What is Morality?

From a friend I received the following two questions:

1: “If everyone adopts a specific code of ethics (mine), could I claim that they would be better off”?

2:  “Would I advocate a homogeneous ethic even if I knew that some people would be worse off”?

2B: “In other words, should one advocate the adoption of an ethic by others if the answer to #1 is no or #2 is yes”?
I was first led to wonder what exactly it is that morality is.  At first, I suspected that it was merely self regulated behavior. But that’s redundant. All the things which we do are actions which are self regulated.  Then I thought that it was interaction with others that conformed to a sense of propriety.  This is closer – but has two problems. #1 Some people believe that it is possible to do things which are improper and not imprudent by performing actions which have effects that are isolated from other persons. I can buy this in a certain sense.  This morality is a judgment of prudence. That is, that some self serving actions are praiseworthy or blameworthy both on their effects and on the values which motivate them.  #2 It moves the problem of defining morality instead into the problem of defining propriety.

First, keep in mind that we completely accept the theory of subjective value (see previous posts).  With that in mind, I sought to create a definition of morality which could address both actions in isolation and within a social context.  It would have to relate back to values. Otherwise, no one would act ‘morally’. People would just be moving and bumping around in the world with no motivation for their actions. There would have to an impetus other than the acceptance of a rule (certainly some people are gain satisfaction from the knowledge that they are compliant with society’s rules and norms).  People act according to their values. Therefore, there must be something valuable, in acting morally, which is apart from the immediate implication of the action.  An un-astute observer might like the phrase “morality is valuable in and of itself”.  Some people know what their impetus is.  Some people act in a fashion which they deem moral simply so that they may comply with a list of requirements for later gratification.

I remember being told repeatedly that the goal of doing good for others was valuable on its own – that heaven is not the end zone.  Heaven is the reward to the righteous.  He who is does the right things for the mere reward of everlasting elation can not be said to have acted righteously (due to the intent and motivation of their action) and would not have met the requisite ‘valuation of the act’ independently of the suspected reward.  Love thy neighbor.  Go to heavenNot: Love thy neighbor in order to enter heaven. The idea of Christianity, for example, is that the faithful should want to help others independent of the results/rewards of their actions. Those who want to help regardless of reward are the most praiseworthy of all.  Many people do good for others not knowing the motivation for their actions.  This fact alone makes the conversation difficult because people don’t sit in their armchairs and ‘think’ out each moral implication of every action that they perform.  It’s no wonder that some fall back on the reason “because it’s right”.

So I propose the following definition of morality: “The set of actions which a person’s instinct, thought, or intuition conclude are systemically advantageous in pursuing those things which a person values”.  I’m careful not to infer that all actions are compelled by deliberation.  People act according to what they value.  My definition establishes a foundation upon which to elaborate and deepen the phrase “moral action is good in and of itself”.

We can trace the western standardization of morality back to both Christianity and liberalism.  Both suggest the ideas of equality among all types of people regardless of station or status.  Equality before the law may appear second nature to us. But 300 years ago it was not unusual for persons in government office to have rights and privileges beyond and over those of the common worker.  There were separate sets of rules to which different persons were beholden.

The reasons for the different rules were purely practical – regardless of the alleged reasons at the time.  If the profuse use of power by a king had no or few repercussions to that king, then why would we expect the sovereign to act as if he had the lesser power of a common serf?  Indeed, the king would receive no disapprobation for his actions which would be reprehensible if he were of a different status.  The king’s morality was respondent to a different set of reactions than non-kings.  The sovereign could act in a systematically manner, different from that of a serf, which would serve to achieve the goals which he valued most.  Again, this does not have to be either shortsighted or long-term oriented – the importance of either lie in the values of the agent.  The king would have a perception of the social rules that applied to him and act in a way that he thought would best garner value.  This is the morality of prudence.

There is no reason that the morality for common folk was any more or less ‘right’ – though it was certainly applicable to a greater number of people.  As the stations of serf, vassal, and various stations in between fell homogenized into a single class of burg residents, the sets of rules that governed the paths to achieving value also homogenized.  Unless a person worked for the state, there was little coercive advantage that one could exercise over another without incurring significant cost at the detriment of the agent.  In other words, more social interactions became voluntary.  Although all systematic sets of rules are unique to each individual, the ‘overlap’ among people grew. That is, the set of actions which were advantageous for an individual, to best garner value, became applicable to a greater number of people.  We should be careful here and point out that the popularity of systemically garnering value is in no way equivalent to an objective set of rules.  The fact that the results of specific actions became more common in no way asserted their correctness.

People who act morally do so with the end of garnering more value.  They may conceive that they go to heaven – which is something that they value.  They may imagine that other people are subject to similar sets of rules for garnering value, and that if one ‘does good’ then others will also do good to contribute value (hopefully to him).  This is very much the rule of karma.  It is not selfless.  It is a conception of social interaction which hopes to garner value by contributing value to others with the hope of reciprocation.  The specific social mechanism by which this concept functions has multiple determinants which govern the success of such a system (a future post maybe?).  The systemic nature of morality does not refer to the popularity of the expectations for garnering value.  It refers to the systemic, possibly unconscious, rules that govern individual action.

It helps to explain the actions of a few notable cases.

Genghis Khan, King Leopold of Belgium:  Both slaughtered millions of people in the pursuit of what those inclined toward the abstract would classify as ‘more immediate and hedonistic’ desires.  In view of the rulers’ stations in society, they estimated that there was no check to their actions.  Their morality supported this (Not what they claimed to be moral – Not how they thought others might judge).  They acted according to what they had in mind as “systemically positive contributions to the pursuit of valuable ends”.  And for the greater span of their lives, they were accurate in their evaluations.

Ghandi, Jesus, MLK, and Mother Theresa:  It is similarly easy to see how their actions contributed to the goal of garnering value.  With significantly less tangible capital, they had the impetus to promote systemic methods of achieving goals which were not capital intensive.  This makes self ownership much more attractive (read as cheaper and not self destructive. (See David Friedman, Positive Account of Property Rights).  Even when offered great wealth, they all declined.  They valued themselves and their progeny (an extension of themselves). This is VERY important. When the greater part of the progeny is also to be without capital means, a systemic method for success would create and promote a social structure which would not require great tangible wealth.  In such a system, the value which can be garnered would be greater relative to one which requires greater amounts of capital.  There’s an opportunity here to discuss the efficacy of the intended social systems.  It would include the contribution of value through the satisfaction garnered by the imagining of an impartial spectator.  A significant contribution to value among Christians.  [Morality then plays the role of both dependent and independent variable toward garnering value.]

Now to bring the idea back to the initial questions. First, in order for me to judge the efficacy in the application of a uniform morality, the question must be asked “What is it that I value?”  My progeny? What does that include? My biological offspring? Like-minded folks? Countrymen?  Humans? This is pivotal and will inform my instinct/thought/intuition of morality.  If I value the success of everyone, without distinction, then I would promote a system that would give no one the coercive advantage over another.  Second, if such a system results in non-pareto optimality – someone is observably worse off under such a system than one in which coercive advantage exists – then I would embed in the system a cognitive valuation within the individuals living in accordance with the system.  This would mitigate, or even nullify, any lost value from tangible objects by replacing it with the value garnered by the knowledge of having lived in accordance with the system.  Christianity can do both of these. Anarcho-Capitalism can do both.  Quakers, Amish, Buddhists, some branches of Hinduism, etc can too.  The coercive systems can achieve the latter condition less easily – but nothing prohibits the possible system of morality which includes coercive subjugation and the adequate cognitive compensation for lost tangible value.  In short, the best moral system would provide cognitive compensation for lost tangible wealth.

“If everyone adopts a specific code of ethics (mine), could I claim that they would be better off?”

Yes.  In light of the above explanation of value, multiple existing ethics do the same. And infinite possible ethics do too.  All that is necessary is compensatory cognitive value.

“Would I advocate a homogeneous ethic even if I knew that some people would be worse off?”

Yes and No.  This presupposes the antecedent that people would be worse off under my specific ethic.  Universal individual compliance with my ethic would provide the emotional/intellectual/cognitive satisfaction by mere compliance – all the more so in the face of death – when confronted by a hardship which is produced by the ethical system itself.


3 thoughts on “What is Morality?

  1. Cary says:


    I think either you misunderstood the thrust of my question or, more likely, I have misunderstood your response.

    You have said that many systems can acheive the same results. You implied that your system is one such system which has the potential to acheive optimal results. WIth all of the logic which proceeds this conclusion I care not to pick a fight. Rather, I want to clarify that the thrust of my original question was, assuming your above logic to be true (and thus some sort of objective relativism) why advance your system over another? Particuarly above the systems which you deemed as having the same potential as yours? Particularly because your system advances a non-coercive nature…

    Christianity, as a contrast to your system, does claim objectively to be true (as do many other systems) and as such advocates for its own use over other systems, not because other systems are bad persee or couldn’t potential acheive some good ends but because those systems do not serve Truth as Christianity does. As I understand, and please correct me if I am wrong, the system you advance makes no such claim and thus has no impetus for it’s own advancement (particularly in any coercive or even argumentative way) above and beyond the advancement of other systems which have the possibility of acheiving the same “ends.”

    A second problem I see with this view folds out of the aforementioned objective relativism you have seemed to lay out. It seems to me that you say there exist multiple systems which, if universally accepted, could essentially acheive the same level of goodness. At the same time it appears that there are other systems you deem to not be able to acheive such a success. There are sets of “right” and “wrong” systems, a sort of objective relativism (systems A, B and D are definitively better than C, E and F but the choice between A, B, and D is irrelevant). This still requires (from my standpoint) a level of objective truth which the systems are to be judged on. In your elaboration it appears that the truthiness of any system is judged by it’s ends. This appears to me to result in a sort of cosequentialist way of thinking about moral system where I think we can both understand the problem of such a method.

    Ok, sorry for the long response but I thought your ideas provoking and certainly worthy, as usual, of a detailed response. I also apologize for anywhere where I have mistaken what you said or clumsily written what I am thinking. I took some time to think on it so hopefully it’s not as bad as I imagine right now.


  2. Cary says:

    Ps. the cigar was delic. Thank you very much again.

  3. Paul says:

    Interesting post. I find your thinking to be a little unclear about a few things, particularly about what you think “subjective value” is. In common parlance, many people say “subjective theory of value” when they really should just be saying “theory of value.” Take for example what you say in this paragraph:

    “First, keep in mind that we completely accept the theory of subjective value (see previous posts)…. People act according to their values.”

    There’s a lot in the elipsis, but taking it out, I think the first sentence forms a premise and the second a conclusion. I agree with the conclusion (somewhat tautilogical), but not with the premise. Of course people act according to their values. That’s the whole concept of action. Unfortunately, that’s idea that people often have in mind when they use “subjective value.” The actual idea of subjectivism is stronger though, it’s saying that an object only has value BECAUSE I value it. To say that I value something is not a subjective valuation, if I’m asserting that its value exists apart from me.

    Skip down a bit to this passage:

    “Many people do good for others not knowing the motivation for their actions. This fact alone makes the conversation difficult because people don’t sit in their armchairs and ‘think’ out each moral implication of every action that they perform. It’s no wonder that some fall back on the reason “because it’s right”.”

    I think you’re being presumptuous here. You’re correct that some people help others for the joy it brings them personally, from selfish motives. You’re also right that some people don’t fully appreciate their own reasons for doing good. However, you fallaciously use those two facts to imply that charity is not, in fact, an objective good. Neither of those two things prove it, or even suggest it. The good of others can still be an objective good, regardless of one’s motivation for pursuing it, even if it brings internal pleasure.

    “So I propose the following definition of morality: “The set of actions which a person’s instinct, thought, or intuition conclude are systemically advantageous in pursuing those things which a person values”.”

    This seems a very odd definition to me. It’s not too hard to think of an example that “breaks it.” Are you familiar with AMC’s award winning program “Breaking Bad” perchance? By your definition, Walter White is a “moral” person, because he systematically uses his “thought, instinct, and intuition” to “systematically pursue those things which he values,” which happen to be money and nefarious power, with human life and psychological health not even making the rankings.

    By any common definition, this man is not a moral man. That’s the whole appeal of the show, in fact, that he’s such a fallen, degenerate man, and viewers tune in because of their fascination with the abomination. If morality were something that everybody could have their own set of opinions on without being able to judge others, then this drama (most dramas actually) would be incredibly uninteresting. Yet by your definition he IS moral, so this definition is a departure from our language.

    So why would we say he’s NOT a moral man? Essentially, it’s because we’re casting judgment on his values; we’re saying that his valuation of money and power above life and compassion are fundamentally disordered. We’re not saying that we personally don’t value those things. We’re saying that HE’s wrong for not valuing those things.

    Please don’t get down on yourself though. I don’t think it’s any personal failing that you haven’t been able to come up with a definition of morality that’s based on a subjective theory of value. I just don’t think it’s possible.

    The problem with couching morality in terms of personal desires is that there’s nothing inherently moral about our own desires, even if they are pursued through intellectual means. Morality, by all accepted meanings of the word, consists of identifying and then pursuing the morally proper ends. The very idea of morality implies a standard, and thus your effort to define it based on a subjectivist worldview is doomed to failure.

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