Morality: Let’s Compare, Shall We?

What is morality?

mo·ral·i·ty /məˈrælɪti, mɔ-/
Noun:
1. Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
2. Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

So we should conclude that a moral system effectively differentiates between right and wrong behavior in those circumstances where such distinctions are meaningful. Great. What makes a thing moral? If you’re a Christian, it’s generally adherence this list of ten rules:

  1. 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. 13 Thou shalt not kill.
  7. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. 15 Thou shalt not steal.
  9. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

I, on the other hand, adopt this* much more concise list:

  1. Harm is bad.
  2. Well-being is good.
  3. Intending to do harm is bad.
  4. Intending to cause well-being is good.
  5. In moral arithmetic, consequences matter more than intentions.
  6. All things being equal, harm done outweighs well-being caused.

Which principles better describe morality? Which list covers more territory, behavior-wise? Which standard forbids the abuse of children? Which construct includes commandments that do not actually pertain to “good and bad behavior?” Which model better values human life? Which option is more moral?

* This list may not be final. It is subject to revision upon further consideration. Like all things properly rational, it is not set in stone. If you have suggestions for revision, I am eager to engage them.
Advertisements

21 responses to “Morality: Let’s Compare, Shall We?

  1. Morality is a subjective judgement based on a set of rules: you are good if you keep the rule (paradise), bad if you break the rule (burn in hell). Regardless of if your created the rules, or another authority, once you start judging everything based upon those rules you get caught into morality.

  2. Well, I don’t agree that morality is inherently a subjective judgment. We can certainly be wrong in our moral claims. If I say that “murder is good,” I am clearly wrong because unnecessary killing clearly is not a beneficial action. There may be areas of moral grey, where we cannot agree on whether a given action is good, bad, or neutral, but I see no reason to accept the conclusion that morality is relative based on the observation that it can be hard to figure out.

  3. I agree with Collin. Falling into relativism produces some obnoxious results. But, Collin, are you claiming that there is an objective “good”? And, if so, how do we know when we’ve “hit the nail on the head” so to speak? How would you ground morality? I agree with you and I adopt a virtue centered approach that focuses on our social interactions, since, we are, inherently social creatures. But, I was curious to hear any thoughts you might have on this?

    Alex, I get many students arguing for the point of view that you seem to be advocating for. It’s a tenable view, for sure, but it does have some pretty undesirable consequences. For instance, if rules of the land make something moral then were slave owners morally right? How about Hitler? Or, just fill in any atrocity here _______. If morality is truly a subjective judgement in the way that you’ve described then it seems difficult to make sense of blaming those who were involved in those atrocities. Blame is directly connected to MORAL responsibility, but, if one’s actions are looked at as moral in his society how can one argue with him if morality is truly subjective?

  4. In the philosophical sense, there can be no objective morality because the existence of morality depends on the existence of conscious beings. Since we are (social) creatures, I reason that it is appropriate to weigh the relative merits of any given action on their effects on other creatures, giving priority to reasoning and/or feeling entities (I admit this may reflect a bias on my part).

    I’ll recycle in part from a previous post (https://subjunctivemorality.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/more-on-objective-morality/): To construct our moral system, we require no god, nor any other supernatural claim. We begin with a single goal, which is a subjective value, and build a network of objective standards on top of that value statement. With this goal clearly identified, we can objectively establish whether any given action furthers or impedes that goal. I’ll amend that by noting that it’s possible, of course, to begin with multiple values rather than a single one. Anyway, it seems to be the case that any pro-social value used as a starting point for an objective framework (objective in the “applies to everyone equally” sense, not the strict philosophical sense) will result in the same conclusion–the association of harm with “bad” and well-being with “good.”

    I can’t make any claims to philosophical rigor since I have no formal training in the subject, but the issue of morality is one that shows no sign of being conclusively resolved any time soon, so it seems wise for me to get a good handle on it. Please don’t hesitate to point out any holes.

  5. Greetings,

    Forgive this comment, some of the aspirations listed in the more “concise list” nebulous in their definition.

    For example what constitutes harm, bad, etc?

    Thanks for reading

  6. While I agree that there may be some minor disagreement over what constitutes harm, I don’t believe it’s necessary to delineate every conceivable form of harm. My goal in this post was not to produce a comprehensive “if-then” guide for how to live morally, rather merely to demonstrate how absolutely horrible the “Ten Commandments” are as a moral foundation. What you see here are basic principles. Harm has a number of common usages; pick one–or pick them all!

    Since we are discussing morality, it should be rather obvious what good and bad mean in this context. “Bad” things should be avoided. “Good” things should be promoted. (Assuming, that is, one has an interest in acting morally.)

  7. Greetings,

    Would it not be more prudent to argue that “Ten Commandments” are a part of the moral foundation as opposed to THE moral foundation (Apologies for the capslock, there is no italic option). Afterall there are caveats frequently employed by scholars with respect to the “commandments” and as a result there is heavy legislation. That is to say these ideas are quite flexible in interpretation.

    The reason harm is mentioned is because the definition utilized by yourself seems to be…static. How does an action be categorized as “harmful”?

    No disrespect is meant and much thanks for your time.

  8. Christians often point to the decalogue as the foundation of moral values and contemporary society, and this is the sentiment I’m responding to. Of course a liberal Christian can make the “prudent” argument you suggest, but such an argument would be ultimately groundless because we do not get our morality from religion.

    As to harm, what do you mean by calling it “static?” Harm is a flexible word, encompassing all manner of damages–physical, mental, psychological, environmental, and so on. It’s more of a category, I suppose, but it can be applied to various situations to various degrees.

  9. Greetings,

    The point is reasonable though, but one can argue that it does codify morality into a legal code and allow for legislation of said morality does it not?

    And coming to “harm”, since harm is a category there would be different subsets and subsets within those subsets. With that in mind how does moral arithmetic factor such a mind boggling set of variables?

    Harm is an after effect of an action which is premised on an intention; by weighing the aftereffect against the intention one ignores the actions that cause the transition.

    Much thanks for the time given.

  10. Sure, religions do codify expected behaviors (not necessarily legally, however). So can just about anything else, though. One could base a comprehensive series of laws on Lord of the Rings.

    And coming to “harm”, since harm is a category there would be different subsets and subsets within those subsets. With that in mind how does moral arithmetic factor such a mind boggling set of variables?

    Contextually. Perhaps “moral calculus” would be a better metaphor for our ability to reach a high degree of precision, but in many cases, there’s going to be a point of “good enough”–if we’ve established that something is >95% bad, does it really matter whether that thing is 95.1% or 96% bad? Indeed, if it were possible to reduce moral calculations to numbers, would it be necessary to establish a high level of precision once we’ve passed the 50% bad marker? Perhaps in some extreme cases, but certainly not for day-to-day life. As long as we’ve established that less-bad alternative courses of action exist, I’m not sure we’d need to waste our time coming up with an exact answer.

    And yes, actions are predicated on intentions, which are founded in situational contexts, but if a good intention causes predominantly bad consequences, it would be rather impossible to look upon that action favorably (again, in the presence of less negative alternatives).

  11. Greetings,

    So if it is able to legislate (in the traditional sense of jurisprudence) then surely it is far more accommodating than just a simple set of inked sentences?

    The reason the idea of moral calculus is so disconcerting is that it is attempting to quantify the qualitative aspects of interaction. Calculus has a set amount of rules, derivation, integration, etc., all of this follows a certain pattern to it.

    Moral calculus does not seem to posses a certain structure from which to derive the ideal concept of harm. How Person A views moral calculus may have an entirely different rule set as opposed to Person Z.

    And if judgments are to be based on precedents surely the legislative texts of old serve as ample reference/starting points for interpretation of morality?

  12. So if it is able to legislate (in the traditional sense of jurisprudence) then surely it is far more accommodating than just a simple set of inked sentences?

    I don’t see any value in this statement. To paraphrase, words that describe behavior are easier to turn into laws than words that don’t. Um, sure. That doesn’t make them inherently more likely to be valuable as laws.

    Again, I’m not here to invent the One True Formula for moral evaluations. While I suppose I could attempt to devise such a formula, I don’t have any particular reason to do so. The demonstration of the idea is sufficient for me. At least for now.

    And if judgments are to be based on precedents surely the legislative texts of old serve as ample reference/starting points for interpretation of morality?

    Argument from antiquity? No, being old is simply not sufficient to conclude that it is a good starting point. This is tantamount to suggesting that Einstein’s endeavors were a waste of time because of Newton’s equations. The Bible, for example, actively advocates slavery, genocide, and disproportionately retributive models of “justice” that are antithetical to the very notion of social cohesion. The Code of Hammurabi (from which it appears the Bible plagiarized at times) is far more concise as a code of behavioral conduct, but adhering primarily to its tenets would produce a very humane society either. So again, no, a document does not become any more credible a foundation for moral theory merely by virtue of being old.

  13. Since I’m now in ‘something is wrong on the internet’ mode, l want to point out that being a christian is not adherence to the rules. Christianity teaches that we are all sinners and can never fully adhere to them. But even granting that, you got he rules wrong.

    The rules are:
    Firstly, love your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And secondly, love your neighbour as yourself. If you start following the rules of the torah, it betrays a confusion about which covenant you are under.

  14. By the way, I will respond to your other comment. Hopefully, by this evening. I’ve had a very busy few days

  15. Even using the most charitable translation, the ten commandments are a truly horrible moral foundation. You disagree with the Christians who assert that they form the foundation of morality? Good, I’m glad we agree on that much.

    Does it say, somewhere in the Bible, that the first commandment, above all others, is to love God? How do we know that “love your neighbor as yourself” comes second? And, more importantly, what does that mean? Love is an emotion, not an action, so I don’t see how that could possibly lay the foundation for morality.

  16. It’s not its charitability I worry about. I can hardly make sense of what I’m reading when I use it. You read something in it and you think you know what it means, but the word actually meant something different 400 years ago. If you like its style, you can always use the NKJV. I can hardly think of another reason to use it – unless you’re not interested in understanding it.

    “Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22: 34 – 40 (Also Luke 10: 25 – 37 and Mark 12: 28 – 34

    I can’t say it is evident to me that the ten commandments are foundational in any sense than that they were the first rules given when God made his covenant with Israel. If anything appears foundational in the old testament, it is the shema:

    Deuteronomy 6: 4 – 9
    “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

    “And, more importantly, what does that mean? Love is an emotion, not an action, so I don’t see how that could possibly lay the foundation for morality.’

    I can’t say I’ve figured it out, but I don’t think love is merely or basically the feeling. My mom doesn’t go about her day in a constant high (which love makes you feel) but she always loves me, I’m sure. In the Bible as a whole, love seems to be defined by how you treat a person, not necessarily how you feel about them. I can be patient and kind, trusting, protectful and respectful to someone who disgusts me (a la 1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 8). That is love the way it is defined in the law and the prophets and new testament. That is the only way you can love your enemies, I think.

  17. After further thought, I’m not so sure about the last four sentences. Perhaps it is a disposition towards someone, not just a feeling but a tendency to treat and regard them in a certain way. I think my mom usually has the tendency to treat me well, even when the only emotions she currently feels towards me are anger, exasperation and disgust.

  18. I fixed your tags. I figured you wouldn’t mind.

    I have no attachment to any particular edition of the Bible, so you’re free to substitute whichever translation you prefer. Thank you for the citations.

    I can’t say it is evident to me that the ten commandments are foundational in any sense than that they were the first rules given when God made his covenant with Israel. If anything appears foundational in the old testament, it is the shema:

    This is an argument better had with a Christian fundamentalist, really. I don’t see any purpose in arguing about the proper interpretation of a text I see as purely a work of fiction. As with all such stories, we impart our own symbolic interpretations, so it’s hard to say that one is more correct than another. For whatever it’s worth, I prefer yours. (I don’t think it’s right, but it’s certainly a better biblical foundation.)

    In the Bible as a whole, love seems to be defined by how you treat a person, not necessarily how you feel about them. I can be patient and kind, trusting, protectful and respectful to someone who disgusts me

    This definition of love seems entirely meaningless. I can treat anyone this way without loving them. If this is the definition you prefer, it seems to better fit the word “respect” than “love.” Of course, the concept of love is significantly different now than it was 2,000 years ago, so it’s entirely possible that the word in question was not meant to map to contemporary understandings of “love.” (Again, though, the best response would seem to be to change with the times rather than to maintain such an outdated usage. In any case, I would suggest this whole thing calls that “God is not the author of confusion” thing into obvious doubt.)

Your feedback is welcome and encouraged.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s