Moral truth

Moral Truths

Do moral truths exist independently of us? Could they be part of our universe – something we discover rather than create?

John Cottingham

Are there some objective moral truths?

‘There’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us whether we like it or not.'


are there some objective moral truths?

Ard: Show me an example of something that you cannot explain in terms of scientific theories.

JC: Well, consider morality, which is a very important part of our human experience. Can the truths of morality, for example, that compassion is required of us, that cruelty is wrong, can those be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the laws of physics? Pretty clearly not. I mean, that’s obvious.

But can they then be explained in terms, perhaps, of biological drives, which would be explicable by biology, perhaps, and therefore ultimately through physics? Well, again, I think not, because there’s something about genuine moral truths which exerts a pull on us, which exerts a demand on us, whether we like it or not, almost irrespective of how we feel and what we would like to do. This is what philosophers rather unhelpfully call normativity. It’s the idea that moral truths have an authoritative force: they exert a requirement on us to which we must respond.

Now, either you explain those away as illusory in some way, or you have to acknowledge that there’s a part of reality which isn’t just configurations of particles interacting.

Ard: But wouldn’t one explanation of that be, well, that’s because it gives us better survival? Or maybe our group will survive better if we behave in this way?

JC: Well, this is a really interesting core issue, I think. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re, I guess, a ragbag of conflicting desires, inclinations and dispositions that have evolved in various ways. But had our history – our social or biological history – gone slightly differently, we would have different ones. So compassion might not be right: cruelty might be right. Or cruelty might not be wrong had things gone a bit differently. Now, that seems, at least to me, strongly counterintuitive.

David: Are you sort of saying that there is a moral compass? That just like there is a north, whether you’re headed north or not, it’s still there. You’re saying that there’s, sort of, a moral compass where there’s good and bad, and even if you like the bad, you’re aware of the good.

JC: Precisely.

David: Okay.

JC: So, even if I incline to be cruel, or incline to be destructive, or selfish, I’m, as it were, pulled. I think the compass analogy is a very good one. I’m not, of course, forced, because we often do turn away from the good, unfortunately.

David: But you know it’s there.

JC: But we know it’s there, and it would be hard to live as a human being, I think, if one didn’t have that sense that there was something more to morality than merely a set of contingent desires and inclinations.There’s an analogy, I think, here, with mathematical reasoning: that we often do go wrong, we often make mistakes, but we have a strong sense that there is something that’s the right answer, in principle, and that our reasoning, however faulty and shoddy, ought to be conforming to that. And I think it’s exactly the same in morality.

Ard: So moral truths are like mathematical truths? Or they could be?

JC: Yes, I mean Descartes held a view which I think many people would now regard as unfashionable: namely that we have a natural light – a light of reason which orients us towards mathematical truths and moral truths. Provided we focus on them accurately, they’re so clear that they compel our assent. So his mathematical example, things like 2+3=5, he thought as long as you focus on that, you cannot but assent to its truth. But I think he would have said the same about the wrongness of cruelty, or the goodness of compassion.

Ard: So how about people who say, well, you know, these things are just socially constructed?

JC: But, of course, that just begs the question, or demands the question, if I got morality from the previous generation, where did they get it from? Now, if you say it’s just a set of contingent factors that have led a certain society to have certain beliefs about what they should do, right and wrong, then you're back with that problem of the contingency: the radical contingency of the ethical. Had society developed slightly differently, we’d have to say then cruelty might not be wrong. You know, oppressing the weak might be good. And that just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Ard: Yes, it does sound wrong.

David: But between you, you’ve just made a much stronger claim. I mean, it’s one thing to say… You mathematicians or physicists are always saying that mathematics is there. Like your 2+3 was always going to be 5. It was 5 when there were only dinosaurs around and we weren’t here. It was still 5.

Ard: Yes.

David: And you’re suggesting that maybe moral truths are woven into the fabric of the universe, like mathematical ones?

JC: Well, I think I would say that. That is to say, there’s something in the nature of reality which makes these truths necessary. Not, of course, in exactly the same sense as logic and mathematics, but I would say about them what Frege, the German logician Gottlob Frege, said about the basic truths of logic and arithmetic and so on: that they are like boundary stones which our thought can overflow, but not shift.

And then you have to ask what makes them true. You could just say, ‘Well, they’re just true and nothing makes them true.’ If you don’t go that route, I think one is drawn… I’m certainly drawn to saying they’re somehow grounded in the way the cosmos is, and that leads to a more religious interpretation perhaps.

Ard: So this is something that you and I probably share, which is that we think morals are grounded in some way and something that transcend outside of ourselves: God, you might call that. Whereas David doesn’t believe in God, but he does want to hold on to there being moral truths that are independent of ourselves.

David: Yes, I mean, I do have the sense that there are things which were true before we imagined them.

JC: I think we are then agreed that there are these truths: they’re not just subjective inclinations.

David: They’re things we discover; I don’t think we’re making them up.

JC: Okay, we’re not inventing. So, then, I don’t think you have that many options in describing or accounting…
David: You’re ganging up on me, aren’t you?

JC: It’s just that either you’ve got to give a deflationary account and say, ‘Well, they seem like impressive, authoritative truths, but really they’re just disguised preferences’ – something like that – or you have to go a kind of Platonist route, I guess, and say they’re just wafting around in some abstract realm.

David: I’m guessing you don’t like that ‘wafting around’ option.

Ard: I think you like ‘wafting’, don’t you?

David: No, no, that’s not fair, I don’t.

JC: Or they are grounded in some ultimate reality.

David: Are you sure those are my only choices?

JC: Well, philosophers have come up with all sorts of labels. You know, ‘non-natural moral truths’.

David: Oh, never mind the labels; they don’t work for me. I just chafe at only being able to have these three choices, because none of those three options seem terribly appealing. I don't know… I don't know, yet.

George Ellis

Moral reality and moral facts

‘Do I think that there is a space of moral reality? And my answer is yes. I believe that the holocaust was an evil. I think that’s a fact, a moral fact.’



DavId: If you’re saying then that mathematical ideas exist in our universe in some way…

GE: In some abstract way.

David: In some abstract way, could other kinds of ideas exist in the same way? Could there be moral ideas that were there? I’m not advocating that there are, but it occurs to me if you say, well, the square root of two was always there, by what authority would you say, well, moral truths couldn’t be?

GE: Now we’re getting to interesting territory here. The fact that it is possible to think of moral thoughts is a very, very deep fact about the universe: the fact it’s possible to think that things are good and evil, bad and so on.

And then my direct answer to your question is, do I think that it could be that there is a space of moral reality? And my answer is yes. I’m a moral realist. I’ve written a book about this called On the Moral Nature of the Universe with my friend Nancy Murphy, and we defend strongly the idea of a moral reality.

Now what you have to do there is then say, well, what is the nature of the moral reality? And you then have to realise that the simplistic views of morality are not correct. Real morality is not a set of ten laws on a tablet which you can write down, because those are a terrible approximation to the real thing, and from my viewpoint, the deep nature of reality, which is discovered by the spiritual members of all the great traditions in the world, is that the deep nature of morality is to do with self-sacrifice and giving up on behalf of other people. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s not a logical argument, and people are looking for logical laws that they can apply. But the deep nature of morality, from my position, is that it is the counter-intuitive thing: that if you want to get something, and create greater good, you must give up, and the way to getting what you want is giving up what you want, and that’s the way to get what you want.

The religious literature has known this for thousands of years: the fact you feel good about something doesn’t mean that it is the good thing to do. Good and evil is not scientifically measurable and so it’s not a scientific concept.

Ard: But the point is just because you can’t measure it scientifically doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

GE: Oh, I think it’s true. As I say, I think there’s a moral reality. I believe passionately that apartheid in South Africa was an evil. I believe that the Holocaust was an evil. I think that that’s a fact, a moral fact.

Ard: And you were involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Do you want to tell us a little about that?

GE: Well that’s a whole other story.

Ard: But you passionately believed…

GE: I believed that it was morally wrong what was going on. Not that it was socially wrong or that it was politically wrong, but that it was wrong, fact.

Ard: And that motivated your anti-apartheid…

GE: Yes.

David: And the way that you are describing moral facts, you would have felt that that was a moral fact that apartheid was wrong with the same certainty and power as the square root of four is two. They are both truths.

Ard: And there are people, surely, in your social class or in your friendship groups who believe apartheid was fine?

GE: Yes, yes.

Ard: So you would say they are wrong?

GE: There certainly were people who thought in various ways it was right, and I happened to believe they’re wrong. Now it’s not a scientific thing: I cannot prove scientifically they were wrong. It’s a moral or philosophical understanding, and so if you say prove it, I can’t prove it. All I can say is it is my belief that this is the way things are.

Ard: But if you say, ‘Oh, it’s my belief, I can’t prove it’, that sounds like you’re taking a step back and saying, ‘This is my belief. Your belief is that apartheid is fine, and, you know, let’s leave it that way.’

GE: My belief is that there is an abstract moral standard.

Ard: And do you think that in the anti-apartheid movement this idea that it was wrong, and that that was a fact, played a big role for those who fought against apartheid?

GE: Oh, I think so.

Ard: People sacrificed for this?

GE: Absolutely. I mean the point about this is exactly that. I take someone like Desmond Tutu as being the classic person doing that. For him it was absolutely not the slightest question that it was an evil, and this wasn’t an opinion, but it was a fact that this was an evil.

Ben Okri

How do we know moral truth?

‘How do we know the moral boundaries of life? How do we know if you live in a place where no one has told you, “Don't do that. That's going hurt somebody?”'



Ard: Do you think story is an important part of finding our moral sense or moral compass?

BO: Profoundly, actually. How do we know the moral boundaries of life? How do we know? If you live in a place where no one has told you, ‘Don't do that, that's going to hurt somebody’, how would you know? We only know because people tell us. And even when they tell us, we don't really know. We only begin to know when we can start to feel how the other person might feel.

There are not that many ways of getting me to feel what you can feel; there are just not that many. One of the few truly great ways of doing that is story. It is one of the most miraculous things about it.

You write a story: ‘One day I went out into the street and I saw this girl,’ and I'm reading it… I'm not reading it from your point of view, I'm reading it from my point of view. I'm reading it from my consciousness. So the act of reading is an act of automatic empathy: it is literally wearing someone's skin. It is literally entering into someone's consciousness.

Forgive these absurd gestures, but it is an emersion into a slightly different order of reality – actually one quite different from yours. But suddenly you get to see it from someone else, and you think, oh my goodness, is that what that feels like? And that's one of the most powerful places for the birth of the moral, of the moral sense, because if we don't know what someone else feels like, why should I care, really, what I do to you?

You see the thing about a story that is very, very strange is that the minute you begin to tell a story, a whole universe comes into being, because every good story brings with it a complete world. Even if it's very short, the implication of a complete world is in there. And that's where the moral structure comes from, because it's giving the idea of a complete world. All our ideas about society are implied in the stories that we tell.

David: I think that's a very important word, though, when you say ‘implied’, because it's often the implicit which are the most powerful because they take root in you. It's different to the explicit. I mean, the difference between the two is a joke is implicit, the funny part is implicit, and when some nitwit comes along and makes it explicit, it's not funny.

BO: It's ruined it, exactly. It's the power of suggestion as well and the implicit. I love the word implicit because implicit implicates you. You're the one who gives it life, actually. You're the one who makes the joke. If you tell me a joke, you're not the one who's making the joke. It's me who gets it who makes the joke. That's why people love hearing jokes because they get to be funny. It's me who's laughing who's the one.

And it's an act of imagination. The implicit pulls the imagination in more. The imagination is one of the most extraordinary faculties that we have. It's not an objective faculty, even though it draws its material from the objective. But it's the faculty through which we are able to be slightly more than just ourselves.

David: I like that notion, because it's something that you [to Ard] have mentioned in terms of religious feeling. You've often said to me, ‘There have to be things which point beyond themselves.’ And what you've just said, about the imagination, you've said exactly that. It’s something we can do but which points beyond us.

BO: Yeah, the other thing that fascinates me about all of this is if we think of ourselves as separate individuals, and unconnected, in a way, why should I care about you? Why should you care about me? Why? How can we begin to have a society? Do you get what I'm saying?

BO: Regardless of whether you believe in the religionists or the metaphysicians who say there's an invisible link that connect us, imagination is one of the most powerful links that enables us to slowly manage the equation between our individuality and other people's necessity: the navigation of our different freedoms. The birth, the growth of civilisation itself is a constant act of imagination, and for me storytelling and imagination are very intrinsically bound.

David: Do you think that has an effect back on us? You could imagine: here I am and I tell a story, and there you are, and we're both exactly the same person we were at the end of the story as at the beginning – it's just we've heard a story – or the telling of a story changes us. Do ideas have the power to change the person who...?

BO: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely .The teller is changed by the telling; the hearer is changed by the hearing. If the story resonates with you, in any way, something has been, not given to you or added to you, but awoken in you. Something has been inwardly expanded in you that wasn't there before. I personally, I'm even going to go slightly further than this and say that I believe stories affect reality. I believe that the stories that we tell, themselves slowly actually change our realities.

Gwendolyn Patton

Our moral compass

‘I think we’re all born with a moral compass. I really do. I think it’s natural. You don’t get a good feeling when you do something ugly. You really don’t.’



Ard: Was there any sense in which you just thought, well, actually it’s wrong. And that’s why we’re right and we’re going to win, because we’re just right.

GP: Well you’re bringing in the moral dimension. You have to remember that the church is very much a part of the coalition, and we were moving towards liberation theology with Dr King, though I did see the limitations and I’m still struggling with that.

How do you deal with the mindset? Through centuries they’ve been programmed to feel superior. You know, how do you change that? You know, which is a real, even to this day, still a question.

Ard: So do you think that from Dr King and others, the idea that we’re all created equal, was really important?

GP: Yes. We’re all God’s children. I’m very religious, by the way.

Ard: So you sensed that you were all God’s children?

GP: We were all God’s children.

Ard: And do you think that gave you an extra push in these kinds of struggles?

GP: Yeah, and it gave us an argument. And then my whole thing was, well, if we’re all God’s children, and we really understand that all of our gifts and our talents come from the Lord, and you’re not using them, then are you not sinning?

See my granddaddy, on my daddy’s side, was a bible scholar and he prayed: we got up every morning at four o’clock.

Ard: Wow!

GP: Got on our knees and prayed as a family, and he would give these great long prayers, you know, and blessings, and all of that kind of carrying on. And so part of my upbringing, along with my young uncles, was the Scripture and learning the Bible stories, and what some might call Aesop, the parables, the morals: that the Lord has blessed you with this, you know, these talents, and you’re not using them, then are you thumbing your nose at the Lord? Are you blaspheming? You know, the whole story around talent.

Ard: And your whole family was involved in the struggle, and that kind of scriptural basis played a big role?

GP: Yes.

David: Do you think people are born with a moral compass, though? Or do they have to learn it?

GP: I think both. You know, you’re kind of born knowing what’s right from wrong, what hurts and what doesn’t hurt. I think we’re born with a set of emotions that we really don’t have any control over.

Ard: Sure.

GP: You know, we’re born with that.

David: So it’s a mixture of having a moral compass and what you’re taught?

GP: I think we’re all born with a moral compass, I really do. I think it’s a natural… a natural reality, a natural phenomenon in human beings.

David: So why didn’t the white people see that what they were doing was wrong?

You were eight, you could see it.

GP: They were just totally unconscious, and they had been programmed and brainwashed until they started believing that foolishness. You see it with little kids. As the story goes, when little black kids and white kids are playing together and having fun, and then they get to a certain age, then they say, ‘Oh, no, you’re superior than little Tommy’, and they begin to believe that.

I think we’re all born with a degree with a whole: not a degree, but with a wholeness of innocence ‒ I really do. Again, I think you’re born with that. I mean, don’t you feel perhaps God, your spirit, your inner being, tells you that? And you believe that. It depends on your belief system. But people who have no purpose ‒ no meaning ‒ do not even understand the essence of being. What is the essence of being? How do you define that? And that has to be defined, to me, through purpose, meaning… whatever you’ve done to help somebody, yourself, your community, your family. And I think you get a sense of reward.

David: When I listen to you, it’s obvious that those notions for you of moral right and moral wrong have a really firm foundation. For you that seems to be God, as you said. I don’t believe in God, so I think, well, where do I get mine from?

GP: Whether you believe in Him or not doesn’t matter, to me. There has to be some kind of, however you want to define God, okay? There has to be something that says, ‘I want my better angels to manifest, and help me, not only to tamp down, but to obliterate the bad angels, the worst angels.’

I think we’re all born with that, if you want to get to it, good and evil, you know? Unless you’ve been so desensitised, and I think much of the world has been – people in the world – you don’t get a good feeling when you do something ugly, you really don’t.

Frans de Waal

Debating moral truths

‘I’m an expert on primate behaviour, and this level of discourse, where we look at are there absolute moral truths, I don't know what to do with that.’



Ard: And so do you think that these moral ideas, like taking care of those in the out-group, are real truths that are out there, that we discover, or are they just something that we've kind of made up ourselves?

FdW: No, I think we have arrived at them by intellectual means. They are more fragile, I think, and that's why I'm saying that as long as your group is doing well, you can do that, but if your group is not doing so well, I think they're fragile because we always, first of all, care about our group.

Ard: But do you think that they're actually true, just like one plus one equals two?

FdW: I don't know about that.

Ard: You don't?

FdW: I don't know if there's absolute truths in the world.

Ard: Okay.

David: But does it matter for moral behaviour whether there are absolute moral truths?

FdW: No, I don't think so. Human behaviour is based on emotions and intuitions and social relationships and social strategies, and then the rationalisation is something that comes afterwards. So we're very good at rationalising afterwards. We're very good at justifying behaviour afterwards. But to make that the basis of human behaviour, or the basis of human morality, is a fundamental mistake, I think.

David: Yeah.

Ard: So what would the basis be then?

FdW: The basis is our evolved tendencies to be social, which include caring for each other, but also it includes caring for ourselves, of course.

Ard: Yeah, but those are tendencies that have evolved to care for our in-groups, right? Whereas often the difficult thing is caring for those that are outside of our group, so…

FdW: Yeah, and that...

Ard: …an argument… an argument could be you could say well, you know, Professor De Waal says this is what's evolved, morality's built up on this, so all of these tendencies we have to take care of people, they're not an in-group, we should ignore them because they're just, you know, they're not part of who we really are?

FdW: They're.. they're not part of our, let's say, biological foundation so to speak [yeah] but, and that's why I'm saying it, it's a secondary intellectual process where we say well we have extracted certain principles from how we treat each other and we're now trying to apply those principles outside of the group.

Ard: Yeah, but those are very important. That's a very important step, right?

FdW: It's a very important step, and I think we can congratulate each other as humans that we are capable of making that step – it's a wonderful step but it's a fragile step, I think.

Ard: And we often disagree on how that step should be done and... and you're not sure whether it's even the case that those thoughts like taking care of those that are outside of our group, whether that's even true, it's something that we've agreed with?

FdW: Well what we try to do under these circumstances is try to look at the out-group as if they're sort of an in-group, and nowadays in society with all the internet, and the planet has gotten smaller, that's actually easier. So if you hear about the tsunami in Japan, for example, in the old days you would read it in a newspaper, you would read it ten days later probably, and you would not be very much affected because it's basically text that you see.

Now you see video images, you see interviews with people who've lost their home, they've lost their children, they're crying on the camera, the body relation is there that you would never have from a newspaper, and as a result you feel closer to them and as a result you're going to give money or at least you worry about them. And so we are shrinking the world, and we're actually treating out-groups more like in-groups, and so we're actually getting back to these fundamental processes even for the out-group.

Ard: But isn't it slightly worrying that what makes us want to help the out-group is tricking ourselves into thinking they're part of our in-group?

FdW: Yeah.

Ard: Shouldn't we want to take care of them, regardless of whether we feel like they're part of their in-group?

FdW: No, but what we do is we manipulate their image, basically, in our mind, and instead of looking at them as strangers that we don't care about, we say but they're human, just like us, and so that's how we start to think about them. And the opposite process is of course dehumanisation which we also do with certain enemies, which is we're going to describe them as horrible and not worthy of consideration, and so we manipulate the image of others.

Ard: So how do we decide between which of those two manipulations to do? So yesterday we spoke… we had an interesting interview with Dr Gwen Patton, who is a civil rights activist, and so there was a very strong in-group/out-group feeling, or there is a very strong in-group/out-group between blacks and whites in the United States, and so what you're saying is we can manipulate our sense of the other by making them feel… dehumanising them or humanising them, and that's obviously a very powerful strategy to change people's behaviour, but it doesn't tell us whether we should dehumanise them or humanise them. Maybe we ought to dehumanise our enemies and humanise our friends? So the real… the deeper question is how do we decide which of these two strategies to take with a particular group like blacks and whites?

FdW: I feel humanisation is always better than dehumanisation.

Ard: Why do you feel that?

David: He's empathetic.

Ard: Empathetic.

FdW: I'm empathetic, yeah.

David: You want it to be grounded rationally, don't you?

Ard: I want it to be. I think it's really important! I think it's really important because I think if it's just grounded in our passions, then the minute I realise that that's what it is, I can start manipulating it in myself and in others.

FdW: But that's like a bit like Immanuel Kant: he said compassion is beautiful but it's totally useless because...

Ard: Well I don't think it's useless. I think it's really... that’s where I disagree.

FdW: It's beautiful in the sense that he wanted to give it something, but duty is really what it comes down to, and that’s the Kantian view. And Kant is as antibiological as you can get, I think. Kant thinks everything top down…

Ard: Let's say that compassion is a good thing, which I think biologically we agree with, and evolution over time has generated us towards compassion, and it's good because our moral instincts correlate with this thing which is true. But what if it was false? How do we know whether our evolutionary instincts are all correlated with the things that are true? We have to work. These are important things to worry about.

FdW: I'm not sure that there are absolute truths out there in that...

David: No, I'm not sure either.

Ard: You're not sure?

David: I don't think they're correlating with anything that's out there.

Ard: Well I think they are. I think that they are.

David: Oh no.

Ard: Well this is where we disagree.

David: Yeah.

Ard: But you think there's no… you don't believe in these things?

FdW: I'm not sure. I'm an expert of primate behaviour, and this level of discourse where we look at are there absolute moral truths… I don't know what to do with that.

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