Popperian Morality

i. Traditional View, Replaced by New Question

Traditional thinking about morality conceives as the problem as: What fundamental moral rules do we follow? What do we optimise for? What system do we use to decide what to do?

It then defines ‘normative ethics’ as the set of such fundamental systems/rules/things to optimise.

Critical Rationalist morality replaces this set of problems/questions with an entirely different one: What should I do when I have conflicting ideas about what choice to make? How do I fix mistaken ideas I have about morality?

This change of questions takes the emphasis away from systems. Systems – as they’re traditionally thought of – are not good ways of thinking about morality. The entire field of ‘normative ethics’ is steeped in this problem of “which system should rule?”, in justificationism and foundationalism.

ii. Same as What Popper Did with Other Fields

This is exactly like what Popper did to the epistemology of science and of politics. The entire field of epistemology in science was (still is 😞) dominated by questions like, “how can I be certain?”, “how can we have justified knowledge?”, “what counts as good support for a theory?”. Popper said these were bad questions, that they were based on a false premise.

He replaced these questions with, “how do we correct errors in our knowledge?”. Induction disappeared in a puff of reason, because the question induction was trying to answer (how do we support our theories / what authoritative source do we get theories from) went away and was replaced by a better question.

Politics was dominated by the “who should rule?” question, which gave rise to other bad questions in politics, like “given the people should rule, how do we maximise democracy?”, which itself gave rise to bad theories of government like proportional representation. You may disagree about whether PR is good, but the point is that ideas have consequences, and the premises in your question matter.

iii. Normative Ethics & Applied Ethics are the Same Thing

So given we’ve replaced the traditional questions, what does the field look like?

There isn’t a meaningful distinction between normative ethics and applied ethics. All systems (like utilitarianism, virtue ethics, etc.) now no longer serve the purpose of being a foundation or thing to give justification/support to your moral ideas.

So what do these moral systems do instead? Do we just throw them out entirely?

Well, no: A system could be used – for instance, as a starting point (tradition), or as a way to criticise your ideas. But it isn’t necessary, and multiple systems could be used (in this conception, systems aren’t regarded as universal or foundational).

What does this change of role of systems have to do with normative vs applied ethics?

Morality is about what decisions are good/bad to make. So Joe comes up to you and says, “what should I do?”. He has a conflict between his different ideas about what is right. This is the problem for morality to solve.

The traditional system model says you look at your normative ethics system (e.g. utilitarianism, virtue ethics, whatever) and then try to figure out how to apply it to Joe’s case.

The CR model, not being concerned with systems, jumps straight to the ‘applied’ part (or combines ‘applied’ and ‘normative’ into one).

iv. Jump Out Of Systems (but use them for criticism)

I said systems can still be used here, so what does that look like?

One problem with most normative ethics systems is that they don’t actually solve the problem they purport to solve. They are meant to be a way to figure out what to do when faced with moral problems. But they don’t have clear ways to actually apply themselves to moral situations. You can interpret them in numerous ways; you can’t straightforwardly derive any answer to a moral problem from them.

These existing systems are insufficient, but that doesn’t mean systems in principle can’t be used in CR morality.

A system we can look at – which historically has been applied to moral situations, with some agreement on its application – is the theory of human rights.

As I said, normative ethics systems can either be used as a starting-off point, or a means of criticism.

So in the case of human rights, it can do either of these things —

As a starting-off point: The theory of human rights is in our culture; people typically intuitively go with the ‘human rights’-compatible choice when they’re making moral decisions.

Means of criticism: When someone doesn’t know what to do – when Joe has a moral conflict he comes to you for advice on – human rights can be used to reason about it. If there’s a debate on whether the government should shut down a newspaper for libel, you can argue against that by saying it conflicts with freedom of speech.

Now here’s where Critical Rationalist morality comes into it (and why CR morality is not merely ‘metaethics’):

Sometimes theories of human rights conflict with each other. What happens when the right to life conflicts with the right to freedom of speech? Critical Rationalist morality says what you ought to do when you run into such a conflict (‘ought’ is applied ethics!).

It says: look at the problems these ideas were meant to solve, look at the conflicts, try to modify one or more of the conflicting ideas to resolve the conflict, or find better interpretations of your theories which don’t have the apparent conflict.

(It doesn’t say: choose the idea with the most status, or likelihood of being true, or do what God wants regardless of other conflicts, etc.)

So in the case of right to life vs right to freedom of speech, you might come up with the idea that there are exceptions – such as not shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema.

Why did this idea come up? Because people used CR metaethics as a rule of applied ethics.

AKA normative ethics.

Using CR metaethics resulted in changing a rule of normative ethics – freedom of speech – in such a way that it better solved the problem it was meant to solve.

It’s harder to give examples of normative ethics systems other than human rights, because they tend to be pretty unclear when it comes to how to apply them.

Incidentally, the reason human rights are better at doing this is because they evolved as solutions to problems. A philosopher didn’t wake up one morning and think there should be a freedom of speech. It evolved in a real situation, where different factions were fighting each other, they wanted to resolve disputes, and freedom of speech came out of this as a good solution.

That’s not to say the other normative ethics systems are completely useless. Virtue ethics can help one put moral decisions into a bigger picture. Utilitarianism was a critique of dogmatic religious views of morality, asking, “if it doesn’t benefit anyone, what good is it?”. The fact you can’t deduce anything from utilitarianism doesn’t matter; it was still a good critique. (Okay, it justifies gang rape. We all have our problems.)

v. Summary

Some key points:

  1. CR morality replaces the traditional conception of morality, “what fundamental moral rules do we follow?”, with “how do I resolve conflicts and fix mistaken ideas in morality?”
  2. There is no strict distinction between normative ethics and applied ethics (the line is fuzzy at best).
  3. Existing normative ethics systems don’t solve the problem they purport to solve. (They don’t tell you how to derive moral choices from them.) Though they could be used as ways to criticise ideas about morality.
  4. CR morality is both metaethics – how to think about ethics – and applied ethics, because it says what you ought to do (it says: don’t follow a normative ethics system, as they address the wrong question; do CR instead).
  5. Moral knowledge is evolved knowledge about morality. There is no one system, because morality isn’t built on a foundation like that.


This could be expanded to solve many of the problems in moral philosophy — is/ought, free will, Euthyphro, non-static tradition, change without revolution, where morality comes from (naturalism vs conventionalism), etc.


By Lulie Tanett, May 27, 2016.