Moral Realism

By Sean Carroll | March 16, 2011 9:51 am

Richard Carrier (author of Sense and Goodness Without God) has a longish blog post up about moral ontology, well worth reading if you’re into that sort of thing. (Via Russell Blackford.) Carrier is a secular materialist, but a moral realist: he thinks there are such things as “moral facts” that are “true independent of your opinion or culture.”

Carrier goes to great lengths to explain that these moral facts are not simply “out there” in the same sense that the laws of physics arguably are, but rather that they express relationships between the desires of particular humans and external reality. (The useful analogy is: “bears are scary” is a true fact if you are talking about you or me, but not if you are talking about Superman.)

I don’t buy it. Not to be tiresome, but I have to keep insisting that you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. You can’t use logic to derive moral commandments solely from facts about the world, even if those facts include human desires. Of course, you can derive moral commandments if you sneak in some moral premise; all I’m trying to say here is that we should be upfront about what those moral premises are, and not try to hide them underneath a pile of unobjectionable-sounding statements.

As a warm-up, here is an example of logic in action:

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The first two statements are the premises, the last one is the conclusion. (Obviously there are logical forms other than syllogisms, but this is a good paradigmatic example.) Notice the crucial feature: all of the important terms in the conclusion (“Socrates,” “mortal”) actually appeared somewhere in the premises. That’s why you can’t derive “ought” from “is” — you can’t reach a conclusion containing the word “ought” if that word (or something equivalent) doesn’t appear in your premises.

This doesn’t stop people from trying. Carrier uses the following example (slightly, but not unfairly, paraphrased):

  • Your car is running low on oil.
  • If your car runs out of oil, the engine will seize up.
  • You don’t want your car’s engine to seize up.
  • Therefore, you ought to change the oil in your car.

At the level of everyday practical reasoning, there’s nothing wrong with this. But if we’re trying to set up a careful foundation for moral philosophy, we should be honest and admit that the logic here is obviously incomplete. There is a missing premise, which should be spelled out explicitly:

  • We ought to do that which would bring about what we want.

Crucially, this is a different kind of premise than the other three in this argument; they are facts about the world that could in principle be tested experimentally, while this new one is not.

Someone might suggest that this is isn’t a premise at all, it’s simply the definition of “ought.” The problem there is that it isn’t true. You can’t claim that Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest basketball player of all time, and then defend your claim by defining “greatest basketball player of all time” to be Wilt Chamberlain. When it comes to changing your oil, you might get away with defining “ought” in this way, but when it comes to more contentious issues of moral obligation, you’re going to have to do better.

Alternatively, you’re free to say that this premise is just so obviously true that no reasonable person could possibly disagree. Perhaps so, and that’s an argument we could have. But it’s still a premise. And again, when we get to issues more contentious than keeping your engine going, it will be necessary to make those premises explicit if we want to have a productive conversation. Once our premises start distinguishing between the well-being of individuals and the well-being of groups, you will inevitably find that they begin to seem a bit less self-evident.

Observe the world all you like; you won’t get morality off the ground until you settle on some independent moral assumptions. (And don’t tell me that “science makes assumptions, too” — that’s obviously correct, but the point here is that morality requires assumptions in addition to the assumptions we need to get science off the ground.) We can have a productive conversation about what those assumptions should be once we all admit that they exist.

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  • Georg

    Is socrates moral or mortal?

  • Doug

    Of course it’s ridiculous…. Bill Russell was the greatest center of all time.

  • Sean

    Georg, thanks for the catch. I was actually thinking of making that pun explicitly, but decided against it. Clearly my subconscious was unhappy with the decision, and stuck it in there anyway. Now fixed.

  • David L

    A lot of Buddhist thinking starts with the premise that other people have the same desires (for happiness, peace, etc.) and sources of pain that the individual thinking about how to treat others has–essentially, leading to a nonthesistic version of the Golden Rule (or its Rabbinic counterpart, “Do not do unto others what you would find repugnant.”).

  • benjdm

    Also, how can you include ‘human desires’ and claim to be excluding ‘opinion and culture’?

  • Andrew S

    I very much agree with the anti-realism view of morality. No amount of empirical knowledge will allow one to conclude that the statement “lying is wrong” is true. In fact, such statements have no truth or falsity unless derived from an axiomized system, like in formal logic. However, those axioms would be arbitrary inventions of the human mind and do not reflect properties inherent to reality.

    In fact, I used to think that one might be able to formulate some objective definition of morality, but I’ve since learned that, were such a thing to exist, it would be terrible for us. After all, we agree that if objective morals exist, none of us know what they are despite centuries of thought (for if we did know, we’d never need to have debates about morality in the first place)! Absolutely nothing guarantees that any action humans think of as moral is really objectively moral. It might be that the existence of intelligent life itself is morally objectionable, and were we to learn this is a property of the Universe we would be in dire straits, torn inexorably between our desire to do the “right” thing and to continue existing.

    It’s much more productive to look at this from the opposite direction. To realize that morality is merely an invention of human thought is to liberate one’s mind of a whole host of philosophical issues. This need not degenerate into radical moral nihilism, though. Instead we should work on defining our goals and seeking ways to achieve them. Moral decisions are then just those which we perceive as progress towards these goals.

    Josh Greene’s Ph.D. thesis was on this subject. I think it’s a rather worthwhile read:

  • Ray

    Well, it seems the problem here is that any premise that claims “ought” has a simple definition, applicable to all contexts, is almost certainly wrong — or at least contentious. This is not all that atypical of natural language terms (Wittgenstein’s favorite example is the word “game”.)

    Sean, would you at least agree that the factual accuracy of “you ought not to kill people” is no more problematic than that of “basketball is a game”? If so, I would submit that the problem is not so much with moral discourse, but natural language in general.

  • Sean

    It’s not a matter of “problematic,” it’s a matter of “empirical.” There is no experiment you can do to decide whether “you ought not to kill people” is a true statement. It’s not a “fact” in the way we ordinarily think of empirical facts.

  • John


    I’m just wondering what anti-realist metaethical view, if any, you think provides a better explanation of moral judgments.

    Some possible candidates:

    Moral skepticism (
    Moral relativism (
    Non-cognitivism (

    I’m finding it a little hard to interpret your arguments without knowing where you are coming from. Surely there are many moral realists who would readily concede that “morality requires assumptions in addition to the assumptions we need to get science off the ground.” In particular I don’t think it’s at all clear from what Carrier wrote that he would find that assertion problematic. My thought is that you probably have non-cognitivist intuitions, but it’s a bit hard to tell if you are just arguing that morality does not follow purely from scientific notions.

  • Sean

    John, not to be cagey, but I don’t think it should matter. I am basically just arguing that morality does not follow purely from scientific (although I would prefer “empirical”) notions. Once we agree on that, and admit that we need to have some moral assumptions that are not merely facts about the world, we can go on to discuss what those assumptions should be. I’m purposefully not trying to do that here, so as not to confuse the issue.

  • John

    Okay, it’s fair and probably wise to be cagey. I would just be hesitant to say that “moral realism” is synonymous with the view that morality follows from purely empirical notions.

    If you look at the definition Carrier is using–“Moral realism is the view that there are moral statements that are meaningful and true, and true independent of your opinion or culture”–I think there is some space open where your view and his are consistent.

    Carrier’s definition implies that (1) moral statements are truth-apt, i.e. can be assigned true-false values, and (2) the truth of at least some moral statements is not contingent on any facts that are based on “opinion” or “culture.”

    I think I can paraphrase your standpoint as (1) moral statements may or may not be truth-apt, and (2) if they are truth-apt, then there truth is contingent upon facts other than empirical facts.

    To be doggedly logical about things, if we admit that there are some facts that are both not empirical but also not based on opinion or culture, then these views do not contradict one another. It’s a little hard to know what to make of this. The word “opinion” in particular is not self-defining, but it looks like you are not interpreting Carrier charitably.

  • Ray

    It’s not a matter of “problematic,” it’s a matter of “empirical.” There is no experiment you can do to decide whether “you ought not to kill people” is a true statement. It’s not a “fact” in the way we ordinarily think of empirical facts.

    Well, is there an experiment you can do to figure out whether basketball is a game? Does this mean games aren’t real?

  • the clayton peacock


    To respond to number 12: this means the definition of “games” depend on your set of assumptions. Consider lacrosse. If you watched grown men participating in a contest of lacrosse six hundred years ago in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, you were witnessing an act of war. If you watch grown men (or women) participating in a contest of lacrosse in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States today, you are witnessing a game. Same rules, same objectives, same scoring system, etc. But the assumptions and understandings built into the outcome are very different.


  • David George

    Does life have a purpose?

    I observe that in nature, existing systems combine to create new systems (nature is then a system of growth; and growth precedes life). I observe that natural systems are sensory systems in that they respond to influences. I observe that natural sensory systems combine to create new sensory systems of increasing complexity (sense grows). I observe that human sensory systems are of such complexity that they make sense of nature. This sense is put to work as “science”. Human “science” is then a product of natural growth — but also a voluntary project of human sense, with a defined purpose (to increase knowledge of nature?).

    What does modern science tell us about nature? Maybe it tells us how natural systems evolve (not “grow”), while appearing to consciously refrain from attempting to describe a purpose for the evolution of natural systems. But I find that simply by observing nature, a natural purpose is evident: the purpose of nature is to grow.

    Even with “scientific” restraint, it does not appear possible to describe the evolution of living systems (which grow from non-living systems) without finding that they follow a purpose — an end toward which they “strive”. For modern science, this purpose is survival (living on). Adaptation to changing environment (achieved by sensory systems) is then a survival strategy. Even growth is a survival strategy.

    But maybe adaptation is not a survival strategy, but a growth strategy. Maybe natural systems do not survive by growing; maybe they grow by surviving. The universe does not merely survive; it grows.

    There is a difference between the natural purpose of growth and the natural purpose of survival. Maybe by practising moral restraint, modern science blinds itself to the natural purpose of growth and settles for the natural purpose of survival. And the blindness extends to a mechanism by which sensory systems grow: the mechanism of harmonic sense, or sense of what fits. Harmonic sense is required for a system to adapt to a changing environment — not in order to survive, but in order to grow.

    For someone interested in the “science-morality debate”, it seems to me the crucial assumption is not the moral assumption “a good way to go”, but the more basic assumption of purpose: “a way to go”. And for me, the way is the way of growth, not survival. (This does not make life any easier, because there are ways of growth that lead to dead ends; Mother Nature gives no guarantee.) And the minimal (and useful) moral lesson given by Mrs.N. is: “seek harmony”.

    So, does life have a purpose? If so, what is it? If not, what is the purpose of “science”?

  • Sean

    Ray– Sure, you can do experiments to figure out whether basketball is a game. Look at people playing basketball. Are there rules, is there a competition, etc.

    John– I may be being uncharitable to Carrier, but I don’t mean to be. The problem with statements like “there are moral statements that are meaningful and true” is that they don’t mean very much until you get very explicit about the underlying assumptions. (“Initially parallel lines never intersect” is meaningful and true under the assumptions of Euclidean geometry, but not in spherical geometry.) They may be “true independent of your opinion or culture,” but again only under certain assumptions, and those assumptions do not reduce to empirical statements or the assumptions already underlying the practice of science.

    All I am really saying is that people should be as explicit as humanly possible about the assumptions they use to get “ought” values into the game, and that those assumptions are necessarily distinct from what we normally call “science” or “facts about the world.” Whether you then want to label your moral conclusions as “true” or “facts” is less interesting to me.

  • Gilgamesh

    Sean, much of the issue may be hung up on what is the definition of “moral/morality”. If we can clarify that, we may see if the premise mentioned falls out from the definition and other true premises. Otherwise, we may all just end of chasing our tails.

  • Cody

    If science is not capable of answering moral questions, what is? Are you claiming there is a better method to determine what is right and wrong, or what these words even mean, than the scientific method?

    I figure at the very least, science is our best approach for understanding what people think is morally right/wrong, why and how they believe that, etc., and that understanding the what/why/how of moral opinions is the first step to discussing whether moral questions fall under the realm of science, or if they have some elusive property that would seem to remain forever beyond the bounds of science.

  • robert

    Nice article. I’d like to add the name of Richard Rorty to the discussion. His writings on moral philosophy are very much in line with Sean’s article and have had a profound influence on my thinking. Though Rorty thinks that reducing suffering and working for justice are “good” things to do, he would say these goals cannot be premised on any universal “facts” about reality or human nature. He chooses them because he likes living in that kind of society better than in the opposite kind. He also argues that those who try to ground morality on timeless realities ultimately, though inadvertently, end up with authoritarianism.

    “Truth and Progress” is one collection of his essays distinguishing his ideas from those of other moral philosophers such as Habermas and Locke.

  • Ray


    Sure, you can do experiments to figure out whether basketball is a game. Look at people playing basketball. Are there rules, is there a competition, etc.

    I don’t see why the claim “immoral things are those that cause pain, suffering,death etc.” needs any more justification than the claim “games are those things that have rules, a competition etc.” It seems to me neither of those can be justified empirically unless we are willing to grant that the word “immoral”/”game” means roughly what people think it does.

  • max

    In reply to Cody:

    Science and the scientific method need not be the only ways we find out about truth in this world. In fact, they’re rather miserable at determining mathematical truths. It could easily be that the foundations of morality should more closely resemble those of mathematics than the empirical foundations of science.

    Also, I’d argue that each individual has a rather privileged view on what influences his or her own mind, and I think it’d be a mistake to completely throw out this subjective view in favor of objective measurements.

    (Of course, now you edited your comment, which makes much of my reply moot.)

  • bggeek

    * You are pregnant
    * If you carry the pregnancy to term you will end up with a baby
    * You don’t want a baby
    * Therefore you should have an abortion.

    Wow! This moral realism is easy! Who do I notify of this new moral law I’ve derived? Do I just call Obama….. or what?

  • Justin

    Sean your post is insightful as always, but I think you’re looking for an argument that isn’t there. For instance Carrier says: “There are many facts about morality that are ontologically grounded…” (“many” rather than “all”) and defines moral realism as “the view that there are moral statements that are meaningful and true, and true independent of your opinion or culture.” (again “there are” rather than “all”).

    It seems that Carrier’s thesis is entirely consistent with the axioms you want. The “ought” that he is deriving is, in fact, not an “ought” in a generic abstract sense. He’s clear to point out that he is describing an “ought” that exists within a particular person-universe system. The person has want X (due to evolution, etc.). That’s a fact. The universe is in state Y, also a fact. Therefore, the person *ought* to be/want/do Z, since Z in the context of Y causes person to attain X. These are all factual.

    Again, the “ought” therein is not context-free. In Carrier’s formulation it’s just a fact of the system (that a certain thing will lead to another thing, and that the person will become aware of this given enough information). In the meta sense that you’re talking about “ought”, you would need an axiom along the lines of “axiom: people ought to do that which brings them what they want”. But Carrier isn’t talking about that level.

    Instead, what Carrier is saying is that there are *some* moral facts that are really true and really exist. They describe relations between actions and consequences. He’s not saying that you can prove abstractly that it is *right* for people to do the things that bring them what they want. What he’s saying is that there is a correct/true/will-work way and an incorrect/false/will-not-work way to go about achieving what you want.

    This is of course a subtle distinction. But the whole thing is a subtle argument. I guess it’s fair enough to ask that Carrier come out and mention that there’s an additional layer of axioms he’s not dealing with right now… But if you read exactly what he wrote, it seems that he’s specifically talking about a layer of moral realities that exist regardless.

  • John

    An Evil “ought from is” example …

    – A man witnessed my crime.

    – If I allow the witness to live he’ll implicate me and I’ll go to jail. 

    – I don’t want to go to jail.

    – Therefore, I ought to kill the witness. 

    Somehow I don’t think this is what the ought from is crowd had in mind, but this type of argument can be used to justify pretty much anything.

  • Sean

    Justin– I don’t want to be unfair, but it’s always possible that I am being so. Still, I don’t think the difference between universal and particular moral statements is relevant to this point. I’m happy to make the axiom be “this particular person, with these particular sentiments, in this particular situation, ought to act in this particular way.” All I am saying is that the axiom is necessarily there, and it is not empirically testable. We can call it “true” and a “fact” all we like, but it’s not the same kind of true fact as “the universe is expanding” is.

    Ray– The difference is that “game” is defined in terms of empirically testable qualities, while “moral” is not. Again, if you simply *define* morality as the list of things you think are moral, you can come up with a logically consistent system, but you won’t have any basis for discussion with someone who has a different definition. (Or any logical basis on which to disagree with them.)

  • Cody

    Sorry about that Max, I’ve wondered whether people can see the comment during that editable phase, and I guess the answer is yes. (The comment felt redundant and over reaching my point, so I deleted a lot.)

    You have an interesting counterpoint with mathematics, I’ll have to think about it.

    I agree with the privileged view remark, though I’d also argue that people often don’t know why they think what they do, or have inconsistent thinking, and outright lie to both themselves and others, unintentionally or otherwise, and all of that can (potentially) be compensated for in the near future of brain-probing.

  • Shecky R.

    Might be worth saying (or it may open another can-of-worms?) that for me at least “morality” and “ethics” are somewhat different things. I agree, in principle, with much of what Sean is saying as regards “morality,” a term I’ve never much liked using, but I think “ethics” can have a little firmer foundation (though still a sticky wicket!), that makes it more worthy of discussion.
    If you start with something like the “Golden Rule” as axiomatic (‘do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’), you can build a semi-logical, even if not always precise or consistent, societal ethics, but I don’t think you can construct morality from that… just my 2-cents.

  • AnotherSean

    I think I agree. Obviously, there is no empirical grounding in the axioms of any moral system. But axioms obviously aren’t facts, they are interesting, useful, or to borrow a phrase from MLK, “self evident”. Of course, it doesn’t follow that reasoning about these matters is useless, indeed its required. Also, its certainly true we “get further” useing scientific methods, with much less problematic hypothesis. But although its more productive, ultimately science is something humans do, and how much of the difficulties you’ve discussed about morality are implicit in science seems debatable. Fortunately, no answer to this question is necessary until you ask what it means.
    BTW, in Southern Cal. you may still believe Wilt Chamberlin is the greatest NBA player of all time, but the rest of us have evolved to understand it was MJ.

  • Max M. Thomas

    I find Kant’s logical arguments compelling. As I read him, the arguments are reductio ad absurdum. Our premise to be disproved is, “Sometimes lying is right.” Suppose we accept this premise as a moral rule. We see that the rule removes any basis for believing anything anyone says. If we cannot believe anything anyone says, then no one can lie. Thus, the rule that allows lying makes lying impossible, showing that the rule is false. If false, its negation must be true: that is, “It is false that sometimes lying is right,” or “Lying is never right.”

    Are there any thoughts on the following analogy to Kant’s moral arguments? I think his moral arguments are akin to “I can fly by flapping my arms as long as I follow the rules of aerodynamics.” Of course, the rules of aerodynamics make it impossible for me to fly by flapping my arms. Thus, the judgment, “I can fly by flapping my arms as long as I follow the rules of aerodynamics” is self-contradictory and false.

    PS. I am not the “max” at #20.

  • Jerry Schwarz

    I read Carrier’s blog entry before commenting and I agree with Sean that it is unconvincing. Carrier has example towards the end where he explains why rape is immoral. And one of the parts of the argument is

    “Because by being an uncompassionate person, your life will suck, more than it would suck if you were a compassionate person. And it is irrational to choose what will make your life suck more, than what you could have chosen instead.” As an empirical claim this is doubtful in general, but more fundamentally the implication is that if you are about to die then raping someone because you want to would be moral.

  • MT-LA

    “Obviously, there is no empirical grounding in the axioms of any moral system.”

    So has the categorical imperative never come up in these discussions? Or has it been summarily dismissed because of some aversion to any type of pre-post-modern thinking?

    Oh…and as far as games go. Here are some common definitions for a “game”:
    1) It has rules
    2) There are two or more participants
    3) There is a competition (not necessarily between two opposing sides – Chinese checkers readily comes to mind)

    The stock market fills all of these definitions and more. Is a stock market a game? No, of course not. But if the “terms of empirically testable qualities” define both “game” and “stock market”, then those qualities are not sufficient to define “game” or “stock market”. In fact, if I may paraphrase Ray, there are no set of empirically testable qualities that will wholly define what a game is. However, we still know that games exist.

  • Matthew Saunders

    “Morality” and “Ideology” have been and continue to be big causes for the horrors that humans visit upon one another. Here’s hoping that one day we get beyond them and start, as a global civilization, living life intentionally.

    And with a bit more jazz, a bit more dancing, a bit more laughter :)

  • Max M. Thomas


    Interestingly, the difference between “ethics” and “morality” is that the former comes from the Greek “ēthikós” and the latter comes from the Latin “moralis.” They are two different words for the same concept, given that Cicero uses the Latin word for Aristotle’s Greek.

    Of course, you can always make up a difference between the two. Many people have. But the origins of the words entail no difference between them.

  • Dr. Richard Carrier

    Sean, your blog completely ignores the definition I used of the word “ought.” The definition you give it here is thus a straw man: it is not the definition I used, and since your criticism is based on it, your criticism is not of any relevance to what I actually argued. Meanwhile you give no reason to reject the definition I did use. You don’t even seem to be aware of what it was, and yet I explicitly stated it, so you cannot be a very careful reader.

    Secondly, you are confusing the ontology of moral facts with the moral facts themselves. My blog was about the former, not the latter. I’m even explicit about this at the end of the blog (another example of your not paying attention). Obviously, if by “moral facts” you mean something different than I do, then my ontology doesn’t pertain. It is then on you to identify the ontological basis of your moral talk. Meanwhile, I will have moral imperatives that I can empirically prove are true, which by virtue of that fact, trump any moral claims you make that don’t even pretend to being true.

    But that will be a separate debate. Because someone asked what the ontology of my moral talk is, I wrote a blog describing it. You ignore that, and get hung up on the completely unrelated debate over what the moral facts are, rather than what grounds them metaphysically.

    If you want to debate what moral facts are, you will have to interact with my extensive work discussing that, which is not this blog, but my book Sense and Goodness without God, and the peer reviewed article I mention in that blog as forthcoming in The End of Christianity.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    I’m agnostic, but I think debating the ontology of morality with supernaturalists is about as much fun as watching a debate b/w Kant and Kouldn’t. Supernaturalists are authoritarians, and Black/White-ians. Either a law is divine or it holds little value to them. Either an action is eternally meaningful or it is meaningless. They are not willing to consider that things might be meaningful for limited lengths of time. Neither are they willing to consider that just because somebody says something or reads it in a book they happen to adore, doesn’t make that saying or teaching automatically more true than something written by someone else in some other book. They are authoritarians and eternalians. And if you take away their ontological security blanket even hypothetically, they will cry that everything’s lost, everything’s meaningless, and they imagine everyone is left with simply a desire to rape and murder. They won’t sit still long enough to discuss the complex social behaviors of large-brained mammals from porpoises to elephants and apes. No actual observations of nature appeal to them, not even their own nature, so they won’t even look inside themselves and see how much they would naturally not like to have their lives taken from them simply at some other person’s whim, or have other things taken from them at some other person’s whim. They don’t feel that connected with humanity, they want to only feel connected to a higher authority, especially one that can make eternal promises. Aside from that they repeat Dostoevsky’s line about everything being permitted in a godless world. This terrifies them, even after you remind them that everything is permitted even in THIS world. Child molesters in the clergy to earthquakes and asteroids. Homosex-experimenting and drug-experimenting Presidents of the National Society of Evangelicals to Popes like the Borgias and the Inquisition, and Calvin seeking to get heretics executed. It’s all permitted. From Job’s wife and kids being slaughtered so God can win a bet with Satan, to God’s own son being slaughtered so God can finally forgive people their sins. It’s all permitted in this world. So quoting Dostoevsky is not an argument, since everything is permitted in this world anyway.

    Above, when I mentioned not liking having your life or other things taken away from you at some other person’s whim, I was referring to one of the commonsense bases behind the creation of human laws.

    How can you hope to snap someone out of the authoritarian mindset? How do you convince them that words on paper are words on paper that have no intrinsic authority, but that the human mind invented culture and language and books and ethical notions and opinions and laws, and therefore the human mind should be studied within the milieu of human cultural history and natural history as well? Moreover, if you are debating an authoritarian (“God said it, it must be true”) who does not doubt that it is “God” who “said” such things, and who does not doubt that he knows the meaning of each command, and who does not doubt that page after page of the book that this person adores for its moral perfection also depicts God as a mass murderer, even an eternally wrathful punisher, then that person has taken things to the max. Perhaps challenge them to speak about why others might not want to defend such a book’s description of God. The book is their authority, so ask them why they think others might not find it to be so “authoritative.” See what they say.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    MARY MIDGLEY [philosopher] ON MORALITY:

    Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

    “Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.”(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

    That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

    These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt–though of course usually an unsuccessful one–to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

    If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we–being creatures subject to gravitation–could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention.

    Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001

  • Alan

    Dr. Carrier

    In your book Sense and Goodness without God, the review at Amazon says,

    “arguing from scientific evidence that there is only a physical, natural world without gods or spirits, [but that] we can still live a life of love, meaning, and joy.”

    Isn’t this “love, meaning, and joy” an illusion within this physical, natural world? It may feel like love etc. but we are being fooled – it’s just chemistry and biology making us feel this way. Pure physicalists will say it just has social purpose – keeping us together, looking after each other. Then morality too is an illusion.

    Now there is some interesting work going on here: and

    A very large international team of doctors (UK, USA, Europe) led by Dr. Sam Parnia, a resuscitation expert, exploring the boundaries of consciousness during states close to death. There is also other work published which strongly suggests veridicality during these “brain-dead states”.

    Some scientists have already published work which seems to suggest there may be a continuation of consciousness. If true this says that a sense of moral purpose continues on in that we behave morally during life but it is NOT the illusion as discussed above. Our interactions with others during life develops morality. Although the so-called “physical” goes, a moral being with awareness remains. Or not. Ignoring the lessons of human love and its interactions with others may produce some other nonphysical being entirely.

    This work is very challenging. On the Nour Foundation site are some very interesting and lively debates (videos) on this. A conference at the United Nations in 2008.
    See “Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness” with extended interviews with the doctors, neuropsychiatrists and physicists (Dr. Henry Stapp).

  • Sean

    Richard– Thanks for commenting. I must not be understanding what you are saying, or not being very clear myself, since I’m not sure how your comment engages with what I was trying to say.

    You define “ought” as “that which we would do if we were reasoning logically and knew and understood all the relevant facts of our situation.” I didn’t refer to your definition, as I didn’t think it was relevant to my point. The “ought” axiom I suggested in the example wasn’t meant to be a definition, simply an example of how the notion of “ought” needs to be included in one’s premises. (And I certainly don’t want to defend that particular axiom.) I’m not trying to debate what moral facts are true, just the very narrow point that they do not reduce to empirical facts.

    Even if we accept your definition of “ought,” the need for a separate moral axiom still stands. I can have all the relevant facts, and reason logically about them to my hearts content; that will never tell me how I ought to behave, unless either those facts or the assumed principles of logic include some statement about what ought to be the case.

  • Alan

    And in the above,

    “you won’t get morality off the ground until you settle on some independent moral assumptions. (And don’t tell me that “science makes assumptions, too” — that’s obviously correct, but the point here is that morality requires assumptions in addition to the assumptions we need to get science off the ground.”

    Well, if morality is developed during life and continues on after, then you get moral beings but in another form – but in each case morality is actually a deep part of these modes of being.

  • Max M. Thomas

    Dr. Carrier:

    I hope I can avoid your ire and get an answer to my question. You say, “I will have moral imperatives that I can empirically prove are true . . . .” Can you provide an example of a moral imperative proved empirically? For instance, how can you prove that slavery, lying or adultery are morally wrong using empirical methods?

  • Carl Lumma

    It can be useful to think of lifeforms as heat engines- or if you want to be trendy, computers. What distinguishes life is its ability to partition the environment into high- and low-entropy regions. Gravity does that too, but the low entropy region is on the ‘inside’. Therefore, anything that ‘fights gravity’ is morally good. In engineering and design, efficient devices are often considered beautiful, and beauty is probably an adaptation for recognizing life…

  • David George

    Dear Dr. Carrier,

    I tried to read your blog seriously but could not seriously categorize and manipulate the concepts you were trying to categorize and manipulate. When you mentioned the bear I had to think about Dick Kearney who lived in Alaska with the bears. And it went downhill from there, including the pictures. But something you wrote struck me as not quite right. You wrote,

    “But irrationality and ignorance are contrary to any interest you might have, and are therefore always what you ought to avoid, i.e. in no possible world is it wise to take the advice of the irrational and the ignorant, and that is as true of giving yourself advice as taking it from anyone else.”

    But if Mother Nature, who never thinks about anything except babies, dolls, scraps of cloth, flowers and plants, recipes, etc. in a completely irrational way (from my perspective) and is ignorant of anything except babies, dolls, etc. — if she advises me to take a shower, I believe I am wise to follow her advice, and in consequence I am fulfilled and happy. And, in my own irrational ignorance, I want to make her happy, and am willing to work to that end. In your world, is that against my interest?

  • Max M. Thomas

    Re: Edward T. Babinski #35.
    I don’t understand your concept of “need,” as in our needing morality. You liken it to our need to have the ideas of up and down given our dependence on gravity, but I don’t see the connection. Do we “need” moral ideas such that we shall die without them? Do we “need” these ideas lest we go insane without them?
    You say that Darwin thought we “absolutely need to develop a morality because [we] need a priority system by which to resolve them [our conflicting emotions]. How is it that morality is a priority system that resolves my emotions. That’s the job of psychology and not ethics, but I’ll consider whatever use of “morality” you have in mind. It would help if you could distinguish between manners and morals, and maybe mores. We teach children manners to help them assign priorities to their emotions: “If you want a pleasant experience with other people, then you should wait your turn.” But we usually think that manners and morals are different.

  • randommuser

    What is the difference between Richard’s theory and the theory of “selfish altruism”? The latter is known for a long time so I’m sure there are already a lot of debates about it. Without being familiar with these, I will just give two objections that I can think of.

    One is that it doesn’t cover all behaviors that is supposed to be moral, and will conclude some very immoral things to be moral, since it is ultimately based on selfishness. It also depends very much on how each individual thinks. I’m sure that (unfortunately) there are many people in this world who try everything to benefit themselves at others’ expense, while not at all feeling bad about it, since they think they are just “fighting for survival in society”. This is probably not the moral behavior Richard has in mind. I think the key issue here is prisoner’s dilemma: that there are situations in which all individuals pursuing their own interests will not produce a good result for anyone. The point of morality is to prevent people from pursuing their interests in these cases, so basing morality on selfishness is problematic from the very beginning.

    Another problem is the following: in Richard’s theory what is moral depends on the state of the society, for example on what the society thinks is good or bad. But the society is ultimately made by ourselves, so the question remains as to which state we should put it in. Richard gave the example of democracy versus tyranny. In this case most people will be better off in a democracy, but maybe not everyone, for example the ruling class. So apparently according to some tyranny should be better. Of course this is an extreme example, but there are surely examples of pairs of possible societies where half of the people are better off in the second and the other half worse off, considering both material and psychological aspects (if you think that cannot be, at least that is a strong proposition that need to be proved). Then one cannot say which society is more “moral” from a purely individual perspective. One has to somehow compare how much difference switching from the first society to the second will make to each person. But then maybe we are going somewhere.

  • Max M. Thomas

    For Edward T. Babinski: That’s quite a rant you have at #34. You begin with a non-sequitur and then launch into a series of ad hominem claims. Very effective rhetoric, but is there a rational critique about Kant that I missed?

  • Karl X. A. Raeder and go to lecture #1. I thought everybody knew this already.

  • Jonathan Livengood


    Following up on what John said in 11. (I think) …

    Do you have any reason for supposing that empirical facts are all the facts there are?

    I agree with you that the core methodological commitment of science is experimental testing. I would say that the empirical facts are (roughly) the answers to all those questions that are decidable by experimentation.

    But there are other (non-scientific) methodologies as well. For example, one might endorse a method of reflective equilibrium, which seems especially plausible for moral questions. Do you have some reason for thinking that the answers to those questions that are decidable by the method of reflective equilibrium but not by the method of science/experimentation are not facts? Or maybe some skepticism that there are any such answers?

  • DamnYankees

    I apologize if this point has been made already, but I feel the need to bring it up. Sean, you point this out as a missing premise:

    “We ought to do that which would bring about what we want.”

    You act as though this is a premise which needs evidence of some kind. I think many people, including myself, would say that the quoted sentence is definitionally true. That is what the word “ought” means. To say you you think “ought” to do something IS TO SAY that you want it brought about.

    It’s not something that needs to be proved., any more than you need to prove “mortal means you will die” needs to be proved. It’s definitional.

  • Arun

    You define “ought” as “that which we would do if we were reasoning logically and knew and understood all the relevant facts of our situation.

    “All the relevant facts of our situation” should include all the consequences of each of the choices we make. But these could be unknowable. Maybe if you pickpocketed somebody, he’d be searching his pockets, and hence not be crossing the road, where a car running a red light hits and kills him. But since you can’t know that, if you were reasoning logically and had just some of the relevant facts, it is possible that moral behavior would preclude picking his pocket. Then again, letting this guy get killed might save the world from a devastating war 50 years in the future. Or it results in the next Einstein being stillborn. I claim these are all relevant but unknowable facts.

    Really there is no situation where you can know all the relevant facts. Therefore you cannot establish an ought without some assumptions, even if you don’t buy any of Sean’s arguments. All you can say is that is perhaps,”considering only the immediate action and aftermath, and disregarding all particular contexts, rare events, etc., one ought not to pickpocket”. Not much of a moral rule.

  • Max M. Thomas


    I don’t think your claim is definitional. Heck, it’s not even true. Suppose that “We ought to do that which would bring about what we want” were true. Then suppose that I want to enslave my neighbor. Therefore, I ought to enslave my neighbor. Right?

  • Gilgamesh


    You would enslave your neighbors if that is what you wanted to do, but you have other wants, such as not going to jail, not having to fight your neighbor, and not being a terrible person in the eyes of others and yourself. When you realize that you may have more than one desire, and some of those desires conflict, you have to think about what is it that you want more than anything else. Basically, it is like an economic decision: what is the cost for the benefit. Since having a slave has many costs and the benefits are mitigated by the fact that whatever you want your slave to do would be better done by another in almost all cases (especially as a slave doesn’t want to do a job), and hiring someone is also cheaper than having to feed, house, care for another person entirely–especially one that would rather run away or kill you.

    Thus, it is more reasonable to not enslave your neighbor because that will cause you to not fulfill other desires and likely not even fulfill the one desire you have. To do otherwise would then be irrational.

    To do morality, you need to look at the whole of what it is you want and what things will bring about the desired outcomes. That I think was Carrier’s main point, that and the one thing you want to be more than anything else is to be happy/fulfilled/content (as Carrier argues). Slavery doesn’t tend to bring fulfillment, and antisocial behaviors also tend to make the sociopaths unhappy.

  • Max M. Thomas


    Aristotle argues that happiness or contentment is also the highest good, “the one thing you want to be more than anything else.” He also argues happiness is possible only when one follows one’s own nature. (I suppose he’s thinking of character traits, talents, abilities, etc.) Thus, to enslave someone who has a slave nature is morally right. Of course, if the slave’s owner is also disposed to being a master, then both master and slave are on their way to achieving happiness.

    As long as my slave and I are following our natures, then I am doing what’s morally right, that is, only if the moral goal is happiness.

    Happiness based moral systems are dependent on empirical evidence that happiness occurs by doing this or that action. But empirical evidence allows for exceptions. So if I find any historical instance where master and slave were happier than if the slave were free, then the best claim you and Carrier can make is that slavery is not always wrong. Aristotle saw this and decided that slavery is not always wrong based on the arguments.

  • Bee

    It all comes down to the question what’s the meaning of life.

  • Gilgamesh


    Concerning Aristotle, do you think he was right that some people have a slave nature and others a master nature? Perhaps he was wrong? If he was wrong, then you bringing him up on this point is a red herring.

    Now, to the meat. If you find a case where slavery was the better system, then isn’t it odd then to say that slavery is always bad if you find cases where it is good? Moreover, we need more than hypotheticals–is there a case in history where slavery was actually the best system? I don’t know of one, so you have your work cut out for you. Empirical evidence may allow for exceptions, but that is true even in moral systems. Is it always wrong to kill? What if you don’t kill that person they will launch nuclear weapons? Obviously the maxim “never kill” would undo the very purpose of morality: making the world better for ourselves and others. You in fact you do need to look at the facts, and you have to look at the probabilities of what your actions will entail. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean doing that actions is logical; you might win the lottery, but logically it is silly to bet when the odds are against you, and instead investing elsewhere is more rational.

    As best as I know, slavery is a poorer economic policy, and it increases violence between humans which almost never leads to happiness. When something does not actually achieve your goals and does things to thwart them, then you ought not to do them. All imperative statements come down to what you desire, and the imperative “don’t own people” has moral weight because historically it does more harm than good, especially when compared to non-slave-based societies. Unless you have empirical evidence that life was better in early 19th century Mississippi than now, then the argument is pretty much moot.

  • Miles

    I don’t understand how Richards definition of morality differs from enlightened self-interest, and I’ve always thought morality had more to do with enlightened societal-interest on the whole. One ought to do whatever is in the greatest interest to society (themselves included), but society ought not force individuals to always do so as there are cases where the use of force creates more problems than it solves – e.g. the War on Drugs with respect to harmful drugs. Either way, the above terms provide more clarity than the baggage-laden term morality.

    What’s most curious about all this to me is that the underlying basis of morality (the relevant consequences on people) has always seemed straightforward and obvious, even if working out the likely outcomes can be complicated and intriguingly difficult. Yet people go on at length about moral realism and Kant and Aristotle and whatnot! Meanwhile religions and corporations continue spreading misinformation about societal interest and discouraging people from following it in the first place. Oi vey…

    @Arun, You can never know all the relevant effects of every potential action, but you can make an educated guess.

    @ Sean, If the existence of rules and competition are an adequate test for whether something is a game, then rules and competition are an assumed definition, much like “that which would be most desired by affected individuals” is an assumed definition of ought. At least theoretically, the desires of the affected individuals can be tested empirically, so how is the analogy to games not apt? If I may be so bold, I wonder if your hang up about the analogy is really more about the fact that there is more consensus about what the definition of a game is.

    Though really the concept of games breaks down at the edges. The stock market has already been mentioned as meeting the set criteria for a game; is it one? Do prizes partially merge games with dominance contests or work? Consider roughhousing; it is the bane of mothers everywhere because the line between game and brawl is so blurry.

  • FmsRse12

    morality is a human construct subjected to all the evolutionary refinements, it is not a physical entity which is invariant under trans-universal formulation of laws that govern the most basic entities of those universes….so one is allowed to modify or evolve and formulate a new set of moral virtues not in line with older ones…..”moral ambivalence” is the driver which “refines” morality itself which is probably same as saying that stochasticity of underlying fundamental laws that govern the universe are the culprit…..

  • spyder

    A great discussion on moral philosophy, but all i really want to know is: why i can’t just add more oil to the car if the oil is low?

  • Will

    How strange. It seems to me that Carrier agrees on all the details of moral non realism but calls himself a realist. He thinks morality can vary from conscious mind to conscious mind and it is dependent on properties of those minds. Arguing about whether or not we should call this “real” or not is stupid; it is a phenomenon that has a direct and measurable impact on our universe, in the form of actions, electrical impulses in the brain, etc. Contrast with concepts like “god” or “epiphenomena” that have no impact on the universe, and so are not real/do not exist.

    If this was just some random blogger I’d assume he wasn’t thinking through his beliefs, and was allowing fuzziness and inconsistency about definitions and one place or two place functions to cloud his reasoning. But this is the guy who gave such an excellent definition of natural as “no ontologically basic mental entities”, so I’m surprised he’d be taken in by such a simple confusion.

    If morality is just an output of the physical system called human beings (and presumably other complex agents), what do we have to disagree about? Arguing about what is real and non-real makes less sense than arguing about what is mental and non-mental. Morality is like sexual attraction; when you see someone you find sexy, you don’t say “she has 60 objective attractive points, and this is a universal truth”. Everyone knows beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it has a large mental component. We could presumably say “she has 60 attractive points in person A’s classification scheme, but 25 in person B’s system”, providing you could measure and understand the right properties of those 2 people/aliens/etc. But you could equivalently say “She has 60 attractiveness#975 points”, referring to the particular set of features that A finds attractive. If A were different then the woman could have a different score (in A’s system), but she would still have the same score by feature set #975. Replace woman with action, and attractive/sexy with moral and you seem to get exactly what Carrier believes. Does he think there is an objective truth to sexiness? Does the whole idea of arguing about someone being objectively sexy just seem silly to you? Then maybe debating whether or not the outputs of a given physical system are “really real” or not is a pointless endeavor?

  • Sam

    If we all agree that not being moral “makes more sense” than being moral we all will be fucked. Why not just understand this and realize the wisdom of “be excellent to each other, party on dudes.”

  • Theresa

    True :) This post shows that we all have a desire for the truth, and to know how things should be.

  • sievemaria lucianus

    Defining behavior as moral depends on your big picture idea of society and it seems to go hand in hand with questions of who we are, why we are here – our obligations to each other , and what we can get away with so go figure… and yes make up any story you like . We dont know how carbon turns into life. Chaos to mush or mush to chaos ? and then – a butterfly.

  • Woody

    What would Socrates say? All those Greeks were homosexuals. Boy, they must have had
    some wild parties. I bet they all took a house together on Crete for the summer.

    (a) Socrates is a man.

    (b) All men are mortal.

    (c) All men are Socrates.

    That means all men are homosexuals.

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  • Alan Cooper

    @Bee#52: You came in ten comments too late! But don’t panic (so long as you still have your towel)

    @Will#57: I had similar thoughts on reading Carrier but I think that his real point is (or should be) that realism and relativism are not in conflict. Moral values, like the economic value of diamonds, may be relative but are real nonetheless. The existence of absolute moral values on the other hand is not supported by anything in his argument.

    I would add that Carrier shares with Sam Harris the blunder of referring to things like “the consequences you would want most”(assuming blah blah blah) without understanding that there is probably no single real variable which measures our level of “total satisfaction” at even a single instant (let alone integrated over time).

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  • tomkow

    This is all rather sad.

    Carroll says Carrier is arguing for moral realism understood as the thesis that there are moral facts that are “true independent of your opinion”.

    This is a fair first approximation of how most philosophers understand “moral realism”.

    Carroll thinks it is somehow relevant to this claim to insist on the familiar thesis that you cannot derive “ought” from “is”: That you cannot reach conclusions about what you ought to do unless you assume premises about what you ought to do.

    This is confused: That we cannot “derive ought from is”, is not an argument against moral realism. Compare: “You cannot deductively conclude anything about Mt. Everest unless at least one of your conclusions mentions Mt. Everest.” This is perfectly true, but does nothing at all to subvert the claim that there are facts about Mt. Everest which are “true independent of your opinion”.

    Carroll concludes by saying: “Observe the world all you like; you won’t get morality off the ground until you settle on some independent moral assumptions. ” But:

    1) The fact that you can’t get moral conclusions without moral premises does nothing to show that you can’t discover moral facts by observing the world any more than the fact that you can’t get Mt. Everest conclusions without Mt. Everest premises shows that Mt. Everest is unobservable.

    2) The fact that moral facts are not discovered by observation does not entail that there are no observer independent moral facts. Thus: one can be a realist about mathematical facts without believing they are discovered by observation. Realism about a topic does not require empiricism about it.

    So none of Carroll’s arguments are arguments against Moral Realism as he and Carrier define it.

    On the other hand, none of Carrier’s arguments are actually arguments for moral realism in any interesting sense.

    Carrier want’s to say that there are objective facts about what people most want given what they believe the objective facts about the world are, so there must be objective facts about what people would most want if they knew all the facts. Which may be true but, of course, has no obvious connection to morality unless one accepts Carriers definition of morality as what you would most want to do if you knew all the facts. You can’t argue against definitions, however eccentric, but you can laugh at them. Cf. “Stalin and Hitler were good men, just confused about the facts. Discuss.”

    As I said, all rather sad.

  • Ronan

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Carroll; it pretty much directly challenges my own views on morality, which is a fine and good thing.

    I’ve posted once in one of these morality topics before (long time ago; doubt I’m remembered by anyone), with my post being as follows:

    “This is nice; that first “Is/Ought” post got me thinking on the subject (the first time I had ever heard of the is/ought conundrum, in fact), and now…back we come again. I’d argue that deriving the Ought from the Is isn’t necessary, because the ought already is; or rather, there are a whole bevy of oughts running around, in the form of everyone’s individual ideas of what should be. I don’t quite see whether one should have to worry about whether or not they’re “true” (whatever that means, in this context), because regardless of that they exist. Seems like it would be sensible to follow along with those oughts, and do one’s best to make sure that what oughts one encounters, or can deduce to exist in other people, are followed through with–because, again, trying to figure out what context they should be true in seems difficult, impossible, or nonsensical. They exist, and resisting them or ignoring them is even more pointless (from a purely nihilistic point of view, mind) than following them, so…Hey, why not?”

    …So yes, I grant the point of this most recent post; there is no set-in-stone, cast-iron reason not to “resist or ignore” the oughts that exist. “Hey, why not?” is not a very satisfying response, I know, and it certainly falls short logically speaking, but…is there an alternative? If so, please tell me what it is.

  • Ben

    It is a fact of the world that we will do what we want to do and so unless Carroll is a dualist (which he may be), the mechanical construction of desires and their necessary implications on the rest of the facts of the world are reducible to quite underwhelming empirical facts. Any further “ought” debate is a practically meaningless quibble over inherited semantics from whenever someone invented the word “ought.”

  • Raskolnikov

    I don’t quite get your distinction. Fine, a premise was left out, thanks for bringing that up. Now we won’t forget.

    May I remind you that you introduced two premises in your “logical argument”: all men are mortal and Socrates is a man. How are you going to prove them logically? You can’t.

    So how is the “logical argument” different from the “moral agument”, except that another set of premises is used?

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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