What is morality?

Reading about someone who had had his mobile phone stolen, I started to reflect on theft, morality and our perceptions of right and wrong. If a friend or colleague tells you he or she has been a victim of theft, your usual reaction will be one of disgust, indignation and perhaps anger. We instinctively feel that theft is “wrong” and that those who steal are “bad” people who deserve punishment.

Two things give me pause. The first is this: if you were to go around asking ordinary citizens to say honestly whether they had ever committed theft, very few would be able to lay their hand on their heart and answer no. Whether it is keeping some object found in the street, using a tube ticket that someone has dropped, accepting too much change, reusing a stamp that has escaped franking, borrowing something and never bothering to return it, etc., I would say most of us have been guilty at some time or other. I know I have. How is it that we condemn “theft” in others while condoning it in ourselves?

If you can honestly say you have never stolen the least thing then you are an unusually moral person. And this brings us to my point. Though the law punishes some sorts of misbehaviour, our reactions to these acts – and to the law itself – are informed by something we call morality. We consider it “morally wrong” to steal, for example. But why? What is this thing called morality and why do we think it so important, assuming that we do?

There are many theories about what morality is. Some say it is a social contract to which we are all mutually bound; others that our social behaviour is decreed by some god or other; still others that morality is practical: it limits my freedom but provides benefits to society as a whole and thus to me also; yet again, some like the Utilitarians assert that morality seeks to bring the greatest degree of happiness to the greatest number of people. None of these theories is without serious problems and despite searching for many centuries, no one has yet discovered a solid objective foundation on which to build a moral code. In consequence, moral codes vary from community to community and change with time.

Assuming our community has a moral code, why would we subscribe to it? There are definite advantages for the person who steps outside the moral code. This is of course paradoxical because the existence of a moral code supposes that everyone adheres to it. If every individual ignores it, then the code cannot exist. Notwithstanding, how often have you done something that you know is “wrong” (e.g. told a “white lie”, taken something without asking, etc) on the grounds that no one will know or that you can bluff it out if caught? Is morality, then, less a matter of conviction and more a matter of succumbing to pressure from the surrounding community?

In a religious society, saying what is moral is easy: it is “What God wants”. Religious believers seem to think that only a religion can provide a moral code. This ignores the fact that if their code is decreed by God, then it isn’t a moral code at all: it is merely adherence to a set of arbitrary commandments under the fear of divine punishment. A moral code surely presupposes some sort of agreement, explicit or implicit, between those who share in the code. If it is imposed from outside (or “above”) then it is not a moral but legal code, even if the judge and jury are not of this world.

But this still leaves the question of what morality is in a secular community and on what we would base such a moral system. This is not merely an academic question. British society is becoming more and more secular by the day. The fact that certain religious groups have sprung to prominence doesn’t alter this because no single one has preeminence and the resulting “multicultural” morality can only be a secular one if it is not to favour one religious (or atheistic) group over another. This is a difficult lesson for some people to learn but it has to be learnt if social upheaval is to be avoided.

Returning to our question, then: on what should we base our moral code? Is it even possible to have a single, universal moral code in a multicultural society?


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to What is morality?

  1. A very well written article 🙂

    Another view is that a culture’s morality is the set of rules that a society adopts to promote the survival of the society and to maximize the average well being of its citizens – at least in a stable, healthy society. This is why moral codes are different from culture to culture: the circumstances of that society are different, and therefore the moral/survival adaptation to those circumstances are different.

    What is in the best interests of the society as a whole are not always the best interests of the individual. Individuals will however (usually) agree with the social morality, because under it they are guaranteed a general level of “well-being”: people will not randomly kill me, people will not (usually) steal my stuff, capture me and sell me into slavery, etc. The conflict arises because, even though the rules of a healthy society usually promote the maximum average benefit to people, there are circumstances when an individual stepping outside the social morality can increase their personal benefits. This usually comes at some cost to someone else. The individual who steals benefits at the expense of the person or organization from whom they steal. This is why “legal codes” punish: they try and balance the “benefit” with a “penalty” which deters the individual from committing the act; if there is no net gain for the act (the severity of the “bad” thing, even when reduced by the odds of not being caught, is enough to balance the benefit) the likelihood of someone committing it is reduced.

    If you subscribe to it, even the Judeo-Christian moral code is based (theoretically) on rules for the maximum average benefit of those subject to the law. In the Judeo-Christian Old Testament, the Law is not supposed to be an example of God saying “Do what I say, because I say so”, but the Ten Commandments are (theoretically) given to the Israelites so “it will go well for you and your descendants, and you may live on the land that [Jehovah] your God is giving you for a long time” – Deuteronomy 4, 39.

    The individual can “internalize” society’s rules in various ways. Some people live morally because of the “penalty” society will do outweighs the “benefit” of violating the rules (deterrent). This is what you call a “legal code” rather than a “moral code”. Some people do the right thing because they’ve been told it is the way to behave (submission, religious or authoritarian). Others will do so because they understand the moral reasons behind the code, and conclude that they are willing to adhere to the code because it creates a generally beneficial society for all, and that is something they cherish (social contract theory).

    Morality seems to be a set of rule, created by a society (with whatever source and justification you like: God, Confucius, Benthem’s ‘hedonistic calculus’), to promote the general survival and well being of its citizens, contextually adapted to that society’s circumstances. As such, I believe it unlikely that is possible to have a universal set of accepted behaviors, even though the underlying “moral motivations” of survival and well being are universal.

  2. Carl says:

    Just Like Rainy Days and Mondays…
    I know it is said we need religion to give us moral direction in life.
    It sounds like it makes sense. But there seems to be two major things in life that actually cause the opposite effect of what they propose.
    One is religion, the other, sports.
    Sometimes we need them like a rainy Monday.
    People are so “gung ho” regarding sects, regarding teams, that it just seems more devisive than anything else. Is there an alternative?
    What do you think? Let me know when you get a chance.

  3. SilverTiger says:

    Charles: You make some valuable comments. I am a little unsure that we can say that society makes rules. I am not sure society can do anything. I think the actions of “society” are really actions initiated by whatever that society’s elite group is and then taken up by others. For example, I think traditional British morality still clearly shows its Christian ancestry. On the other hand, we do speak of society as a shorthand for “whatever powers decide how society operates.”

    Also I suspect that moral codes evolve rather than being designed and created. For example, since the middle of the 20th century, morality in Britain, particularly sexual morality, has evolved to a considerable degree compared with what it was for a long period before that. Yet no one (as far as I know) has said “Let’s sit down and devise a new set of rules about sexual behaviour.”

    To create a morality from first principles you would first have to devise a procedure for doing so but in order to do that, you would first have to devise a procedure for deciding the procedure and so on in infinite regress. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen because humans are good at muddling through and morality grows up by accretion.

    As you say, morality fits the average case. This is why there is so much hypocrisy in strongly moral society: people feel obliged to pay lip service to a moral code that they find impossible to keep. This causes the “Do as I say, not as I do” syndrome. As more and more people feel the moral code is less and less valid for them, so pressure grows for changes.

    Carl: There are many divisions within society that differentiate their members from society-at-large. I think society tolerates some of these more easily than others. For example, it is less controversial for someone to join the Boy Scouts or the Arsenal supporters club than the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Church of Satan.

    I think motives for creating and joining these groups are varied as well. For some (e.g. Punks, Goths, etc.) it is a way of leading a lifestyle they find more comfortable or more stimulating than that led by the conventional majority. For others, it is the “religious imperative”. For still others, such as members of political parties, it is a desire to change the world for the better. Perhaps we can say the more aggressive the group and the more “alien” its tenets, the more divisive it is likely to be.

    On the other hand, without such “divisive” movements would society evolve? For example, the feminist movement would be considered divisive by many but others would say it was necessary in order to assert women’s rights. The fact that even now women have still not achieved equality seems to suggest that the latter are right.

    The above are a few comments-on-comments inspired by your respective comments and not an attempt at a systematic reply. Thanks to both.

    Email SilverTiger

  4. I don’t think that moral codes are ever designed I think that “society” is shorthand for “the abstracted general trends of the group” but the morality of individuals is informed by the average “group think”.

    I agree completely that morals “evolve” because the situations that a society find itself in change also alter continuously, and changes in morality are triggered.

    Your example of changing sexual morality is a prime example of this. Look at the massive changes in socially acceptable sexual behavior that have been triggered by just two recent events: the invention of simple reliable birth control and the “sexual revolution” of the 60s, and the advent of AIDS and the “conservative backlash” of sexual mores.

    This is why I think that the evolution of morality is at least as much a “bottom up” driven process, and only a “top down” system imposed from above by a “ruling elite”. The sexual revolution was not a result of a 50s socially conservative American (and British) government deciding it was OK for people to experiment sexually – quite the opposite, it was behavior opposed by the conservative “power elite”. Reaching back further, look at the American experiment with “imposed morality” with regards to the availability of alcohol and the massive failure that Prohibition was.

    I think that attempted imposition of morality is not a total dead-end though. There are examples the do work: the effects that the Catholic Church had on Medieval cultures come to mind. I think that the “powers that be” are mostly concerned with enforcing existing social morality, and adapting old moral structures to changing situations, while moral evolution and radical experimentation tend to come from the “bottom”.

  5. SilverTiger says:

    The interesting thing about Catholic morality is that the Church can always be seen to be combatting what it considers immoral behaviour among the faithful or accommodating their habits and “Christianizing” them when it couldn’t stop them. In other words, when one moral code succeeds another, elements of the old one often endure.

    Perhaps we should say, then, that a community’s moral code receives “input” from many sources, some obvious (church, government, pressure groups, etc.), some less so and that a certain amount of “evolution” inevitably takes place as conditions change and present new problems or new opportunities.

    Email SilverTiger

  6. I like that view a lot better, where the “average group morality” tends to be a “balance points” between various influences, with those influences being the current morality, and the changes from “the bottom” are the “average influence” of many people adapting their personal moral codes to deal with situations that fall outside the current moral code (or the current moral code’s guidelines are insufficient or antiquated with regards to that issue) due to new changes in the “society’s” situation.

    With the situation of a society constantly changing, the ethics (situational adaptation of moral principles) are in a state of constant flux, even if one can abstract constant moral principles from the changing ethical adaptations (which I believe you can, but that is a working assumption; I have no conclusive evidence).

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