This page asks & answers the question: “What is the Source of Ethics?”

The Question

The question this page addresses is:

When I ask, “What is the source of Ethics?”, I mean:

This page does not address:

Those are excellent questions, but they are not what this page is about.

This page is about:

The Naturalistic Source of Ethics

The following ideas are asserted.

Ideas 1 & 4 are expected to be non-controversial to most people. Ideas 2 & 3 may be controversial to people who have problems with naturalistic frameworks.

If ideas 2 & 3 are a problem, we can talk about that on this page, since it is part of: “What is the source of ethics?”

…but, it is expected that most people here will agree.



This diagram describes the big picture view of this way of thinking about ethics, and the source of ethics.

1. People Have Moral Sense

The idea is that there are sensations in people’s mind that we call “a moral sense.”


Not asserted:

Anti-asserted / strongly not asserted / actually disagreed with:


(But that’s part of point 4, not point 1.)

Repeated, because 95% of this text is on what it is not…

“The vast majority of people have a moral sense.”

2. Moral sense comes to us through the brain.

This point requires a certain minimal faith in the naturalistic / materialistic worldview.

The idea is that the moral sense operates through:

Physical determinism (atoms move like so, without super-natural influence) is not strictly required, but it probably helps.

Psychological determinism is almost certainly false (psychologists cannot predict what a person will do,) and utterly unnecessary for this argument. (In fact, it probably harms it.)

The idea asserts that moral sense is influenced by:

3. Moral Sense is Not Perfect

This idea states that people’s brains do not give moral-sense shocks on the basis of careful principles ordered from precise axiomatic bases.



(We can see this, incidentally, very clearly from psychological research into psychological reaction to beautiful and ugly people performing the same exact actions.)

4. Moral Sense Communicates Through the Society of Upbringing

I already see the hand raising in the back:

This is not (emphatically NOT) psychological determinism.

But it doesn’t take a genius to see that people who grow up in Christian communities (even if they don’t profess Christian faith themselves) tend to have Christian ideas of morality, whatever they may be at that time or place.

We fundamentally get a huge (and unnoticed) portion of our moral sense from our society.

This is not permanent, of course, and of course, there is diversity.

But for a big part, people tend to think like their parents do, and like their society does.

This is what I mean by, “Moral sense communicates through the society of upbringing.”

"Is, Ought, and Want."

The traditional objection to natural (or otherwise!) explanations of ethics is that while they describes how things are, they are not capable of explaining how they should be. That is, speaking entirely in terms of “Is” never gets you around to an “Ought.”

This page answers the challenge through the vehicle of “Want.”

This explanation rejects the entire concept of an independent, or metaphysical ought.

There is only an “Ought” with respects to an existing Want.

But there is a clear path to “Want” from “Is,” because, clearly, it is a verifiable reality that people want things.

Thus the path is: Is → Want → Ought.

The nearest source of ethics is “want,” which is based in “is.”

Religion and Philosophy

This page rejects that the source of ethics is found in either:

Rather, this page asserts that the source of ethics is found in:

The problems of revealed ethics & morality from religion likely require no argument here.

But what about philosophy?

Philosophers seek to answer “What is Ethical” by reduction to simpler and simpler principles, until you arrive at a core doctrine.

But what is the source of authority for the simplest principle?

Ultimately, it seems we pick simplest principles based on the conclusions they reach, and whether we like or don’t like the conclusions. But this is exactly what this page asserts: That the source of ethics is in what we want ethics to be.

Evolutionary Spirituality

Is that sufficient?

Ethics is a mental phenomenon, and thus rests in the brain.

We can inquire a little deeper, into the source, though: The brain has a deep evolutionary history.

Without a planet (in our case, the Earth,) there would be no Ethics.

Without a universe, there would be no Ethics. We can clearly trace the path from universe to planet to brain to ethics.

So we can- literally, and neither poetically (PoeticReasoning) nor figuratively, declare that the source of Ethics is the universe, and beyond that, whatever Reality or super-universe lay beyond its origin.

This is EvolutionarySpirituality.

Caveat: The Possibility of Independent Ethics

There is a caveat:

Perhaps ethics does have an independent, metaphysical or spiritual existence.

It cannot be proven, nor can it be disproven. The same goes for Gods, fairies, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Regardless, the facts around us are well explained without out them, and the facts of ethics are well explained, without resort to platonic form.

I want to live in a world where we can say, “This is how I want to live,” or “This is how we want to live,” rather than live in a world where you take all your wants, tighten them up into a ball, and call it a God, and then declare: “This is how God would have us all live. If you want anything different, you defy the will of the creator.”

That is, I want a world where we take ownership of our ethics.

Seeking Ethical Progress?

There is a weaker form of metaphysical ethics, that goes like so: “I am seeking what is truly ethical. I do not know what it is, but I always feel like I am getting closer and closer.”


Clarification of Intention & Question

This page was started by me, LionKimbro.

I ask this question “What is the source of Ethics?” as a frame, but I have a specific answer in mind. In over-simplifying summary: The source of ethics and the moral sense is messy brains, surrounded by other people, working in a natural world. The DocumentMode portion of this page goes into greater detail.

The page serves as something of an open challenge: “Can you show me otherwise? Does this view fail somehow?” The goal, on my part, is to see what people think about this idea, before I go on to other ideas (in the vein of EvolutionarySpirituality) that would build on this one.

To be transparent, I want to say where I intend to go with this, on later pages: I intend to argue that this perspective allows us to maintain a plurality of ethical views, unite against anti-ethical horrors, to build a global civilization that runs very different in different places (that is, that grants freedom of identity to groups,) to make ethical progress as an entire diverse planet, and so on, and so forth.

A brief historical note: This page replaces a page called “IsWantOught,” which was much less clear & focused, both in my own head, and in terms of discussion.


Discussion has been relocated to EthicsDiscussionA.

Define external redirect: TheGoldenRule

EditNearLinks: DocumentMode