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

Three thoughts on morality

  1. Dec 18, 2004 #1
    Submitted, for your consideration, three thoughts regarding the concept of morality:

    1) Morality is not defined by what is natural. Since many natural occurrences are morally wrong, morality must be a concept apart from nature. Further, since some natural processes are morally right, we are completely unable to define morality by any reference to nature. So, since morality may not be judged by nature, but nature must be judged by morality, morality is thus supernatural in the strictest sense of the word (i.e., superior to nature).

    2) Morality is not determined by rationality or awareness. These things can only tell us what is, but not what ought to be. As we know, any number of rational beings can observe the same facts, consider them intelligently, and come to different moral conclusions. This is not merely because morality is confusing or arbitrary. Rather, it is because our observations of what is are unable to tell us how things ought to be. (Dr. Lewis said something along these lines, to the effect that facts and rationale are in the indicative mood, but morality requires things to be in the imperative mood.)

    3) Morality is the product of personality. In order for a judgment of morality to be made, a personal being must make the judgment. This is obvious, in one sense, since impersonal objects cannot really be expected to have an opinion about the way things ought to be. But I also believe that this idea can be inverted to mean that moral agency is a necessary element of personhood - that which has no moral sensibility is not a person.

    So, morality is: Supernatural, superrational, and personal.

    Any thoughts on this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 19, 2004 #2
    Nice post.

    Regarding 1) I agree that morality itself is not defined completely by nature. This does not mean that we can judge many natural occurences in a moral way - a volcano eruption is neither morally right or wrong. But I don't think that morality is supernatural because humans are part of nature rather than above it and morality as I am capable of conceiving it necessarily comes from human understanding.

    2) I agree with the distinction between is and ought. But I think we conceive of the 'ought' based on observed causal relations and observed introspections, plus some moral premises. eg Fact: People generally get upset if you steal things from them. Premise: it is wrong to upset people without a good justification Conclusion: stealing is wrong without a good justification. Now I incline to base the 'moral premises' on observed causal relations between actions and their consequences on human emotions/welfare - but that is another point well open for debate obviously. These premises are the only room for any 'superrational' element, if at all.

    3) completely agree, I would also like to point out that personality is shaped by society to a huge extent so that it can make sense to talk about morality within a certain society (where people share similar beliefs). I would add the word 'modern' in the statement that morality is a necessary component of 'modern' personhood - ie after the development of self-awareness and the awareness of the distinction of self vs universe and the awareness of the existence of other minds.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2004
  4. Dec 20, 2004 #3


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Can you give some examples of #1, OneEye?
  5. Dec 20, 2004 #4
    If morality is supernatural, as you said you agree, Zimbo, how can morality be shaped by something physical, such as a society? Values are shaped by physical beings such as society, so I think that maybe you are referring to values rather than morality in this statement.

    Other than this, I agree completely with OneEye's premises 1) and 2). However, as per 3), I cannot say that I am in agreement. Morals are shared by all people, so isn't morality something objective? If yes, then your premise of morality being personal (subjective) is incorrect. Our values, on the other hand, are given to us by our upbringing, for example, our peers and parents, in early life. For example, is it moral to steal from others? The Western person would be quick to say no. What about the gypsy? The gypsy, in the upbringing of her children, teaches that stealing is good: stealing is something needed for survival. This is a value (really a vice) that goes against our morals that we should not steal. So we must be careful when saying that morals are subjective, because really, they govern all people equally, its just a matter of how they are nutured in the person.
  6. Dec 20, 2004 #5
    Please read my post again - I said I didn't agree with morality being supernatural in my reply to 1) of the original post. What I agree with is the essentially personal nature of morality - in how only beings with awareness of self and others as conscious agents capable of 'choice' or the illusion thereof, can be said to be moral.

    The sense of morality may be shared by all people, but the particular details certainly aren't. The impulse to do 'what is right' is probably universal, but the actual definitions of 'right' differs in the same way aesthetic values differ (shaped by society). Even so I don't think morality is merely subjective. I think there is an objective component to morality - this needs to be deduced and worked out from a viewpoint that is capable of explaining why different societies have different values, given the different environmental factors - something for biologists and ethicists to figure out together.

    About Justinius' example of the morality on stealing - perhaps the way to think about this is not whether 'stealing is wrong' but to consider whether 'stealing is wrong given particular circumstances'. Some people would use this as evidence that ethics is somehow 'relativistic' and subjective - that there is no absolute morality. Again what we need is an objective framework (one that is independent of cultural/historical variations - I have in mind one based on our understanding of evolutionary biology) to explain why stealing etc may or may not be wrong in certain situations.

    I am not sure I understand the difference between morality and values as used in the above post. I can only interpret 'values' as discreet statements/sentiments such as 'stealing is wrong' which came about from a combination of some more fundamental morality and culturally-specific circumstances. So value differs because environment differs, but there may yet be a common core of morality across all people.
  7. Dec 20, 2004 #6
    I agree that it's not the case that nature=moral. In other words, whether some act is moral is independent of whether it's considered "natural" (note: "natural" is not usually well-defined and usually involves subjectivity). However, I wouldn't say that nature has nothing to do with it.

    I don't know where you established that morality may not be judged (whatever that means) by nature. I don't know why you would say that something must be judged, and I don't know why you call it supernatural.

    Here, things get tricky. Are you talking about what an individual believes to be correct morality or some universal morality? Either way, rationality is involved. However, if you are talking about the former, prejudices and emotions are also involved. Nothing spectacular to note there. In the case of the latter, I do believe morality is dictated by the facts and can be best discerned through the exercise of rational faculties.

    It is true that there must be someone to make the judgment for a judgment to be made, but that does not mean that there cannot be moral value to an occurence without someone making the judgment. Example: even if no one ever made a judgment of it, it would still be wrong for me to run around, randomly hitting people.

    My idea of personhood is based on the idea of ability to experience, not "moal sensibility."
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook