Can there be objective moral facts that have no innate imperative bindingness – what everyone ought to do regardless of their needs and preferences?



My interest is in presenting results from the science of social morality in ways that will be culturally useful. (This science is the study of the origins and function of behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral codes.) But these ‘facts’ about socially moral behaviors are the normal kind in science – they have no innate imperative bindingness. Does that rule them out as “moral facts”?

On the other hand, it seems silly to insist these science derived facts about morality and the cultural moralities that can be built on are not “objectively” moral since they are as objective as the rest of science.

Just as an example to clarify my question, one proposed universally moral principle within social morality is “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”. As a product of science, it is objectively universally moral within the category of social morality but it has no innate bindingness. Could any morality built on it be coherently called an objective (mind-independent) morality?

Mark Sloan

Posted 2019-02-11T04:30:41.713

Reputation: 103

A mind-independent morality is the one that is applicable to mindless entities. I see none of such, people don't even think that morality is applicable to primitive animals. Your example is in the form of command, why is it not binding? How is it objective? If it was "To increase your own benefits, increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others" it could be objective if true. And it's non-binding. – rus9384 – 2019-02-11T07:23:03.977

Facts about morality and moral facts are two completely different things. Science can provide the former, more or less objectively, but they are just empirical generalizations from what is historically observed. At best, they can suggest what "objective moral facts" might be, when some norms are particularly widespread (like "do not murder"). But science can not even establish that any such facts exist, let alone any one of them in particular. It is said that one can not derive an ought from an is, imperatives from facts.

– Conifold – 2019-02-11T08:17:47.333

I think the mere existence of values imply that one ought to act effectively to achieve those values, and to act effectively implies that one ought to do a bunch of other things... collect evidence, behave in accordance with reality, etc... I think that's a bit of a fringe view, though. – Ask About Monica – 2019-02-11T17:37:12.400

You are using the terminology incorrectly. Morality is not a science. By you stating science I will guess you are referring to a field like Psychology, Sociology or Anthropology. Secondly there is no such thing as a scientific fact. A fact is a claim that has a truth cannot change. If I say x is a y and the value fluctuates how is it a FACT? If x is only true less than 50 percent it's not a fact. Science has probability only. Objective fact is what I described as Fact before. Facts are objective & cant change. If abortion is immoral isn't the claim forever or do pro lifers mean each Tuesday? – Logikal – 2019-02-11T18:20:55.203

1Morality falls under Philosophy. Under philosophy morality is under the field of normative ethics. This means popular opinion doesn't count, culture doesn't count, authority and rules dont count. Facts about a specific act will count. Facts are permanent truth values with specific criteria. No going from general to specific to fish for data only to then add new data to a normal question. Tou must give specific data if you have it. no crossing bridges when you get there. This way the answer will be permanent and then we will evaluate if the answer always is true or not always true. – Logikal – 2019-02-11T18:27:44.707

@Logikal How exactly would we obtain permanent "facts" that have more than "probability"? After all, we are only human, although established science does far better than 50%. "We will evaluate if the answer always is true" is then highly problematic, "we" fo not mix with "always", only gods do. So either we can know no facts, and your distinction is useless, or you better come up with something more feasible than "permanent truth values" that are always immune from fluctuation. – Conifold – 2019-02-12T01:02:21.887

@Conifold, some terms have specific definitions. These are often called analytical. Examples are all triangles have three sides, all women are human beings, all bachelors are unmarried men, all dogs are mammals,etc. Those examples are deemed logically necessary. The examples also demonstrate the truth value is impossible to change. Once we have a value it remains forever--or else there is a problem. Pro life proponents seem to think abortion is immoral forever. I dont know what you mean by some values not being able to fluctuate. Objective values by definition do not change once given. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T14:15:14.843

@Logikal Analytic statements do not give you anything actionable. Even assuming that we can be certain about those (which we can not, history abounds with wrong "theorems"), they are no "facts", they just reformulate linguistic/mathematical conventions. So unless you have values by convention (and even if you do), we are back to your notion of "facts" being useless for humans. – Conifold – 2019-02-12T19:44:39.007

@Conifold, I don't understand what you mean by ". . . anything actionable." You seem to believe analytic propositions are just semantic tautologies. No you are incorrect. Logically necessary means that the truth value is impossible to be false. You cant make just a triangle with more than three sides. You would have a triangle with some other stuff. Objective truth is unchangeable like logic truth tables are once given the main connector. Following the rules would make it impossible for any error. If error occurs we have a problem. The ideal form of truth is objective truth. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T19:58:36.323

@Logikal Your example contradicts your point, "you can't make just a triangle with more than three sides" is just a convention about "triangle". And it is moot anyway, regardless of what you think analytic statements are, aside from tautologies, they carry no information about the reality, i.e. they are factually vacuous. And humans make mistakes with any rules, so "following the rules would make it impossible" is also moot. Thus, your "ideal" would only work (ideally) for vacuities, and does not work even for them. It seems like a useless figment. We need facts that can be established. – Conifold – 2019-02-12T20:15:32.497

@Conifold, I don't know where you get that analytical propositions say nothing about the world. Can you enlighten me? For example you can't show me a woman that is not a human being. This is why the proposition all women are human beings is objectively true. Clearly this proposition gives information about reality. I am NOT using the Kant definition of the terms analytic and synthetic just to be clear . The kantian approach is outdated and has been for over 30 years at least. I am saying that how most people define FACT the term is inconsistent as science theories change. Facts cant change. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T20:26:46.813

@Logikal I can, if I change the convention about using "woman". So no, it says nothing about reality, it is a rule for using "woman" and "human". If those are all the "facts" you can produce you won't get far. Enough with the analytic digression, it is of little interest, how do you get to substantive facts (or values) on your standard? – Conifold – 2019-02-12T20:37:53.473

@Conifold, my proposition has nothing to do with Grammar. You seem to take proposition as a sentence with grammar which is an error. Truth values on my standard involve what propositions express not word use convention. A proposition has a value of true if it matches reality. That is, x is true if what I say about x is in reality either temporary or permanent. Objective is permanent and contingent expresses the truth value is not permanent --it will change. So my example all women are human beings does not change because you change vocabulary of the terms. You may be mixing USE & MENTION. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T20:47:47.663

@Logikal Just because propositions have real world content does not mean they do not enter conventional connections. But like I said, I am not interested in your analytic examples, or in what you mean by "analytic", or by "grammar", or by "objective" and "contingent", or by "use" and "mention". How do you establish substantive/synthetic, or whatever you want to call them, facts? – Conifold – 2019-02-12T20:55:42.580

@Conifold, a FACT by definition is a proposition that has a truth value that does not and cannot change. Your actual date of birth is an example of a fact. What most people who love science refer to is just nonsense by definition alone. I would also say USELESS if these people say the value can change. I dont get the purpose if you say x is a fact and I can show you that x is not always true. If I say all swans are white birds & you show me black swans my claim about swans always being white is false. You seem to indicate my error as a fact until my claim is corrected. There are no exceptions. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T21:05:50.250

@Logikal I did not even mention science, and "always" is different from "surely". It is nice that my actual date of birth is a "fact". But since I only know about those through the documents passed down to me, and those may contain mistakes, the only useful fact, the one I know, may turn out to be wrong, however unlikely that is. And then I will probably stop calling it a fact, but that is of no use or consequence to me now. This aside, is anything other than descriptions of individual past events a fact? Is "the Sun will rise tomorrow" a fact? Is "salt dissolves in water" a fact? – Conifold – 2019-02-12T21:22:29.917

@Conifold, your physical birth has nothing to do with documents. You are aware that early humans did not have documents and yet existed, right. All cave men for instance did not have documentation. You again substitute physical attributes with authority. Does Salt dissolves in water eventually? I am not personally aware, but truth value as nothing to do with awareness. The proposition is false if the is a single case where the salt never dissolved in plain water. No matter what x stands for, the proposition about x is FALSE if there is a single case x is inconsistent or x has an exception. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T21:36:58.330

@Logik Ethics includes answers to questions like “What is good?” and “How should I live?” and “Are there imperative moral oughts?” I agree these extend far outside science’s domain. But they may have no objective answers. My question is how to most usefully refer to scientific ‘facts’ about what is objectively universally moral within the ethics subcategory of “socially moral” behaviors (behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral codes). The origins, function, and principles of these socially moral behaviors is within the domain of science. – Mark Sloan – 2019-02-12T22:20:44.330

@Logikal You are missing the point. Who cares what is "actually" true in some ideal abstraction of eternally persisting attributes that you fancy to make sense of your theory. If we are to use the word "fact" in practice it is for something we can use it on, and for that we need a standard we can implement. Otherwise, it is a useless word, and the standard that makes it so is a useless standard, no matter how exalted the language it is couched into. If your standard for establishing "facts" is checking every single instance it is no wonder that people ignore you and use the word differently. – Conifold – 2019-02-13T00:12:28.570

@MarkSloan there are many FIELDS of ETHICS. You make it sound as if there were only ONE. You make it sound that all ethics is the same which is wrong. You need to specify which type of ethics. In philosophy normative ethics is more important than descriptive ethics which science favors. Morality is not a science and can’t be helped by science. There are no such thing as scientific facts. Objective implies universal truth and science can’t offer absolutes. You seem to be confusing other fields with Philosophy. – Logikal – 2019-02-13T00:37:39.517

@Conifold you continue to ignore distinctions that I make & do your own thing regardless. I am stating directly that you saying x is a fact and not 100 percent true is useless & meaningless. Rational human beings don’t need to communicate in such a manner. There is a better way but you must understand concepts & be able to distinguish things even if they appear similar. Using a word incorrectly matters to how people are trained to think and behave. Your way sets people for failure & they won’t see it coming until it’s too late. Use the word correctly to avoid the irrationality problem. – Logikal – 2019-02-13T00:44:52.683

@Logikal Yes, ethics has many fields. I use ‘fact’ here in its normal provisionally true sense in science. Note that conclusions I list are supported by the relevant science of morality of the last 40 years but are not yet even established science. My question is about hypothetical scientific ‘truths’ about what is universal within socially moral behaviors. Determining the origins and function of these behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by cultural moral codes is well within the domain of science. Why would you think otherwise? – Mark Sloan – 2019-02-13T02:09:39.517

The terminology needs to be clear & correct first! Morals express something different from scientific truths. Morality as in normative ethics is objective truth which is the highest from of truth. Why do you keep pushing science is the question when there are higher truths? I would say I could use sense verification to justify a moral act or provide justification for something to be immoral. We need to be clear morals are & must be universal. Why do you keep throwing bad terms in like social? Culture is not important to normative ethic; neither is race, gender, age, etc relevant to morality – Logikal – 2019-02-13T02:17:53.097

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– Geoffrey Thomas – 2019-02-13T08:47:00.277



Welcome, Mark

Facts as such have no motivational force and create no imperatives. President Kennedy died in 1963. Broccoli is nutritious. Chicago is closer to NY than NY is to London. None of these facts motivates me to do anything and none creates an imperative. Kennedy died in 1963 - so what ? It's a fact but I carry on typing; it's motivationally inert. Broccoli is nutritious - so what ? I don't like it and can get adequate nutrition in other ways.

Unless a fact, which informs a belief, can link to a desire, want or preference I have, it's motivationally irrelevant. Broccoli is nutritious - fact. Eat broccoli ! - imperative. The fact becomes relevant to my motivation, as does the imperative, only if I want a more nutritious diet and want in the light of this to eat this vegetable. If I don't, the fact about broccoli and the related imperative impinge not at all on my motivation. This is a Humean position of moral externalism; it is not necessarily wrong for that reason. Intentional action is the product of belief plus desire. Moral facts unless combined with desires, wants or preferences are external to motivation and cannot determine or even influence it.

Now, it seems to me that moral facts, if there are any, are motivationally in the same place. Suppose it is a moral fact that stealing is wrong or that one should not deceive one's partner. I can perfectly well recognise such facts, as I can the fact about broccoli, but without any motivation to act on them. I have, let us say, no desire to act morally; correspondingly, moral imperatives addressed to me have no motivational force. You may not think very well of me but where am I at fault ? Where is the irrationality in not being motivated by moral facts or moral considerations in general ?

If moral facts are binding on me regardless of my needs and preferences, this bindingness is just another moral fact to which the arguments above equally apply.

This answer is not an exercise in moral autobiography, only in moral argument.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2019-02-11T04:30:41.713

Reputation: 34 276

Well, facts in the form "Do X in order to get Y" can cause people to do X. Or the opposite. But they are not imperatives. Yet, they are inner imperative activators. – rus9384 – 2019-02-11T17:29:22.647

2@rus9384: Actually, one of the main arguments in moral philosophy is that without inclination, there is no motivation to act according to any kind of imperative or practical rule. Hence, the complete practical syllogism goes like this: "You have to do X in order to get Y" - "I want Y" - "Therefore, I ought to X (since/if I want Y)". The exact formulation is not important, most sentences of the form "have to", "must", etc. can be transformed into imperatives that are semantically equal. – Philip Klöcking – 2019-02-11T20:39:10.697

I am a fan of Hume’s wisdom and make no attempt to explain how to bridge the is/ought divide. What I am asking about essentially is “Could it be useful to expand the meaning of ‘moral fact’ to include facts from science about what is universally moral about ‘socially moral’ behaviors but have no innate bindingness?” This expansion would be useful because knowing objective facts from science (and calling them moral facts!) about what is universally moral within “socially moral” behaviors can be culturally useful for refining cultural moral codes to better meet shared needs and preferences. – Mark Sloan – 2019-02-12T22:09:22.683


Your moral intuition seems to be close to that of Immanuel Kant:

IF I (morally) ought to do something THEN this should have an impact on my faculty of desire (motivation).

The thing you are missing is close to the criticism of Kant developed by Hegel: Principles alone do nothing. They are purely formal. Any kind of bindingness or motivational form can only emerge in your active application of a principle, i.e. in the active determination/judgement that I actually ought to do this because the principle applies to the particular situation at hand (aside: Hegel's criticism is misguided since that was one major aspect of Kant's practical philosophy).

In other words: Your "fact" is about the universality of certain guiding principles and values, not about the effectiveness of them actually motivating people to act morally.

Hence, there is a difference between

  1. It is a fact that X is a moral principle across cultural differences and
  2. All persons are bound by X in the morally relevant situations

The simple reason is that as long as they do not judge the principle to apply to their current situation as morally relevant, they will not feel compelled by it. That not all people are moral is actually not speaking against objective principles but against people recognizing these principles as morally relevant in situations that actually are morally relevant (and deciding to act accordingly).

In fact, the only compelling aspect of principles is the consciousness of an ought (see Kant's Fact of Reason in his Critique of Practical Reason) - which may follow from or be expressed in principles or "moral laws", but is not identical with them - it needs this recognition per judgement. Kant argued for the objectivity/universality of this recognition of morality, but the universality of morality that is based on non-empirical principles is highly controversial (see early criticisms of Kant by Sidgwick and Schopenhauer). And even if you recognise this ought as morally binding, the very idea of "ought" and responsibility implies that you can choose to do otherwise.

Mind, this all is in our moral language (including the idea of a free will). It should not be misunderstood as an assertion regarding the ontological status of freedom or values. Indeed, determining the "absolute" or "real" ontological status of any object of thought (beyond cultural/interpersonal agreement like e.g. "scientific consensus") may simply be beyond us (as Kant held).

Philip Klöcking

Posted 2019-02-11T04:30:41.713

Reputation: 9 269

There seems to be issue with the answer as written. You make the case that there could be objective facts that make up a moral principle but people might not follow them --just because. Well the issue is that Rational human beings ought to follow the objective principle to get the result. You are bringing into play an irrational human response. Moral rules are not from authority. One ought to follow the moral principle because if the principle is objective the results are guaranteed. If you say there is no guarantee then I would question the principle being Objective --it's not. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T15:00:59.723

@Logical: There are two problems I see with your comment: First, what is the end that is fulfilled by following a moral imperative? Is it social peace, self-perfection, a better world? None of this necessarily is of interest for everybody, even less superseding all other inclinations. Secondly, not all imperatives are practical rules, nor is the standard of objectivity you imply feasible. The moral imperative may very well be objective in the sense that people more or less universally accepted it as a moral principle, which does say nothing about a) the end b) the recognition in the situation. – Philip Klöcking – 2019-02-12T16:25:52.610

The issue is not agreement. Morality does not depend on votes, popularity or authority figures.You must be referring to descriptive ethics while I refer to morality in philosophy as normative ethics. In philosophy having rationality is highly important. You are talking about everyone not liking a moral rule. The rule or principle should guarantee the end result if the principle is objective from the start. Objective means if one deems late term abortion as immoral there is no going back to say it is permissible later on for instance. You are stuck with the value or be called inconsistent. – Logikal – 2019-02-12T16:35:36.967

Correction: the example “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others are universally moral” is not a direct product of my moral intuitions. It comes from evolutionary game theory and is as objective as the mathematics that game theory is based on. Objective facts from science about what is universally moral within “socially moral” behaviors can be culturally useful for refining cultural moral codes to better meet shared needs and preferences even if those objective facts have, as a part of science, no innate imperative bindingness. – Mark Sloan – 2019-02-12T22:04:29.523