On the Compatibility of Materialism and Moral Realism

Deutsche Version: Von der Kompatibilität des Materialismus und des moralischen Realismus.


Moral realism is the view, held by most humans, that there exists a certain number of objective moral facts which human beings ought to fulfill, like “Don’t steal!”, “Don’t murder!, “Be honest at work!” and so on and so forth.

I believe there is a serious problem trying to reconcile the existence of objective moral facts with God’s will, called the Euthyphro dilemma: is something good because God tells it (in which case morality is arbitrary) or does God say that something is good because it is good (in which case morality is independant of God).

However, there are also two problems concerning a materialist, evolved morality.

The first is ontological and concerns the nature of the things we’re talking about.

I define Reductive Materialism (which I’ll refer to as RM) as the belief that everything which is real is identical with the sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy.

It is certainly no problem for RM to state that the chair I’m sitting on is reducible to a heap of cellulose and lignite molecule occupying a certain shape in space.

KAUSTBY Stuhl  Massive Kiefer ist ein Naturmaterial, das in Würde altert.

Likewise, I can believe that the computer I’m currently using is identical to a bunch of electrons moving through an appropriate material (Okay, my knowledge of informatics is not particularly good 🙂 )

Cartoon angry laptop - vector illustration. Stockfoto - 9353091

But what about the fact: “It is always wrong to rape a woman”. It clearly exists, therefore it should be reducible to a bunch of particles.

But I fail completely to see the candidates. Someone might mention the chemicals within her brain associated with pain. I see two problems with that:

  1. this distorts the meaning of the moral imperative: “you ought not to rape a woman” becomes an ensemble of chemicals and electrical currents going on inside her particular brain.
  2. You cannot deduce from that pain that you ought to act against it or avoid it, this is the famous naturalist fallacy described by the Scottish philosopher David Hume
  3. Since for materialism, pain itself is identical to particles in interaction with energy, why ought we to allow certain reactions to happen while avoiding others?
    Remember, a materialist cannot say “because they’re meaningful” or “because they’re painful” for in this case he would either be hopelessly circular or 
    become a dualist, recognizing the difference between the neural processes and the subjective experience.

Materialists like to embarrass theists with the Euthyphro dilemma, which is in fact a problem for believers in God. But they tend to overlook the formidable difficulties facing the grounding of their own morality. Moral facts seem much more at a home in a world where mental facts exist besides matter.

My conclusions are by no means absolute and I welcome all challenges!



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13 thoughts on “On the Compatibility of Materialism and Moral Realism

  1. ““It is always wrong to rape a woman””
    This is not a fact, but a value. What’s more, the Bible makes clear that in some cases it’s not wrong at all to rape a woman.
    A fact is that these days the vast majority of human beings think it’s always wrong. That’s not the same.

    • Hello MNb.

      First, the Bible is a human book whereby people wrote down and interpreted their experiences (and sometimes lack of experiences) with God, using their own understanding which was hugely influenced by their culture. Alas, women were oftentimes seen as less as valuable in the Ancient Near Eastern.
      The Bible should be understood as a book full of human experiences about the divine, and not as a set of rules to be followed. https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/on-the-art-of-picking-and-chosing/

      Now, to the second issue. I’m well aware of the distinction between facts and values. And this is the very reason why values cannot exist in a purely material world.
      For instance, the value “It is always wrong for a man to rape a woman.” is either existent or not. But if it is existent, according to the imperialist definition of materialism, IT HAS TO be identical with molecules, atoms, quarcks, and so on and so forth.
      If such a reduction is not succesful, one must either conclude that there exists no moral value, or that materialism is fase.

      Thus, I don’t think my argument was fallacious and a clear sign of lack of sophistication.

      Lovely greetings from Germany
      Liebe Gruesse aus Deutschland

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      • Lotharson, greetings to you in Germans from the UK.

        “It clearly exists, therefore it should be reducible to a bunch of particles.”

        Tuesday exists, or what were we all doing yesterday? And yet Tuesday cannot be reducible to a bunch of particles. Neither can the value of Pi, or the laws of logic. Doesn’t materialism just mean the absence of the supernatural? Is ‘Rape is wrong’ a supernatural fact? If if have a value, then that value exists, by definition. If you’re saying that in a Godless world I could not value something, then what exactly do you mean? By what mechanism is God creating the possibility of values?

        Pain is not supernatural, but neither is the sensation of pain exactly the same as the chemicals and molecules that cause it.

        “The Bible should be understood as a book full of human experiences about the divine, and not as a set of rules to be followed.”

        Tell that to all the apologists arguing that we should set laws based on bible verses! If you do not think the bible should be the source of our morals, where do you believe we should get them from?

        My response: hello Andrew! Strangely enough, I couldn’t reply to your interesting comment, so I was obliged to edit your comment to insert it.
        If you believe that Pi and the laws of logics are not reducible to particles, you might be no supernaturalist, but you’re by no means a materialist.
        The questions as to how God could have created such things is a very complex one. One possibility is that they eternally existed as part of His nature, tough this would get us closer to pantheism.

        These Christian apologists are terribly misguided, since Paul himself told us that the heathens can differentiate between right and wrong through their intuitions without the Bible!
        I present in more details the grounds of ethics in my post “Did Jesus endorse atrocities?”


    • MNb: While you are correct, you are arguing semantics with a non-English native, but also supporting his point. Morality and ‘ought/ought not’ questions are not reducible, and are not suitable subjects of science, though they are critical issues for mankind.

  2. “If you believe that Pi and the laws of logics are not reducible to particles, you might be no supernaturalist, but you’re by no means a materialist.”

    Then I don’t know of anyone who would qualify for the label materialist as you define it!

  3. An evolved morality does not necessarily mean that morality has evolved in respect to specific questions in a moral context (“is it okay to rape this person”). Rather, that there is a biological basis upon which we make moral judgments.

    It is “objective” in the sense that we can say beauty is “objective” – there are across cultures certain traits that people will rate, rather consistently, as being more beautiful than the next. Facial symmetry is an example of one. We could say, “a preference for facial symmetry is objectively beautiful beyond chance” but not “a woman who has blonde hair is beautiful.” This is the same with moral issues.

    The issue arises in a religious context when religionists assert something is moral that is widely regarded as immoral, with a justification to slide it in. This is akin to presenting a grossly disfigured face, one that would easily be recognized as not beautiful (and explained easily in the context of a lack of facial symmetry), then creating a post-hoc justification for why it is, in reality, beautiful.

    You don’t need a complete system of normative ethics, nor answers for specific questions, to demonstrate an objective basis for what is really a rather abstract concept.

  4. This is a very interesting field of thought.
    Are moral imperatives absolute?
    In as much as there is general agreement they would appear to be independent of God. Do not rape a woman is an interesting example because it was not recognized as a moral imperative in the Old or New Testaments.
    So it was not commanded by God.
    There is, however, general agreement in modern times.
    This is where the question of homosexuality comes in.
    Although homophobia is not proscribed in the Bible there is general agreement in modern times that it is an evil to be avoided..

  5. I believe the inner spirit, that part which makes each individual unique, is a mystery. We all have emotions, memories, varying levels of intelligence, etc.. How all of this can be quantified by the movement of electrons alone is something I just can’t wrap my own poor brain around. Not everything that exists can be quantified. At least, not yet. My own pitiful two cents.

    • I don’t think this lies in your “poor brain” 🙂

      It just seems that thoughts, feelings and moral values are different from the electrons with which we perceive them, i.e. the materialism of the Western world is wrong.

  6. I think there are moral absolutes – in an intuitionalist sense. Across time and across civilisations there do seem to be basic norms of behaviour although they get worked out differently in different cultures and they are often breached. For respect for the dead is an absolute observed as the standard in nearly all cultures. The famous intuitionalist example of cultural variation concerns the African tribe where people actually cooked and ate their dead – seemingly very disrespectful; but in the context of the culture this was their way of showing respect.

    There are the seven basic values that the philosopher John Finnis sees as being the deep grammar informing all moral systems in human history; and they are actually very close to the other attempts I’ve seen. (Each value is predicated on the very idea of ‘value’ obviously – of caring deeply about one thing as opposed to other conceivable things).

    The Value of life
    The Value of knowledge and skill
    The Value of play
    The Value of beauty/aesthetics
    The Value of sociability and friendship
    The Value of practical reasonableness
    The Value of religion (in the very general sense of the human need to see the significance of our lives within an ever larger cosmic framework)

    I don’t think we as a species can step outside these values and invent another set – contra Nietzsche and his crew – they are part of the human given. Our moral progress must be about universalising these values (my mind can go no further at the moment 😆 )

    Of course the deep grammar has developed with changes structures through time – of course it has. Only a fundamentalist has problem here with there being laws in the OT about a woman should be stoned to death if she doesn’t cry out loud enough when she is raped etc.

  7. Och don’t bow to me 😀 I’m part Quaker and it’s not allowed (‘we are not for names or titles; we are not for sect or party’) 😀 Of course I jest back to your jest here 😀 You spoke from the heart, I spoke from the head (but I have felt these things deeply in the heart too). We met up 🙂

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