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Popper on the relationship between morality and epistemology

Every rational discussion, that is, every discussion devoted to the search for truth, is based on principles, which in actual fact are ethical principles. I should like to share three of them.

  • 1 The principle of fallibility. Perhaps I am wrong and perhaps you are right; but, of course, we may both be wrong.
  • 2 The principle of rational discussion. We need to test critically and, of course, as impersonally as possible the various (criticizable) theories that are in dispute.
  • 3 The principle of approximation to truth. We can nearly always come closer to the truth with the help of such critical discussions; and we can nearly always improve our understanding, even in cases where we do not reach agreement.
It is remarkable that these principles are epistemological and, at the same time, also ethical principles. For they imply, among other things, toleration: if I can learn from you, and if I want to learn, then in the interest of truth I have not only to tolerate you but also to recognize you as a potential equal; the potential unity of man and the potential equality of all humans are prerequisites for our willingness to discuss matters rationally. Of further importance is the principle that we can learn from a discussion, even when it does not lead to agreement. For a rational discussion can help to shed light upon some of our errors.

All this shows that ethical principles form the basis of science. The most important of all such ethical principles is the principle that objective truth is the fundamental regulative idea of all rational discussion. Further ethical principles embody our commitment to the search for truth and the idea of approximation to truth; and the importance of intellectual integrity and of fallibility, which lead us to a self-critical attitude and to toleration. It is also very important that we can learn in the field of ethics.
Karl Popper, The World of Parmenides, chapt 2, section 6, paragraph 5

See also chapt 2 Addendum 2 titled: Some Principles for a New Professional Ethics Based on Xenophanes' Theory of Truth

Elliot Temple on November 13, 2008

Comments (5)


All rational discussion is a search for truth.

I disagree. All principles for rational consideration apply equally to, say, aesthetic distinctions.

Could 'truth' be imprecise for Popper's use in this discussion?

John Moore

Anonymous at 7:54 PM on November 29, 2008 | #1710
How are you going to offer criticism, and rationally choose between different statements, when there isn't a truth of the matter? No truth in a field means no statements can be wrong, and no procedures (like rationality) for finding better statements are applicable.

I think there is truth in art, but if there isn't, then it's just a matter of whim, not rationality.

- Elliot

Anonymous at 8:02 PM on November 29, 2008 | #1711


Thank you.

You, "No truth in a field means no statements can be wrong,...'

Popper, re first principle for rational discussion, '...we may both be wrong.'

Again, is 'truth' the most precise term for the goal of rational discussion?

John Moore

Anonymous at 8:10 PM on November 29, 2008 | #1712
I don`t know if Popper actually said so, but I think he would agree that everyone is obliged to choose and justify his epistemology.
Of course Popper wants us to take the critical rationalistic approach he describes and prefers.
But other epistemologies may be better or more worthy. But for good and bad we have a responsibility for ourthelves, to be critically, to discuss fruitfully etc

Anonymous at 1:16 PM on January 22, 2009 | #1729
I wrote on the obligation to choose your epistemology.

Forgot to leave m,y Name.

Tobias Mueller-Kortkamp.

Anonymous at 1:17 PM on January 22, 2009 | #1730

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)