What is Morality?

November 8, 2016

PREFACE

The goal of this blog is not to change your opinion on “what is moral”. The win for me is not in changing what you think – but rather how you think and how you view morality itself.

The challenge that I have set myself is to simply encourage you to expand on the logic and principles you already accept and apply it to everything.

To give you a literal example, Newton’s challenge wasn’t to convince people that apples were falling down – people already accepted this. Newton’s challenge was convincing people that the same force that made the apple fall down was the same that moves everything else.

*Note: In the interest of keeping this a blog and not a thesis, I’ve had to pack a lot of info into a relatively small space. You may need to re-read this to capture all the points.

BLOG

I asked my wife the other night, “If the human race throws away religion, it must also throw away the moral guide books religion provided. What would we use for moral guidance without religion? Would there just be a moral void, or would we be able to rebuild our own morality?”

She answered, “Everyone already knows what is right and wrong, so we wouldn’t need to rebuild our own “moral guide book”. People just know that stealing is wrong, and that murder is wrong – its inside us. Plus, how could we even look at making a moral guide that applies to everyone? We’re all different and getting everyone to agree on morality would be impossible”.

Do you agree with this? It almost seems like a contradiction doesn’t it? If I paraphrase her answer; “Everyone already knows what is right and wrong but getting everyone to agree on it would be impossible”.

If everyone’s knowledge of right and wrong is not objectively true or consistent, then how can we move forward on morality as a human race?

I’ll admit, I did like the first part – it’s nice to think that everyone knows right from wrong, but while I like the sound of it, it’s a difficult claim to prove when things can get so gray and abstract.

To give an example of an abstract scenario, consider this; If you had the chance to go back in time and kill Hitler when he was a baby, would you? Would it be right? Or wrong? Could we get everyone to agree?

DEFINITIONS

Our beloved dictionary defines morality as “principles” that are used to make a distinction between right and wrong, or good and bad behavior.

What are principles? In the interest of using clear language, lets refer to the dictionary definition;

– An accepted rule of action or conduct, or
– A fundamental truth from which others are derived

Hmmm… what does “accepted conduct” mean?
As there is nothing to specify who is doing the accepting, I would class it as behavior that’s preferred to its alternative (eg. non-violence is preferable to violence) by all people, in all places, at all times.

So, we can conclude that;

Morality is the use of truth and preferred behavior to determine what is good and right, or bad and wrong.

UNIVERSALLY PREFERRED BEHAVIOR

As my wife pointed out, we all know what preferred behavior looks like right? Can you introduce me to someone that believes murder is always the highest form of goodness? Or someone that believes rape is always the best course of action for everyone? No of course not.

A rapist might believe rape was the best course of action in the moment of the crime, but we aren’t referring to moments or actions that benefit only one person. Would that same rapist want to be raped in jail? Would that rapist want their loved ones to be raped? No, because even to a rapist, rape is not a preferred behavior by everyone.

So, while we can think of many crimes that don’t fall within this “Universally Preferred Bahavior” category, what behaviors do?

Some examples could be;

⦁ Clear language
⦁ Use of evidence and logic to support an argument
⦁ Preference of truth over falsehood

These behaviors are also often referred to as virtue.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST UNIVERSALLY PREFERRED BEHAVIOR

Interestingly, there are none. You actually can’t argue that universally preferred behaviors don’t exist.

To make the argument, you must use objective standards like clear language, evidence and logic with the goal of getting to the truth. If you don’t, your argument would be based on gibberish and anti-logic (?) with the goal of not reaching the truth.

Since you cannot argue against the concept of universally preferred behaviors without actually using universally preferred behaviors, it must stand as a valid concept.

Freedomain.blogspot.com had some good examples of how an argument might sound. I’ve paraphrased one here;

Person A: People should not steal.
Person B: Says who? There is no such thing as universal morality and objective standards. Morality and standards are subjective – it’s relative to everyone.
Person A: So I can decide that theft is good because morality is relative to me?
Person B: Well, yes you could.
Person A: Is it your opinion that morality is relative? Or is it objectively true?
Person B: It is objectively true that morality is relative.
Person A: What have you used to separate mere opinion from objective truth?
Person B: Reason.
Person A: So reason, then, is the objective standard by which you have determined that objective standards do not exist?
Person B: *facepalm*

MOVING FORWARD

I go back to my question; If everyone’s knowledge of right and wrong is not objectively true, then how can we move forward on this as a human race?

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can. We’ll just keep spinning in cyclones of religious and political turmoil and war.

So what’s the answer? Here’s what I propose;

As a human race, lets build a platform of universal principles as the foundation for our moral theories.

We know morality uses truth (which is universal, objective and fact-based) to determine what is right and wrong.
We know morality uses accepted conduct (which is preferred universally), to determine what is good and bad.

If morality is using universal principles for its purpose, doesn’t this infer that morality itself is universal? I believe so.

Does this mean resulting moral theories can be universal? Yes, and this is where things get interesting.

Morality can transcend culture, religion, politics and era if we look at what is true and what is accepted conduct for all people, all places and at all times.

My original question to my wife was misguided because religion never provided universal and objective morality in this way. It only provides moral theories to the cultures in which its predominant. Many religious moral theories lack any foundation at all!

Example: “Homosexuality is bad”. Is this truth? What evidence is presented to us? What universal principle does homosexuality breach?

So then, if morality can be so universal and objective, why do we all struggle with it?”

Well, as I mentioned before, morality can become gray and abstract if we don’t look at it objectively. Often, we also don’t expand what we know to be right to everything else.

Let’s revisit the Hitler question.

If you had the chance to go back in time and kill Hitler when he was a baby, would you? Would it be right? Or wrong? The bigger question is; could we get everyone to agree?

Is killing an innocent baby a Universally Preferred Behavior? No.
Therefore, going back to kill Hitler as a baby is morally wrong.

To begin building this moral foundation, I will provide 3 universally moral principles. I’d be interested for feedback on any of these.

THE NON-COERCION PRINCIPLE

“Mutual consent is good”. Is that a true statement universally?

“Voluntaryism” is a doctrine that asserts all interactions among people should be by mutual consent or not at all. Theft, rape and murder are 3 examples of interactions among people that do not have mutual consent.

If there is no mutual consent, it becomes coercion, which is persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.

We can say that coercion is universally immoral by way that it is not a universally preferred behavior. By its own nature, it is not accepted or preferred by the victim or anyone else other than the perpetrator.

THE NON-AGGRESSION PRINCIPLE

“Aggression is bad”. Is that a true statement universally?

It was a tough one for me to swallow when I first heard it. I came up with countless scenario’s where aggression could be used for good, from defending your country in the military to aggression when playing the drums.

The actual definitions are;

⦁ The action of attacking without provocation
⦁ The action of a state in violating by force the rights of another state
⦁ An unprovoked offence
⦁ Any offensive action which encroaches upon one’s rights

Turns out my use of the word aggression was wrong all long. The keyword for me (personally) here was “unprovoked”.

The thing with self-defense is, it’s provoked. In a self-defense situation, you are not the initiator (and aggression was likely why the situation existed in the first place).

Again, murder and rape are examples of this kind of interaction. Another example could be punching a random person in the face for no reason.

Aggression is not a universally preferred behavior. Being unprovoked, it is never accepted or preferred by the victim or anyone else other than the perpetrator.

*Note: there is a lot of work that has been been done on this principle. Run a google search on this to investigate more.

THE NON-FRAUDULENCE PRINCIPLE

“Fraudulence is bad”. Is that a true statement universally?

Definition;

– wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.

I’m sure you can think of many examples of fraudulence, but I’ll provide one example; “your wife/husband has an affair with your best friend”.

The very definition of fraud contains the word ‘wrongful’ – I’m sure we can agree fraud is immoral and not a universally preferred behavior.

EXPANSION OF MORALS

My original goal was to get you to expand your morals to everything (i.e. to realize that the force that dropped the apple also moves planets). Maybe just reading up to now, you already think of morality differently.

Here’s some questions to simply spark some thought process;

People are so quick to accept that theft is immoral, but get confused when I say income tax is immoral.

Does it income tax violate the Non-Coercion Principle?
i.e, Is it voluntary? Did you consent to it before you first paid it? Is it attained through coercion? Can you decide what it’s spent on? Can you decide what it’s not spent on?

Does income tax violate the Non-Aggression Principle?
i.e, What happens if you don’t pay it?

Now, if you concede that tax is theft (obtained by coercion), and therefore immoral, what other implications does that have?

Does this mean that the welfare system is immoral?
Does this mean all government programs are immoral?
You can have the best idea in the world, but if you need to steal from people to achieve it, its immoral.

What about war?
Could war be funded without tax?
A man arrives in Iraq and murders another man = bad, shameful, should be jailed?
A man arrives in Iraq and murders another man on instruction by a politician = National hero? Proud? Awarded a medal?
Is the money being stolen from you, being used to fund murder?

It’s a rabbit hole.

CONCLUSION

If we want to change the world, we must present it more than just opinion.

Subjective morality results in people thinking that the force making apples fall is separate or opposing to the force that moves planets. Can we really change people’s thinking if we continue with subjective morality?

If you’ve read to the end, well done.
Be good to yourself,
Mathew.

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