereby expressing the power of her own unique structural qualitative properties. Unaware that the boulder is expressing itself, the little girl subsequently becomes pinned under the boulder when it comes to rest on her leg. A wolf just happens along the trail. Being an opportunist, the wolf then expresses the power of its own unique structural qualitative properties and begins to tear at the soft innards of the little girl. The little girl again expresses the power of her own unique structural qualitative properties by screaming from fear and pain until she expires, all the while the wolf is expressing itself by eating the little girl. Where is the justice, where is the morality in this scenario. The answer is self evident, morality is a derivative of a discrete system and the power that is intrinsic to its own self-interest.

    All too often we get tunnel vision when it comes to the discussion of morality, focusing in on the anthropocentric narrative and quickly dismissing the underlying form as it applies to all discrete systems without exception.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well done Lee! Like James implied, cooperation can be adaptive. Of course we’ve each got our own manifestos that aren’t entirely square, but cock blocking won’t help either of us in this instance.

      It’s a horrible, horrible world out there, and yet we modern humans put on our moralistic glasses, point our judgmental fingers at “the bad guys”, and then feel so superior about ourselves. It’s nice when others grasp the joke that humanity is in this regard.

      When will science finally unchain itself from the shackles of our morality paradigm? Given its power and newness I’m thinking pretty soon. Regardless I’d love to help.


      1. You’re more optimistic than I Eric. Mike keeps claiming that he wants a scientific explanation for morality: well, I just gave one and it’s grounded in power. The evidence is overwhelming and without refute. But as long as science and everyone else refuses to acknowledge power as an “objective reality”, a reality that is separate from any appearance one might assign to it and separate from any opinion one might have of it, nothing will change.

        The paradox of power goes back to the Greeks: Is power an object, or is power a subject? Power is not open to direct inspection, it doesn’t occupy any of the four dimensions of space and/or time, power cannot be weighed, measured or tested. So according to our current model of SOM, power must be a subject, which simply means: power is anything we say it is. Talk about reductio ad absurdum. Are homo sapiens really that ignorant and helpless? The evidence I’ve gathered so far is overwhelming, so I guess the answer to that question is yes…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. “Is there an objective morality? If so, how can we learn about it?”

    Perhaps, but as with all foundation concepts, it’s hard to find other foundation concepts to define it with. Such concepts can often only be described.

    FWIW, I’ve posed the idea that, absent a metaphysics, the idea of human consciousness might be how to ground ideas of morality. Which I basically see as a perception of equal value of all people despite the obvious physical evidence suggesting otherwise.

    Many moral positions seem to be recognition of equality. Don’t kill animals because they’re like us. (The implication being, we wouldn’t like being killed, so therefore they don’t like it.)

    About the only thing that makes humans equal (other than a soul) is that they all belong to the class of intelligent, conscious beings.

    How a society implements that is going to differ according to the needs and perceptions of that society. Calling a “technology” is an interesting conflation. Is modern mathematics a technology? I think I see social mores as more similar to math — both are abstractions — than to the machines we make.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think consciousness and morality are inextricably tangled up with each other. As you know, I think our intuition of consciousness has a lot do to with out intuition of things that are like us. We’re often concerned with whether something is conscious because of our concern with whether they’re a subject of moral concern.

      One thing that does make humans a bit more equal is that they can understand social situations and be reciprocal toward each other. I should support your rights because you’ll support mine. In other words, we can understand the law of reciprocity. Although some social animals can understand very simple reciprocal relationships, most can’t return kindness toward them, or even be sympathetic in any way.

      I see math as a tool. I’ve never considered calling it a technology although I guess that word could be applied to any tool or set of tools. But there’s a sense that it’s a tool built on our most fundamental models of how reality works. And abstract math strikes me as attempts to extend that fundamental model, even though it may not correspond to any physical reality.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. There is many connections between evolution and morality and that could be considered objective to some extent. (Am reading “The Moral Animal” right now and finding it fascinating.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read Wright’s ‘The Evolution of God’ and enjoyed it immensely, but haven’t read ‘The Moral Animal’. He’s an excellent writer. (Although I find his views on consciousness unfortunate.)


  8. In my experience, those who argue most strongly for objective morality then tend to argue that their own cultural group is objectively moral. Other cultural groups are not objectively moral, and therefore it’s justified for us to impose our morality on others. So as much as I’d like to believe in objective morality, I question the motives of those who argue for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent point. It does often seem like it comes from people trying to privilege their own preferences. Admitting that their viewpoint isn’t embedded in reality as correct forces them to justify and sell it to others, which is a lot more work, and may force them to accept a compromise. It’s much easier to just claim the universe says we’re right and vilify anyone who disagrees.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike,

        I am very passionate about, and personally disgusted with the prevailing hypocrisy of American culture when it comes to morality. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than any other country in the world, then we put on the pompous face of righteousness and accuse other nations of jailing political prisoners. If you want a scientific explanation of morality it’s this: Morality is a derivative of power, power which is predicated solely upon the self-interest of any given discrete system. Can you overcome the insurmountable evidence of that claim and refute it? If not, then that “is” your scientific explanation of morality be it good, bad or indifferent.



        1. Lee,
          When you say “power”, do you meant the power of a few individuals? Or of society as a whole? It seems like 2 (from the post), cultural morality, derives from the group consensus of the society, a consensus which can be influenced by individuals, but ultimately only to a certain degree.

          But 3, legal ethics, I can see potentially being controlled by a small number of people, depending on the type of government or context. The number of people participating directly in 3 in, say, Saudi Arabia, is a lot smaller than the number of people participating in it in Sweden.

          Or do you mean something completely different?


          1. “Or do you mean something completely different?”

            Being a functionalist Mike, you always focus on the mechanisms associated with the effects rather than the cause, simply because the effects are easily identifiable. Causation is not so simple, so causation gets overlooked or is dismissed all together. You should know me by now Mike, I always mean something else, and that something else is causation, which is the underlying form. Underlying form provides the reference point from which to understand complex concepts, concepts which then can be applied across the entire spectrum of its effects. Meaningful understanding does not reside in the massive amounts of data which are a derivative and/or the effects of an underlying cause. Any legitimate understanding is predicated upon a hierarchy. First, one has to answer the metaphysical question: “What is power?” before one can even have a conversation about power. Until that question is answered, it’s all just sandbox discourse.

            So, at the end of the day our interests are not compatible and I need to recuse myself from participating in your forum. Thanks for your courtesy and patience, you’ve been an honorable host.


  9. I think there’s a certain objectivity in how far a person can physically bend or be biologically stressed before they break. I think there’s also a certain objectivity in complete extinction and how far does your morality go when it leads to all the humans being dead?

    I think these rigidities form a kind of spine, then the more subjective morality flesh comes after, extending from the bone and becoming softer the further from the bone it gets.


    1. I think you’re right. The environment and biology do put constraints on the norms a society will hold. However, those constraints always seem to allow more variation than just about anyone is comfortable with.

      Of course, not all societies live healthily within their constraints. But then again, many of those societies fail.


      1. Yes, but it’s parochial variation – people see their variation as being ‘just how you do it’. Like some kind of espalier tree they grow their culture along these wires and another culture grows along another set of wires and…once the trees wood has hardened they can’t shift to new wires. But they both could have grown to both – however ‘just how you do it’ makes it seem otherwise – getting out of that parochial view seems some kind of double jointed folded over backwards move that seems to border on being as biologically out of reach of many humans as curling the tongue is. The way their cultural tree grew is THE way a tree grows. Rather than just A way.


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