Oct 152014

The phrase “objective moral truth” has always puzzled me. Does this mean the same things as “universal moral truth”? The two terms seem quite different to me. Objective truth seems to mean something which is true even in the absence of the “I” of the conscious person (i.e. a “subject”). To speak of objective morality seems non-sense, therefore, like speaking of the morality of rocks, or planetary orbits.

On the other hand, the term, “universal,” seems to mean non-variable; something that is true from place to place and/or from person to person. Whereas the term, “universal” can be applied to persons, the term, “objective” specifically detaches itself from persons. What else should “objective” mean other than that which is concerned with “objects” as opposed to “subjects”? And what then, is the meaning of moral objects? Is there anything moral or immoral – good or evil – in a universe without persons? Show me the evil solar system, the bad rock – only then will I be convinced of “objective moral truth.”

As William James once said, “betterness is not a physical relation.”


…of what we mean by the words “obligation,” “good,” and “ill.” First of all, it appears that such words can have no application or relevancy in a world in which no sentient life exists. Imagine an absolutely material world, containing only physical and chemical facts, and existing from eternity without a God, without even an interested spectator: would there be any sense in saying of that world that one of its states is better than another? Or if there were two such worlds possible, would there be any rhyme or reason in calling one good and the other bad‑good or bad positively, I mean, and apart from the fact that one might relate itself better than the other to the philosopher’s private interests? But we must leave these private interests out of the account, for the philosopher is a mental fact, and we are asking whether goods and evils and obligations exist in physical facts per se. Surely there is no status for good and evil to exist in, in a purely insentient world.. How can one physical fact, considered simply as a physical fact, be “better” than another? Betterness is not a physical relation. In its mere material capacity, a thing can no more be good or bad than it can be pleasant or painful. Good for what? Good for the production of another physical fact, do you say? But what in a purely physical universe demands the production of that other fact? Physical facts simply are or are not; and neither when present or absent, can they be supposed to make demands. If they do, they can only do so by having desires; and then they have ceased to be purely physical facts, and have become facts of conscious sensibility. Goodness, badness, and obligation must be realized somewhere in order really to exist; and the first step in ethical philosophy is to see that no merely inorganic “nature of things” can realize them. Neither moral relations nor the moral law can swing in vacuo. Their only habitat can be a mind which feels them; and no world composed of merely physical facts can possibly be a world to which ethical propositions apply.

– An excerpt from “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, an address to the Yale Philosophical Club by William James, published in the International Journal of Ethics, April 1891.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm

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