The Definition of Morality
First published Wed Apr 17, 2002; substantive revision Mon Mar 14, 2011
The term “morality” can be used either
descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
some other group, such as a religion, or
accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.
What “morality” is taken to refer to plays a crucial, although often unacknowledged, role in formulating ethical theories. To take “morality” to refer to an actually existing code of conduct put forward by a society results in a denial that there is a universal morality, one that applies to all human beings. This descriptive use of “morality”is the one used by anthropologists when they report on the morality of the societies that they study. Recently, some comparative and evolutionary psychologists (Haidt, Hauser, De Waal) have taken morality, or a close anticipation of it, to be present among groups of non-human animals, primarily other primates but not limited to them. “Morality” has also been taken to refer to any code of conduct that a person or group takes as most important.
Among those who use “morality” normatively, all hold that “morality” refers to a code of conduct that applies to all who can understand it and can govern their behavior by it. In the normative sense, morality should never be overridden, that is, no one should ever violate a moral prohibition or requirement for non-moral considerations. All of those who use “morality” normatively also hold that, under plausible specified conditions, all rational persons would endorse that code. Moral theories differ in their accounts of the essential characteristics of rational persons and in their specifications of the conditions under which all rational persons would endorse a code of conduct as a moral code. These differences result in different kinds of moral theories. Related to these differences, moral theories differ with regard to those to whom morality applies, that is, those whose behavior is subject to moral judgment. Some hold that morality applies only to those rational beings that have those features of human beings that make it rational for all of them to endorse morality, viz., fallibility and vulnerability. Other moral theories claim to put forward an account of morality that provides a guide to all rational beings, even if these beings do not have these human characteristics, e.g., God.
Dictionary definitions of referring terms are usually just descriptions of the important features of the referents of those terms. Insofar as the referents of a term share the features that account for why that term refers to those referents, the term is not regarded as ambiguous. Referring terms are ambiguous when the referents of the term differ from each other in sufficiently important ways. The original descriptive definition of “morality” refers to the most important code of conduct put forward by a society and accepted by the members of that society. When the examination of large diverse societies raised problems for this original descriptive definition, different descriptive definitions were offered in which “morality” refers to the most important code of conduct put forward and accepted by any group, or even by an individual. Apart from containing some prohibitions on harming some others, different moralities can differ from each other quite extensively.
“Morality”when used in a descriptive sense has an essential feature that “morality” in the normative sense does not have, namely, that it refers to codes of conduct that are actually put forward and accepted by some society, group, or individual. If one is not a member of that society or group, and is not that individual, accepting a descriptive definition of “morality” has no implications for how one should behave. If one accepts a moral theory’s account of rational persons and the specifications of the conditions under which all rational persons would endorse a code of conduct as a moral code, then one accepts that moral theory’s normative definition of “morality. ” Accepting a normative definition of “morality” commits a person to regarding some behavior as immoral, perhaps even behavior that one is tempted to perform. Because accepting a normative definition of “morality” involves this commitment it is not surprising that philosophers seriously disagree about what normative definition to accept.
1. Descriptive Definitions of “morality”
2. Normative Definitions of “morality”
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1. Descriptive Definitions of “morality”
“Morality” is an unusual word. It is not used very much, at least not without some qualification. People do sometimes talk about Christian morality, Nazi morality, or about the morality of the Greeks, but they seldom talk simply about morality all by itself. Consistent with this way of talking, many anthropologists used to claim that morality, like law, applies only within a society. They claimed that “morality” refers to that code of conduct that is put forward by a society. However, even in small homogeneous societies that have no written language, distinctions are sometimes made among morality, etiquette, law, and religion. So, even for these anthropologists “morality” does not often refer to every code of conduct put forward by a society.
Etiquette is sometimes included as a part of morality, but it applies to norms that are considered less serious than the kinds of norms for behavior that are part of morality in the basic sense. Hobbes expresses the standard view when he discusses manners. “By manners I mean not here decency of behavior, as how one man should salute another, or how a man should wash his mouth or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of small morals, but those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity.” (Leviathan, Chapter XI, paragraph 1)
Law or a legal system is distinguished from morality or a moral system by having explicit written rules, penalties, and officials who interpret the laws and apply the penalties. Although there is often considerable overlap in the conduct governed by morality and that governed by law, laws are often evaluated on moral grounds. Moral criticism is often used to support a change in the law. Some have even maintained that the interpretation of law must make use of morality (Dworkin).
Religion differs from morality or a moral system in that it includes stories about events in the past, usually about supernatural beings, that are used to explain or justify the behavior that it prohibits or requires. Sometimes there is no distinction made between a moral code and a code of conduct put forward by a religion, and there is often a considerable overlap in the conduct prohibited or required by religion and that prohibited or required by morality. But religions may prohibit or require more than is prohibited or required by guides to behavior that are explicitly labeled as moral guides, and may allow some behavior that is prohibited by morality. Sometimes morality is regarded as the code of conduct that is put forward by religion, but even when this is not the case, morality is thought by many to need some religious explanation and justification. However, just as with law, some religious practices and precepts are criticized on moral grounds, e.g., discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Morality is only a guide to conduct, whereas religion is always more than this.
When “morality” is used simply to refer to a code of conduct put forward by any actual group, including a society, whether it is distinguished from etiquette, law, and religion, then it is being used in a descriptive sense. It is also being used in the descriptive sense when it refers to important attitudes of individuals. Just as one can refer to the morality of the Greeks, so one can refer to the morality of a particular person. This descriptive use of “morality” is now becoming more prominent because of the work of psychologists (Haidt) who have been influenced by the views of David Hume, who tried to present a naturalistic account of moral judgments. In the 20th century, R.M. Hare, in his earlier books (The Language of Morals, Freedom and Reason) regarded moral judgments as those judgments that override all nonmoral judgments and that the person would universalize. This account of moral judgments naturally leads to a view of morality as being concerned with behavior that a person regards as most important and as a guide to conduct that he wants everyone to adopt. All guides to behavior that are normally regarded as moralities involve avoiding and preventing harm to others, but all of them involve other matters as well. Hare’s view of morality as that which is most important allows that these other features of morality may be more important than avoiding and preventing harm to others. This view of morality as concerning that which is most important allows those features related to religious practices and precepts, or those features related to customs and traditions, e.g., purity and sanctity, to be more important than avoiding and preventing harm.
When “morality” is used in these descriptive senses, moralities can differ from each other quite extensively in their content and in the foundation that members of the society claim their morality to have. A society might have a moral code that regards practices as necessary for purity or sanctity as more important than practices related to whether other persons are harmed. A society may take as morally most important that certain rituals are performed or that certain sexual practices, e.g., homosexuality, are prohibited, than that harms, e.g., pain and disability, are avoided or prevented. Some societies may claim that their morality, which is more concerned with purity and sanctity, is based on the commands of God. This descriptive sense of “morality,” where morality is based on religion, results in some significant conflicts with all normative accounts of morality. In the normative sense of “morality” all rational persons endorse morality independent of their religious beliefs, and as rational persons they are primarily concerned with avoiding and preventing harm. Many religions condemn homosexual behavior as immoral, but those who hold that morality is primarily concerned with avoiding and preventing harm condemn religious discrimination against homosexuals as immoral.
A society might have a morality that takes accepting the traditions and customs of the society, including accepting authority and emphasizing loyalty to the group, as more important than avoiding and preventing harm. In addition to conflicts concerning homosexuality, this account of morality might not allow any behavior that shows loyalty to the preferred group to count as immoral behavior. This account may claim that if one acts out of loyalty to the preferred group, it is morally acceptable to cause significant harm to innocent people not in that group. Acting altruistically, at least with regard to those in the group, is almost equated with acting morally, regardless of its effects on those outside of the group. This kind of account, which makes loyalty almost equivalent to morality, seems to allow some comparative and evolutionary psychologists to regard non-human animals as acting in ways very similar to ways of acting that are regarded as moral. (De Waal).
It is possible for a society to regard morality as being concerned primarily with minimizing the harms, e.g., pain and disability, that all human beings can suffer. Such a society might claim that their morality, in which minimizing the harms that all human beings can suffer is the primary concern, is based on some universal features of human nature or of all rational beings. Although all societies include more than this in their moralities, this feature of morality, unlike purity and sanctity, or accepting authority and emphasizing loyalty, is included in everything that is regarded as a morality in all societies. Because minimizing harm can conflict with accepting authority and emphasizing loyalty, there can be fundamental disagreements within a society about what is the morally right way to behave. A society whose morality contains all three of these features may be criticized by philosophers that accept a normative account of morality if in any situation it allows purity or sanctity to override avoiding or preventing harm. Those who accept a normative account of morality, e.g., Bentham and Mill, which takes the avoiding and preventing harm element of morality to be most important, criticize all actual moralities that give precedence to purity and sanctity when they are in conflict with avoiding and preventing harm.
Some psychologists (Haidt) take morality to include all three of these features and hold that different members of a society can and do take different features of morality as most important. Most societies have moralities that contain all three of the above features; most societies also claim that morality has all three of the above foundations, religion, tradition, and rational human nature. But, in the original descriptive sense of “morality,” beyond some concern with avoiding and preventing harm to some others, there may be no common content, nor may there be any common justification that those who accept the morality claim for it. The only other features that all of the original descriptive moralities have in common is that they are put forward by a group, usually a society and they provide a guide for the behavior of the people in that group or society. In this descriptive sense of “morality,” morality might allow slavery or might allow some people with one skin color to behave in ways that those with a different skin color are not allowed to behave. In this descriptive sense of “morality,” morality may not even incorporate impartiality with regard to all moral agents, those people whose behavior is legitimately subject to moral judgments, nor may it be universalizable in any significant way.
Although most philosophers do not use “morality” in any of these descriptive senses, some philosophers do. Ethical relativists deny that there is any universal normative morality and claim that the actual moralities of societies are the only moralities there are. (Westermarck) Ethical relativists hold that only when the term “morality.” is used in this descriptive sense is there something that “morality” actually refers to, namely, a code of conduct put forward by a society. They claim that it is a mistake to take “morality.” to refer to a universal code of conduct that, under some plausible conditions, would be endorsed by all rational persons. Although ethical relativists admit that many speakers of English use “morality” to refer to such a universal code of conduct, they claim such persons are mistaken in thinking that there is anything that is the referent of the word “morality” taken in that sense. The harm caused by Christian missionaries who used morality as a basis for trying to change the sexual practices of the societies to which they came may have been one of the reasons why many anthropologists endorsed ethical relativism. It is interesting that one basis for criticizing the behavior of Christian missionaries is that it caused harm to the people in those societies, which is a basis that would be endorsed by those that use “morality”in the normative sense.
When “morality” refers to the codes of conduct of different societies, morality is a code of conduct that is put forward by a society and that most members of that society use as their guide. In this descriptive sense, although avoiding and preventing harm is common to all, “morality” can refer to codes of conduct of different societies with widely differing content, and still be used unambiguously. This is the same way that “law” is used unambiguously even though different societies have laws with widely differing content. However, there are now other descriptive senses of “morality.” In the sense most closely related to the original descriptive sense, “morality” refers to a guide to behavior put forward by some group other than a society, for example, a religious group. When the guide to conduct put forward by a religious group conflicts with the guide to conduct put forward by a society, it is not clear whether to say that there are conflicting moralities, conflicting elements within morality, or that the code of the religious group conflicts with morality. Members of the society that are also members of a religious group may regard both guides as elements of morality and differ with respect to which of the conflicting elements of the moral guide they consider most important. There are likely to be significant moral disputes between those who consider different elements as more important.
In small homogeneous societies people do not belong to groups that put forward guides to behavior that conflict with the guide put forward by their society. A society is homogeneous if there is only one guide to behavior that is accepted by all members of the society and that is the code of conduct that is put forward by the society. For such societies there is no ambiguity about which guide “morality” refers to. However, in those large societies where people often belong to groups that put forward guides to behavior that conflict with the guide put forward by their society, members of the society do not always accept the guide put forward by their society. If they accept the conflicting guide of some other group to which they belong, often a religious group, rather than the guide put forward by their society, in cases of conflict they will regard those who follow the guide put forward by their society as acting immorally.
The original descriptive sense of “morality,” parallel to the descriptive senses of “etiquette” and “law,” has two formal features: that morality is a code of conduct that is put forward by a society and that members of that society accept it as a guide for their behavior. This reveals an ambiguity that was not recognized because of the concentration on small homogeneous societies. Does “morality” refer only to those guides to conduct put forward by a society, or does it refer to guides to conduct put forward by other groups as well? If the code of conduct a society puts forward is not accepted as a guide to behavior by the members of that society, which of these two features should be taken as essential? The recognition that people in a society do not always accept the code of conduct their society puts forward presents problems for the original descriptive sense of “morality.” The code of conduct a society puts forward and the code of conduct that members of that society use as a guide to behavior may differ.
The definition of “morality” as referring to the code of conduct accepted by the members of a society causes some problems because in many large societies, not all members of the society accept the same code of conduct. For the same reason adopting a somewhat more general definition of “morality” as the code of conduct accepted by the members of a group also causes problems because it is not only possible, but also it is often the case, that not all members of any group accept the same code. A natural response to these problems is to switch attention from groups to individuals. If what is important is what code of conduct people accept, and members of a group do not always accept the same code of conduct, then why be concerned with groups at all?
This consideration may support the descriptive sense of “morality” referred to earlier according to which morality is that guide to behavior that is regarded by an individual as overriding and that he wants to be universally adopted. Understood in this way “morality” refers to a guide to behavior accepted by an individual rather than that put forward by a society or any other group. But “morality” does not refer to just any guide to behavior accepted by an individual; it is that guide to behavior that the individual accepts as his overriding guide, and wants everyone in his group to accept as their overriding guide as well. This sense of “morality” is a descriptive sense, because a person can refer to some other individual’s morality without endorsing it. In this sense, morality has less limitation on content than the original descriptive sense. Whatever guide to behavior an individual regards as overriding and wants to be accepted by everyone in his group is that individual’s morality; but if he is rational it will include prohibitions on causing harm.
When people explicitly talk about the morality of a group other than their own or of a person other than themselves, it is usually clear that they are using “morality” in a descriptive sense. However, when a person simply claims that morality prohibits or requires a given action, then the term “morality” is genuinely ambiguous. It is not clear whether it refers to (1) a guide to behavior that is put forward by a society, either one’s own or some other society; (2) a guide that is put forward by a group, either one to which the person belongs or another; or (3) a guide that a person, perhaps himself, regards as overriding and wants adopted by everyone in his group, or (4) is a universal guide that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents. When a person uses “morality” to refer to a guide to conduct put forward by a group, unless it is his own group, it is usually only being used in its descriptive sense. No one referring to morality in the descriptive sense of “morality” need be endorsing it. When “morality” refers to a guide to conduct accepted by an individual, unless that individual is himself, it is usually being used in its descriptive sense. However, if the individual is referring to his own morality, he is usually using it normatively, that is, he is claiming that all rational persons would put it forward. Only (4) is always used normatively but a person might hold that the morality referred to in (1), (2), or (3) is also the morality referred to in (4).
Following Aristotle, “ethics” is sometimes taken as referring to a more general guide to behavior that an individual adopts as his own guide to life, as long as it is a guide that one views as a proper guide for others. When a general guide to behavior endorses self-interest as primary this is usually because acting in one’s self interest is taken as fostering the interests of all. However, Sidgwick, (Methods of Ethics) regarded moral rules as any rational rules of conduct, and because he held that it is rational to take one’s self-interest as primary, even if others are seriously harmed, he held that “ethical egoism” was an ethical theory. He may have been the primary source of the current philosophical practice that includes ethical egoism, acting in one’s own self-interest even when this requires harming innocent people, as an ethical theory. Because all moralities in the descriptive sense include a prohibition on harming others, ethical egoism is not a morality in the descriptive sense. Because all moralities in the normative sense not only include prohibitions on harming others but also are such that all rational persons would endorse that morality, ethical egoism is not a morality in the normative sense. To regard a guide to conduct that takes one’s own self-interest as sanctioning harming innocent others as a moral guide, is possible only if one equates moral rules with rational rules of conduct as Sidgwick does.
In descriptive sense of “morality,” morality cannot be a guide to behavior that a person does not want others, even those in his own society, to adopt. However, there is a sense of “morality” such that it does refer to a code of conduct adopted by an individual for his own use, but which he does not require to be adopted by anyone else. This can occur when an individual adopts for himself a very demanding guide that he thinks may be too difficult for most to follow. However, this guide is correctly referred to as a morality only when the individual would be willing for others to adopt that code of conduct, but does not require that they do so. He may judge people who do not adopt his code of conduct as not being as morally good as he is, but does not judge them to be immoral if they do not adopt it.
2. Normative Definitions of “morality”