Is Morality a Product of Convention? 

No, it is not!  However, in order to justify this answer, I will first place Conventionalist theories of morality within the landscape of moral theories.  Then I will provide more details on the conventionalist theory of morality.  Finally, I will outline some of the reasons why the conventionalist theory of morality cannot possibly be the correct theory of morality.

Common sense "folk" morality is learnt by children in the same manner as they learn their native language.  They learn first that it is right or wrong to do certain things.  Later they learn why it is right or wrong to do these things.  The non-philosophical explanation is for some particular rule to be cited with the backing of some Supreme Authority.  From a descriptive perspective, statistics suggest that most people regard the basis of their moral codes as the dictates or commands of some Supreme Authority(2) -- be it a God (like for the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions), or a highly respected thinker like Gautama Bhudda (Buddhism), Karl Marx (Marxism/Communism), or Laozi (Taoism).  Hence, if the meaning of "morality" is determined in some part by how people actually use (or intend) moral language, then morality is not the product of convention.  It is the product of what some Authority dictates.

In order to dispute this descriptive understanding of "morality", it is necessary to argue that most people are in fact grossly mistaken about the true basis of their morality, or are trying to adhere to an incorrect morality.  Where the error is assumed to be neatly bifurcates the field of moral theories.  The anti-realists assume that the error is in our thinking that moral language expresses moral beliefs.  The realists assume the error is in a failure to understand the proper basis of morality.

The anti-realist theories are all in agreement that moral language does not express propositions that can be true in the literal sense.  Most current anti-realists do admit that such statements can be true or false in some non-literal sense.  But since they all reject the notion that moral language expresses propositions about the world that can be true in a sense independent of our thoughts about the topic.  So for an anti-realist, morality is not a product of convention.  It is, rather a product of education and training in the attitudes and emotional responses that the educators deem appropriate.

For realist theories, on the other hand, there are a number of alternative sources offered as the basis of morality.  The most prominent of these would be -

Moral intuition -- The premise is that we possess a perceptive sense that can "see" the non-natural moral properties of actions, states-of-affairs, or persons, etc.  This is the suggestion of, for example, G.E.Moore(4) and Robert Audi(5).  The argument is that morality is dictated by those non-natural properties of actions, states-of-affairs, things, or people -- not by any man made conventions.

Reason -- The premise is that a fully rational person, in full possession of all relevant information would necessarily (or on pain of irrationality) adopt the relevant moral principles.  Philosophers throughout history, from Plato to Kant to Rawls, have sought a suitable ground for morality in reason.  Reason is assumed to be a more reliable and stable basis for morality.  Examples of this tradition include: the universalizable maxims and Categorical Imperatives of Immanuel Kant(6); the greatest happiness for the greatest number utilitarian principle of Bentham(7), Mill(8), and contemporary Utilitarians(9); the prima facie duties of W.D. Ross(10); the principle of justice as fairness and the "original position" of John Rawls(11) and contemporary Contractualists(12).  The argument is that morality is a product of our reason and how we reason about the best (or perhaps rationally necessary) behaviours in a social environment -- conventions play a role only as they form part of the social environment.

Natural Laws -- (Meaning the laws of nature, as opposed to "positive law" which is man-made law.)  The premise is that natural law dictates how a rational human being, seeking to survive and prosper, would act.  As used by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, natural law is "a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or takes away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may best be preserved."(13)  Other philosophers in this group include Thomas Aquinas(14) and John Finnis(15).  The argument is that morality is a product of our nature and how we are built to cope with the social environment -- not of any man made conventions.

Convention.  (Includes moral theories also referred to as Contractualism, and Moral Relativism.)  The premise is that the proper moral code is the product of a general agreement or the customary practices of a social group.  Aristotle, Locke, and Hobbes would be classed as traditional conventionalists.  Gilbert Harman(16), David Wong(17), and John Searle(18) would be among the contemporary conventionalists.  This will be the focus of the remainder of this essay.

According to conventionalism, morality is the product of ancient custom.  Contrary to the arguments of the natural law theorists, its basis is not to be found in nature or even in human nature.  Morality is an arbitrary human artifice.(19)  And contrary to the arguments of the rationalists, it is without rational basis.  The non-conventionalist theories all claim that we ought to adhere to the socially accepted rules of conduct not just because they are "the thing done" in that society, but because "on a rational and objective review of the well-being of everyone involved - the rules are judged to be in the interests of the general welfare"(20).  But the conventionalist denies that there is any objective sense of "the public good", "general welfare", or "common good" that is independent of the cultural norms.

The conventionalist argues that any person who is capable of making a moral judgment has already been conditioned into a mode of life which (at some early point at any rate) they simply accept more or less unconsciously as the self-evidently right way of living, and the self-evident standard of "the common good".  Only a very few, on rare occasions, ever seriously query this unwittingly absorbed standard of what is moral.

In this way moral knowledge is not like propositional knowledge of what is the case.  Moral knowledge is more like knowing how to play a game.  Moral insight is like skill in chess -- it is "how to" knowledge that develops with practice, and whose standards of right and wrong are defined by the rules of the game.(21)  But unlike chess, most of the rules of morality are un-codified, and conformity to those rules is mostly unconscious and habitual(22).  For most people, most of the time, being moral is more akin to riding a bike -- learned as a kid, un-thought about since, done by reflex habit.

If the assumption is that morality is a product of some actual or presumed general agreement within the social group, then in this respect, morality is in the same family with etiquette and law.(23)  It is possible, therefore, that Ann (belonging to one social group) can make a moral judgment (such as "Abortion is wrong/bad"), while Beth (belonging to another social group) can make a contradictory moral judgment (such as "Abortion is right/good) about the same thing (action, state-of-affairs, person, etc.).  According to conventionalism, they may both be objectively right.  They may each be fully informed about all the relevant facts, and each equally justified in their respective judgments.  They can both be correct in their judgments because they inhabit different socially constructed moral universes.(24)

So the conventionalist will reply to the descriptive moral theorist (who claims that morality is the product of what some Supreme Authority commands) that the commands of authority simply reflect what the relevant social group has come to acknowledge as generally accepted standards of behavior.  The reply to the anti-realist moral theorist (who claims that moral language is expressive and prescriptive rather than propositional) is that this is just what you would expect if the true basis of morality is the unreasoned indoctrinated attitudes and habitual emotional responses to the standards of socially expected conduct that were learned at one's mother's knee and never since challenged.  A similar response is offered to the realist theories based on moral intuition.  And the fact that the conventionalist understanding of morality allows that morality can be fundamentally irrational and inconsistent is considered by conventionalists to defeat all those realist theories that rely on reason as their basis. 

However, conventionalist moral theories raise rather sharply the problem of justifying morality.  Why should I obey the social conventions practiced around here? (25)  There are two inter-related problematic consequences of the Conventionalist thesis.  The first is the challenge of identifying the source of authority.  The second is the challenge of identifying which "society".

Any rational person will acknowledge that long-term personal welfare is best achieved in a social setting.  For humans, personal freedom and well-being depend on cooperation with others.  But a rationally prudent person (RPP for short) would enter into cooperative enterprises only with similarly cooperative associates.  Anything less than equal cooperation would constitute an encroachment on the welfare of our RPP.  Thus even for a person completely devoid of other-regarding feelings, there is a rational basis for accepting the conventional moral rules as rules that need to be adhered to.(26)  But this means that for an RPP, moral behaviour is motivated by rational self-interest, not by the moral status of the behaviour.  Moral considerations become merely "the expectations of society".  In other words, it becomes a case of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do, or else!!"  This suggests that when there is no observer to placate, moral considerations need not apply.  If morality is just a product of local conventions, there is no independent authority for the rules beyond social condemnation (and possible punishment).  Each person is free to apply prudential cost-benefit analysis to moral choice situations, and to choose to bear the socially imposed costs associated with immoral choices as long as the personal benefits are sufficient to outweigh the costs.  Moral considerations are reduced to prudential considerations.

The more widely recognized challenge to conventionalism, is the challenge of identifying the boundaries of the proper socially constructed moral universe.  Every individual is a part of a great number of different social groups, varying in size from the nuclear family all the way up to the entire human species (and perhaps even beyond).  If morality is a product of the generally accepted conventions of a society -- which "society" should one adopt as the basis for one's morality?  And why?

It is one thing for Ann and Beth to contradict with their moral judgments if they are on different sides of the planet, in different nations, with perhaps different religions and different cultural backgrounds.  But it is quite another if they are next door neighbours -- even if they do belong to different religions, political parties, and social circles.  There does not appear to be any restrictions within conventionalism that would constrain one's choice of which set of conventions, belonging to which social group, are to form the basis of one's morality.  Without some criteria with which to distinguish one social group from another, moral conventionalism becomes indistinguishable from moral subjectivism. 

Related to this identity challenge is the consequence that all moral judgments become judgments relative to a specific set of social conventions.  All moral statements have to be understood as elliptical -- as including the qualifier "according to this particular set of social conventions".  And that, in turn, means any moral criticism of other societies, or other moral codes, has to include this ellipsis as well.  One can only claim that it was wrong for the Greeks to practice slavery, as long as one understands that this really means that you, with your particular set of social conventions, believe that slavery is wrong.  It cannot be understood to mean that it was then, in any objective sense, morally wrong, in the Greek society of the time, for the Greeks to practice slavery.

The third criticism of conventionalism is the "deep genesis" challenge.  Even if one accepts that conventions are the basis of morality, there is the deeper question of just why the relevant conventions come to be what they are.  Is it the case, as some suggest, that these conventions are purely arbitrary -- culture-relative contingent creations that could easily have been otherwise?  If morality is contingent and arbitrary, what authority does it possess other than social condemnation?  How does moral consideration differ from prudential consideration?  And how it is possible to argue that the existing social conventions are morally wrong -- as social reformers frequently claim?

Otherwise, the question becomes why your chosen society has these particular conventions rather than those.  The suggestion here is that the conventions that society has established are those (amongst all that have been tried in this society) that have so far proven to contribute best to "the common good".  The relevant conventions evolve over time towards those that better contribute to "the common good".  This conception nicely allows for arguments that the ancient Greeks ought not to have practiced slavery, and that some features of the current moral conventions are not the best they could be.  But it runs afoul of the deeper question of just what aspects of reality constitute the "the common good".  We return to the same deep genesis question -- but one level deeper.  Is the very concept of what constitutes the "the common good" purely arbitrary -- a contingent creation that could easily have been otherwise?  If so, then we are back to the question of the authority of conventional morality, and the devolvement of moral conventionalism into subjectivity.  Otherwise, the conventionalist is admitting that there is a society-independent objective fact of the matter about what constitutes the "the common good" which is the ultimate basis of morality.  The conventionalist with this sort of answer has abdicated the field to the moral realist who argues just exactly that.

I hope this analysis has shown that morality cannot possibly be the product of convention. 


Notes & References

(1) Smith, Adam;  The Wealth of Nations, The Modern Library, Random House, New York, New York, 1994, ISBN 0-679-42473-3.

(2) Congress of World and Traditional Religions,

(3) Hobbes, Thomas;  Leviathan, 1660, pt. 1, ch. 14 (p. 64)

(4) Moore, G.E.M.;  Principia Ethica, 1903.

(5) Audi, Robert;  The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 2004. ISBN 0-691-11434-x.

(6) Kant, Immanuel;  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans H.J.Paton, New York, Harper & Row, 1964

(7) Bentham, Jeremy & Mill, John Stuart;  Utilitarianism and Other Essays, Alan Ryan (ed.), Penguin Books, London, England, 1987. ISBN 0-140-43272-8.

(8) Mill, John Stuart; The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, Random House, New York, New York, 2002. ISBN 0-375-75918-2

(9) See for Example:
Singer, Peter;  Practical Ethics (3rd Edition), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011. ISBN 978-0-521-70768-8
Hare, R.M.;  The Language of Morals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1952. ISBN 0-19-881077-7.

(10) Ross, W.D.;  The Right and the Good, Hackett Publishing Co., New York, New York, 1988, ISBN 978-0-872-20058-6.

(11) Rawls, John;  A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2005.

(12) See for example:
Scanlon, T.M.:  What We Owe to Each Other, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2000. ISBN 978-0-674-00423-8.

(13) Hobbes, Thomas, The Leviathan, 1660,

(14) Aquinas, Saint Thomas; "Summa Theologica" in An Aquinas Reader: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas & Mary T. Clark, Fordham University Press. 2000. ISBN 0-8232-2029-X.

(15) Finnis, John;  Natural Law and Natural Rights, Clarendon Law Series, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1980. ISBN 0-19-876110-4.

(16) Harman, Gilbert;  The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1977. ISBN 0-19-502143-6.
Harman, Gilbert;  "Is There a Single True Morality" in Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation, M.Krausz (ed.), University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1989, pp 383-386.

"My theses is that morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement or come to a tacit understanding about their relations with one another.  Part of what I mean by this is that moral judgments -- or, rather, an important class of them, make sense only in relation to and with reference to one or another such agreement or understanding.  . . .  It makes no sense to ask whether an action is wrong, period, apart from any relation to an agreement."
               (Harman, 1989, p 33)

(17) Wong, David;  Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism, Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-538329-4.

(18) Searle, John;  The Construction of Social Reality, The Free Press, Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-684-83179-1.

(19) Oddie, Graham;  "Moral Realism, Moral Relativism and Moral Rules (A Compatibility Argument)" in Synthese, Vol 117, No 2 Rules in Practical Reasoning (1998/1999), pp 251-274. URL=<>

"The moral relativist . . . claims that judgments of right and wrong, permissibility and obligation, and so on, are in an important sense socially constructed; that they are human artefacts, perhaps of a very sophisticated sort; that they depend on the existence of human institutions, agreements and conventions, tacit or explicit, and vary from one set of such institutions and agreements to another."
                (Oddie, 1999, p 251)

(20) Nielsen, Kai;  "Conventionalism in Morals and the Appeal to Human Nature" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol 23, No 2 (Dec 1962), pp 217-231

(21) Firth, Raymond;  Elements of Social Organization, Watts & Co., London, England. 1951.

"It will be useful to put this analysis of morality briefly again in its general anthropological perspective. The anthropologist is not discussing the existence of ethical notions on the philosophical plane. But what he does show . . . is the existence of standards of right and wrong, and sensitive judgments in their terms, in all human societies studied. These standards vary greatly in differentiation and in social range. They are in obvious relation to the structure of the societies where they are found. But behind this variation is a real measure of uniformity. Moral judgments spring immediately from individual emotion fused with a component of reasoning. But they are based ultimately on social inoculation, especially in childhood. Morality has important social functions, and exists in virtue of them. Right and wrong, good and evil, justice, duty, conscience, are operational concepts, gripped into social action. Morality, then, is that system of rules and standards which gives significance to the activity of individuals in relation to one another in society. It gives meaning and value to conduct. It justifies conduct, even in opposition to major structural principles. . . .  Morality is a social cement between individual means and social ends."
                 (Firth, 1951, p 213)

(22) Kekes, John;  "Moral Conventionalism" in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 22, No 1 (Jan 1985) pp 37-46 URL=<>.


"Moral relativism denies that there are universal basic moral demands and says that different people are subject to different basic moral demands depending on the social customs, practices, conventions, values and principles that they accept."
                 (Harman, 1989, p 363)

(24) Tannsjo, Torbjorn; "Moral Relativism" in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol 35, No 2 (Sep 2007), pp 123-143, URL=<>.

(25) Rescorla, Michael;  "Convention" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

"A distinctive thesis shared by almost all conventionalist theories is that there exist alternative conventions that are in some sense equally good. Our choice of a convention from among alternatives is undetermined by the nature of things, by general rational considerations, or by universal features of human physiology, perception, or cognition. This element of free choice distinguishes conventionalism from other moral doctrines such which hold that, in one way or another, moral properties are 'due to us.'"

(26) Nielsen, Kai;  "Appraising Doing the Thing Done" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 57, No 24 (Nov 1960), pp 749-759, URL=<>.


Boyd, Richard N.;  "How to be a Moral Realist" in Essays on Moral Realism, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (ed.), Cornell University Press, Ithica, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-8014-9541-5.

Cuneo, Terence;  "Are Moral Qualities Response-dependent?" in NOUS, Vol 35, No 4 (2001), Pg 569-591

Dancy, Jonathan;  "On Moral Properties" in Mind, New Series, Vol 90, No 359 (Jul, 1981), Pp 367-385, URL=<>

Falk, W.D.;  "Morality and Convention" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 57, No 20/21 (Oct 1960), pp 675-685, URL=<>.

Findlay, J.N.;  "Morality by Convention" in Mind, New Series, Vol 53, No 210 (Apr 1944), pp 142-169, URL=<>.

Hume, David;  A Treatise of Human Nature, Selby-Bigge (ed.), Oxford, England. 1967.

Kekes, John;  "Moral Conventionalism" in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 22, No 1 (Jan 1985) pp 37-46 , URL=<>.

Locke, John;  An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Pringle-Pattison, ed., Oxford 1969

Mackie, J.L.;  Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin Books, London, England. 1990. ISBN 0-14-013558-8.

Milo, Ronald;  "Contractarian Constructivism" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 92, No 4 (Apr 1995), pp 181-204, URL=<>.

Moore, Michael S.;  "Moral Reality Revisited" in Michigan Law Review, Vol 90, No 8 (Aug 1992), pp 2424-2533. URL=<>.

Nielsen, Kai;  "On Morality and Convention" in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol 24, No 2 (Dec 1963), pp 252-259, URL=<>.

Platts, Mark;  "Moral Reality" in Essays on Moral Realism, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (ed.), Cornell University Press, Ithica, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-8014-9541-5.

Russell, Bertrand;  "Notes on Philosophy" in Philosophy, Vol 75 (Jan 1960), Pg 146-147.

Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey;  "Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence" in Essays on Moral Realism, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (ed.), Cornell University Press, Ithica, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-8014-9541-5.

Sturgeon, Nicholas L.;  "Moral Explanations" in Essays on Moral Realism, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (ed.), Cornell University Press, Ithica, New York, 1988. ISBN 0-8014-9541-5.

Wiggins, D.;  "Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life" in Needs, Values, Truth (3rd Edition), Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. 1998. ISBN 978-0-19-823719-8.

Wilson, Catherine;  "Perception, Evolution and the Moral Properties Debate" in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 132nd Session, Dec 2010.


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