A New Definition of Morality
By Steve Gillman
A new definition of morality can be found a little later in
this essay. First let's look at common definitions gleaned from
1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right
or good conduct.
2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.
3. Virtuous conduct.
The word morality comes from the Latin "moralitas,"
which has to do with character or proper behavior. It refers
to the concept of proper human action in terms of "right
and wrong," also referred to as "good and evil."
Many more specific definitions of morality can be found, and
the concept easily overlaps with and is in certain contexts synonymous
with ethics, principles, virtue, and goodness.
For some, morality is simply a declaration of rules and beliefs
that are considered absolute guides for human behavior. This
view doesn't allow for individuals to disagree or for the possibility
that other groups are correct in their differing views. The basic
premise is, "This is the moral system handed down to us,
and any who disagree with it or act outside of its rules are
evil, mistaken, or ignorant."
Of course, morality has become a complicated issue in modern
times, primarily because of the greater mixing of cultures and
religions, each with its own ideas about good and evil. In fact,
another definition of morality is "a system of principles
and judgments based on cultural, religious, and philosophical
concepts and beliefs, by which humans determine whether given
actions are right or wrong." As such, it becomes relativistic,
with little meaning outside of the "group" which shares
a common set of moral principles. Thus, we end up with a "Christian
morality," a "Buddhist morality," and so on.
Apart from outside systems and rules such as the "ten
commandments" of the Bible or the five moral precepts of
the Pancha Shila, there is also a personal morality we each can
arrive at as individuals. There are two common ways this is approached.
The first is a relative morality, as in "what is moral for
you may not be moral for me." With this view, two people
can differ in their moral code and both be right.
The other kind of personal morality considers right and wrong
to be absolute and outside of us, but with each individual responsible
for discovering the "truth" to the best of his or her
abilities. With this view, when two people have differing moral
rules or beliefs, one has to be wrong. In other words, moral
truths are absolute, but some people are "closer to that
truth" than others, and we each have to think and act on
our own understanding.
Therefore, there are at least four common approaches to morality:
1. Absolute and given to us to obey. (An authority decides
what is right.)
2. Relativistic and by common cultural agreement. (The group
decides what is right.)
3. Relativistic and a personal choice. (I invent right and wrong.)
4. Absolute and for each individual to discover. (I try my best
to discover what is right.)
The Flaws in These Definitions of Morality
One flaw in these approaches is the invented dichotomy of
"absolute" and "relative" morality. Consider
a relativistic position like "It can be right to steal,
if it prevents your child from starving." It is opposed
to the absolutist position that "Stealing is always wrong,"
but it is not opposed at all to the idea that morality is determined
by absolutes. There can be some absolute moral value (maybe life?),
which makes lower values important only relative to how well
they serve this primary value in a given context.
The absolute facts of a given situation can be used along
with the relative values involved to determine what is right.
Stealing food when unnecessary may be wrong normally, and yet
the absolute fact "you have to eat to live," along
with the relative importance of eating right now, might make
stealing the moral thing to do in some contexts. Therefore a
morality can be relativistic in one sense, while still recognizing
that some truths are absolute.
Another problem is that the various definitions of morality
really describe different things. This is a common problem with
all language. We have to choose which concept a word is meant
to name before we can properly define it. "love," for
example, is actually several concepts that are all using the
same name, making it very confusing.
My own approach to this is to look for the reason a word is
necessary, and how it came to be. This leads us to the most important
concept. In considering morality, then, we ask, "Why do
we have this word?" and "Where did the concept come
from?" These questions get us to a clearer definition of
Continued here: What Is Morality?