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Thinking hard, or
hardly thinking?


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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.
—Immanuel Kant

Morality is the philosophical concept of what actions and results are "right" and which are "wrong". You can probably tell from the scare-quotes around right and wrong here that the big trouble with morality is defining things effectively. People consider what is right and what is wrong to be innate and second-nature, and to a degree this is true because evolutionary psychology and evolutionary ethics indicate that we have evolved certain behaviours and these behaviours (in a very circular way) determine what we think of as moral.


[edit] Defining right and wrong

Right and wrong may be defined simply as actions that are desirable and actions that are undesirable, but even then what is and what is not desirable may differ between people. Most popularly, moral acts are acts that do not cause harm, suffering, discomfort or pain to others, while immoral acts do. The difficulty inherent to "Comfort Morality" is finding a definitive reason that justifies applying this view of morality to anyone other than oneself.

[edit] Absolute and relative

Absolute morality postulates that what is moral and what is immoral is unchanging and can be laid down well in advance. Thus it is very popular with religions and their reliance on holy texts to determine moral and ethical guidelines and commandments. Moral relativism (which should under no circumstances be conflated with relativity) on the other hand postulates that morals can be somewhat flexible, and accepts the subjective nature of morality. This acknowledges that cultural differences across different times and different regions may mean that what people consider moral can change. This change, particularly over time, is sometimes known as the moral zeitgeist, from the German "spirit of the times". Hence once slavery was accepted in parts of the western world, it now is not - or at least it has been outsourced to poorer countries and prisons. Moral relativism isn't without criticism as it is viewed as lending justification to what are considered immoral acts by effectively saying "well, they do things differently over there (or back then)" It is important to differentiate between descriptive relativism and normative relativism. The former describes what is, but not what ought to be. The latter assumes all morality is subjective, thus all systems of morality ought to be tolerated. It is in the latter sense that "moral relativism" is most often used.

Moral universalism occupies the middle ground between absolute morality and moral relativism. The moral position advocated by Noam Chomsky, moral universalism posits that there exists some universal ethic by which actions may be considered objectively "good" or "bad", but does not necessarily accept monism. In contrast with absolute morality, moral universalist attitudes may be paired with value pluralism, which posits that individuals can have conflicting but equally correct values. Utilitarianism is an example of a philosophy built around the principle of moral universalism.

[edit] Ethics

Morality is related to the concept of ethics, which are essentially guidelines by which to achieve the "right" results.

[edit] Basis of morality

There are many different views on the origins of morality. These include the argument from morality, the evolutionary argument, and the sociological view that our ideas of what is moral and what is not are largely based on our society's ideals (see Cultural relativism). There is also the idea of a "natural law," or a universal moral code intrinsic to humans.

[edit] Descriptive basis

In practice, social morals appear to be the result of evolution iteratively applying possible solutions to game theory. Chimpanzee society involves a lot of what looks remarkably like human morality, for example. And politics.[1][2]

Research by Jonathan Haidt suggests that "people don’t generally engage in moral reasoning," as Haidt argues, "but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification."[3] Psychology experiments making use of the philosophical "trolley problem" demonstrate this. When subjects can flip a switch on trolley tracks to save five people instead of one person, they will go the utilitarian route and flip the switch. When they have to throw that one person onto the tracks to save the five people, however, they will use deontological reasoning and let the five people get run over.[4][5] One study demonstrated that the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation[6] could affect judgments of morality by disrupting theory of mind, thus hampering subjects' ability to judge intention.[7] Joshua Greene has argued that these deontological moral judgments are more likely to be based on intuition and emotion.[8]

[edit] Moral naturalism

Moral naturalism (or Ethical Naturalism) is the position that some moral claims are true, and that there is nothing supernatural about this. On this position, moral facts can be determined by carefully observing objective facts about people and the world they live in. This puts moral facts in a class with natural facts about the world, which contradicts the assertion of divine command theory that morality is defined by the arbitrary revelation of God.

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Frans de Waal: Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes
  2. See also Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce's Wild Justice and Richard Joyce's The Evolution of Morality, and Douglas Allchin's Evolution of Morality page for further recommended references.
  3. The Moral Instinct
  4. Daniel M. Bartels. Principled moral sentiment and the flexibility of moral judgment and decision making. Cognition 108 (2008) 381–417
  5. Brain Injury Said to Affect Moral Choices, New York Times
  6. No relation to magnetic therapy. Transcranial magnetic stimulation involves much stronger magnets.
  7. Steven Novella (March 31 2010). "Magnets and Morality"
  8. Joshua Greene. The Secret Joke of Kant's Soul
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