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Morality

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Thinking hard
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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 or ethics 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.

Morality generally refers to:

  • The rules of proper conduct within a group or organization: business ethics, medical ethics, etc. In theory, these rules are created in order to ensure that people are treated fairly. In actual practice, however, these rules have very little to do with acting "properly," and everything to do with avoiding lawsuits.
  • The branch of philosophy (also known as moral philosophy) that deals with the moral dimensions of human conduct. Ethics asks "What is the best way to live?" and "What is the best thing to do in this situation?"

Ethics versus morality[edit]

In English, the word ethics is usually synonymous with the word morality, and in most cases the two terms can be used interchangeably without fear of contradiction. However, there are some instances in which an important distinction exists:

  • In philosophy, some ethical theorists argue that morality applies to principle or rule-based systems such as Kant's, and ethics applies to practical or virtue-based system's such as Aristotle's.
  • In common usage, some[1] people[2] prefer[3] to make an "internal/external" distinction, or associate ethics with ideas such as fairness and legality while restricting morality to questions of good and evil. For example, most companies have rules in place regarding the "ethical" use of corporate email accounts — but there is generally no question of good or evil involved (regardless of how much spam they send), so we usually don't talk about "immoral" use of email.

For the purposes of this article, we will treat the two as synonymous.

Defining right and wrong[edit]

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.

Normative vs applied morality[edit]

In philosophy, most of the work in ethics falls into two categories: normative ethics and applied ethics. However, there are other branches worth noting.

Normative morality[edit]

Normative ethics is the field of ethics that explores what should be considered right and wrong. In other words, when a philosopher asks, "How should we live our lives?" or "What is the morally right way to act in this situation?", she is engaging in normative ethics. Generally speaking, if a philosopher proposes an ethical code, rule, or principle (such as Kant's categorical imperative), it is an example of normative ethics.

Ethical theories are most often described according to several broad categories defined by what gives the theory its ethical force.

While these three are the largest (and broadest) categories, they are by no means inclusive of all ethical theories. More recently (that is, within the last century or two, which is how philosophers define recent), several new approaches, including Pragmatic Ethics, Feminist Ethics, Role Ethics, and Care Ethics, have attempted to reframe or reorganize ethical investigations.

Applied morality[edit]

Applied ethics examines ethical concerns in various aspects of human activity. Examples include:

Descriptive ethics[edit]

Descriptive ethics is the study of people's moral beliefs, that is, what things people believe are right and wrong. As such, it is more of a social science than a branch of philosophy, and scholars in fields that deal with human development (such as evolutionary biology or sociology), may use descriptive ethics to study the development of moral ideas. An early example of descriptive ethics would be Auguste Comte's Course on Positive Philosophy, which describes humanity's development in three stages, the "theological", the "metaphysical", and the "positive," with transitions from each stage to the next being accompanied by corresponding changes in moral beliefs. Modern descriptive ethics are much more empirical.

Metaethics[edit]

Metaethics is a branch of study that focuses on the "whys" and "hows" of ethical theory: Is there such a thing as objective good or evil? Are moral rules culturally relative? This relatively new (it has existed for only about 50 years) branch of ethics encompasses a large number of issues that have been around since the first philosophies were written. It includes:

  • Cognitivism (and non—cognitivism) — argues whether ethical statements can be true or false. If you like your philosophy with a heavy dose of linguistics, these are for you.
  • Moral absolutism — argues that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong.
  • Moral relativism — argues that in disagreements about moral issues, nobody is objectively right or wrong.
  • Moral realism — argues that ethical statements refer to an objective feature of the world.
  • Moral skepticism — argues that people have no moral knowledge, or even that moral knowledge is impossible.

And many, many other flavors, all of which make for exciting reads.

Absolutism vs. universalism vs. relativism vs. skepticism[edit]

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.

Absolutism[edit]

Moral absolutism comes in various flavors.

One definition posits that there is an absolute moral framework that applies (and has applied) to everybody in every place at every time. This brand of moral absolutism contends that, while context and situation may be a factor in an action's merit or value, in the end, whether an action is "right" or "wrong" does not simply depend on an individual's relative beliefs of right and wrong. This usually contrasts with normative relativism.

Another definition of moral absolutism is the belief that an action, in and of itself and regardless of context, is either good or evil. This is usually combined with the belief that the perpetrators of "evil" acts should be punished or destroyed. Moral absolutist systems determine whether a certain action is good or evil based on a belief system, usually ignoring the actual consequences of said action. For example, Christian fundamentalists believe that sexual promiscuity is "always evil", regardless of whether it actually harms anybody. Victor Hugo's JavertWikipedia's W.svg is a quintessential case study of such a moral absolutist. This moral absolutism primarily contrasts with descriptive relativism. These two paradigms can intermingle.

In general, moral absolutism is compared to moral relativism, which holds that morality and the merit of actions are defined by context and perception rather than absolutes. Morals and merit differ from culture to culture, from person to person, and from one situation to another. Another perspective is utilitarianism, which evaluates the moral worth of actions based upon their positive and negative consequences in a general frame.

Generally speaking, absolutism is an ideology that appeals primarily to religious thinkers, Kant is an excellent example, who believed in a 'universal justice' i.e god which means that you believe that morality is a universal fixed concept that God, has defined for us, a system that should be applied everywhere, in other words a one size fits all approach, which is not always a good idea because of context.

Relativism[edit]

Moral relativism is the philosophical position which holds that there is no absolute or objective morality. The position is informed by the observation that moral codes vary greatly between groups and individuals.[4][5]

Moral relativism is directly opposed to systems that advocate for moral absolutism; many of these are religiously-based moral codes, which often use their grounding in an ostensibly eternal and universal set of principles to argue that what is "right" is the same everywhere and at all times.

Thus, people whose moral sense is informed by the belief that morality was defined by God generally decry moral relativism, because it asserts that people, and not God, created the laws they live by, and there is therefore no justification for universally prohibiting actions deemed wrong within the prevailing moral principles of a given religious tradition.

Where the rubber meets the road, however, it is not possible to live one's life by a set of presumably "eternal" moral principles revealed in scripture. Consider slavery. Both the Old and New Testaments have specific instructions for slaves and slave-holders, and never condemn the practice. Christian leaders used to have no qualms about using the Bible to support such positions. Nowadays, however, only Christian dominionists would dare voice such an attitude.

The Roman Catholic Church has had a history of being conflicted on whether slavery was compatible with natural law: first accepting it as compatible with natural law,[6] accepting it as necessary and good utility-wise but outside of the realm of natural law,[7] and finally rejecting it as an unnecessary evil that is against natural law by the time of the 20th century. Church apologists attempt to dance around the issue with various claims, such as certain types of slavery being bad (and the Church was, of course, always against whatever slavery was bad), that the Catholic who claimed it may have not been a real catholic (even if it was the Pope), or that the Church has really always been against all slavery and has just "clarified" its teachings on slavery when society finally figured out it was wrong.[8]

Skepticism[edit]

Moral Skepticism is the broad but rare set of views based around questioning or outright denying the existence of moral knowledge or any justified moral knowledge. A moral skeptic is not necessarily an immoral person much in the same way one who rejects the legitimacy of the Ten Commandments is not necessarily a murderer, a moral skeptic may also be against murder, and may be willing to enforce laws against murder, but not out of the belief murder is wrong but simply from personal disapproval of murder for reasons such as self preservation or they have loved ones they do not want to be murdered etc. This line of thought generally divides moral skeptics into two broad camps.

Moral Skepticism is not a popular school of thought. In fact, it is generally considered that if an argument can be used to justify moral skepticism then this in itself is evidence of the absurdity of the argument, and with the seeming obvious truth to the moral language we used in our everyday lives, the moral skeptic surely has a great burden of proof on par with a claim such as we live in a simulation. To the moral skeptics, however, this position is default and the burden of proof is on the "moral believer" to prove that any moral laws exist in a world that does not necessitate them.

Moral Fictionalism

This is recognizing moral convictions and using moral language, but also recognizing that, on an intellectual level, this language is meaningless with the true underlying statement to the moral claim. For example "don't steal, stealing is wrong" simply means you do not want people to steal because you will impose consequences on them. A moral fictionalist also does not deny the existence of empathy but would simply reduce empathy to another form of self interest, perhaps pointing to psychopaths or sociopaths as a perfect example of what happens when personal contentment is not gained through following apparent moral laws. Moral fictionalism from a functional perspective changes little in the day to day life of one who holds to it. Moral language is still used by them but they deny moral language having any weight beyond arbitrary personal convictions and desires, social contracts, and threats to enforce them.

Moral Abolitionism

Similar to fictionalism in sense of the ontological convictions of the thinker, but the abolitionists go further. They advocate that moral language and moral terms, the good and bad, moral and immoral, justified and unjustified, should be destroyed. It is not enough to use these terms as convenient sign posts. There is no "murder is wrong" in any sense or convenience; there can only be a statement such as "We as a community value protection from murder more than the freedom to kill. For this reason we have agreed those who murder will have force used against them of which we will do nothing to prevent". The justification for the punishment is simply because they can.

Objectivism vs. particularism[edit]

Objectivism[edit]

Objective morality is the idea that a certain system of ethics or set of moral judgments is not just true according to a person's subjective opinion, but factually true. Proponents of this theory would argue that a statement like "Murder is wrong" can be as objectively true as "1 + 1 = 2". Most of the time, the alleged source is God, or the Kantian categorical imperative; arguably, no objective source of morality has ever been confirmed, nor have any a priori proofs been offered to the effect that morality is anything other than subjective.

The moral principles that people claim to be "objective" usually coincide very well with what they feel subjectively to be true. When pressed to provide justification, the person in question will usually just fail to understand that morality might not be objective, and might consequently grow increasingly doubtful or hysterical as the subjective bases of their arguments are progressively revealed, as has been observed in recent times.

Many of the objective morals promoted today in the West are grounded in Christianity. Among Christians, it follows from the ideas of inherent human sinfulness and original sin that one's subjective moral instincts must be categorically classed as evil. Thus, say the Christians, one needs an external, objective source for morality.

The Catholic Church originally admitted several sourcesWikipedia's W.svg for such morality, including human reason; but at the Protestant Reformation, when the principle of "total depravity" was promulgated to an unprecedented degree, human reason became very dodgy and the Bible became the only source that was not suspect. Hence, we see creationists arguing that there are no meaningful morals if Genesis 1 is not true to the letter.

The Murder Argument[edit]

A common argument in favor of objective morality is to assert that all societies agree that murder is wrong. However, murder is by definition the unlawful taking of life, so any agreement is merely that people within a society should obey the rules of society. For the argument to have any validity, all societies would have to agree on which types of killing constitute murder, but even a cursory review of human history shows this is not the case. Infanticide, which one might think would be universally reviled, was perfectly acceptable to the Romans and Spartans. Human sacrifice has been practiced by cultures around the world, as have judicial executions. The slaughter of civilians in war was widely accepted until fairly modern times. Some cultures did not consider it murder to kill people from other nations. In the Edo period of Japan, samurai had wide latitude to kill peasants over the slightest discourtesy. Unless there is at least one type of killing that is universally considered to be murder, it cannot be argued that all societies agree that murder is wrong in any meaningful sense.

Moral particularism[edit]

Moral particularism is the philosophical doctrine that moral principles are inefficient or contradictory, and that the only way to be a moral person is to look at each moral situation on its own.[9][10] Particularists reject any view of morality that has commandments or a list of principles, and any view of ethics which holds that there is a highest good or an intrinsic good. This directly contradicts rule-utilitarianism, consequentialism, Kantian ethics, religion and Aristotelian ethics, which naturally pisses off a lot of people.

Particularism is holistic about reasons, which is to say that a reason for doing an action in one case, may be a reason against doing an action in another case. When faced with a moral dilemma, people usually fall back on what they've done before, so if you're faced with a decision on whether to punch someone in the face, you might think back to whether it worked out last time you did a sucker-punch, or whether your principles tell you that violence is just always wrong. Particularists tell you to forget all of those considerations, and figure out whether you have a sufficient and justifiable reason to sucker-punch the unsuspecting victim in this case and only this case.

Most particularists adhere to a contributory definition of reasons, which means that they think certain moral considerations add or subtract to the rightness/wrongness of an action, rather than being the deciding vote. If an action breaks a promise but helps a lot of people, a contributory definition of reasons will judge the action as overall good, since the promise breaking is outweighed by helping others (unless your personal moral judgement tells you that keeping promises is more important than helping people).

In short, particularists think that just because an action sucked in one case, doesn't mean it will suck in other cases.

Jonathan Dancy[edit]

Perhaps the most famous particularist is Jonathan Dancy, who has written two books on the subject. In them, Dancy explains that principled ethics don't work because they incorrectly judge an action as wrong where it is right, and vice versa. He proposes that if you take "do not lie" as a moral principle, you're going to come into trouble because lying doesn't always count against the rightness of an action. Actions can actually be good because they involve lying, for example if the SS come to your door and demand to know if you're hiding Jewish refugees. Telling the truth doesn't seem like the right thing to do in this case, and so "do not lie" cannot be a universally working moral principle. Dancy expands this example to prove how "do not kill" and "do not steal" cannot be a moral principle for the same reason — there are situations where both acts are at least morally permissible.

Dancy also tells us how not being a particularist is boring and no fun. Since many board games and card games involve lying, one either has to be a particularist to know that lying is okay in the context of board games, or they have to slap themselves on the wrist every time they put on their poker face. To be a particularist is to be fun at parties, apparently.

Anti-particularism[edit]

Those who oppose particularism include just about every moral doctrine since the birth of early civilization. All religions employ moral principles as part of their worldview, such as the Biblical Ten Commandments or Islam's Five Pillars, and the predominant Western conception of ethics, from the Ancient Greeks past the Enlightenment, have included some principles as part of their worldview. Christian fundamentalists frequently denigrate particularism, as "situation ethics", though they also apply this term to utilitarianism and pretty much any moral thinking that doesn't include purportedly absolute commandments.

A philosophical objection to particularism is called generalism. Brad Hooker in Moral Particularism — Wrong and Bad argues that you cannot trust people who are particularists, because you never know if they will keep their promises.

Application[edit]

Particularism, when practically applied, doesn't seem to be particularly useful in the judicial system, since judges often cite other past cases as precedent and justification for the decision that they're about to make. To be a particularist judge is to legislate from the bench, something that most people think contradicts the role of the judicial system.

Basis of morality[edit]

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.

Descriptive basis[edit]

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.[11][12]

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."[13] 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.[14][15] One study demonstrated that the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation[16] could affect judgments of morality by disrupting theory of mind, thus hampering subjects' ability to judge intention.[17] Joshua Greene has argued that these deontological moral judgments are more likely to be based on intuition and emotion.[18]

Moral naturalism[edit]

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.

Religion and morality[edit]

Changes eventually came to Mississippi and to other parts of America but it seems something other than the demands of Christianity produced the transformation. As an agent of moral change, religion failed magnificently among its most ardent practitioners. Moreover, the specific theological commitments of Mississippians formed essential tools in the arsenal with which they deflected the religious critique of segregation. A gospel that demanded change in the social order stood little chance of converting a people long schooled to regard such a faith as dangerous heresy.
—Carolyn Renée Dupont[19]:198

Christians often cite the idea of "absolute morality" as making them superior to atheists; their premise is that "absolute morality" can only come from God, so anyone who does not believe in God cannot accept any sort of absolute moral code.

The Mosaic Law (in particular, the Ten Commandments) is often cited as a foundation for this absolute morality; for example, the Sixth and Eighth Commandments have all the appearance of being absolute prohibitions against murder and theft. However, right from the get-go it was recognized that they were not all that absolute — if God made exceptions to these laws, people could kill with impunity.

An example can be found in the Bible not too long after the Ten Commandments are handed down, in the Book of Joshua: God commands the Israelites to go into the land of Canaan, which he has decreed belongs to them, and kill everyone in the thirty-one kingdoms therein, including women, children, and livestock. They do so.

Of course, God would not talk to just anybody to grant an exception; so the usual practice in the rest of the Bible if you wanted to kill someone was to grab a handy prophet and get him to transmit the divine sign-off. This was what King Josiah did in 2 Kings 22-23, embarking on a bout of holiness that involved killing large numbers of priests and posthumously executing others.

In short, the Christian take on "absolute morality" is not as absolute as it is sometimes portrayed; it simply makes such matters dependent on the whims of God (or whoever pretends to be speaking for him) rather than the whims of people in general.

Additionally, some people are bothered by the presentation of these laws as binding on humans, but not on God. If God were bound by the laws he would have quite a lot to answer for, such as killing almost the entire human population in the Deluge, or burning Sodom, Gomorrah, and two other "cities of the plain" to the ground because all the men in them were gay.

Even allowing for the "God is exempt from the rules" argument, there are still numerous cases where the law doesn't seem to apply to people either. The Book of Joshua also features the story of Rahab, the Canaanite harlot who assists Joshua in his defeat of Jericho. As reward for her help, she is married off to one of his sons, despite this being explicitly forbidden in the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy 7:3Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. (i.e. the Canaanites, as identified in Deuteronomy 7:1)

Morality without religion[edit]

Fundamentalist Christians often claim that ethics are bunk without The One And Only True God as a starting point from which right and wrong can be derived. However, these claims seem implausible in the face of ethical studies, as most ethical theories derive "good" from other things, which is actually much easier than trying to figure out why we should believe that something is "good" if and only if a religious deity says so.[20] Such theories, known as Secular Ethics and praised by people as diverse as Richard Dawkins and the Dalai Lama, pose a serious challenge to claims that only religiously motivated individuals can behave well. The social contract, utilitarianism/prioritarianism, Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, ethical egoism and moral intuitionism are sufficient motivational substitutes for divine command. Many secular ethical theories go along very well with secular humanism, a much broader philosophy, or with effective altruism, a social movement.

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about WSID.

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. Morals vs. Ethics Ethics Defined
  2. Ethics vs. morals Grammarist
  3. Ethics vs. Morals Diffen
  4. Entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  5. Jesse Prinz. Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response. Philosophy Now, Jan/Feb 2012
  6. Ethical Aspect of Slavery Catholic Encyclopedia.
  7. Aquinas, Thomas. "Question 57: Right". Summa Theologica.
  8. Catholic Church Changed Teaching On Slavery? Catholic Answers.
  9. Moral Particularism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  10. Moral Particularism in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  11. Frans de Waal: Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes
  12. 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.
  13. The Moral Instinct
  14. Daniel M. Bartels. Principled moral sentiment and the flexibility of moral judgment and decision making. Cognition 108 (2008) 381–417
  15. Brain Injury Said to Affect Moral Choices, New York Times
  16. No relation to magnetic therapy. Transcranial magnetic stimulation involves much stronger magnets.
  17. Steven Novella (March 31 2010). "Magnets and Morality"
  18. Joshua Greene. The Secret Joke of Kant's Soul
  19. Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 by Carolyn Renée Dupont (2013) New York University Press. ISBN 1479823511.
  20. http://www.skeptic.ca/Autonomy_of_Ethics.htm