What Is Morality?

In its “everyday sense” morality (from Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) refers to a code of conduct, by which human beings regulate their lives. Theoretical interest in morality arises from the distinct sorts of questions that might be asked about this code of conduct.

One question asks the kinds of practical rules people actually use to govern their lives. This is a descriptive question, an attempt to understand the actual practices of various societies, groups of people, and individuals. The results of such an attempt will constitute the meaning of “morality” in a descriptive sense. Given that different groups of people adhere to different codes of conduct, there can be said to be more than one standard of morality.

A second question questions the validity of the codes of conduct by which people adhere to. This is the area of moral philosophy, which attempts to ascertain the rules that people ought to use in guidance of their conduct. (The rules identified by moral philosophy as prescribing how human beings should live need not coincide with actual practices and accepted moral principles.) The results of this inquiry will constitute the meaning of “morality” in its normative sense.

A third set of questions asks whether the practical rules that make up a kind of morality are objective, or whether they are simply expressions of our basic feelings of approval and disapproval; it asks whether they are universally valid, or relative to the groups who uphold them. Finally, it asks whether or not they depend on religion. This is the province of meta-ethics, which attempts to understand the nature of codes of correct behavior.

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Descriptive morality

Morality in a descriptive sense may be defined as a code of conduct endorsed and adhered to by a society, group or—much less frequently—individual. Moral codes in this sense will, therefore, differ both from society to society, within societies, and amongst individuals. In its descriptive sense, morality is whatever a society, group, or individual, says it is. For example, descriptive “morality” may include norms of correct behavior according to which cannibalism and [rape]] are morally permissible. Nor is it the case that descriptive “moralities” must always be consistent in their application of moral rules (even within a culture). Historically speaking, different moral rules were held to apply to slaves and free men and women in societies in which slave owning was permitted.

In its descriptive sense, then, “morality” refers to the codes of conduct regulating how people behave, and without inquiring as to whether they ought to adhere to these codes. Descriptive morality is of central interest to anthropologistshistorians, and sociologists. It is not a primary concern of philosophical inquiry except insofar as the results of research in the social sciences bear upon questions concerning the nature of morality.

Within the sphere of descriptive morality, a distinction between moral rules, legal rules, and norms of etiquette is recognized. Firstly, there is a high degree of overlap between morality and law. Many moral rules are also legal prohibitions or requirements. For example, murder is generally held to be both immoral and illegal. However, some moral rules do not correspond to legal rules, and so violating a moral code does not necessarily lead to judicial punishment. For example, one is not legally punished for lying in one’s personal life. Conversely, some legal rules do not correspond to moral rules. For example, a system of law contains many proscriptions and requirements regulating bureaucratic procedures, which do not pertain to morality. Even more fundamentally, legal violations are not necessarily moral violations. Unintentionally parking in a designated zone will not count as a moral wrong, although one may still be liable to legal sanction, such as a fine.

The distinction between moral rules and norms of etiquette is somewhat sharper than the difference between law and morality. In general, it seems that norms of etiquette (or custom) are of less importance than those of morality. It is polite to arrive on time for a dinner party, but one will not have violated a rule of morality by being late. Conversely, it does violence to one’s language to say that one who has committed a robbery has broken the rules of etiquette. In some cases, however, this distinction is blurred. For example, in some places and cultural groups, it may be polite—a matter of etiquette, perhaps—for women to cover their legs while shading into a question of moral right and wrong in other groups.

Normative morality

In its normative sense, morality may be defined as a code of conduct that would be accepted by all rational people under certain idealized conditions. In simpler terms, “morality” is the set of correct moral principles, which, though they probably will never be universally adopted, ought to be adopted. Specifying the nature of such a system of morality is the province of moral philosophy, which seeks, firstly, to formulate a set of principles with which all rational agents ought to comply, and secondly, to explain why this system ought to be adopted. (Some philosophers argue that morality ought not to be characterized in terms of a set of principles at all.)

There is considerable philosophical disagreement as to what this universal system of morality would look like. “There are many rival theories, each expounding a different conception of [what morality is…] and what it means to live morally” (Rachels 1995, p. 1). There is therefore a sense in which the nature of morality itself hinges on these disagreements: the question “what is morality?” in its normative sense, cannot be answered until moral philosophy has resolved its disagreements. In what follows, therefore, the most important attempts define morality will be outlined. The conceptions of morality that currently dominate the philosophical terrain are consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Each of these come in various forms and will be briefly discussed.





Consequentialism offers a general definition of morality in terms of the value of consequences brought about, but is independent of any account as to what consequences these may be. The most important version of consequentialism is utilitarianism.

According to classical utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, morality is defined in terms of actions conforming to the principle of utility, the fundamental principle of morality. According to this principle, an action is moral (or right) if and only if it produces the greatest balance of overall happiness (or well being). By utilitarian standards then, acts of euthanasia may be considered morally right as insofar as it reduces overall suffering. This differs significantly from many religious moral codes, which maintain that actions such as taking another life (whether it be called murder, assisted suicide, or euthanasia) are never permissible.

Some of the main criticisms of the utilitarian account of morality—according to which all rational agents ought to follow the utilitarian principle—include the following. Firstly, it is almost impossible in many situations to weigh up overall good; secondly, that the theory does not properly accommodate justice and punishment; thirdly, that promise keeping and act utilitarianism are in conflict.

Deontological morality

Deontological ethics or deontology (Greek: δέον (deon) meaning obligation or duty) defines morality in terms of a system of moral rules. It is probably the moral theory closest to ordinary ways of moral thinking, or at least those adhered to by most Westerners, no doubt a result of the influence of Jewish law and Christianity on their moral thought. The system of morality articulated by the Ten Commandments is, for example, deontological in character.

The best-known and most important version of a philosophical deontology is Immanuel Kant’s theory. The fundamental principle of Kant’s deontology is the Categorical Imperative, which is said to underlie all commonly recognized moral principles. The Categorical Imperative is a principle of consistency, demanding that we act on reasons which all rational agents could endorse, that is, universally acceptable reasons. This is often compared to the biblical Golden Rule, “Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you”—although there are some important differences. For Kant then, a moral principal is one everyone could follow; if it were made into a universal law it would not be self-defeating.

One important feature of Kant’s conception of morality is that it is absolute. There are no exceptions to moral rules; it is always wrong to murder, tell a lie, or break a promise. One criticism of this view is that sometimes telling a lie could save a life so that it would be unreasonable and even immoral to tell the truth in such a situation.


The best-known form of intuitionism is probably that presented by W.D. Ross in The Right and the Good. Ross argues that humans are able to intuit a number of irreducible prima facie duties (to keep promises, to refrain from harming the innocent, and so on), none of which take precedence over any other. In this respect, Ross accepts a form of moral pluralism, since he does not think that right action can be reduced to a single criterion. Here he sets himself up against Utilitarianism and Kantianism, which are both versions of monism because they recognize a single basic moral principle. Ross thinks that the right action (one’s duty proper) in a given situation is determined by a careful weighing of various moral principles that apply in the context. In other words, intuitionism does not claim that there is any one characteristic that all morally correct acts share.

One significant consequence of intuitionism is that it suggests that morality does not admit of a neat definition. Morality is itself a composite of competing requirements, which cannot be formally unified.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics was the dominant ethical tradition in ancient Greek philosophy and through the Middle Ages. It has once again risen to prominence in recent times to become one of the three major normative strands (along with deontology and consequentialism).

Virtue ethics downplays, or even denies, the existence of universal rules to which actions must conform. Consequently, it sometimes locates itself in opposition to the notion of morality per se, which is identified as systems of rules or categorical imperatives. Insofar as ethics is understood as a broader domain in which questions about correct living are posed, virtue ethics may be understood as offering a criticism of morality itself.

According to virtue ethics, ethics is not fundamentally about duties or following rules (deontology) or about consequences of actions (consequentialism), but rather about cultivating virtuous dispositions of character, a moral character. A disposition is a tendency to have certain responses in particular situations: responses such as emotions, perceptions, and actions. The virtuous person is someone who acts rightly in response to requirements that are unique to the situation. He or she is someone who is able to perceive what the situation requires and act accordingly by exercising practical wisdom (phronesis). Virtuous habits and behavior (arête) will be those that ultimately lead to the “good life” (or eudaimonia).

Morality and philosophical method

If moral theories disagree in fundamental ways about the very nature of morality, as they do, then how should one proceed to adjudicate between these views? What sorts of outcomes are possible for moral philosophy? Can morality in the normative sense be defined after all? These are questions of philosophical method.

The most widely held view about possibility for reaching philosophical agreement on the nature of morality depends on the notion of reflective equilibrium. In explanation, consider, firstly, that there seems to be (significant) overlap in the kinds of things that most people regard as right and wrong. For example, most people, and most societies, regard the killing of innocent people as morally wrong. Call this moral system “shared morality” (or pre-rational morality). “Shared morality” is, for the most part, a system of moral rules that sets limits to one’s conduct (for example, thou shall not to murder or steal). “Shared morality” can also incorporate acts that people are not required to do but would be morally significant if one did do them, such as act of charity. Actions that are morally admirable to do but not strictly required, are called supererogatory actions.

The conflict between the prescriptions of a moral theory and our common ways of thinking raises a question about how moral theories are to be evaluated. If a moral theory conflicts with our commonsense, pre-reflective morality, it could be that the theory is wrong or one’s moral convictions are wrong. The most sensible approach seems to be trying to find a reflective equilibrium between one’s moral theories and one’s intuitive judgments of moral rightness and wrongness. The strategy is to anchor one’s moral theories in some of one’s most deeply rooted judgments. Intuitions regarding murder, theft, and rape are perhaps so central that if a theory does not accommodate the point that (for example) rape is always wrong, this is a deficiency of the theory. However, part of the point of moral theorizing is to gain a better understanding of the properties of actions that make them right and wrong. Once a theory is justified by a significant number of deep intuitions, one may refine our moral judgments based on insights gained from the theory. Once this has been achieved it can be said that one’s morality has been internalized (as opposed to being shaped from outside influences such as family and society) and that a shift has occurred from pre-“rational” or “group” morality to “rational” or “reflective” morality.

Morality and ethics

What is the relation between morality and ethics? Many philosophers hold that there is no substantial difference between the two concepts, and use the terms “ethics” and “moral philosophy” interchangeably.

There is, however, another group, who place a great emphasis on maintaining a distinction. Indeed, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Bernard Williams and Elizabeth Anscombe, may be understood as arguing that “morality,” or the “morality system” is an out-moded and indeed pernicious component of ethics. The contrast is drawn between morality as system of absolute rules or moral obligations, such as those issued in the Ten Commandments, and reaching its philosophical apotheosis in Kant’s theory, and other more promising notions pertaining to how to live a maximally happy life (typically associated with virtue).

Nietzsche’s criticism of “morality” revolves around his notion of slave morality. Slave morality, which corresponds closely to Judeo-Christian morality, with its focus on duty and self-sacrifice, originates in the resentment of the weak and oppressed. Slave morality is a subversion of master morality—the natural states of the strong—in which noble and life affirming values have been transformed in vices, and the contrary, slavish and life-negating values, transformed in values. Slave morality is the outcome of weak people’s coming to regard the qualities of the naturally strong as evil, and transforming their own resentment into current conceptions of morality, which have greatly debilitated human life. Nietzsche may, it seems, be interpreted as saying that morality—understood as slave morality—is life negating and should be abolished.

Similarly, in an article, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Elizabeth Anscombe argues that duty based conceptions of morality are conceptually incoherent, for they are based on the idea of a “law without a lawgiver.” The point is that a system of morality conceived along the lines of the Ten Commandments, as a system of rules for action, depends (she claims) on someone having actually made these rules. However, in a modern climate, which is unwilling to accept that morality depends on God in this way, the rule-based conception of morality is stripped of its metaphysical foundation. Anscombe recommends a return the eudaimonistic ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents, and can do so without appealing to any questionable metaphysics. Again, Anscombe’s point may be understood in terms of the abolition of morality and the return to ethics.

Morality and Meta-ethics

Unlike the normative theories discussed above, meta-ethics does not propound any moral principles or goals, but is involved entirely in philosophical analysis. It is concerned with the nature of judgments of right and wrong, as well as with defining ethical terms, such as value terms such as “good” and “bad.” In other words, metaethics attempts to answer epistemological, logical, and semantic questions relating to ethics. In the Anglophone world, twentieth century philosophers have focused tremendously on meta-ethics rather than normative ethics.

Moral relativism

As discussed initially under descriptive morality, morality in the sense of actual codes of conduct may be specific to societies, groups, or individual. Some philosophers conclude from this apparent fact of cultural disagreement that moral rules are nothing other than social conventions of particular cultural groups. This entails that the judgment, for example, that lying is always wrong is simply an expression of the beliefs of a group of people, and it is their beliefs about the matter that make it true. This view is called moral relativism. According to moral relativism, there is no objective and universally valid moral principles. Morality itself is nothing but a matter of convention.

Emotivism and prescriptivism

Emotivism, which is first articulated in the work of David Hume, but is developed to a greater degree of sophistication by writers such as A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson, holds that evaluations express the speaker’s feelings and attitudes: Saying that kindness is good is a way of expressing one’s approval of kindness. Therefore, moral judgments are not objective and do not state any sort of morally truths; rather they are simply expressions of emotions. Similarly, R.M. Hare argues that evaluations (moral judgments) are prescriptions (commands): Saying that kindness is good is a way of telling people that they should be kind. Moral evaluative judgments are then understood as emotive or prescriptive, and are contrasted with descriptive judgments. Descriptive judgments are appraisable as true or false whereas evaluative judgments are not.

Moral skepticism

Moral skepticism is the view that humans have no moral knowledge. Extreme moral skeptics have claimed that all moral beliefs are false, a view which is known as moral nihilism. Nihilists such as J.L. Mackie argue that moral claims are false because they implicitly presuppose objective values which do not exist. Other skeptics take a less extreme position adopting a line of argument that builds on moral relativism by claiming that outside cultural influences are so strong that there is no way one can ever objectively assess morality, and that this inevitable bias makes moral beliefs unjustifiable. Arguing from the other direction are skeptics such as Richard Joyce, who argue that it is not outside or cultural influences that make moral claims unjustifiable, but rather the fact that morality is so internalized that makes objective moral truths impossible. Joyce argues that mankind has evolved to hold moral beliefs and we would hold them regardless of whether they are right or wrong, this is known as the argument from evolution.

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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