Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

The Set of Morals

  1. Jul 20, 2006 #1
    An often asked question during ethics classes is "Is there a universal set of morals?" - aparently the teacher thinks that neither yes or no is right but I cannot bring myself to comprehend how the answer could be yes.

    "The set of morals" to me is just majority ruling on things that the majority like or don't like. Hundreds of years ago girls got married to 20yr olds at 14 (actually I think some countries still do that today) but in today's society love between a 14 year old and someone in their 20s would be considered pedophilia. Murder is sometimes considered right by today's standards, say the killing of a terrorist threatening to blow some place up. But then whose to say that the shootee or his/her family thought it was moral? Terrorism is moral for muslim extremists.

    I'd like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 20, 2006 #2
    Moral Judgment Assumes A Moral Perspective

    (GE : I suspect your teacher is either religious, or does not wish to upset those with religious convictions by claiming that there is no absolute set of moral rules).

    Most human individuals are members of a social system. Personal Moral Rules or moral values (hereafter PMRs) may vary in detail from one individual to another; it follows that any society is likely to be a collection of individuals each with slightly different PMRs. How then are we to judge whether the act of a particular individual, let’s call her Sally, is morally right or wrong? Clearly, whether an act X is morally right or wrong depends on the set of Moral Rules that one judges X against – one could choose Sally’s PMRs to judge X against - but how are we to know exactly what those PMRs are? Or one could judge X against one’s own PMRs, or one could attempt to judge X against a “socially accepted normalised set” of Group Moral Rules (GMRs). The set of GMRs for any particular society would usually be arrived at by mutual agreement and concensus between the members of that society, and these GMRs will also form the basis for many of the secular laws of that society.

    A morally-cohesive society would be one in which there is minimal discrepancy between the GMRs and the various PMRs of each individual member of that society, whereas a society which exhibits great discrepancies between individual PMRs, and between PMRs and GMRs, would be one in danger of moral incohesion and internal conflict. Natural social-evolutionary processes will favour the development of cohesive societies in which the differences between GMRs and the PMRs of most members of that society are maintained within acceptable boundaries.

    Best Regards
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2006
  4. Jul 20, 2006 #3


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    It depends on how widely you generalize. Instances such as the age at which one marries are extremely specific applied ethical rules. There probably does exist some universal set of moral or pre-moral sentiments that is hardwired into non-sociopathic humans. For example, the simple belief that one should treat justly the members of one's in-group, or that some adult guardian(s) in a given community have a certain obligation to the children of that community - usually their own, but not always. The cross-cultural variance of specific ethics here depends largely upon who is to be considered a member of the in-group, the community, or what justice and obligation entail in their full explication. Nonetheless, the sentiment itself is basically the same everywhere.
  5. Jul 21, 2006 #4
    I would agree with this - there are obvious evolutionary explanations for why "the sentiment itself is basically the same everywhere" - societies would not be cohesive unless there was a certain commonality in fundamental moral sentiments, hence there would be a natural tendency for successful societies to have these commonalities in fundamental moral sentiments (the ones which promote social cohesion). But the entire moral edifice which is constructed upon these sentiments can vary in detail from society to society and from individual to individual, thus many of the emergent moral rules differ between societeis and individuals.

    Thus the moral sentiment "thou shalt not kill" is fairly common in most social groups, but the application of this sentiment to the real world varies enormously - in some societies capital punishment is accepted, in others it is not; in some societies abortion is accepted, in others it is not. And so on.

    Best Regards
  6. Jul 28, 2006 #5
    But does not the very meaning of morals, of anything for that matter, exist at the level of your objective consciousness as an individual?

    Aren't all the referents to "society as having moral standards, or accepting any property of sapience", a gross reification fallacy, a shirking of your native rights and responsibility?
  7. Jul 28, 2006 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    That is certainly the Beauvoirian view, but it isn't universally accepted.
  8. Jul 29, 2006 #7
    "meaning" is in the eye of the beholder; something X has meaning if and only if an agent interprets the X as having meaning

    By "responsibility" do you mean ultimate responsibility?

    Best Regards
  9. Jul 29, 2006 #8


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I have no philosophy or sociology training, but I have a couple pennies:

    First of all, I think all people act in self preservation or self interest. After reaching a certain age, you begin to understand that since everyone else is acting in self preservation (and self interest) that you have to appease to be appeased. I think this is where group morals come from, a sort of 'moral capitalism', where you say "i won't stab you in the back if you don't stab me in the back."

    Also, being a human yourself, you know that getting injured/killed, raped, or stolen from is not a fun experience, and that you may act out against your perpetrator. This means there are consequence for 'immoral' actions, and I myself believe, when it comes down to it, this is the reason we have 'morals'; to protect ourselves from the consequences of actions that would harm or piss-off others to the point that their loved ones (or they) will seek vengeance. Nowdays we have the law too.

    There are plenty of people who get around this. Some thieves will justify to themselves that they only steal from the rich or the deserving, and if they're skilled, they can execute a thievery without getting caught, and evade the consequences.

    I'm assuming a sociopath doesn't even need to justify murder to himself, and a non-sociopath who murders someone will probably feel regret. But would they feel regret if they got off scott-free? Is the feeling of regret a subconscious fear of the consequences?
  10. Aug 1, 2006 #9
    Libra's believe is somewhat close to mine.

    On the subject on self preservation I think that is somewhat true. But somewhat contradictory to physical survival is emotional survival. Some people are emo as all hell and kill themselfs for emotional survival. Some people are seemingly altruistic (though I believe there is no true altruist) and that is more emotional survival then anything.

    But the simple existance of sociopaths etc. falsifies a universal moral code at individual or specific levels at least.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook