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Culture, God, Life

The Nature of Morality


I was having a discussion with a person here on my blog about the nature of morality.  The comments came as a response to my post about moral outrage and where I think it comes from for most people.

I’ll be referring to the person as a male as I don’t know their gender.

I made the statement in my post that morality doesn’t really exist outside of a religious framework.  Not that non-religious people are immoral, only that the morals they have only really make sense in a religious context.  His first objection to that statement is that morals exist with a “simple understanding of harm and benefit.”  My first thought to this is that he really doesn’t understand that there is no such thing as a “simple understanding of harm and benefit.”  There can’t be.  First of all, the words themselves aren’t necessarily simple.  And you need to define the words in order to understand them.  The formal definition of harm is “physical or mental damage or injury: something that causes someone or something to be hurt, broken, made less valuable or successful.”  Pretty simple right?  Maybe not.  Cutting off a person’s leg would fit this definition of harm.  But what if the leg is gangrenous?  Then it would cause more harm to leave it.  But what if the person is a runner and the idea of not having his leg is so traumatic that the person would choose to die rather than lose that leg?  How do you evaluate mental harm?

Or how about this example?  You have a healthy man.  He has no friends or family.  You could harvest his organs and save the lives of 6 people, all with families (let’s say it would save 6 fathers of young children).  Clearly killing this man would cause him harm.  However not doing it would cause harm to befall the 6 other men and their families.  Does the benefit done to the 6 (truly more than 6 but I’ll leave it at 6) outweigh the harm done to the one?  Is it a moral choice?

To better answer that we need to define benefit.  It is defined as, “a good or helpful result or effect.”  Again it seems straight forward until you try to apply it to these scenarios.  Killing the one man has a good or helpful result, for the 6.  It doesn’t for the 1.  So how do you decide which path is moral?  It would depend on the perspective of the person you asked (if he was the 1 or the 6).

Well the fellow I was talking to had a solution to that as well.  He said, “Evidence and science. They work wonderfully without ‘perspective’.”  He fails to realize that science and evidence has to have a benchmark.  Even assuming you could somehow benchmark harm and benefit such that they had units to measure, how do you decide how much harm outweighs a unit of benefit (or vice versa)?  For example, say you can measure how much pain you are causing by any one action, how do you decide how much benefit you need to outweigh that?  Objectively speaking, some harm is beneficial.  Shots for rabies objectively cause harm.  They tear flesh, cause pain, etc.  However that harm produces benefit, it saves a life.  We all know that the benefit outweighs the harm in this situation but how do you quantify that?  You might say, “Preserving life is always the moral thing to do.”  Why?  We don’t always take that stand, certainly not across the animal kingdom.  Who among us doesn’t kill ants when they’re in our home?  Why is that life worth less than your own?  Or why is it worth less than your comfort?  We know killing an ant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.  Why is it different for people?  Is it because we’re smarter than ants?  So what’s the threshold on that?  What about children with mental handicaps?  Are they less worthy of life?  Even if that’s so, we go back to my question about the 1 man or 6 men.  Is it morally acceptable to kill one man to save 6 others even if the 6 are in jeopardy through no fault of the one (not talking about a killing someone threatening 6 others)?  Why not?  It preserves the most life.

He actually then circles back and makes my point for me.  In response to me stating that a lion eating a zebra is not immoral he said the following:

“To who? Who makes the decision of morality?

We do. And if zebras were smarter, so would they.”

So he believes morality is the domain of opinion.  We’re smart enough to decide what is right and wrong.  But then everything is potentially moral.  You just have to make a good enough argument to convince enough people to believe you.  And next week, it might be immoral again.  But that’s not morality, that’s opinion, philosophy, fashion.  It’s considered moral today to do a lot of things that were considered immoral in the past, and things that were moral in the past are considered immoral now.  Who was right?  If the killing of one particular group of people makes everyone else work together to a common goal (even a good goal) is that moral?  Of course not.  Morality is not opinion but for those who don’t have a religious foundation, but want to feel moral, they need to substitute something.  Opinion has never been a reliable substitute.

For a something to be moral (or immoral) it must conform to an absolute.  There is no right or wrong without it, and so morality does not truly exist without it.



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