What does it mean to be moral? The topic of morality can easily be dissected from multiple view points among compassionate people of similar societal backgrounds. Once the variables of divergent culture, religion, and personal circumstance get tossed into the equation the analysis of moral rights and wrongs will produce an infinite list of possible values. Every moral value will be true in the eye of the beholder, but may be completely incongruent to that of the next contestant.
So who is right? They all are. None of them are. The key is to realize that there is no universally right moral value system. Broken down to the most basic constructs, morality is simply the system by which living beings treat one another. Moral beings hold a sense of empathy and consideration toward others, thus forming more successful and steadfast societies with vigorous rates of reproduction and growth.
Any explanation more complex than this tends to be instilled with ideas of universal morality containing bold judgments on absolute moral rights and wrongs. These so called universal moral standards usually incorporate numerous baseless declarations often used by organized social circles as justification for whatever agenda they are endorsing at the time. Outside of a general compassion for fellow peers, moral values are based entirely on opinion.
Of course… this is just my opinion, and that’s a fact. 😉
the problem with your morality view is that it is still an absolute opinion. It is the assumption that morality is a system but that there is no ideal of this system or guide. Really, this is a fairly new way of thinking and in times past, or in simpler cultural situations right is RIGHT and wrong is still WRONG. It would be based on the moral compass instilled in all of us by God. Personally it is the God of the Bible. I would like to see you consider that instead of considering a man-made morality view.
As I stated at the end of my post, “this is just my opinion”. However, there have been scientific studies showing that certain moral values are learned and others are instinctual.
Example of learned morality:
Little Johnny does not talk back to his teachers. He follows this moral value and respects his teachers because he was taught that talking back is wrong. If a teacher or parent told him to forget about this moral value and gave him permission to talk back to his teachers he would inevitable begin to disrespectfully talk back. In other words, this moral value was taught and can be easily undone.
Example of instinctual morality:
Little Johnny does not physically hurt his classmates. He follows this moral value and cares for the well being of his classmates based on an instinctual feeling of empathy for his peers. If a teacher or parent told him to forget about this moral value and instructed him to punch one of his classmates in the nose, he would hesitate and immediately question the instruction. He does not want to hurt his classmates. In other words, the moral value of empathy is instinctually instilled in his mind and is not easily undone.
I’m sure one could argue against these points as well. Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Bryan. 😉
“The key is to realize that there is no universally right moral value system”
i disagree with that opinion.
i would like to say that for this world called planet earth there is a moral value or rule – internally its called the human conscience and outwardly (just in case peoples consciences are seared) its called the Bible esp parts where it teaches us about right and wrong.
I agree with your first point about human conscience. I sort of addressed that a little differently by stating:
“Broken down to the most basic constructs, morality is simply the system by which living beings treat one another. Moral beings hold a sense of empathy and consideration toward others…”
I also believe this point has ties to the human conscience.
As far as your second point is concerned, I completely disagree. How could the Bible be the univeral answer to morality if numerous human religions do not follow it?
I disagree with you. I think for example stealing just *is* wrong. It’s not that we’ve been raised that way, it’s not that it’s better for the society because it makes people in a productive way instead of trying to steal, it’s not that I don’t do that just because I don’t like it when it’s done to me. It just is wrong.
However, when stealing is simple, life loves to get complicated. People have to make difficult choices in very different circumstances. Doing something is not just “doing something”, it’s doing it in some circumstances, after having considered it, after having doubts,… Okay, that’s not very clear. I’ll try to give an example.
A muslim woman would never wear a mini-skirt. A european woman would. Is it immoral for the first one and okay for the other one?
I think for both of them, it’s wrong to dress inapproprietly. The question is “what is appropriate?”, which depends on the circumstances. Just like a bikini is okay at the beach and wrong at the office, the same skirt can be okay in Europe and inappropriate in the Middle-East.
The original question is not whether certain actions are right or wrong under a specific moral or societal value system. The question is: Are these moral values based on universal instinct (fact) or are they learned from our community and culture (opinion).
Your point about the Muslim vs. the European woman makes a very strong case against universal morality. Obviously there cannot be a universally moral dress code if different cultures accept different styles of dress.
The only moral value I do believe is universal is that of compassion or empathy toward our peers. Thanks for the comment. 😉
Jeremy Johnston says
I love Dr. Urbanczyk! In order to know what is morally acceptable you must follow his example, handed down to him by his main man Aristotle! That’s FACT!
On your reply to Anna, you suggested that universal instinct is fact and the ideas learned from our community and culture are opinions. However, the universal instinct cannot be proven which would then make it opinion and what we obtain from our culture and community can be proven as to where the source of our ideas come from.
I think you have it inversed.
“As far as your second point is concerned, I completely disagree. How could the Bible be the univeral answer to morality if numerous human religions do not follow it?”
The very essence of moral law is dependent on the free will of the individual. If man did not have free will to disobey moral law, there would be no reason for it to be articulated. Your suggestion that the infidelity of numerous religions is a sufficient disproof for the place of Sacred Scripture as the authority of morality does not follow logically. Perhaps you might be trying to say that men and women outside of Christianity have lived good and charitable lives, and you’d be correct. However, Scripture as the source for moral guidance does not mean that all of its truths are exclusive to it alone. There are many truths found in Divine Revelation that can be observed by reason in nature, although in sparse quantity, as the faculty of human reason is rather limited. For example, if I act outside of “empathy and consideration for others” it does not automatically discredit the universal call towards such a disposition.
Hello good sir,
I think you are a wonderful human being and I send blessings to you for giving us this amazing website to utilize as a perfect classroom tool!
I love you!
Will you have my children?
Please see my first comment on this post in which I stated examples of both instinctual and learned morality. I think it covers my stand and also provides a decent response to your comment: https://www.marcandangel.com/2008/02/23/what-is-morality-a-moral-fact-or-opinion/#comment-110676
I apologize if you misinterpreted my point as stating that the moral values of various religions are not truly moral. That is not my point at all. My point is that the moral values learned from these religions are not human instinct. Empathy for others is.
Whoah…. I’m a married man! 😉
I didn’t assume that you thought so, Marc. Actually, I assumed that your point was that other religions have moral value and were using that as an argument for why Christianity is a matter of opinion. I would like to point out though, that simply because moral values are not part of instinct does not mean they do not have an objective and universal source. In fact, if you’ve read Kant, he states that the moral act comes not from instinct or our desires, but from acting from duty, which finds its source in the categorical imperative, for which he supplies 3 rather convincing formulas. You can take a look at him if you’d like. He’s pretty interesting.
Arthur Priest says
I agree with Marc – most of society’s rules do seem aimed simply at helping the group to rub along together without so much mutual harm as to wipe out the benefits of collective living. That’s the very stuff of what we call morality, mostly aimed at tempering over-competitive behaviour. Much of it is going to vary depending on the society and the era.
It’s hard to find universal rules, but yes, I suspect we all begin our lives feeling empathy and wanting to make others happy, and that’s perhaps the cornerstone on which adult morality is built. I guess a psychologist could explain a lot about how some young people end up the other way round, i.e. taking delight in harming others, particularly the vulnerable. Presumably it has a lot to do with how others are seen – friend or foe. What’s noticeable is that natural empathy can be reversed so completely by environmental factors.
Dan P says
Fact/Opinion is the wrong dichotomy. You can have opinions about both facts and values so opinions can mean something like ‘facts that you think are true’. Values live in a different sphere from facts and so the title should be “What is Morality? Fact or Value?” And the answer is ‘value’. The next question is “are values universal?” and the answer to that is ‘no’.
> I suspect we all begin our lives feeling empathy and wanting to make others happy
Do you have any experience with children? My experience is that children often don’t want others to play with their toys even if they don’t want to play with them themselves. Kids can be mean from the first moment they meet other kids.
Arthur Priest says
>Do you have any experience with children?
>My experience is that children often don’t want others to play with their toys even if they don’t want to play with them themselves.
>Kids can be mean from the first moment they meet other kids.
Mainly I was drawing on the memory of my own childhood, though I also think I saw it in my son when he was young. Of course in the very early stages, a child doesn’t even understand the concepts of self and others, so if empathy is inborn, it must take a while to switch on.
I’m only guessing but I’d think the meanness of not sharing toys would have to be learned – unless they’re living in a full-blown hippie commune, the kids will be exposed to the idea that they have private property. And the meanness of the act isn’t so bad – they’ve protected their toy from possible damage or theft, the other kid is a little frustrated, but hardly mortified. Adults do this to each other all the time, though it’s less obvious because adults also get trained not to ask for much. I was thinking more of the sadistic thing a lot of kids get into later, hurting somebody just for kicks. We’re surely not born with that.
There are universal moral laws but there are also cultural moral laws. There can be both. For instance, killing (no matter the culture) is wrong. There are instances where cultural killing is done but that doesn’t make it any less moral. Take the instance of a genocide. The people who are killing a minority group of people are still wrong and will often claim that they believe killing is wrong except for that circumstance.
Cultural moral laws would be laws of a country or a state. This would be something like speed limits, income tax, and truancy. I understand that these are very different laws but they are moral laws held by a specific group of people not necessarily held by another group of people.
All people have a moral conscience no matter what culture they live in but, depending on the culture and religion, the moral conscience can be formed or not. Even people who live outside of a civilized culture have basic moral ideals.
I think its time to take “Religion” out of this picture. Morality is a choice of the individual as taught or not by society, family and peers. Each individual chooses his/her own morales at a cognizant age. If not introduced to morales prior to that cognizant age (as considered by their society) they will have none. Having been introduced to morales and still choosing to have none, it then becomes the burden of the individual not society. We all have a choice. Our choices are who we are and/or who we will become. When we are not cognizant of our morales or societies morales it then becomes the necessity of the adults to establish rules to prevent the child from hurting himself or others, moralistically or otherwise. Each of us then, in our society and all societies have a responsibility to each other to use “moralistic” behavior toward each other which will instill this characteristic in our children and other societies. If I am unwilling to forgive my sister or daughter, son or ? for what I consider an affront to me…if I am unwilling to forgive others for what I consider an affront to “MY ” idea of morality..am I superior to that person, I think not. So, to what level does morality go. How far off track does our society go before we cannot see that immorality begins with our individual caring for each other and spreads beyond to those we have not yet met or to those that we are so quick to judge. It is not our right to judge another immoral but it is our help that will bring them from the brink of immorality back to the arms of the caring.
Ken West says
I love and value your wonderful website, and terrific insights on living. But I disagree with your conclusion in this particular article on morality.
I believe that there ARE moral absolutes. A prime example: whether you live or die is an absolute. A successful life requires actions that are positive and productive toward your life and life in general.
Here’s a test that I suggest. Does action X support individual rights or not? If my decision to do X does not deny others their own individual rights, then it is moral. If it denies others their rights, it is immoral.
Morality is not against your right to seek happiness. Rather, it informs you that to seek you happiness you must not violate the individual rights of others to do the same.
Conflicts that arise in a country that respects individuals rights are settled in a legal system that’s based on the same moral concept.
Interesting perspective here. You might want to take a look at Art Leff’s famous article:
…fascinating piece and very thought provoking.
Yes exactly! Morals are opinions. They are subject to one’s personal taste…i.e. YOU are judging the behavior of another..hence subjective..i.e. opinion. What is morally RIGHT for you,..is morally WRONG for your neighbor. Morality is resolved through consensus of opinion.
However ‘morality’ is something which is decreed by a society, and as we humans do depend on the society that we live in, it behoves us to bow to the moral values of the society we live in. Our lives depend on it.