Towards an objective theory of morality

     Humans have puzzled over the possibility of an objective moral theory since the dawn of philosophical inquiry. Many argue that morality is socially constructed rather than based in physical laws. Ethical relativists like Foucault (Wilkin, 1999) and sophists like Protagoras (Guthrie, 1969) have proposed that fundamental ethical truths do not exist. Along a similar line of reasoning, Richard Joyce contends that biases imposed by human evolutionary psychology invalidate the concept of fundamental morality since all ethical ideas depend on our evolutionary history (Joyce, 2001). But certain nondualist approaches to cognitive philosophy may provide a new perspective on this notion, a perspective in which ethical truths are both fundamental and relative. I propose that, if consciousness and emotion derive directly from physical processes, then objective morality exists, but continuously varies over space and time.

     For my theory of objective morality, I assume the panpsychist idea that conscious experience is a property of matter, analogous to mass or charge (Seager, 1995). According to this view, specific physical patterns may give rise to specific emotional states in a one-to-one correspondence, making qualia omnipresent. It should be noted that if panpsychism is true, the stochastic flickers of qualia associated with most matter would likely feel primitive enough that they would be unrecognizable by human standards. Next, I apply an authenticity-driven form of existentialism to this panpsychist perspective, allowing physically-encoded emotions to take on intrinsic meaning. In this writing, I exclude “meaninglessness” from existentialism and instead focus on the aspects of existentialism which involve people creating meaning for themselves (Holt, 2012). The distribution of emotional states across the universe may serve as a starting point for a physical description of ethics. By combining panpsychism with physicalism and existentialism, morality can be linked to physics in an objective fashion.

     Despite its past association with metaphysics, panpsychism is rekindling among contemporary thinkers as an explanation for consciousness (Strawson, 2006). Integrated information theory or IIT (Oizumi, Albantakis, & Tononi, 2014) is a mathematical formulation which seeks to quantify consciousness using the information arising from dynamical systems. Galen Strawson has argued that IIT implies panpsychism since all physical structures contain some amount of information (Strawson, 2006). Furthermore, Adam Barrett has proposed modifications to IIT which may help account for fundamental physical interpretations of the universe like quantum field theory (Barrett, 2014). Panpsychic descriptions of reality are reentering philosophical and scientific discourse as new data are acquired and new theoretical interpretations develop.

     But many still find the concept that inanimate objects may possess primitive qualia to be absurd. To counter this presumption, consider a fragment of quartz resting on a ridge. As the sun rises, photons excite the atoms on the crystal’s surface, causing thermal oscillations to propagate into the quartz. This thermal diffusion is modulated by crystallographic defects, causing a heterogeneous distribution of heat inside the rock. As dusk falls, the quartz fragment begins to cool, emitting heat at varying rates across the surface. The particular rates are influenced directly by this quartz specimen’s pattern of internal defects. Next, consider a mouse, also located on the ridge. As the sun rises, photons excite the retinaldehyde molecules in the mouse’s eyes, triggering signal transduction via electrochemical systems. This signal moves into the mouse’s brain, where it propagates through a series of neural pathways, causing a heterogeneous distribution of neural activity. Soon, the signal’s interaction with preexisting brain structures is translated into a motor action; the mouse blinks and looks away from the bright illumination. The particular motor response is modulated by the structural organization of this mouse’s brain at the given time. The quartz and the mouse both receive sensory inputs, process them according to internal properties, and then give motor outputs. Although the rock’s “brain” is much more disorganized and chaotic than the mouse’s brain, it operates by the same basic principles and could plausibly experience a primitive form of consciousness. As such, the possibility of panpsychism cannot be readily dismissed as absurd or metaphysical.

     Another prominent objection to panpyschism arises from brain processes which occur in a subconscious fashion. For instance, activity in the primary visual cortex (V1) does not correlate with conscious visual experience except for a few special cases (Crick & Koch, 1995) (Boyer, Harrison, & Ro, 2005) (Boehler, Schoenfeld, Heinze, & Hopf, 2008). However, the presence of subconscious neural events does not necessarily indicate that the said events are subconscious from the viewpoint of their associated anatomies. Instead, anatomical structures like V1 may experience their own independent qualia. The full informational content of their perceptions may not be transmitted or translated into the brain areas like the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which can be identified with a patient’s sense of self (Mitchell, Banaji, & Macrae, 2005). Of course, some data does transfer into higher brain regions to facilitate processes like vision, but the information undergoes an extensive series of transformations before arriving at the PFC and other regions associated with conscious processing. For this reason, the “unconscious anatomies” objection is insufficient to invalidate panpsychism.

     While existentialism is often linked to both authenticity in developing a personal outlook on life and to a sense of nihilistic meaningless, I use a modified interpretation of existentialism within this essay. I discard the nihilistic component of existentialism and enhance its emotional authenticity to operate in a manner analogous to Cartesian view around the ontology of thought, cogito ergo sum (Murdoch, Cottingham, Descartes, & Stoothoff, 1985). My interpretation of existentialism revolves around idea that emotions possess intrinsic validity in the same way Descartes argued for the intrinsic validity of consciousness. By applying this form of existentialism to physicalist panpsychism, an objective theory of morality gains feasibility.

     My proposed ethical theory does not mean that morality is uniform throughout the cosmos. Equipping the distribution of emotional states or “affective manifold” with existentialism allows for objective morality to continuously vary as informatic patterns change over space and time. Manifolds are mathematical objects which can be informally described as deformed versions of spaces such as the real line, plane, or three-dimensional Euclidean space. Although the affective manifold would not generally exhibit universal emotional uniformity, particular conformations of the manifold may still represent ultimate maxima or minima over all reality. An ultimate maximum may resemble the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, while an ultimate minimum may resemble a hell far worse than any imagined by the world’s religions. These extrema describe states of absolute moral “good” and absolute moral “bad” in a fashion which is fundamentally linked to physics. While this theory connects morality to fundamental processes in the universe, the said morality is also dependent on spatiotemporal coordinates. Ethical truths vary over the affective manifold except when the manifold holds a constant value across the entire cosmos as in the Nirvana and hell cases. In this way, morality may simultaneously take on objective and relative characteristics. Natural law exists, but a given natural law rarely takes on the same form across any two distinct subsets of spacetime.

     As an example, consider a subset of spacetime which includes only a human named Zebadiah during a specified eight-second time interval. Zebadiah feels unjustly underpaid at his job. During the eight-second period, he notices a fifty-dollar bill sitting on the desk of his boss, Enrique. He is alone and could easily snatch the money without consequences. Zebadiah pockets the fifty-dollar bill and does not experience guilt. He feels that this action is morally correct. Inside the spatial bounds of Zebadiah’s brain and the temporal bounds of the eight-second interval, this action is indeed morally correct on a fundamental level. But after the eight seconds have passed, Zebadiah recalls that Enrique’s wife is ill and cannot work, so Enrique is struggling financially. Zebadiah feels a rush of guilt and places the money back on Enrique’s desk. In this new time period, the Zebadiah-specific natural law has changed. Unknown to Zebadiah, Enrique was watching the entire time via a newly-installed security camera. During both time intervals, Enrique feels that Zebadiah is only taking a moral action if he does not steal the money. From an existential viewpoint, all the described perspectives are valid. Panpsychism connects this existentialism to physical processes, supporting moral objectivity on given subsets of the affective manifold.

     Morality is objective, but not absolute except for the specific situations in which the affective manifold is configured in a universally desirable or undesirable manner. Using a physics-based form of panpsychism along with an interpretation of existentialism which grants intrinsic validity to a subject’s emotions, the affective manifold emerges as a possible source of objective ethics. In most distributions of emotional states over the cosmos, ethical truths undergo continuous variation as spatial and temporal coordinates change. In this way, morality can be quite different for distinct persons and even for individual persons at different times. However, it remains an absolute ethical truth that reconfiguring the affective manifold such that all matter in the universe is optimized for generating a supremely positive emotional state represents a morally ideal action. Likewise, reconfiguring the affective manifold to generate a supremely negative emotional state represents an absolute moral wrong. My objective theory of morality may provide a new perspective on the study of ethics and so help to more effectively derive insights around contemporary ethical problems.


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