Monday, June 7, 2010

In Search of Morals

What does it mean to for something to be moral? Why do we feel the need to classify the things that we do into what is acceptable and what is not? Is there some fundamental set of values that is ingrained into the deepest, most primitive parts of our psyche, influencing our actions every day? Many have attempted to answer these questions, and just as many have claimed to have figured them all out. In reading what some of the great thinkers have claimed to be the fundamental aspect of what morality is, I still find things to be incoherent, incomplete, or missing the point. It is this lacking feeling that has driven me to come to an understanding of morality all my own, which I will do the best I can to convey to you so that you may gain new perspective on issues relating to what is right and wrong.

First, in what I have read of other philosopher's work on morality, what seems to happen is they attempt to define what it is a person is supposed to do with their life. Plato generally tells us to pursue happiness through living a virtuous life[Mackenzie]. Kant defines the a priori categorical imperatives that he claims when not followed, will cause society to collapse[Kant]. And Simone de Beauvoir preaches that we should live our lives exploring our freedom in good faith [Arp]. Though these thinkers do not explicitly claim to be defining the purpose of life, in defining their moral principals they are stating what they believe all human beings should do. If I were to define what it is human beings should be doing, I would say it is the only thing that we cannot not do - experiencing the world. No matter what it is you are particularly doing, it is still a part of your experience here during your life.

This is very similar to what de Beauvoir talks about in the Ethics of Ambiguity in that life has no inherent meaning. But where she says that life is meaningless but we are to make the most of it by living in good faith, I say the meaning of life is the experience and no matter what we do we get the most out of it that we possibly can. Having accepted this, a consequence of claiming it to be true is that there is no inherent right and wrong with anything that we do. So what then of morality? If there is nothing right or wrong about anything, why do we still feel that way on a vast variety of issues?

The next logical step would be to try and understand where morality comes from. A simple thought experiment will help us in coming to this understanding. Consider a world where you are the only living being. You could do anything you would like with absolutely no consequence, save death. But even if your objective was to die, you could purposefully do that with no effect on anything else in this world. Now, if you were to populate this barren world with other living things, suddenly your actions have the potential to effect them. It is this interaction between sentient beings that the concept of morality arises. When one being does something to another, and the second being dislikes what has been done, the deed may be viewed deplorably. This is where we begin to see where 'right' and 'wrong' in a moral sense comes from.

So what then of morals? Are there fundamental values that we should never sway from? Do they exist outside of the realm we exist in? No, absolutely not. What may seem to us as fundamental things that should never be done (murder, suicide, rape, etc.) have only emerged over time through the establishment of our human society. Being that we have lived amongst each other for so long and that we intend to keep doing so, the amicable and deplorable have come to seem as if they were independent of our existence and from an individual standpoint, they are. But this is only due to the fact that society exists independently of our personal existence. What is right and wrong, good and bad, etc., has been determined through the collective experience of humanity over the course of our physical and mental evolution.

Now that we have realized where we derive these concepts from, how may we use this understanding to conduct ourselves in such a way that we live in peace with one another? Or why even try to live in peace? To answer the second question, if you choose to live at odds with everyone else then you must also be ready to accept that others will likely attack you in response to what you may have done, or even through simply knowing the way you conduct yourself they may attack you preemptively. Essentially, the old proverb 'those who live by the sword will also die by the sword' holds true. So if you decide that you do not want to die by another's hand, it would be in your best interest to live in peace with others. To do this, you must consider how your actions effect the people around you and particularly, whether your action will be seen as having a negative consequence to someone else. A major part in whether or not an action will be seen as negative is whether the person being effected had prior knowledge of it happening or a full understanding of the risks involved with what is being done. For instance, if I were to give a person something that they saw as having the ability to better their life, but then suddenly changed the circumstances so that whatever I gave them could possibly cause harm, regardless of if it actually caused any harm or not, this person would likely be upset at what I did. But on the other hand, if before I gave them the item, I told them about how the circumstances would change and they understood the risks, they would (should) not be upset if they accepted the item and it ended up causing them harm.

What can be taken from this, is you shouldn't effect someone's life without their prior consent. In many instances though, a judgment must be made simply because what you may do will effect so many people, it is not feasible to ask them all. In cases such as this, one must consider whether societal consent has already been established. An example of such a situation is whenever a person drives a car. Cars pollute, they are loud, they may look ugly, but even though they have so many negative effects on a large number of people, society has accepted their everyday use because we industrious humans like to get stuff done (and also because we may not have fully understood all the effects cars have at the time of their invention).

Another important mechanism resulting from this theory of morals, is who has the right to judge another's actions? Most of the time, this is obvious, as there is an action and subsequently an effect on someone or something else. The party effected by the action is the rightful judge of whether the action was acceptable. But there is the potential for complicated situations, where individuals may not have the capacity to understand what is going on (children, mentally ill) so their guardians or whomever is caring for them at the time should have a say. Finally, a third aspect to the notion of judgment rights would be deciding if a person who passes a judgment upon another had no right to do so. An example of this would be those individuals who claim homosexuals are immoral because of their relationship preference. These people are not affected by what the homosexuals do with their lives, so they have no right to judge.

To fully understand what this theory implies, it should be realized that 'morality' is not something fundamental that guides our lives in a very strict sense of what we should be doing. It is more of a guide for living peacefully amongst one another. No one is wrong if they do not pursue a completely virtuous life, or if they act in ways that may be inconsistent with how they've acted in the past, or if they choose to live under the rule of another individual. What is 'wrong' is consistently doing things that affect others in a negative way, and only because you hurt the potential relationships you can build with those people.


Mackenzie , Mary Margaret. "Plato's moral theory", Journal of Medical Ethics, 1985 Vol. 11, pg. 88-91

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphyisics of Morals. Republication. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Arp, Kristina. "Moral Obligation in Simone de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity". Accessed 6/5/2010

1 comment:

  1. We are at the same conclusion... Not surprisingly but you articulate these ideas much better.


    -Lord Wolfinstein-