Humans have a predilection for ranking each other’s status in an imagined moral hierarchy. But unlike other status games, like sports or professional achievement, there seem to be few objective measures of moral success.  How do we assess the moral worth of people from different times and cultures? What moral standard should they be measured against? In short – how does moral judgment work?

[Listen to How Does Moral Judgment Work? on AnchorApple, Google, Spotify and everywhere else.]

Recently, I received a call-in from a listener responding to the podcast episode Was Einstein a Racist?, in which I briefly raised the question of moral relativismAt a time when hardly a day goes by without somebody finding an old book or TV series from the 90s “problematic” (sometimes with good reason), I was making the point that it seems absurd to hold people from past times to our current moral standards. Our sense of morality has progressed since those times, and in no small measure thanks to error-corrective mechanisms that allowed us to see what wasn’t working for us, and what might work better. So sure, we can point out differences between our ethics and the morality of past generations, but to derive a sense of moral superiority from drawing such distinctions seems as worthy an attitude as deriding our 8-year old selves for being shorter than we are now.

Another bizarre aspect is that many who display uncompromising attitudes towards our ancestors, will instead to appeal to moral relativism when assessing the customs of different cultures today. In those cases, they claim it wrong to hold different cultures up to our current progressive standards. And they have a point – it does seem unreasonable to expect countries still coming to terms with liberal democracy to display the same sensitivity to LGBT issues as Denmark.

So how do we negotiate this double standard? When is it ok to judge someone by our most progressive standards? This was the gist of the listener’s call-in – he asked, given my approach to moral relativism, “when is racism a moral failure?“. This question prompted an episode-long musing on ethical standards and an attempt to get to the bottom of the question: how does moral judgment work?

You can listen to the episode by clicking on the link to your favourite podcast platform:


Alternatively, keep reading for a full-ish transcript of the episode.

 How Does Moral Judgment Work? 

Morality is a pretty insoluble philosophical quagmire that begins with legitimate questions about how should we live?, and What is the nature of right and wrong? , and usually ends with a bad headache, zero answers and a bunch of people agreeing it’s probably all the immigrants’ fault anyway.

But it’s important to talk about morality – because ethics are what becoming a better person is all about. Not just thinking about how to be better, but about getting to the bottom of what it even means to be a good human. I believe that understanding that question, and doing our best to live up to whatever answers we’ve found, is the truest and deepest meaning of life.

Our listener asked an interesting ethical question:

When is racism a moral failure? 

I don’t think this question implies that there are times when being racist is ok. Rather, I consider it to be asking something along the lines of in what cases can we consider racism to be indicative of bad character?

You might say the answer is always. Prejudice or discrimination based on racial lines, is always bad and always makes its perpetrator a bad person. If you believe that, you’re probably a moral realist. Someone who believes that there are moral facts, and that some answers to moral questions are just right or wrong, and remain right or wrong regardless of the point of view you look at them from.

Maybe it’s because you believe in an absolute god that hands out and enforces certain moral rules. Maybe you’re an atheist, but you believe that these moral facts are hardwired into the fabric of the universe, just like the laws of physics, chemistry or biology.

Or maybe you don’t believe in moral facts at all. You might believe that morality isn’t made of facts, but of values. You have yours, I have mine, a but like preferences. You like cheesecake, I like lemon meringue pie. I care about women’s free choice, you care about unborn children getting killed. These aren’t facts, they’re values. If you believe this, there’s a chance you might be a moral relativist.

People mean different things when they talk about moral relativism. The version I’m talking about is meta-ethical moral relativism, the belief that there are no objective moral truths in the universe, that right or wrong are not objective facts  – they depend on our point of view.

The Canaanite god Moloch 

But if nothing is objectively right or wrong, on what grounds can we evaluate what’s good and what’s bad? You and I might agree that killing is wrong. But say we come into contact with the Ancient Carthaginians, who used to perform ritual child sacrifice to appease their gods. If their point of view is that killing children for religious purposes is morally good, on what basis can we contrast that?

Some moral relativists would say that we shouldn’t. Good and evil are just a matter of what our cultures tell us they are. We have no right to tell other cultures what they should consider right or wrong, no matter how strongly we feel about their customs.

But on some intuitive level, this doesn’t feel right. Just because morality is relative, it doesn’t mean nothing is good or bad. Moral relativism shouldn’t just be nihilism, it should mean we have to try harder to find valid grounds for justifying our moral values.

In Search of an Axiom

One of the big difficulties with this question is that any foundation would have to work as an axiom – a basic fundamental premise that is self-evident, beyond any doubt. Like the axioms of Euclidean geometry, you start with a foundational truth and you build up. Change an axiom, and the whole house comes toppling down.

But axioms like Euclid’s ones tend to be facts. That’s exactly what makes them so indubitable. But how about finding an axiom not in a fact, but a value? Can a value ever truly be self-evident?

Even if we find a value we hopefully all agree on – say, that it’s wrong to cause suffering – we soon find that this value is all but unquestionable. Here’s how it would go:

Causing suffering is wrong.


Because suffering is bad.


Because we don’t like it.

So? We don’t like a lot of things. We don’t like medicine. Is medicine bad?

Medicine serves a positive purpose. I’m talking about senseless suffering. That’s bad.


Because it’s harmful.

Who said that something being harmful means it’s bad?

Now, if you were tempted to should out at our provocateur that the reason “harmful” is “bad” is because that’s just what bad is,  then think again. It’s not what bad “is”, it’s what we’ve decided to define bad as. It’s a subtle difference, but a relevant one – we haven’t found a fact of the universe (“harmful things are bad”), instead we have decided to draw a line in the sand (“senselessly harmful”) and call everything on the other side of that line “bad”.

And, for the sake of argument, imagine a masochist telling you that in fact, he enjoyed senseless suffering and calling it “good”. Imagine there were enough masochists, who disagree with our definitions of “good” and “bad”, and decided to challenge our line in the sand. At that point, morality would just be a power struggle between groups holding completely different sets of values. Some would say much of our history is exactly this type of power struggle.

So that’s the problem – there are no fixed axioms in morality. And without those, we’re building a house on shaky ground, because the foundations can always be questioned. And they always will be questioned, because there will always be someone who disagrees. We can draw our line in the sand wherever we want, but so can others. And eventually we’re going to have to confront houses that look very different from our own.

When is Racism a Moral Failure?

My gut feeling to the listener’s question on racism is as follows: (assuming by racism we mean inflicting harm on someone merely because of their race, and not other alleged forms of “racism” such as microaggressions, racial humour, cultural appropriation etc.):

Racism is a moral failure in most societies today – East and West – because with the abundance of education and information on racism and its historical effects, and with so much talk about how racial hate is detrimental to society, if despite all this, you still mistreat someone because of their ethnicity,  you are likely doing something you know is considered wrong. Or at the very least you are finding justifications for why it’s ok for you to hate members of any particular group, perhaps because of some past wrong or historical grievance. Instead of doing the hard work of fixing your prejudice, you are indulging a hatred you have had ample opportunity to revisit. That’s a moral failure.

I’d say racism would have also been a moral failure in 18th and 19th century Western societies.  The Christian values that white Europeans said they believed in are inherently anti-racist. Even with cursory knowledge of the teachings and characters ofChrist, the intellectual work one would need to do to get from Jesus to a rejection of racism is so minimal, that anyone professing to being a Christian while still being a racist, would either be immoral or intellectually lazy to the point of immorality.

Ancient times are a little different. Greece and Rome didn’t have a universalising ideology like Christianity. Ancient belief systems were usually predicated on belonging to a city-state, like Sparta, or Thebes, or Rome. Outsiders were simply not part of the circle of moral concern. On top of this, foreign civilisations were a real or potential military threat. So mistrust and (in times of conflict) hatred of foreigners seem like they should feasibly be the norm. Naturally, any individual Spartan or Corinthian might have been unusually open-minded about foreigners (as were philosophers like Socrates and Seneca), but these would have been exceptionally enlightened individuals far ahead of the norms of their time.

From these considerations, I extract a general principle that guides my views on the matter:

A person’s action is a moral failing when it is reasonable to expect the person to know better.

– me

But of course, my own moral intuitions aren’t enough to settle the issue. Now, I need to justify my conclusions in as convincing a way as possible.

An Ethics of Choice 

When we’re saying that something is a moral failure, what we’re doing is expressing a moral judgment. How does moral judgment work? When we express a moral judgment, we are evaluating a moral act against an appropriate standard of morality. 

What counts as a moral act? [Note – by “moral act” I mean an act which falls within the ambit of morality, irrespective of whether it is “good” or “bad”.]

It seems that for someone’s action to be evaluated morally (as opposed to evaluated as to, say, effectiveness) a conscious choice between right and wrong must be present. Assuming of course that we have free will to make moral decisions (another philosophical can of worms it would be unhelpful to open right now).

A choice is the exercise of a power to choose between options or opportunities. As such, for a choice to be a real choice, the outcome cannot be inevitable. There have to be genuinely viable options. This means that a choice that is coerced is not a moral choice (i.e. it cannot be subject to moral judgment). In contract law, a contract entered into under duress is not a valid contract, because the person who entered it did not do so of their own free will. Our moral intuitions tend to work along similar lines. If I murder someone, this is usually considered entirely immoral. But if I murder someone because kidnappers are threatening to kill my child if I don’t, then it seems that (depending on the options available to me) my action should be considered less immoral than had I committed the murder of my own accord.

A similar point can be made in relation to mental illness. When a mentally ill person commits a crime or an act that is socially inappropriate, we don’t reserve them the same level of moral condemnation we would if they were sane. In fact what we usually feel is compassion. We feel they had no choice.

Taking it down a notch, perhaps even social circumstances can somewhat impair the free exercise of moral choice. Let’s take the example of a kid from a bad neighbourhood with a particularly noxious background. If he resorts to crime, is his act as immoral as it would be had it been committed by someone with a more privileged background? Harsh circumstances cannot completely exonerate someone from moral culpability, but surely how morally culpable we find them must in part depend on the availability, feasibility and difficulty of alternative options.

It seems that for it to be a moral act, there has to be a real choice. And the choice has to relate to considerations of right and wrong.

If I swat a mosquito, not very many people will think that I have committed a moral act. It’s not a moral choice, it’s barely a choice at all. It’s almost a reflex. But if a Jain did it, it would be entirely different. Jains are so against the killing of any life, that the most devout among them obsessively sweep the ground in front of them to avoid stepping on bugs by accident. If a Jain killed a bug, they may be choosing to do so in direct contravention of their own moral standards. Even if it were an accident, there’s a case to be made that, given how crucial avoiding such accidents is to many Jains, they would at least have been morally negligent.This is interesting, because it seems that what makes a choice a moral choice is our conceptualising it in terms of right and wrong. It’s the Jain’s own moral standards that make their killing bugs so immoral – because in killing that bug, they are failing to live up to the moral standards they aspire to.

Appropriate Moral Standards 

If how moral judgments work is by an evaluation of a moral choice against an appropriate moral standard, which standards count as appropriate?

We know that we cannot judge people against some single universal standard of absolute morality, because we have no evidence such a thing exists. And any current set of moral rules can only work for the people of that time – to say the Ancient Romans should be judged against our moral standards is to say that we too should be judged against the moral standards of civilisations thousands of years in the future (and why not millions? Why limit it to human civilisations?), standards we have no way of knowing. We have no option to adopt or ignore a set of moral rules we have never encountered. Our ethics of choice mean that whatever the standard is, it has to be one that the person knows and has had the opportunity to adhere to.

My previous musing lead me to an interesting outcome – just like the Jain, whose killing of the bug was made immoral by the standards they had adopted – perhaps the appropriate moral standard we should be held against is our own. The question of moral evaluation then becomes a mere assessment of whether we have succeeded or failed at living up to those standards.

Hélène Jégad, the “pious killer”

But let’s look at an extreme counterexample: take a person who believes that killing prostitutes is good, because she is saving their immortal soul from sin. She is not insane, she is not hiding any ulterior motive this is a genuine belief. She doesn’t enjoy killing, she doesn’t hate or judge the prostitutes. She feels compassion for them and believes she is doing them a real service. Are we forced to admit that she is a moral person, because she is upholding her sincere moral beliefs?

This example looks like it could puncture my whole argument. But thinking about it closely, I’m not sure it does. Here’s why.

In the real world, such a person would have come into contact with different ethical systems, and because we know she is both rational and genuine in her beliefs, she would have had ample opportunity to test her own values against those others. Eventually, the logical contradiction between acting morally on the one hand and murdering prostitutes on the other would have been made apparent to her. In the real world, there’s only one of the following things going on with our saintly killer:

(i) she believes he is doing good, because she is mentally ill or challenged – her belief doesn’t fall within the remit of what we consider moral judgment;

(ii) she believes she is doing good, she is sane, and she has a convincing moral solution to the apparent contradiction we mentioned – she is actually a moral genius, way ahead of us primitive folk on the issue of prostitute killing. I feel like we can discard this hypothesis as unlikely. But if it were true, her beliefs would be an appropriate moral standard to judge her against; or

(iii) she is sane, but she doesn’t genuinely believe she is doing good. She is, in the best of cases, deceiving herself as to her true beliefs in order to indulge her murderous instincts. The correct moral standard to judge her against are her true, albeit suppressed, moral beliefs – the ones that say that killing prostitutes is wrong.

I feel like we got somewhere with all this!

We now have a possibly workable framework for how moral judgments work. To judge someone morally, they have to have a real free choice between viable moral options. And the standard we should judge them against is the one they have chosen among the moral systems that were reasonably available to them.


So to recap all this nonsense, I’m quite happy with this guiding principle: a person’s action is a moral failure when it is reasonable to expect that person to know better. And if that person has the opportunity to see other ways of being, ways that minimise senseless human suffering, it’s reasonable for them to know better.

But I’d like to end this ramble with a consideration.

I’ve talked about how moral judgment works, in terms of defining what it means to morally judge someone. But there’s another conversation to be had about what’s going on psychologically when we’re doing that?

Is it possible that what we’re really doing when we’re expressing a moral judgment, is trying to establish where we rank the moral hierarchy compared to the person we’re judging? So what we’re secretly getting at with these moral evaluations is that we’re better than the Romans, because they had slavery. We’re better than the alt-right because they’re racists, we’re better than incels cause they’re mysoginists, we’re worse than the vegans because we’ve read the stories about factory farming but we still enjoy cheese. Is it all just a status game?

If so, and I think to some extent it is, then what’s the point? Sure, it makes sense for two fundamentalist Christians to compare their piety, and see who best lives up to the standards they both aspire to. But you can’t compare moral standing between different belief systems. Who’s a better communist, Lenin or George Bush? The answer isn’t Lenin, the answer is Bush isn’t a communist. Where do we get off competing with someone who isn’t competing with us? Does a professional athlete say he’s a better basketball player than a toddler? Do you read better than a chicken? To morally compare ourselves to people from within different value systems is as senseless as asking the question – which tastes better, Beethoven’s symphonies, or the Empire State Building?

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