This is the first of three essays on morality. Its purpose is to explore what we mean by morality. The second essay is on universal morality, and the third on innate morality.
Moral or ethical behaviour is generally taken to mean behaviour that conforms to some code of conduct which is held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong. The set of principles that define what is right and wrong being called 'morality' or 'ethics'.Ethics is also the name given to the branch of philosophy concerned with the systematic study of what is right or wrong.
Morality assumes that there is a real world made up of other sentient beings who have similar interests, feelings and desires as our own. Not everyone shares this assumption (see the essay on Reality).
The Purpose of Morality
Why is the purpose of morality? Broadly speaking there appear to be three answers to this question:
- To lead people to behave in accordance with the wishes of a divine authority.
- To lead people to behave in a way that benefits society at large rather than their own narrow self interest.
- To lead people to control their desires and aversions in the belief that this will result in a more satisfying, rewarding and contented way of life.
Religion clearly plays an important part in many people's moral decisions, and for those with a religious faith moral behaviour is often seen as being necessary, both as an act of obedience to God's wishes and as a requirement for spiritual development.
Morality is clearly important in regulating and lubricating social intercourse, in checking our selfish behaviour in the interests of the wider community. Indeed, there are those who maintain that without society there would be no need for morality. However, this view disregards any improvement in personal well being that come from controlling and reforming one's own behaviour. Plato and many other philosophers have argued that moral actions benefit the doer, while immoral actions injures them.
The Scope of Morality
Not all codes of conduct are moral. There are etiquettes, regulations, laws and religious observances, all of which seek to order our lives, but breaches of which might not be thought morally wrong. Wearing pyjamas to a business meeting might be a breach of etiquette, accidentally overstaying on a parking meter may be unlawful, but neither of these acts would normally be thought to be immoral.
Moral codes differ over time and between places, and there are many cases of things being considered moral by one society and immoral by another. In the Roman Empire and medieval Japan suicide was often considered an honourable act if carried out in response to personal failure or to protect the interests of one's family, but many of the world's religions condemn it as immoral.
This wide divergence of moral codes has led to a view that all morality is relative, that there is no universal ('normative') ideal standard which can be used to judge what is better or worse. The morally good is whatever a culture or group decides it is. If you live amongst cannibals, cannibalism can be good. If you live in a slave owning country, slavery can be good. Such moral relativism is repugnant to many, and there have been a large number of attempts to show that there are moral absolutes which apply to all human behaviour (see the essay on Universal Morality).
Principles and Rules
Moral codes can be no more than a check-list of what is right and wrong. This is unsatisfactory for two reasons. Firstly, it is unlikely that such a check-list will cover every situation. Secondly, a check-list approach provides no theoretical basis to work out what is best in situations when moral rules come into conflict with each other. It seems desirable therefore to have moral principles from which moral rules can be derived.
Curtis Brown (in Moral Truths and Moral Principles) describes moral principle as statements like 'one ought to perform whatever action, of those available to one, that will maximize overall utility.' Or 'one ought to act only on maxims one could will to be universal laws.' Or 'one ought to refrain from acting in ways of which an ideal observer would disapprove.' A moral rule is more specific, for example 'one ought to help people in distress,' Or 'one ought not to break one's promises.'
Moral principles should explain why a particular rule is moral, help resolve conflicts between moral rules, and help us determine which moral rule should be used. Say for example our moral principle is the golden rule 'do as you would be done by'. From this we can both derive the rule that breaking promises is wrong and explain why that is the case. Moreover, if there is a conflict between keeping promises and helping people in distress it gives us a tool to decide what course of action to take.
Moral principles of the kind described above need to be reasonable and internally consistent, but this is not sufficient. It is not difficult to come up with a principle that meets these requirement, but which would generally not be thought to be moral, for example 'everyone is morally bound to put one’s own interests and those of one’s family first'. What is it about this rule that makes us think that it is not moral? James Cornman suggested that there are two tests that we can apply. These are not intended to be definitive or exhaustive, but to provide useful guidance in reaching our decisions: They are (in a slightly simplified form):
- If a person feels certain that a specific action is morally incorrect, and this belief is consistent with their other beliefs, that person has some reason to reject an ethical standard that supports the action.
- If a person feels certain that a large number of actions are morally correct, and these feelings are consistent with their other beliefs, and the person has not been biased in choosing these actions for consideration, the person has some reason to accept an ethical standard that justifies such actions.
The Intentional View of Morality
R.M. Hare regarded moral judgements as being those judgements that override all non moral judgements and which we would wish to universalize. Hare’s definition tells us nothing about whether a particular act is or is not moral, and is as well suited to the relativist as the normalist view of morality, but it does make two important points. Firstly, it makes the point that moral codes override other codes of conduct. Secondly, it talks in terms of moral judgements rather than moral actions. In other words his definition favours the view that it is the intention behind the act that makes it moral, not the act itself.
Amongst philosophers the view that an act is moral not in itself, but according to the intention behind it, is widespread but not universal. There are some of a utilitarian persuasion who argue that actions must be judged by their outcomes rather than the by the motivations that lie behind them. This view has its origins in the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility.
This utilitarian view has its advantages. In particular it addresses the problem that we can never really know what another’s intentions are, and indeed may often deceive ourselves about our own intentions. It is much easier to judge the outcome of an action than the intention behind it. The weakness of the utilitarian position is that if morality is primarily about modifying behaviour, then it has to be about modifying our intentions, since it is these we can control, not the outcomes of our actions. A man can resolve not to kill, he cannot stop himself killing by an unlucky accident.
The view that what makes an act moral or otherwise is the intention behind it ties in with the thinking of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that we only act in a morally good way when we act out of a sense of duty (to do the right thing). Such actions might bring us other benefits, but the action is only morally good if the primary motivation is to do good. Kant's definition of what is moral appears to set a very high standard, and in practice it may be impossible to disentangle the myriad of psychological processes that lead us to act the way we do. However, Kant does point to a commonly held view that self-serving behaviour cannot be considered virtuous, no matter how desirable its outcome.
David Hume argued that human behaviour is a product of passion and reason. Passions set the ends or goals of action; and reason works out the best available means of achieving these ends. From this point of view moral values are the projections of desires that aim at the development of character and the common good of society. Recent developments in areas such as evolutionary biology and neuroscience suggest that Hume was right to think that humans have natural dispositions to act in the common good - to cooperate. In other words moral passions can at least to some extent be seen as an evolved motivational systems for cooperation.
David Hume further argued that you cannot derive moral principles from reason. According to Hume reasoning is morally neutral, it is only our feelings that can dictate whether something is good or bad. Our reason can help us to derive moral rules from moral principles and analyse the shortcoming of such principles, but it cannot be used to find them. You cannot (by reason) justify a moral principle any more that you can justify why a man should want to be healthy.
Ask a man why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire reason why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any.
Hume (and later George Edward Moore) believed that 'good' is a subjective psychological entity and not an objective feature of the world. Moor went on the describe what he called the 'naturalistic fallacy'. Moor is using the word natural to mean something found in the real world. His naturalistic fallacy is to believe that good is a property of the real world rather than a property of the mind. From this it follows that because something occurs in the natural (real) world does not mean that it is right.
The Limits of Theory
In his book 'The Happiness Hypothesis' Jonathan Haidt compares the human mind to a rider on top of an elephant. The elephant is our ancestral, subconscious system that automatically takes care of a multitude of concurrent processes, while the rider corresponds to our rational, reasoning mind.
The automatic system [the elephant] was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes part of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus). The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It's a rider placed on the elephant's back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.
The analogy is useful because it brings out the point that only a small amount of our behaviour, and a small number of our choices, are cognitive in nature. What are generally thought of as moral actions are probably more often instinctive, for example the reaching out to a fellow creature in distress or the insistence that people act fairly.
Haidt believes that in the West the quest for parsimony and the worship of reason has led to an inferior form of morality. By parsimony Haidt means the philosophical attempt to come up with one principle from which all moral rules can be derived. By the worship of reason he means the belief that moral rules and decisions are based on reason.
Haidt's criticism of philosophical theories is that by concentrating on reason they fail to acknowledge that most people's actions are instinctive rather than cognitive, and that we shape instinctive behaviour (to the extent we can) by experiences and by putting things into practice rather than by the teaching of theory. Haidt argues that in West we now teach morality as a kind of problem solving. Morality is seen as a cognitive process where we weigh our self interest against the self interest of others:
Where the ancients saw virtue and character at work in everything a person does, our modern conception confines morality to a set of situations that arise for each person only a few times in any week; trade-offs between self-interest and the interests of others. ... Benjamin Franklin had a much thicker, richer notion of virtues as a garden of excellence that a person cultivates to become more effective and appealing to others.
The same belief in what is commonly called 'virtue based ethics' was shared by Aristotle: 'Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts'.
We generally assume that the rider has freedom of will. A belief in free will does not imply that we always have freedom of action, or that we are free of genetic and environmental influences, but it does suppose that our decisions and action are not pre-determined by what has gone before. The idea of free will is an important concept in morality because it seems that without it we cannot be held morally accountable for our actions. If we are not free to choose between right and wrong we do not deserve praise or reward for doing good, or condemnation or punishment for doing wrong. Yet do we have free will? As Dr Johnson said "All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it."
To encourage morality, society identifies and promotes moral virtues such as temperance, prudence, justice, fortitude and compassion. These support unselfish, altruistic behaviour. Temperance is necessary because moral behaviour is unlikely to be be sustained without self control. Prudence is required so as to avoid good intentions having bad outcomes. Justice is required so that the welfare of all others and oneself are equally balanced. Fortitude is required because self sacrifice can be painful. Compassion is required so that one is motivated by, and is sensitive to, the needs of others.
Morality In Practice
In practice most peoples moral principles appear to be a mixture of innate feelings, and beliefs inculcated by their culture. These values are internalised and express themselves through a person's conscience - the faculty that distinguishes whether one's actions are right or wrong. Very often people find it difficult to logically defend such decisions. Just like aesthetic judgements about what is beautiful or ugly, a person's decisions about what is moral come to the mind automatically. Only subsequently do they find reasons to support their instincts. In practice, outside of philosophy, the working out of ethical positions from first principles tends to only happen in professional situations, for example where advances in science or medicine introduce new dilemmas that have not been faced before.
Haidt makes the interesting observation that while political liberals primarily see morality in terms of preventing harm and ensuring fairness, the conservative view of morality includes respect for in-group boundaries (e.g. group loyalty), authority and spiritual purity.