What Is Moral?

Larry Gott
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What Is Moral?

 A YouTuber from Australia posed a number of questions designed to stimulate thought on what was a moral response to a dilemma. One of them was the "Sophie's Choice" dilemma. A conversation on the general definition of morality ensued.


Q: I wonder if you may expand on your point about the specific examples given not being moral issues, to stop any further confusion (if you see any)? 

A: I'll try. As I said before, I think questions of this kind are idle because they really allow no good result. You can make yourself crazy with exercises like this and wind up no wiser than when you started, because there simply IS no correct answer. Or, it’s entirely possible that you are a deeper thinker than I am. I say that without irony or rancor. Your mind seems to have a facility for philosophy that mine simply doesn’t. I get bogged down mentally in philosophical questions, and I’m never sure that I’ve addressed them well enough.

Q: Ultimately I would say moral decisions are inconveniently subjective (observing how even those with supposedly objective versions of morality, like the religious, wax and wane is evidence for that). 

A: I think moral questions are always subjective. For there to be an objective morality there must be one correct answer dictated by authority. If you accept that, you are then left with the question, “whose authority?” If you rely on the authority of a god, you should consider that for that god – that law GIVER - all answers must of necessity be subjective, since he/she/it answers to no other authority.

Religious people tell me that god decides what is good and what is evil. Supposing that is true, then to god, there really is no difference. God could as easily define an action as good that we now take for evil and vice versa. The entire concept of good and evil becomes moot. Good is good because god says so.

The foregoing is my clumsy paraphrase of Bertrand Russell. But I think it sums up the objective vs subjective idea.

I mentioned in another video that the word “moral” comes from a Latin root meaning “custom.” The word “ethics” comes from the Greek “ethos,” which means the same thing. Human beings are social animals with enough intelligence to realize that their ultimate wellbeing depends on their relationship with their fellow creatures. We get along best when we make decisions based on what we perceive to be the greatest good for the social network in which we live.

There are, of course, pitfalls in a subjective morality. For some tribal peoples the custom demands hunting of rival tribes, taking heads as trophies of their power and even eating their enemies as a means of gaining their strength symbolically. Such an “ethic” might actually work in societies that are small enough and remote enough, and, indeed, did work for many centuries in places like Borneo.

In my first video on whether the Prophet Muhammad was a pedophile I opined that, for his time, when increasing the tribe was of paramount importance, it might have been reasonable for girls to be married as soon as they had entered puberty. That Aisha was only nine makes her just a child in a modern person’s understanding, whether she had menstruated or not. But 1400 years ago, assuming she had entered puberty and was capable of conceiving, that fact would have been the ONLY thing considered. Those people knew nothing of child psychology, nor of the physical damage that could result from that kind of union. I mentioned that the average age for girls to be married at the time of the alleged Jesus’ birth was about 13, the normal time for the onset of puberty. That would be considered immoral today, because our society’s customs are based on greater knowledge than those people possessed.

The point is that morality may change with the degree of a society’s knowledge. It is a matter of custom. I did point out that “thighing” was a different matter, and in my opinion, was always wrong. The custom of every civilized society has been to protect, not abuse its children. Many Muslims have told me that that practice was never allowed, while others admitted that it was long ago. Others, Sunnis, have told me that only Shiites ever did such dreadful things, and that “they aren’t real Muslims anyway.” That, of course sounds like a Baptist telling me that a Catholic is not a “true” Christian.

I seem to have gotten off the track. Back to your message.

Q: Also, it may seem that we are bound to be savages, each with totally incompatible ideas about how to run a community and we therefore are unable to fairly make decisions, but thankfully we are blessed with the idea of democratic society. This fortunately allows a general consensus to be reached on a code of conduct (or on more specific issues) for a group; where each member agrees to abide by these rules if they are to be a part of it, thus providing some objective law.

A: That code of conduct is arrived at by purely subjective means. Again, if obedience to authority, whether that authority is agreed upon democratically or not, can be called objective, it is still only objective in the sense that it is followed unquestioningly. Following the law is objective, while making the law, in a democratic society, at least, is subjective. Morality, if it can be said to exist at all, falls somewhere in the gap between the two.

Q: A simplified version of my requirements would be that the aim in any decision is to maximize the amount of future pleasure for all those involved. Most of us value our lives based on the amount of joy we can cram in, so a moral ideal which takes the length of life and its quality into account, seems appropriate. 

A: I can agree with this definition. I dumbed it down a little in a video by saying that what is moral does good while what is immoral does harm. Simplistic, of course, but to the point. One can always get an argument, though. Not everyone agrees on what is harmful, for example.

The best moral statement, to my mind, is still what we know as the golden rule. Christians will jump on that statement and claim that their Christ said it. But they neglect to mention (or don't know) that Confucius said the same thing in slightly different words five centuries before the birth of the alleged Jesus. You can also count on some person pointing out that if you are a masochist and like painful things done to you, you might follow the rule, but do harm. You will never argue morality in any form without dissent from someone. I guess that's part of what makes life interesting.

Frankly, if there were an afterlife in a heaven of utter bliss, with no problems, no dissent, everyone thinking, feeling and doing the same thing, I wouldn't want to go there. I called it the Eternal Ennui. Boredom that lasts forever!

This hasn't been my best letter, I guess, but that's what I have for the moment. Best regards,