What Is the Purpose of Morality?

June 19, 2010

In asking what purpose morality serves, I am not asking the question that is familiar to anyone who has ever taken a philosophy course, namely, “Why should I be moral?”  That question raises an entirely different set of issues than the ones I want to discuss.  Among other things, the question “Why should I be moral?” is posed against the background of accepted moral institutions and practices.  Instead, I am asking: Why have moral institutions and practices? What is their point?

I am motivated to ask this question in part because of some dissatisfaction with humanist ethics as I often see it practiced.  There have been innumerable articles, manifestos, and pamphlets that set forth some set of humanist values and principles that we are supposed to embrace.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with the content of these lists of values and principles, but I am concerned that usually there is no explanation why a humanist or anyone else should adopt these values and principles.  In other words, there’s little attempt to provide a method for approaching ethical issues.  Sure, there is often a reference to using our reason, but although use of our reasoning powers is a good thing, by itself it doesn’t get you very far. If we are to be serious about developing a humanist morality, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon us to explain why we believe people should adhere to the values and principles that we advocate. 

I am not proposing that we aim to develop a decision procedure that will generate the one right answer to all our ethical issues.  Such a dreamy goal cannot be achieved, in part because there are a considerable number of ethical disputes to which there may not be one right answer.  But we can develop a process of analysis and reflection that will provide some moral guidance by limiting the range of ethically acceptable answers -- which by itself would be a significant achievement. 

One important element of our methodology should be a specification of the objectives of morality.  If we can reach consensus on what morality is for , then it becomes a bit easier to resolve ethical dilemmas.  One can critically examine a proposed course of action by considering whether it would further the objectives of morality.

But how do we determine the objectives of morality?  Well, a start would be to consider how morality has functioned in human societies.  Note, I am not making an unwarranted leap from “is” to “ought.”  I am merely recommending that a beginning point in determining what we should aim to do with our moral institutions is an understanding of what we have done with them in the past.

Naturally, no one was holding a philosophy seminar in the Neolithic Era, inviting members of the tribe to consider what moral rules the tribe should adopt. Human dispositions to behave in certain ways developed and evolved without any explicit consideration of the desirability or purpose of having certain dispositions.  But the fact that our moral norms were not consciously designed does not prevent us from considering their function. 

Simplifying greatly, it seems to me that morality helps to provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complementary goals.  In short, it enables us to live together and, while doing so, improve the conditions under which we live. 

Of course, moral institutions do not always achieve these objectives.  Also, moral institutions can be used and have been used to oppress certain groups -- usually by excluding them from the scope of the moral community.  (As Peter Singer and others have observed, the most momentous changes in moral practice have not come in the content of our moral norms – lying was condemned in ancient Mesopotamia just as it is condemned today – but in the scope of the groups to which our moral norms have been applied.)  Nonetheless, I believe my rough description of the objectives of morality as it has been practiced historically is more or less correct.

But even if these have been the objectives of morality, should these be the objectives of morality?  Should we try to develop dispositions that would enable us to use moral institutions and practices for other purposes? Well -- what other purposes could morality have?  To serve God? To maximize happiness?  To increase the production of cheese?    (Remember the injunction from The Life of Brian   -- Blessed are the cheesemakers.)  These are all theoretical possibilities, but there are serious problems with all these proposed objectives which will be both familiar and obvious to many of you. It doesn’t seem to me that we can improve much on the objectives of morality as I have described them, at least given the circumstances in which we live. (As Hume noted, if humans were invulnerable and entirely self-sufficient, our notions of justice would be radically different.)

Furthermore, it seems to me that the objectives of morality as I have described them provide goals that are achievable for groups of humans with a wide range of emotional and cognitive capacities.  This is not an unimportant consideration. Moral norms achieve their ends in part by their ability to be inculcated in almost all humans. We can grasp the importance of fostering trust and cooperation and we can drill into our children’s heads rules such as “don’t lie” that bear obvious connections to these objectives. An objective as ill-defined and vague as “happiness” does not readily lend itself to translation into specific moral norms.

I have done nothing more than scratch the surface on just one of several problems we have to tackle if we are to develop a method for addressing ethical issues. (This is a blog post after all, not a dissertation.) But my intent was not to provide in 1000 words a comprehensive model of ethical justification. My primary intent was to remind humanists that it is not sufficient to “affirm” certain principles and values. We need to be able to explain why we affirm these principles and values. And, as part of that explanation, we should be prepared to say something about our understanding of the purpose of morality.



#1 Ophelia Benson on Saturday June 19, 2010 at 5:54pm

“Well—what other purposes could morality have?  To serve God? To maximize happiness?  To increase the production of cheese?”

How about to increase equality, and justice, and solidarity? I think all three are linked, and are also not encompassed in your list, though they’re also not necessarily antithetical to it.

It’s quite possible to to provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complimentary goals, while still keeping big chunks of “the community” in a permanently subordinate status. Many people think stability and security, at least, require hierarchy.

#2 Russell Blackford on Saturday June 19, 2010 at 7:49pm

Ophelia, I doubt that “justice” (scare quotes, because I want to problematise the concept for a minute) could be an aim or purpose or point of morality. Justice means giving people what is due to them, but what you think is due to them will depend on your moral system. Your moral system may tell you that what’s due to some people is slavery or extermination.

It may be that any moral system has to have some concept of justice or it won’t be predictable and workable, i.e. it has rules that are generally applied, and so people get whatever the rules say, together with a meta-level aversion to overriding or subverting the rules. In that sense, morality and justice go together. But I don’t think morality aims at some pre-moral concept of justice. It’s more a question of: “What is the purpose of morality and hence of justice?”

Mackie has a lot of good stuff to say about Ron’s topic, by the way, and of course I’ve been blogging about it quite a bit.

#3 Pau (Guest) on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 4:31am

Morality, from the latin word moris, is related to customs. That is behavioural customs of a society. You can not define morals if you d acts according to theo not do it in reference to of a given society. And then the mores of that particular society, determine the morals for that group
And what is meant by “moral institutions”? For me, a moral institution should be similar to a moral, individual, that is, one that behaves in moral manners.
An institution that dedicates itself to institute morral principles, and to decide who is moral and who is not, is not necessarily a moral institution.
Take for instance the catholic church. Its accumulation of riches while preaching poverty, its use of charity in order to gain to gain members and therefore power, and now, its tolerance of pederasty, could hardly be called moral.
It seems that for many people there is a need to believe in an absolute and universal moral, probably a remnant of atavistic religious beliefs. Substituting religious methods, for rational or scientific systems does not solve the problem.

#4 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 9:12am

@Ophelia. In describing the objectives of morality, one should, for obvious reasons, try to use non-moral terms to the extent possible.  “Equality” may be one of those terms that, at least without further explication, is too laden with moral significance to be very useful in describing the objectives of morality.  Equality in what respect?
However, properly qualified, equality can be considered an objective of morality. In some sense, it’s the means through which we ensure the moral community is appropriately inclusive. I would maintain that the most important sense of “equality” for the purposes of understanding the objectives of morality is equality of consideration.  In other words, an objective of our moral practices should be to foster a community in which all human individuals have full moral status, that is, they are entitled to equal consideration, and their needs and desires should be regarded as having equal weight along with others in the moral community.  My justification for this would be a pragmatic one.  It is now possible to have a global moral community that encompasses all humans, and in general, the more human individuals that can be brought within the cooperative sphere of the moral community the better.  (One should bear in mind that the alternative to reliance on moral practices as a means of inducement and persuasion is force.) 
In short, yes, equal consideration is one of the objectives of morality; I regarded that as implicit, but it is worthwhile making it explicit. 
That said, since you mention security and indirectly raise the issue of whether it has some sort of priority, we should think about this interesting question.  It seems to me that the survival of the community does have priority, or to put it another way, morality should not be self-defeating.  Recognizing this helps us to understand why humans behaved the way they did for millennia, following moral norms in their treatment of fellow members of their tribe or clan, while exhibiting no moral restraint in dealing with outsiders. Instead, there were incessant struggles between different tribes and clans in which the losers were mercilessly killed or (in what was at first a sign of moral progress) kept as slaves.  Before we can give equal consideration to other individuals, we must have some assurance that coordination of conduct, trust, and reciprocal relations are real possibilities.  These are not the conditions in which human groups first found themselves. 
Of course, “security” has in more recent times been used as a pretext for subordinating others. Moreover, the need for security provides no excuse for denying equal moral consideration to other humans today.  The millions of transactions that occur between individuals of different cultures every day confirm that almost all humans can work together cooperatively.  The focus on global ethics in recent decades is a reflection of that reality, as is the near universal acceptance (at least in theory) of “human” rights. 
But query: What if, as Hawking suggests may happen, aliens who are rational and intelligent (and have the capacity for moral agency) attack humans mercilessly?  Let’s assume we cannot even communicate with them. Must we include them within our moral community and give them equal consideration?  If morality is not to be self-defeating, I think not.  Survival does come first.

#5 gay studebaker (Guest) on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 10:19am

Perhaps morality’s purpose lies in humanity’s attempt to eliminate and/or control physical and emotional pain experienced as the result of an action committed by an individual or collective group before pain is inflicted and experienced by the recipient of the painful action.  In simpler words it’s purpose stems from the urge to avoid pain. Explaining why we commonly hear “nature” referred to as “amoral”, since nature inflicts pain regularily and without a sense of justice or meaning.  Interesting that we call painful natural occurrences “acts of God” and many people claim morals are God-given, thus setting humanity apart from nature, yet springing from the same supposed source.

#6 Richard Wein (Guest) on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 2:05pm

Hi Ron. My first post here. If I’ve understood you correctly, it seems you are proposing that we consciously design a system of moral values for the purpose of promoting a set of goals. And you’re asking which set of goals to promote.

Well, the goals which each of us wants to promote are ultimately our own goals, though those goals may include achieving the goals of other people too. And our goals are in part determined by our existing moral values. So any attempt to design a new system of moral values must inevitably be an evolutionary one, a modification of our own current moral values. We cannot design a moral system from the ground up, independently of our current moral values.

As an example you mentioned “equal consideration” (“all human individuals hav[ing] full moral status”), and you call this an objective of morality. But isn’t equal consideration itself a moral value? I’m not sure you’ve been clear about whether equal consideration is a goal of morality or is a moral value that promotes some desirable goal.

Moreover, you say you have a pragmatic justification for promoting equal consideration. But I have little doubt that you already hold a moral value in favour of equal consideration. Are you sure you are really arguing for equal consideration on pragmatic grounds, and not because it accords with your existing moral values? To be honest, the pragmatic justification you gave was extremely thin.

I have the feeling that responses to your question will mostly take the form of respondents calling for the promotion of their own moral values. It’s a little hard (though not impossible) to imagine people arguing for goals that would lead to moral values they don’t already hold.

#7 Mark Sloan (Guest) on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 2:08pm

Ron, your post is a refreshingly clear presentation of a very practical problem in humanitarian ethics.

I expect the normal methods of moral philosophy could be used to define lists of purposes of morality in the sense of what those purposes ‘ought’ to be.  Unfortunately, the methods of moral philosophy appear presently incapable of producing a single, well accepted list of what those objectives ‘ought’ to be.
Therefore, I particularly like your focus on what the apparent purposes of morality ‘are’ now and have been in the past.  Determining what the purposes of morality ‘are’ seems to me a much easier job than determining what they ‘ought’ to be.  Granted, a morality based on what the purposes of morality ‘ought’ to be might better meet human needs and preferences.  But till such a morality becomes generally accepted (if any ever is), figuring out what the purposes of morality ‘are’ could turn out to be very useful in the interim. 

I am sure there are many logical processes for defining lists of what the purposes of morality are and have been.  I’d like to recommend one process in particular as perhaps uniquely productive.

Past and present cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions form a diverse and contradictory body of data about what people think or have thought moral behavior ‘is’.  Further, this data is factual in the sense that these are or were cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions.

The normal methods of science have been honed to tease out underlying, necessary characteristics of large bodies of apparently chaotic data.  I propose that the normal methods of science be used to identify (if any exist) the underlying, necessary characteristics of moral behaviors and, from these characteristics, the purposes of moral behavior then be derived.  In the best case scenario, there would be a single set of underlying characteristics for all moral behaviors.  But the approach could still be useful if there were distinct sets of underlying characteristics for identifiable categories of moral behavior.

When I say the normal methods of science, I mean evaluating the scientific utility of simple hypotheses about what moral behavior ‘is’ using normal criteria for scientific utility.  Those criteria could include 1) explanatory power for diverse and contradictory cultural moral standards and puzzles about moral behavior (such as why moral behavior has been so difficult to understand), 2) predictive power for moral intuitions, 3) universality, 4) utility, 5) no contradictions with known facts and consistency with the rest of science, and so forth.

It appears to me that the following hypothesis meets these criteria markedly better than any other hypothesis I have been able to think of:  “Virtually all cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions increase, on average, the synergistic benefits of cooperation within a group and are unselfish at least in the short term.”  Here, the benefits of cooperation may be any combination of material goods, emotional goods, and reproductive fitness. What these benefits are in any particular case is entirely up to the people cooperating in the group.  Also, synergistic benefits are benefits beyond those available to individuals.  The diversity and contradictions in present and past moral standards appear largely due to 1) differences in who is “within a group” and will benefit (perhaps men) and who it is OK to exploit (perhaps women or a different race) and 2) use of different strategies to increase cooperation within a group such as markers of membership like circumcision and not trimming beards.

From this hypothesis, we can derive the following: “As a matter of science, the purpose of virtually all moral behavior is to exploit the synergistic benefits of cooperation by being unselfish.” 

A candidate morality can also be derived.  “Moral behaviors increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation within a group and are unselfish at least in the short term.”  Due to this definition’s necessary consistency with virtually all cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions, it also appears that practitioners will find it more consistent with their moral intuitions than any other available definition of morality.  Finally, due to the definition of moral behavior as producing benefits and its predicted consistency with moral intuitions, this definition of morality appears more attractive as a rational choice for adoption and practice by a group than any available alternative.  Here a rational choice is the choice expected to, on average, best meet the needs and preferences of the individuals in the group.

I would like to publish something on the subject in an appropriate peer reviewed journal.  However, after several failed attempts, I have concluded I lack adequate background knowledge and skills to be able to do that (I am a retired aerospace engineer). 

And Russell Blackford, if you read this, thanks for recommending Ronald’s post.

#8 Mark Sloan on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 3:56pm

After re-reading the other posts here and noting other suggested approaches appear to be very different than mine, it may be useful to make a clarification about my earlier post.
“Virtually all cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions increase, on average, the synergistic benefits of cooperation within a group and are unselfish at least in the short term” is my hypothesis about what virtually all moral behavior ‘is’.  I claim I can defend it as provisionally ‘true’ as a matter of science.

What I want to point out is the following:  1) My hypothesis is is fully compatible with the idea that “… morality helps to provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complimentary goals.  In short, it enables us to live together and, while doing so, improve the conditions under which we live.”  2) Moral standards including the Golden Rule, equality, Utilitarianism, and Kantianism are heuristics (of varying effectiveness) for choosing which acts will, in fact, increase the synergistic benefits of cooperation and “…provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complimentary goals”. 

That is, by using such rules of thumb we can often instantly choose acts that, based on previous experience, will, on average, actually increase the synergistic benefits of cooperation.  Such use of heuristics avoids most requirements to make time consuming, often unreliable predictions.

#9 Russell Blackford on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 5:41pm

@Ron, I actually doubt that equal consideration is an aim or function or purpose of a moral system ... or even a desideratum for a workable moral system (as justice may be if we conceive of justice in a “thin” way). I think it’s true that a moral system will need to have rules of general applicability but that is a different thing. The rules must apply predictably, but they may well say, “Give [or “It is permissible to give”] greater consideration to your friends than to strangers.” Indeed, most of us would find a moral system that tells us to give the same consideration to friends and strangers quite unacceptable.

A perfectly workable moral system might also say: “Give greater consideration to samurai than to peasants” or “Give greater consideration to men than to women.” I don’t like it - I very emphatically prefer a moral system that does NOT have that sort of content - but I don’t see how it can be ruled out in advance. I’d hope that systems like this do worse than more egalitarian systems at whatever we want from a moral system.

Getting back to the “It’s permissible to give greater consideration to friends than to strangers”, moral systems have to be workable for beings like us. One of the things we need is predictability (so the rules need to be general and not to be subverted - and thus, need to be applied “justly”), but another is that they must allow us considerable freedom to have preferences for the people we most care about others. For beings like us, a moral system must set deontic constraints that are quite broad in what they allow, and that leave room for a lot of self-interested and/or eroscentric decision-making.

More generally, as was said above, we should beware of putting our preferred substantive content for a moral system into the purpose of moral systems. That’s just a way of making no intellectual progress. The purpose of moral systems is surely something quite general, such as allowing human beings to survive despite our lack of fangs and claws, etc. I.e. moral systems assist us to have enough social cooperation to be a viable species. As time has gone on and circumstances have changed, perhaps we want more than that, but it will still be something very general.

My own answer as to what I want from a moral system would probably be: “a mix of social survival and amelioration of suffering” ... but even that shows me putting my personal values into an answer to some extent. Perhaps that’s inevitable, but the more we do it the less chance there is of reaching a consensus.

See chapter 5 of Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, which has always seemed to me a very good discussion of this topic.

#10 Russell Blackford on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 5:43pm

ugh, I meant something like: “for the people we most care about over others.”

#11 Randy Pelton on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 6:50pm

Ron poses a most intriguing and vitally important question. I am most intrigued by Mark Sloan’s post. I think his hypothesis is most likely nearest the correct explanation. At least, it is one that resonates with my views and understanding of the biological history of our species.

I suggest that the purpose of morality is rooted in our evolutionary history. Morality evolved as a means of providing a set of rules for human interaction, mostly of the “synergistic” types that Mr. Sloan discusses. I submit that given our need for social interaction, morality evolved as a sort of mental infrastructure upon which communities of varying sizes and types could be built and be sustained. After all, isn’t morality about human interactions? I say this because the concept of morality would have no meaning for an individual isolated from all human contact.

Humans are by our nature social animals. This being the case morality evolved as a way for our species to aggregate into communities in such a way as to allow for forms of social interaction that would benefit the community and moderate or dampen our conflicting impulses for conflict and aggression.

While the earliest moral systems were not particularly inclusive, they have to some extent become more so over time. Moral systems evolved by way of group selection pressures, but have since been molded to some extent by cultural pressures and influences.

So I submit that the the purpose of morality is rooted in our evolutionary history; that evolutionary pressures forged it initially and have continued to play some role in its molding and shaping. I submit that morality was in part given birth by and propelled by our innate propensity to seek social interactions. Morality is the resultant evolutionary structure or scaffolding that permits and compels us toward social aggregation.

There is some transcultural commonality to moral systems. I speak here of the common moral decencies. We may not agree entirely on the list of these , but I think we can agree there are some commonly held moral precepts. This explains, at least in part, why morality of some type is a nearly universal trait of human communities as well as of individuals. The fact that a uniform universal set of morals did not and has not arisen may be explained by the fact that different aggregations of humans into communities of varying sizes and types has occurred under varying contingencies and evolutionary pressures.

To summarize, the purpose of morality has an entirely materialistic explanation: it is a trait selected for by evolutionary mechanisms that serves to permit cooperative social interaction.

#12 Mark Sloan on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 8:00pm

Russell, one way to handle the important question of unequal consideration is to recognize that the different groups you belong to (such as family, friends, co-workers, strangers, countrymen, all people, and all conscious beings) require different levels of consideration (unselfishness) in order to maximize the benefits of cooperation.  For instance, applying a “family” level of consideration (unselfishness) to “all people” would doubtless so dilute the family level of consideration that the family would be likely not survive intact.  If this happened to all families, the benefits of cooperation would be much reduced in a society.  Then as I see it, applying a “family” level of consideration (unselfishness) to “all people” would be an immoral act. 

I assume you may actually agree with this conclusion.  I’m just pointing out how we might argue that it is more moral to require different levels of consideration for different people than to require the same level of consideration.

#13 Mark Sloan on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 9:00pm

Randy, thanks for your supporting comments.  Of course, you are correct about the evolutionary origins of morality.  In my draft paper, many of my references are to papers in this expanding field.
However, repeated painful, frustrating experiences have shown me that presenting my hypothesis as something that originated with evolution leads to intractable levels of confusion.  My plan forward is to mention evolution as little as possible.

Mentioning evolution immediately causes kneejerk false understandings that 1) I am claiming morality is mainly about reproductive fitness; it isn’t,  2) I am committing the ‘is’ ‘ought’ fallacy; I’m not, and 3) I am claiming that cultural moral standards are not the dominate forces defining moral behavior; they are.  Interestingly, the level of truly intractable confusion caused by mentioning evolution positively correlates with how much people know about moral philosophy. (Of course Russell Blackford, who knows quite a lot about moral philosophy, may be an exception to my experience to date.)

I still have to talk about the biological structures responsible for our moral emotions (like empathy and righteous indignation) and moral intuitions (which trigger our moral emotions) which both exist because they increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors.  But I am trying to limit conversation about evolution to just this.

Limiting talk about evolution allows me to focus on more significant ideas.  For instance, virtually all the diverse and contradictory cultural moral standards I am aware of can be understood as different strategies which have been discovered and mathematically described as part of game theory.  And since the invention of culture, the main benefits of cooperation have been material goods and emotional goods, not reproductive fitness.  Further, since the emergence of money and the rule of law, the dominant benefit of cooperation initiated and maintained by unselfishness (the main benefit of moral behavior) has been the emotional goods it produces, not material goods or reproductive fitness.
In simplified form, the approach I am counting on to produce less confusion is:

1. Past and present cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions represent what people have thought and think about moral behavior.

2. The normal methods of science can extract any underlying, necessary characteristics (if any exist) of cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions.

3.  The hypothesis that appears, I claim, to be provisionally ‘true’ as matter of science tells us that those underlying, necessary characteristics of virtually all moral behaviors are: moral behaviors increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation and are unselfish at least in the short term.

4. The definition of morality implied by this hypothesis appears to be more attractive (can be expected to best meet needs and preferences) for adoption and practice by a group than any available option.

See?  There is almost no need to mention evolution of genes, or even more confusing, evolution of cultural moral standards which is still unresolved science.  The people who understand evolution will get it, just as you have.

#14 diogenes99 on Sunday June 20, 2010 at 10:46pm

The purpose of morality is to bind people together to cope with raising children to self-sufficiency, which is both a necessary and sufficient condition for a gene pool’s survival.  I don’t think the point of morality is to help Homo sapiens, sentient beings, or a larger community to survive.  The purpose of morality is to move one’s own children and perhaps nearby children to adulthood so they can repeat the same pattern of life with their own children.

Other animals with shorter development times (egg to adult) need fewer strategies, and those with extremely long development times need more novel strategies.  The human brain takes such a long time to develop, and the human body is so vulnerable for so many years in youth, that there must be a “coming together” for protection, feeding, housing, instruction, etc.  If natural feelings of affinity, protection, pride, joy-in-helping and guilt-in-hurting ebb too low, then the gene-pool is threatened internally and externally.

If we could bury or children in the mud for 16+ years, or put them in cocoons, then morality would not need to be very sophisticated. The little devils could probably get along on their own at a much younger age if the human brain didn’t take so long to mature.

#15 Ophelia Benson on Monday June 21, 2010 at 4:10am

Thanks, Ron - that clarifies where I had muddled.


“A perfectly workable moral system might also say: “Give greater consideration to samurai than to peasants” or “Give greater consideration to men than to women.” I don’t like it - I very emphatically prefer a moral system that does NOT have that sort of content - but I don’t see how it can be ruled out in advance.”

Workable, yes, but is that the dominant criterion? That’s what I was questioning. Hierarchical systems can be workable, but that doesn’t say all there is to be said. Why can’t systematic inequality be ruled out in advance for reasons that aren’t purely about workability?

#16 Russell Blackford on Monday June 21, 2010 at 4:36am

Well, if we want to know what function moral systems have actually played in human societies in the past, we’ll have to concede that some (most!) of those moral systems - such as that of medieval Japan in my example - were certainly not playing the role of bringing about equality. They may have been playing the role of bringing social stability or social coordination, or something else, but not equality.

Of course we can always judge moral systems by our own moral values (or just by our own general values, whatever they are). But these will be varied and if everyone does it we’ll be no closer to resolution with the people who disagree with us. After all, some people will want to judge moral systems by how closely they conform to the Koran. The idea, I thought, was to see what role they have actually played, historically, see if there’s a lowest common denominator, even one that shifts over time, and then see if we can work out which systems. E.g. we can see how much substantive equality (as opposed to mere “thin” justice) does or does not help bring about whatever it is that moral systems are historically doing.

The more I think about it the more I fear this is going to be a forlorn hope. What is going to matter to us is going to be how much moral systems promote our own values - whether it’s equality, amelioration of suffering, conformity to a holy book, or whatever - rather than how much they do whatever they historically did. All of which also tends to sink Sam Harris’s program.

#17 Russell Blackford on Monday June 21, 2010 at 4:37am


*if we can work out which systems do best.

#18 Russell Blackford on Monday June 21, 2010 at 5:19am

And here, to add to the gloom, is moral skeptic Richard Joyce reviewing a book by moral relativist Jesse Prinz. I haven’t read the book, but it appears that Prinz adopts a similar strategy in his final chapter, in an effort to avoid an extreme relativism. Joyce’s response near the end of his review seems quite powerful:


#19 diogenes99 on Monday June 21, 2010 at 6:16am

While it is important to ask how bits and pieces of ethics and meta-ethics are justified (e.g., is moral relativism true, is gender equality a necessary part of all moralities?), these topics stray from the discussion at hand.  The question is: What is the point of any morality, i.e., what is the explanation for having any morality at all?

The answer about morality is very simple, very uncomfortably simple, and right under our noses.

The short answer, I think, is that we need morality to raise our little critters to adulthood.  It is the reason we are equipped with the moral feelings and behaviors of nurture, empathy, and cooperation. These skills have a broad application in society and are integrated into all cultures.  For example, we might treat our elders well because we see them as children or they help raise our children, or we might treat our neighbors well because they are indirectly useful in raising our children or they are raising future mates of our children.

Once we know the point of ethics, which is binding some people together to raise children so they in turn can repeat the cycle, we may need to bite the philosophical bullet and accept that some societies achieve their core moral purpose with gender inequality, tyranny, theistic overtones, and tribal warfare.

In many societies, there is a fixation on “bedroom ethics” and “family values.”  There is an abhorrence for counter-reproductive sexual behavior among Catholics, and most religions are opposed to homosexuality.  Many religions use fear of an all-powerful, unseen parent to bring about compliance.  These primordial beliefs correctly highlight the point of morality.

Why do so many people have trouble extending moral concern to gender equality or even global warming? Perhaps, in the first case, gender equality removes some mothers from the reproductive and child-rearing game, and in the second case, primordial morality has a two-generation horizon. 

We need to consider why thousands of people dying of starvation on another continent don’t register on our empathy scale as much as our children stubbing their toes.  That is because morality has a biological point, and it is local.

All of this is unsatisfying to moral philosophers who want to create self-coherent moral theories.  But that is another topic, just as arguing the nuances of calculus is different than finding the point of numbers.

#20 Pau (Guest) on Monday June 21, 2010 at 7:23am

The purpose of morality is a philosophical pseudoproblem, that is, one of those problems that arise due to the abuse of language. As such, one gets all kind of confusing answers.
Morality is a concept, and as such it can not have attributes such as purpose. Now, if you asked “what

is the purpose of moral behaviour?”. Purpose is an attribute of behaviour and answers become more coherent.

As to the refrased question of why have moral institutions and practices, it is altogether a different

subject, but I would require a clarification of what is meant by moral institutions. Since I think

that it does not refer to institutions that behave morally, I assume it refers to institutions that

usurp the prerogative of deciding what is correct behaviour and what is not. Why have moral practices

is, again, a completely different matter.
We have “moral institutions” for two different reasons. One, and in a free aconfessional society, is

because we accept them and are satisfied by their explanations for a purpose of life. In

other societies these institutions are simply imposed by physical authority. We will always have members of societythat seek power and privilege by convincing the others that they are the rightful arbiters of behaviour. 
Why have moral practices? Moral practices are imbued into us from the begginning of our education.

They serve the purpose of controlling our behaviour and channel it according to the mores of our social group.

They provide a ready and easy way to make those decisions that will not result in conflict.
In order to develop a new and different morality we must change the mores of our society, since if we

limit our effort to our own selfs, we might change our personal values, but we will not change

morality in the strict sense of social morality.
If a humanistic morality is developping it will be through the customs of those accepted as members of

the humanistic society and their behaviour according to the ethic values they choose to accept. But choice is, in its final essence, not a rational process. It will always depend on a previously accepted premise, be the premise based on human appiness, achievement or survival.

#21 Ophelia Benson on Monday June 21, 2010 at 8:44am

Russell - oh, right - descriptive. I thought it was prescriptive. Never mind. :- )

#22 Mark Sloan on Monday June 21, 2010 at 9:04am

Ophelia, I think Russell was right when he said: “A perfectly workable moral system might also say: “Give greater consideration to samurai than to peasants” or “Give greater consideration to men than to women.” I don’t like it - I very emphatically prefer a moral system that does NOT have that sort of content - but I don’t see how it can be ruled out in advance.”
Then you replied:  “Workable, yes, but is that the dominant criterion? That’s what I was questioning. Hierarchical systems can be workable, but that doesn’t say all there is to be said. Why can’t systematic inequality be ruled out in advance for reasons that aren’t purely about workability?”

In discussions about what morality ‘ought’ to be, yes, you CAN rule out systematic inequality or anything else you think will help you close in on what morality ‘ought’ to be.  That is what philosophers have been trying to do since the classical Greeks.  These efforts have yet to reach any commonly accepted conclusion and I have no reason to believe they ever will.

But Ron’s original post here suggests a more fruitful approach might be to first try to understand what the purpose of moral behavior has been and ‘is’.  This is a very different kind of question.  Russell is quite correct in saying that in this kind of effort it would make no sense to disregard what people think or have thought in the past was moral just because we judge it immoral.

But could the purpose of a morality which includes systematic inequality and hereditary hierarchies have the same underlying, necessary characteristics as your moral claim that systematic inequality is immoral?

I believe (and can defend) the idea that the purposes of both DO share common underlying, necessary characteristics.  Those characteristics are that both moralities are strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation within groups and require unselfishness (by the person acting morally admirably) at least in the short term.
You and I can argue that a morality which includes systematic inequality and hereditary hierarchies is less effective (less likely to meet needs and preferences) and people ‘ought’ to practice moralities where systematic inequality is immoral, but that is a separate question.

#23 diogenes99 on Monday June 21, 2010 at 10:10am

One explanation for the origin of morality (i.e., it’s point) is that altruism was needed among troops during war.  See this article about primates: http://tiny.cc/rbrf6

I think that science will provide philosophy with hypotheses. The answer will be a science-driven narrative about the point of early moral behavior.

#24 diogenes99 on Monday June 21, 2010 at 10:12am

The link: http://tiny.cc/chimp1

#25 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday June 21, 2010 at 3:00pm

This has been an interesting and informative discussion.  I am sorry that mundane but necessary administrative duties (that whole CEO thing) have prevented me from participating more actively. 

Let me clarify a few points:

@Richard:  Actually, I am not proposing a new system of moral values.  To the contrary, I believe there is a core set of norms that virtually every culture has accepted and these norms constitute the bedrock of our morality (e.g., norms that impose prima facie duties to keep commitments, refrain from stealing, tell the truth, refrain from killing, and so forth). 

My limited intent in the post (besides expressing some dissatisfaction with the way in which humanist ethics has been carried out) was to urge us to consider the purpose of morality.  Surprisingly few have done so.  Consensus on the objectives of morality should (at least ideally) assist us in narrowing some moral disputes.  I don’t believe, however, that this would result in rejection of core norms.  Instead, consideration of the objectives of morality comes into play when addressing disagreements about the application of second or third level rules.  (I discuss this topic more in Chapter 2 of my book Future Bioethics.) 

@Mark: It seems to me that my approach is broadly consistent with yours.  However, I don’t think that we can reduce the purpose of morality to the exploitation of “synergistic benefits of cooperation by being unselfish.”  Fostering cooperation is a critical constituent of the objectives of morality, but it is not the entire explanation of the purpose of morality (either as morality is practiced or how it should be practiced)

@Randy:  It also seems to me that the two of us are in broad agreement.  Clearly, morality is rooted in our evolutionary history.  Of course, we can reflect on morality as it has evolved and come to the conclusion that some of our behaviors need reforming.  But, like you, I believe that there are commonly held core moral precepts, and these precepts are much less likely to be modified than secondary rules.

@Diogenes:  I think your understanding of the objectives of morality is too narrow.  Survival of the community is important but that does not necessarily imply that the purpose of morality can be restricted to binding people together to cope with the problems of raising children to self-sufficiency.  In a number of cultures, parents have sacrificed their children for the sake of the community (probably as a means of population control, even when it’s characterized as an offering to the gods).  The need to foster social cohesion extends to areas beyond the raising of children. 

Let me now turn to the equal treatment issue.  Here, I am afraid I’ve done what I said I was going to be careful not to do.  I have failed to clearly distinguish the factual description of the objectives of morality, as evidenced by the practices of human groups throughout history, from a recommendation of what the objectives of morality should be. 

You will recall that I suggested we look at how morality has actually functioned, and use the objectives that we see reflected in moral practice as a starting point for determining what the objectives should be.  I stated further that the objectives of morality as practiced probably should be the objectives of morality (principally because rival views are so unpersuasive). 

But we can modify the objectives, and in my response to Ophelia I stated that “an objective of our moral practices should be to foster a community in which all human individuals have full moral status, that is, they are entitled to equal consideration.”  I should have been clear that this was not a statement about how morality has been practiced, but a recommendation about how morality should be practiced.  Obviously, a number of human societies in the past have had fairly rigid hierarchies, and not all groups within the society were considered moral equals. Still, they functioned as moral communities; those in groups low on the hierarchy possessed some moral status. (Slaves often had no status, being able to be killed with impunity, but that is because they were usually regarded as outside the bounds of the moral community.) 

I would contend that the existence of such hierarchies cannot currently be justified pragmatically, although arguably some of them could have been justified under the conditions of the time. (If there is no central government, and the village needs protection from roving bands of killers, perhaps the local aristocrat with military training should have certain privileges.) Long-term cooperation is more likely to be elicited from individuals who are recognized and treated as moral equals, and in today’s world there are no special conditions that justify division of humans into morally distinct groups for purposes of survival or social stability.

Russell, I don’t believe equal consideration precludes providing special benefits to one’s close relatives or friends. Equal consideration in the context of our moral practices is not the same as equal treatment in all things. We do a lot of things for our friends and relatives that are not required by morality, but are instead motivated by love or friendship. I can shower my loved ones with gifts, while bestowing no present on strangers. I have offended no moral norm. On the other hand, when I grant time off work or give pay raises, I should not be motivated by my fond feelings for certain employees but instead by what the employees merit. Morality has its requirements, and it circumscribes much of what we do, but it is not all-encompassing.

Thanks, by the way, for the suggestion that I reread Mackie. It’s probably been 10 years since I last read Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, so it’s due for another look.

#26 Mark Sloan on Monday June 21, 2010 at 3:45pm

Ron, you said: “@Mark: It seems to me that my approach is broadly consistent with yours.  However, I don’t think that we can reduce the purpose of morality to the exploitation of “synergistic benefits of cooperation by being unselfish.”  Fostering cooperation is a critical constituent of the objectives of morality, but it is not the entire explanation of the purpose of morality (either as morality is practiced or how it should be practiced)”

Ron, how could we show we cannot reduce what the purpose of morality ‘is’ or has been (I am not addressing what the purpose ‘ought’ to be) to the exploitation of “synergistic benefits of cooperation by being unselfish”?  We could do that by identifying a significant number of past or present cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions that do not have the two underlying, necessary characteristics I have identified: 1) advocacy of behaviors that increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation and 2) advocacy of behaviors that are unselfish at least in the short term.

I not only cannot find a significant number of such cultural moral standards and moral intuitions that do not share these characteristics, I have not found a single one.

I would be grateful if you, or any other reader, could point some out.  The huge diversity and contradictions in cultural moral standards may initially make that seem to be a trivial job.  For instance, slavery is moral/immoral, homosexuality is moral/immoral, trimming beards is morally neutral/immoral, and women are/are not required to be submissive to men. 

However, the diversity and contradictions in present and past moral standards are fully explainable as different heuristics for exploiting the benefits of cooperation by being unselfish in at least the short term.  For example, these differences are largely due to 1) differences in who is “within a group” and will benefit (perhaps men) and who it is OK to exploit (perhaps women or a different race) and 2) use of different strategies to increase cooperation within a group such as markers of membership like circumcision and not trimming beards and demonization of non-conformists such as homosexuals in order to produce an ‘enemy’ that the group must band together to defend against.

#27 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday June 21, 2010 at 4:07pm

I think some of our core norms aim at keeping the peace (and thereby helping to ensure stability and security) more than they aim at fostering cooperation. Prohibitions on stealing, maiming, and killing, for example, don’t really seem directed at fostering co-operation, except in a very broad sense (meaning they help create some of the necessary conditions for successful cooperation.).

By the way, I am not that concerned about differences between cultures. First, on the core norms, I don’t perceive much, if any, disagreement. Second, the most significant changes, as I mentioned before, have been in moral status, that is, the identity of individuals who have been included within the moral community.To begin, only members of one’s tribe or clan might have been included, then members of one’s ethnic group, one’s religion and so forth. But that’s really not a question of the rules changing, but rather who is included within the scope of the rules.

#28 Mark Sloan on Monday June 21, 2010 at 4:58pm

Ron, “Prohibitions on stealing, maiming, and killing” are critical for maintaining the benefits of cooperation because they destroy trust in other members of the group.  To me, these are all prime examples of moral standards that 1) increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation (since without these moral standards cooperation would be much reduced) and 2) unselfishness is required in the sense that members of the group must resist their impulses to steal, maim, and kill. Am I missing something here?

But more broadly, could you suggest a purpose of morality as morality is defined by past and present cultural moral standards that is not captured by the two above characteristics?  The ‘purposes’ I have read today on this page all appear to be sub-purposes in aid of exploiting the benefits of cooperation by being unselfish at least in the short term.

#29 Mark Sloan on Monday June 21, 2010 at 5:01pm

Whoops, bad first sentence. I meant:

Ron, “Prohibitions on stealing, maiming, and killing” are critical for maintaining the benefits of cooperation because these acts destroy trust between members of the group.

#30 Russell Blackford on Monday June 21, 2010 at 5:21pm

Ron, one problem with equal consideration is that it’s ambiguous. No one denies that the system has to work predictably, so whatever rules are applied must be applied consistently. Also, I agree with you that the system needs to be less than comprehensive - setting constraints and allowing actions based on prudence or favouritism or whatever within the constraints. But not everyone will agree with this, e.g. an act utilitarian won’t. So, yes, I’d agree with you if you’re saying that the desiderata of a workable system include the consistent application of a less than comprehensive constraints.

But ideas of equal consideration are usually thicker than this. Singer’s expression “equal consideration of interests” comes to mind, and he means much more than that. Actual moral systems don’t provide for equal consideration in Singer’s sense: e.g. they may provide for the consistent application of a rule that permits samurai to kill peasants.

I do agree that under modern conditions we can put arguments against what seem like irrational forms of discrimination (e.g. against women or against people of certain racial backgrounds), but I think we all agree now that that’s a matter of argument, not a matter of the original “purpose” of morality (at a descriptive level).

You used the expression “peace”, and I take it you’re following Hobbes. I’m sympathetic to this, but think of it more as social survival - no society can survive peace without some way of allocating property and enforcing the allocation, some rules restricting violence, etc. I do think that it goes beyond just peace, since there also seem to be moral rules to ensure that children are socialised (not to maximise births, but at least to socialise the children that are born), and also because there will usually be at least some aversion to suffering for its sake. So, I’d say social survival and amelioration of suffering, but a large component of social survival is the combination of peace, security, and stability that you mention.

Still, I’m conscious of how underdetermined moralities might be by this. I’m also conscious that, even if these are the “functions” or “purposes” in some sense, actual societies are likely to rationalise their moralities in different ways, e.g. the purpose might be rationalised as obedience to a god. If someone defends her society’s morality on that ground, it’s going to be difficult to shake her certainty without first deconverting her from her religion.

Conversely, if we just want to critique a moral system from outside, and we agree pretty much on our own values, why not just apply those values directly? E.g., we could apply some substantive concept of equality that we all agree on.

I’ve been working on this issue quite hard of late, and am giving a paper on something at least tangentially related in a couple of weeks (though Zeus knows how it’s going to get written). There do seem to be some deep problems here, as we all found when Sam Harris said morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures. I think that’s going to be a reasonable proxy for “social survival and amelioration of suffering” or whatever the more complicated “correct” answer is, but the discussion quickly showed the difficulties in any simple answer.

#31 burt (Guest) on Tuesday June 22, 2010 at 7:09am

The question: what are the objectives of morality strikes me as vague.  Do we mean the objectives of an individual in behaving morally, or the general social objectives of moral codes and standards?  If the latter, then the objectives are to train individuals to behave in certain ways prescribed by the society, presumably as a means of maintaining social order and stability.  If the former then are the individuals objectives Socratic, a recognition that virtuous action is it’s own reward; or, are they aimed at fitting into a social order for some other purpose?  Further, are the social objectives always aimed at maintaining social order and stability?  If radical social change is necessary to improve chances of that society (or even the human species) surviving then opposition to the existing order may be the moral position and the objective of that position is survival. 

With that preliminary, I’d like to give a brief analysis based on a quote from Jacob Bronowski:

“There are two things that make up morality.  One is the sense that other people matter: the sense of common loyalty, of charity and tenderness, the sense of human love.  The other is a clear judgment of what is at stake: a cold knowledge, without a trace of deception, of precisely what will happen to oneself and to others if one plays either the hero or the coward.”

While this is phrased as a definition, we need not take it so since it doesn’t really give any prescriptive recommendation, nor does it provide any immediate set of fixed moral standards.  Rather, it points to two moral injunctions, one emotional and one intellectual.  The first might be phrased as an injunction to love one another, perhaps as the golden rule, to develop the emotional capacity to recognize other individuals as equals.  The second is an injunction to seek knowledge and the clarity of mind to be able to apply that knowledge in situation specific ways.  These give motive and method for moral action without specifying what sort of form that action might take.  Is there a suggestion here as to an “objective” for morality?  If so, that objective could only be that of producing moral individuals in the sense of individuals with the capacity to recognize and act in situations in ways that produce a “moral” result regardless of whether or not that result is in accord with existing social standards of morality.

#32 diogenes99 on Tuesday June 22, 2010 at 8:42am

The point of the existence of ethical behavior is same for chimps, a few early humans huddled in a cave, and for a highly developed human society.  As societies become more complex, there are more “objectives” (both conscious and subconscious) connected with the increasing varieties of moral behavior.  If we are seek the “point” of morality itself, then an analysis of simple ethical behavior in animals should do.

Comparing complex cultures can lead one astray very quickly. For example, if you wanted to analyze, say, the “point” of heraldry, then, on the one hand, one might look at all modern societies that use heraldry in a variety of ways. As the practice has mutated and changed in each society as governments and cultures have changed, so too have the objectives of heraldry, to the point that there are mere family resemblances among the parallel practices. On the other hand, one might examine the origin of heraldry, and look at proto-heraldry (housemarks, banners, helm ornaments, etc.), to determine the “point” of even having the practice in the first place.  The latter approach may appear too narrow to some, but I think it has more promise.

#33 Ronald A. Lindsay on Tuesday June 22, 2010 at 10:49am

@Mark. I think we have reached the stage where we may not have more than a semantic difference. I do not see norms that prohibit us from stealing, killing and so forth as having a clear connection to fostering cooperation. Obviously, they eliminate some of the obstacles to cooperation, but that’s not (to my understanding) the same thing as promoting cooperation. I can refrain from harming someone and still not collaborate with that individual on any projects, or come to her assistance when she needs help. You, on the other hand, have a very expansive understanding of cooperation, one that includes the elimination of potential obstacles to cooperation. That’s fine, provided you make it clear what you mean by cooperation or promoting cooperation. However, I do think you will lose some precision the more expansive you make your definition.

@ Burt. We are considering the objectives of morality as a social practice, not the objectives of the individual in behaving morally.

#34 Jason Streitfeld on Tuesday June 22, 2010 at 2:53pm

In my understanding, the primary function of morality is to foster the dignity of persons, which I would define as self-aware, rational agents.  The principles underlying any such process or practice would, by definition, be moral principles.  Any principles which do not foster the dignity of persons could not be considered moral.

#35 burt (Guest) on Tuesday June 22, 2010 at 5:36pm

Yes, I know.  What I am suggesting is that the only universal objective for morality, as a social practice, is to produce moral individuals and further, that a truly moral individual can only be one who has actualized, to the extent possible given time, place, and circumstance, the two moral injunctions that I mentioned.  Any other objectives will be culturally relative.

#36 Ronald A. Lindsay on Wednesday June 23, 2010 at 11:56am

@Burt Clearly, we want moral individuals, but I’m not sure I would characterize the production of moral individuals as the only universal objective of morality. It seems to me that you may be confusing the means to an objective with the objective itself. We want moral individuals because they will refrain from harming others, will cooperate with others, and so forth. Motivation is important, as you point out, but that’s because motivation is a generally reliable predictor of how an individual will act over time.

I also think that the injunction to “love one another” may require too much. I’m leery of moral systems that demand that individuals feel love for all others. Universal love is not something easily inculcated—and I do not find that requirement in most moral systems.

@Jason “Foster[ing] the dignity of persons” may be a bit too vague to serve as an explanation of the primary function of morality. “Dignity” is subject to many different interpretations. So before I could say I agree or disagree with you, you would need to give an explanation of your understanding of “dignity.” If you mean that all humans should be included within the moral community and should have their interests and needs weighed and considered along with others, then I would probably agree that this should be an objective of morality, although not the sole objective. Moreover, we would need to recognize this has not been an objective of most moral systems, although, as indicated, it arguably should be an objective.

@Russell This is a belated response to your comment #30. You’re quite right that we need to distinguish between actual moral systems and moral systems as we would like them to be. Furthermore, I agree with you that most moral systems have not treated all members of the moral community with equal consideration, except in the sense, as you point out, that norms were to be applied consistently. That said, for the reasons I have already given, I believe one could argue that under prevailing conditions we should treat all members of the moral community with equal consideration.

Moralities are underdetermined. All morally serious individuals (i.e, those who are not psychopaths) may agree that it is prima facie wrong to kill another member of the moral community, but clearly there is significant disagreement about the circumstances in which this obligation may be overridden. And, in some cases, there may be no uniquely “right” answer. However, I believe moral disagreement can be reduced, and one way to do so may be by considering the underlying rationale of our norms. If we refrain from killing because it (usually) disturbs the peace, threatens our security, and inflicts grievous harm on another, does that rationale apply in the context of (passive or active) assistance in dying when such assistance is requested by a competent individual?

You also suggest that even if some of the religious will concede that morality has certain functions, this will not prevent them from claiming that morality still needs some sort of foundation in the divine. You’re probably right. But I was urging us to reflect on the objectives of morality not so much as a way to make an argument against religious morality, but in an attempt to get secular people to reflect upon, and acquire a deeper understanding of, morality. As I said in my original post, too many secular discussions of morality take place at a superficial level, limiting themselves to assertions of certain secular or humanistic values and principles, without much effort to provide adequate grounding.

BTW, I look forward to seeing your paper.

#37 Jason Streitfeld on Wednesday June 23, 2010 at 2:31pm

I agree:  my previous comment was a lousy explanation of the primary function of morality.  But it wasn’t intended to be an explanation.  I was only stating the primary function as I see it.  For an explanation, I think we’d have to turn to evolutionary biology and sociology.

I was hoping that some people might find my suggestion intuitively appealing, so that some agreement might be established before attempts were made to explain why that answer is intuitively appealing.  Though I agree that it might be hard for people to accept my answer without a little discussion of what “dignity” means.

I like the way Kant approaches it.  He contrasts dignity with prices.  Prices are relative values, and they are fixed to objects because those objects are means to ends.  The value of an object is relative to the ends it serves.  For Kant, dignity is the quality of being beyond comparative value.  It is the quality of being an end in oneself.  Persons are distinct from objects because they have dignity—they are ends in themselves—and this is what defines their moral dimension.

I don’t suppose most people think about dignity in these terms.  We are more likely to think of dignity in terms of self-worth, or self-respect.  But these needn’t be treated as mutually exclusive alternatives to Kant’s view.  Rather, Kant may have been suggesting an explanation for what it means to value and respect oneself.

It’s common to say that everyone has a price, that we can all be bought and sold.  Isn’t this another way of saying that moral principles only go so far?  Though isn’t it impossible to buy a person completely, so that they can no longer think of themselves as an end?  No, I don’t think you can buy a person’s sense of self—though with violence you can destroy it. 

One lacks moral principles to the extent that one can be bought.  But this is not to say that one’s moral principles are necessarily good.  It is only to recognize them as moral principles, for better or for worse. 

I think the point to take to heart here is that understanding what morality is for—what makes morality what it is—does not help us resolve moral dilemmas.  It does not tell us which moral principles are good or bad.  It doesn’t tell us what we should do with morality.  It only tells us how to recognize a moral principle as such.

As for constructing a methodology for resolving moral dilemmas . . . I’m not so optimistic that this can be done.  Rules of thumb can be loosely establish, if we’re talking about a third-party methodology.  E.g., Find the most basic common ground. Identify the motivating emotional and circumstantial factors.  Establish the relevant scientific and historical facts.  Look for possible areas of compromise.  Avoid harm.  Minimize losses.  Etc.  But I’m not sure how well moral disagreements lend themselves to third-party moderation.  And without that, I don’t see how a methodology could be possible at all.

#38 Jason Streitfeld on Wednesday June 23, 2010 at 2:54pm

Correction:  It is common to say that everybody has a price, that we can all be bought.  Not bought and sold, which is what I wrote in my last comment.  “Bought and sold” suggests slavery, and that is not what I am talking about.  In case it wasn’t clear, I’m talking about voluntarily accepting money, goods, or services in exchange for abandoning one’s principles.

#39 Jason Streitfeld on Wednesday June 23, 2010 at 11:46pm

At the risk of excessive posting, I’d like to add something which might be of more explanatory value.

I have been discussing dignity in personal terms, as what defines a person as such, and so with reference to self-awareness, self-worth, and self-respect.  Yet, morality has an intrinsically social dimension.  This might seem to create a tension in our understanding, though I don’t think that should be the case.

Rationality and personhood are normative concepts—they require communities.  Dignity therefore cannot be defined from the inside, such that each person’s dignity were a wholly subjective matter.  Rather, personhood is defined through social interaction, through rational processes of negotiating differences.  There could be no concept of person without the process of rational negotiation.  So, when we have dignity—when we respect and value ourselves—we are understanding and defining ourselves through others.  When we condemn or praise others with our own moral judgments, we are saying something about what it means to be a person.  We are setting a standard for ourselves and all others.

Thus, unpacking my initial formulation, we might say that to foster dignity is to promote, negotiate, and follow principles which guide rational negotiation.

#40 Jason Streitfeld on Thursday June 24, 2010 at 12:03am

I should add that I am using the term “negotiation” very widely, to cover all types of inter-personal influence, including formal and informal conflict and dispute resolution and both physical and psychological manipulation.  This may not be conventional, but I’m not aware of a better word for the job.

#41 burt (Guest) on Thursday June 24, 2010 at 7:03am

Perhaps the “love one another” was too vague, but I didn’t want to use golden rule since there are quibbles with that as well.  I might better have said something like “recognize others as equals” although that hides the emotional aspect somewhat.  My contention, however, remains that unless a person realizes the two injunctions I give in their life then cannot be completely moral (in a radical sense) but can only follow established social standards of morality with more or less sincerity.  That’s fine, but I consider it a lesser goal for morality both from the individual and social point of view.  Of course, this has to be considered something like a Kantian regulatory ideal but it does, I think, provide something more for systems of moral education to aim for than simply adapting individuals for life in society.

#42 diogenes99 on Thursday June 24, 2010 at 7:37am

The question is still not clear to me.

Is the question simply, “What is the greatest good, the summum bonum?”  For if ethics tries to achieve anything, it ultimately aims at the greatest good. I don’t think this is the topic of this thread, even though many posts drift in that direction.

Is the question, “What circumstances caused morality?”  It was this question that interested me as being slightly different.  What circumstances gave rise to ethics, and does this analysis help us to understand it’s pre-religionized, pre-cultural motivations.

Is the question, “What is the use of ethics?”  If ethics is seen as a tool, then it must have originally been useful for accomplishing one or more objectives less grandiose than a summum bonum. Perhaps it was used to win battles, hunt as a cohesive group, and to keep family units together, then later more “oughts” arose to accomplish other objectives as communities grew.

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