The Meaning of Morality
By Steve Gillman
This is a continuation from the page, What
The meaning of morality then, is the achievement of what is
best for the life of each of us as individuals. But this needs
to be clarified. As a system of guidance for life, the concept
of morality could be, and has been, expanded to include the obtaining
of whatever we happen to value most. This, however, destroys
the concept, and results in what I would call "moralities
Certainly religious suicide bombers who kill themselves and
innocent people have gone far astray from this original premise
of life as the basis of morality. They value some beliefs higher
than their own or other's lives. Does using the idea of good
and evil even make any sense when we get too far from the goal
of preserving and protecting life? No. It makes more sense to
leave "life" at the center of our moral systems.
However, what we can so is work on expanding our conception
of "life," and what "my life" means. What
is life? Whose lives (beside our own) should our moralities protect,
and in what ways? Should one's life be protected at any cost,
or should a certain kind or quality of life be the ultimate goal
and value? Exploring these questions might lead to a more useful
What about love for others? What about generosity, productiveness,
joy and peace of mind? How do these fit into morality? How do
we balance these lesser - but very important values - when they
come into conflict in our moral choices? What about when different
individuals have conflicts in their various choices and moral
beliefs. How do we resolve these?
Morality Equals Selfishness?
To understand all of these issues about morality, we have
to start again with why it exists. Given the premise in the above
explanation, that morality is a matter of the preservation and
protection of one's life, we can see that it is ultimately an
expression of selfishness. While it expands to a concern for
others (more on that in a moment), it starts at the very basic
level of "what is good for me?"
Some will object, claiming for example that they don't benefit
personally when giving food to a starving person, and yet they
feel this must be a "good" thing to do. Well, it probably
is a good thing. But perhaps because the giving person has a
limited understanding of what is good for himself, he feels the
need to justify his generosity by reference to some altuistic
moral code - or to foist that code on others under the unspoken
assumption that they would not otherwise want to help.
But doesn't it actually seem more than a little cynical to
claim that we get nothing from helping others? An enlightened
selfishness allows for the value of others to us, and certainly
makes it possible to enjoy helping them. Therefore we benefit
at least in the sense of feeling better. It is actually rare
to find people who don't enjoy helping others in many contexts.
Enjoyment is certainly a selfish motivation, and so naturally
people like the idea that we "should" help others,
because they have been trained to think that motives which are
self-interested are somehow bad.
Others simply feel that morality has nothing to do with ones
own interest, as though oneself has no value. This seems like
poor self esteeem, and it just doesn't make any sense. Even in
a moral system that calls for the greatest good for the greatest
number of people, you are one of those people, right? If it is
bad to hurt a person, why wouldn't it be bad to hurt yourself,
and if it is good to help a person, how could helping yourself
automatically be a sin?
The explanation and story in the first part of this essay
show how morality could have developed in our past. This part
clarifies the meaning of morality from that perspective. Next
we will look look at how basic selfishness (or self interest)
in a baby develops into more enlightened moral ideas.
Continued here: Moral Development
Authors Note: These pages are speculation, an attempt
to look at things in new ways. My experience (and certainly that
of others) tells me there is a "natural morality" we
experienced as our "conscience." In other words, we're
born with a sort of "moral compass," and with compassion.
It extends even to other life forms (we feel it is wrong to abuse
an animal, for example).
With the few exceptions, this is universal in humans. But
it's not necessary to hypothesize an "intelligent designer"
to recognize this. It is also easy to see that it is in our own
self interest to "do the right thing." Being cruel,
unjust or otherwise immoral does not give people anything of
real value. Experience shows us this, as do the latest scientific
studies of happiness levels in those who practice the conscious
development of compassion.
On this page I'm suggesting that morality is natural
and of real value to the individual, and so does not require
the dangerous concept of alruism.