Wednesday Philosophical Query #7


There are knowable absolute moral truths that exist independently of the mind.

If true, can they be known absolutely? If not, how does one know they are absolute?

If false, is moral relativism the only remaining sensible option?


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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15 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    I think first we must decide if there is a distinction to be made between an “absolute truth” and a “fact.” I think that there is, but I’m not too sure as to why I think that. It seems to me that a “fact” is useless in isolation. Perceiving a fact in isolation is like owning one brick. An “absolute truth,” on the other hand (so it seems to me) should be a thing of immense value in-and-of-itself. It seems very likely to me, however, that a belief in “absolute truth” implies a belief in God, and that the only direct access for the human mind to absolute truth is direct revelation from that God to the individual. How much of that truth can then be processed within the precincts of sanity is a secondary issue of some interest.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    No. You don’t. No.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Of course I dislike the proposition, but for questions like this that’s always a churlish thing to focus on. So my non-churlish response would be that they cannot be known absolutely, not because they’re independent of the mind (after all, the structure of the atom also exists independently of the mind), but because they’re not of a nature that they can actually be studied in a replicable manner.

    I’m not sure moral relativism always follows. If a person decides that one particular moral standard is functionally superior to others, while recognizing that others might prefer a different moral standard, does that make that person a moral relativist?

  4. Rose Woodhouse says:

    I cannot get into this today at any length. Too much work. In short: knowable moral truths, but mind-dependent.

    So, no, moral relativism is not the only other option.

    Can be gotten at through ideas of intrinsic values: subjective experience, pain, pleasure. These require minds, and are mind-dependent. Can be known with a balance of checking back and forth with our intuitions and considered reasons. I have no idea if they can be known absolutely.

  5. GordonHide says:

    If by moral relativism you mean the one moral code of conduct is as good as another as far as any objective facts are able to determine, then no moral relativism is not the only alternative.

    That moral system is the best moral system for a particular group at a particular time and place which best serves the group in order to maximise the survival chances of the genes of the group in the long run. – This is what we should learn from biology. Of course this is a rather unpalatable view but difficult to refute I think.

    • Murali says:

      but difficult to refute I think.

      Why should we care about the survival about the genes of the group?

      • Rodak says:

        “Why should we care about the survival about the genes of the group?”

        “We” don’t. But “they” do. And act accordingly. I think that was the point, no?

    • Murali says:

      Also, conceivably, there are some actions which we count as moral which do not advance the survival of the genes of the group. When we point out this fact, the standard reply is that the former group of people fail to understand what morality is about.

      • Murali says:

        Given that most people think that morality is not about ensuring the survival of our genes, we would be using the word morality wrongly if we used it to refer to that which ensured the survival of our genes.

        • Stillwater says:

          Doesn’t that beg the question, tho? Morality might reduce to survivability and get cashed out in purely genetic terms. It’s certainly an open question, it seems to me.

          • Murali says:

            It’s not really begging the question. For a number of reasons:
            1. As in when I say the word chair, I and everyone else refers to a piece of furniture with 4 legs, a seat and a back and which will seat 1 person. That doesn’t mean that we are begging the question. The basic rule that is operating here is that unless conventional concepts are incoherent, convention dictates the meaning attached to terms.

            2. Morality reduces to universalisability and authoritativeness, not survivability.

            3. Even if morality reduced to survivability of persons (which is highly implausible), it is notoriously the case that evolutionary pressures work towards the proliferation of genes, not individuals. i.e. evolutionary pressures require the individual be sacrificed if it will benefit the genes he is carrying. This may seem like it comes out as a wash. And to a certain extent, there is a good evolutionary story to tell about kin-altruism and non-kin reciprocal altruism. But, this is the wrong kind of story we wan to tell, because it doesn’t get us any closer to whether something is in fact moral or not. Because, while an evolutionary story may explain our niceness. It would also account for a number of our less than nice impulses (racism for example)

            4. Also there is the niggling is-ought gap that people seem to blithely skip over.

            5. The way to go about reducing morality to something else is not to see what explains our moral intuitions, or even to try to systematise our moral intuitions. Rather, the way to go about doing it is to look at the structure of our moral practices and from there draw conclusions about what must be true about morality in general. From there we can infer truths about our moral obligations if such are available.

  6. Rodak says:

    “…we would be using the word morality wrongly if we used it to refer to that which ensured the survival of our genes.”

    I don’t think that we can make that patent assumption. If you follow most of what falls under the umbrella term “morality” out to its logical conclusion, I think you will find that most of it has to do with increasing the chances of the survival of the individual, which tends to protect the gene pool by keeping it large enough to survive the losses it incurs.