Morality is a concept that plays an extremely significant role in the daily lives of most humans. It is a concept that is held in great regard in many societies and religions yet it is one that is greatly debated upon as well. At first look morality seems like a fairly straightforward concept but upon deeper inspection it becomes abundantly clear just how complicated and complex of a subject it truly is. Morality means different things to different people and it certainly does play a large part in shaping the decisions they make and their actions and hence, on a much larger scale, the direction the world moves in. It perhaps contains the answers or the reasoning behind all human actions and conflicts. It may help explain a lot of behaviors and the various motives behind these particular behaviors. Thus perhaps quite appropriately, given its apparent importance, morality has been discussed vastly and studied by some of the greatest minds to have ever existed including Aristotle, Nietzsche and various others. This has led to a wide array of approaches to this topic yet no consensus as to its nature. In this essay, the main objective will be to look at the various ways in which morality has been and is perceived throughout the world as well as the functions it fulfills and ultimately, try to establish or identify the nature of morality and the extent to which it is subjective in its nature.
Before proceeding any further, the definition of morality in terms of this essay has to be set out in order to remove any vagueness associated with the word as well as set certain boundaries or parameters. For the sake of this essay the word morality entails the following, “Morality speaks of a system of behavior in regards to standards of right or wrong behavior. The word carries the concepts of: (1) moral standards, with regard to behavior; (2) moral responsibility, referring to our conscience; and (3) a moral identity, or one who is capable of right or wrong action” (Outlaw). As the above definition clearly states, the word morality carries certain concepts with it. Each of these concepts come together to make morality a very meaningful word. As will be seen in this essay, all of these concepts associated with the word morality play a significant role in how it has been perceived by humans and the reasons behind it.
Morality has played and continues to play an important role for humanity. It serves certain functions on various levels for individuals and society as a whole, some of which will be touched upon in this essay. On the individual level morality plays an important role in the form of the conscience. As humans we hold certain moral beliefs and believe in certain moral values and these guide us in decision making. They help us differentiate between a good decision and a bad one. We may choose to act upon either of those but the value judgments are made. Another function of morality that may be classified in either individual or societal is character judgment. Studies have shown the most important factor most people consider while forming impressions of other people is morality (Goodwin et al.).. A person’s morality may shape their social interactions to a large extent, whether people approach them, what presumptions people hold about them and what place they will hold in society. Furthermore a basic collective morality helps in promoting social cohesion and co-operation. In terms of religion, morality is perhaps the basis for many, the foundation upon which they are built. A lot of religions set out clear boundaries defining right and wrong, good and bad and operate on a rewards and punishments basis. Thus needless to say religion and morality go hand in hand and morality is of great importance in many religions. Finally perhaps morality is the ultimate end, the reason behind every decision a person makes. Perhaps it is morality that drives humans, and a good person is what all must strive to become. As is visible, morality holds a very significant place for the individual and for society as a whole. Having established the importance of this concept, the nature of morality will now be looked at.
In philosophy there are generally considered to be five main branches, namely, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, logic and ethics. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with morality and meta ethics is the branch of ethics that deals with the nature of morality. Philosopher’s have argued for a long time upon this very topic. The two broad schools of thought regarding the nature of morality are moral realism and moral anti-realism. Moral realism is the belief that moral facts exist just as physical facts do and any moral proposition can either be true or false(McCord) whereas moral anti-realism holds that there are no moral facts, only opinions(Joyce). There are many further sub categories within each of those schools revolving around the degree of rigidity of the stances but the basic premise remains the same. The matter of moral facts serves as the divider between both schools. There have been many theories presented on either side.
Most people live their lives in accordance with societal notions of right and wrong without ever questioning the validity of these notions. The derivation of these ideals is not questioned and the situational validity is also not looked upon. Whether a decision is right or wrong depends on the situation in which the decision has to be made. All humans have a distinct path in life, unique encounters, unique experiences and unique ways of perceiving them. No two persons may claim to be exactly the same in all aspects of their being and it would appear to be viable to assume that they would take different factors into account while judging or placing values on any given decision. People differ in what they consider to be good or bad, right or wrong and the ways in which they reach these value judgments. One may value a decision as being good as it benefits them while another may value a decision as being good as it benefits society as a whole even though it doesn’t necessarily directly benefit them. Similarly between the same two choices, neither may be considered as good or bad in each and every single given situation. In the case of the United States dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if one were to say that it was necessary to end the war, then it might be considered a harsh choice but nonetheless the right one. However if one were to say the war was already coming to an end and this attack was driven by a sense of vengeance or it was overkill, it may be considered a wrong choice. Thus in the same situation, the variables change the value placed on the decision made.
Perhaps the most influential philosopher in modern history, Friedrich Nietzsche presented a very interesting theory on morality. Nietzsche was of the belief that humanity has adopted an anti-natural morality that goes against the very instincts of life (Nietzsche). He put forth the idea that there were two kinds of people, the higher man and the herd (Nietzsche). The higher man is one who is not afraid to tread their own path and live in solitude, be that physical or ideological (Nietzsche). These consist of creative geniuses who leave the world works of astounding beauty, the people who have risen above the petty concerns of the herd, those who strive for ideals, the geniuses who leave an impact that is felt long after their demise, “the men of great creativity, the really great men according to my understanding” (Nietzsche). Among the higher men in greater numbers are those who are hidden from the public eye, those whose lives are thus “without songs and singers” (Nietzsche) yet they still share a lot of qualities and character traits with the creative geniuses and have risen above the herd as well, they too can think for themselves. Among the herd is the last man and the slave. The last man is devoid of creativity, the quintessential mediocre human whose only aim in life is comfort (Nietzsche). The slave is a sickly, weak human who is filled with what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a hatred of life due to feelings of impotence in the face of the harsh realities of life (Nietzsche). Nietzsche believes the herd envies the higher humans who does not suffer as they do, the herd thus forms a collective in order to gain some power and under the guise of equality tries to bring down the higher humans to a more mediocre level through the construction of a slave morality. Nietzsche says all those higher humans are deemed to be evil and all from the herd are deemed to be good by the “vengeful disguised as judges” (Nietzsche) via this slave morality. Thus Nietzsche effectively states that morality is nothing but a social construct formulated to promote mediocrity and conformism and shun those who dare to differ. Nietzsche clearly states that herd or slave morality is not universal and that the higher humans must create their own values thus again reinforcing the idea that morality is indeed subjective in nature.
A particular school of thought in moral anti-realism, ‘Error Theory’ holds that moral facts do not exist but the difference here being that it holds that all sentences that imply the instantiation of a moral property are false. The moral property may or may not exist but it is not instantiated. Thus this theory focuses more on moral discourse. This is to say that nothing is good or bad in its nature, it is good or bad because one says it is good or bad, one places value upon it. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Shakespeare). One may not say something is morally wrong or right but they may despise or admire it nonetheless without placing an absolute moral value on it.
Another way of looking at morality was put forth in the form of one of the first theories to be presented regarding ethics by the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle in a collection of his lecture notes. The collection titled Nicomachean Ethics introduced a few ideas regarding the nature of morality. As with most ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle’s ethics revolve around virtue. Aristotle introduced the concept of ‘Eudaimon’ which is a Greek word that means good soul (Aristotle). He put forth the idea that within all humans there is an innate desire to reach Eudaimonia, a state of permanent happiness and serenity, and the way to achieve it is through virtue. He stated that virtue lies between the vices of excess and deficiency and that by consistently being virtuous over a period of time, we may achieve Eudaimonia(Aristotle). Effectively, how close our decisions take us to reaching this state, defines whether they are good or bad. Although Aristotle does not outwardly define the nature of morality, he does assume that there is some objectivity in the fact that there is an innate desire in humans to reach Eudaimonia. While he doesn’t define what decisions might be right or wrong, he does in fact assume there is a right and wrong, there is a value judgment placed on decisions. Thus Aristotle does indeed ascribe a certain objectivity to morality. However this theory depends upon a significant assumption that humans have a desire within them to reach their best self in the form of Eudaimonia. There is clearly problem with this as the basis for the theory is in itself not an established phenomena and thus the theory may be discarded by some as holding no real value.
In favor of moral realism and objectivity in morality, Immanuel Kant put forth the concept of the ‘Categorical Imperative’. This is a moral obligation which according to Kant can be derived from pure reason. This is something that will hold true in all situations regardless of the circumstances(Kant). Kant presented four formulations of this concept of which two shall be mentioned in this essay. The first one of these formulation is the universalizability principle, “Act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction” (Kant). This means people should make decisions while accepting that everyone should be able to make that same decision without making exceptions for oneself. In principle Kant holds the view that moral views apply to everyone equally. The second formulation is the formula of humanity, “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end, and never as a mere means” (Kant). Thus one must not treat humanity as merely an object to be used for oneself as humans are rational and autonomous and one must recognize that all humans have their own objectives, goals and aims. Thus Kant assumes that a right answer exists that can be derived through reason and it must objectively hold true in all situations. However there are a few issues with this theory. Kant’s theory only applies to rational beings, it would not be applicable to non rational humans. It is a bold assumption to make in the first instance that humans are in fact rational and as the perspective changing and ground breaking ‘Prospect Theory’ showed definitively, this is not the case, in fact humans systematically make logic defying decisions (Kahneman, Tversky). One could also phrase the maxim or rule in such a way such as to satisfy one’s own needs that are inconsistent with the categorical imperative while technically in compliance with it through the use of conditions. Another issue is that Kant does not allow for situational factors. Thus if one states lying is wrong and should not be practiced, even if a person were to be in extreme danger and the only way to get out of that situation would be to lie, that person would not be able to do so as it would go against the categorical imperative.
Moving on to morality and its relationship with religion, many people firmly associate morality with religion and there are quite a few theories that support this idea. ‘The Divine Command Theory’ for instance states that an action is good or bad depending upon whether it is commanded by God. If God tells people to do something, it is by definition good. All that is moral and all that is immoral is so only because it is commanded by the Divine. Similarly Thomas Aquinas put forth the ‘Natural Law Theory’, a theory which states that God supplied all of humanity with the necessary tools to decipher what is good and what is bad. In fact he sates God endowed us with a desire for that which God Himself made good for us (Aquinas et al.). Furthermore he stated there are seven basic goods which God created and intended for us of which living in society is one (Aquinas et al.). Thus both above mentioned theories present the principle that God is the originator of morals and thus morality is indeed objective as commanded. In Ancient Greece however, Plato presented a dilemma in his dialogue titled Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” ( Plato, Wells). This dilemma presents two sides and each side has a few problems associated with it. The first side supposes that morality exists outside of God, it is an independent concept and even if God were not to exist, morality would still exist (Plato, Wells). This obviously goes in direct contradiction with any theory that supposes God created morality and affects His omnipotence. The other side supposes that God does indeed create morality and what is good is only good because God says it is good (Plato, Wells). This means if God were to say murder is good, then it would by definition be good regardless of how people feel about it. This affects the benevolence of God and reduces morality to merely God’s will and nothing else. Other than the above mentioned refutations, these theories assume or require one to believe in a God in the first place and as is well established that is not the case for everyone in the world.
Finally coming to possible biological roots of morality, a New York Times article stating “Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days”(Wade) was published presenting quite interesting facts. This shows that in the primates there is some sort of an impulse that drives them to make what might be considered to be good decisions. Thus it may reasonably be derived that perhaps it is a sort of morality that is present in primates and perhaps it played an evolutionary role. However not only could that behavior have multiple reasoning and a cause and effect relationship cannot objectively be developed, the evolutionary debunking arguments come into play in this case as well. Even if morality were to be considered a product of evolution via natural selection, it would not guarantee that moral facts exist as natural selection would have equipped humans with morality regardless of that fact(Polzler).
In conclusion as with all ethical debates, there cannot be a completely conclusive answer to this question, as ethical debates are rarely if ever black and white. However it does appear to be evident based on the arguments presented above that morality is indeed to a large extent subjective in its nature. It depends upon each person and the conditions around them, the variable can change the value placed on a decision entirely. As is seen throughout the essay, in the case of Aristotle’s theory, Kant’s theory, the ‘Divine Command Theory’ and the ‘Natural Law Theory’ in support of moral realism all rest on assumptions that are quite significant and all have faults of their own. It would not, however, be farfetched to support either side of this argument and it truly does depend upon what one prioritizes. Furthermore, perhaps the nature of morality in itself is not important so long as it serves its purpose for each individual. That being said, for the time being, it is perhaps quite clear to see that morality is indeed purely subjective in its nature.