The Missing Definition of Morality

It is common to hear discussions of whether an action is moral, as if “moral” was a word with a specific agreed upon meaning. Unfortunately, the word has so many meanings that its interpretation is extremely difficult without extra information. For example, if I say “murder is immoral”, I could actually mean any of the following:

1. Murder violates an abstract principle that I would like all people to live by.

2. The Bible (or some other religious text) forbids murder.

3. As a result of evolution and natural selection most people have an innate emotional aversion towards murder.

4. Murder is against the law.

5. Murder is labeled as being “immoral” by most people in my society.

6. Murder usually reduces the total net happiness of society.

7. The idea of murder provokes in me an emotional state that I associate with “wrongness”.

8. Nearly all religions urge us not to murder.

9. Nearly all societies have laws that punish murderers or have customs that ostracize them.

10. Most people would feel a sense of guilt if they committed murder.

Unfortunately, even dictionaries cannot clarify for us what the word “moral” means. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “moral” as “conforming to a standard of right behavior”. Looking up the relevant definition of “right”, we find “being in accordance with what is just, good, or proper”. But the definition given for “good” is just as vague and circular as were the definitions for “moral” and “right”. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary is no better. It defines “moral” as “conforming to accepted standards of behavior.” Accepted by whom, and for what reason? The dictionary does not answer these questions, and hence does not provide us with an unambiguous explanation of what “moral” means.

A great many well respected philosophers begin by assuming that morality is a single, well defined thing (without actually defining it) and then spend their time arguing about what properties it must have. But if we haven’t defined morality, how can we derive it’s properties? If we cannot define what exactly we are discussing, how can we even be sure that we are really discussing a single entity at all? As the list above shows, there are many very different things that we might reasonably call “morality”, including our genetic moral intuitions created by natural selection, the societal rules that are deeply ingrained in us, religious laws, and certain abstract concepts about how to treat each other.

Some people claim that whenever someone says that an action is “moral”, all that person is doing is expressing a feeling or emotion about that action. This idea is easily proven to be false by the counter examples of, for example, Christians, Kantians and Utilitarians, who frequently use the world “moral” to refer to actions that are compatible with biblical teachings, the categorical imperative, and the happiness principle, respectively. These individuals likely have an emotional feeling that their systems of ethics are worthwhile, but nonetheless, they often speak of morality in direct reference to their philosophical systems, independent of their personal feelings. What is more, many if not most people believe that ethics actually refer to something true and objective (and perhaps even absolute and unchangeable). Even if they cannot exactly define what it is they are talking about, that does not at all imply that they are merely expressing their subjective emotion. It simply means that their conversation may be confused and may not convey much information, as generally happens when there is a lot of uncertainty over the meaning of the words that we are using. Nonetheless, many people who speak about what is ethical genuinely believe themselves to be expressing a true fact.

Ultimately, before we can decide whether a statement like “murder is immoral” is true, we must first decide what we mean by “moral”. When we don’t know the definition of a word, it is difficult to have a meaningful discussion that relies on it. If we decide that morality is simply whatever the law says, or is determined by what the Bible says, or is a genetic characteristic of human beings, then the question of whether “murder is immoral” becomes primarily an empirical and factual one. We need only check the laws for our country, or search through the Bible, or study human genetics and behavior in order to answer questions about what is moral. In practice though, typically when statements about morality are made there is rarely any explicit or even implicit definition of morality being used. Your average person relies on an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. This intuitive sense is influenced by many factors including our genetics, the standards of the society that we live in, the religion that we practice, our personal experiences, and the philosophies that appeal to us. Unfortunately, it appears as though questions such as whether “is killing moral?” are unanswerable without further information about the sense in which “moral” is being used.

If the argument made thus far is true, then how can we understand the fact that nearly everyone seems to agree when it comes to certain ethical statements? For example, how can we account for the fact that almost all people in most of the societies that have ever existed have believed that many kinds of murder are immoral? Well, to begin with, it seems very likely that a strong predisposition to disliking murder (especially the murder of family members) is inherent in the human genetic code. More generally, our sense of what is morally wrong appears to be strongly correlated with what we feel an emotional revulsion towards, and those things that we find repulsive are influenced by our genetics. If most humans share a “moral feeling” that is caused by the genes that we share in common, then that provides a plausible explanation of why, for example, murder is generally thought to be immoral. It is not difficult to imagine that when pre-humans lived in groups, an aversion towards certain types of murder could increase an individual’s chance of survival (perhaps because would-be murderers had a high chance of being killed by their intended victim or the victim’s family). If this were the case then the process of natural selection could help make a revulsion towards murder a common trait among our ancestors. It may be illuminating to note that many types of carnivores, though feeding daily on other (typically smaller) species, very rarely kill members of their own species (even during fights that break out). This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that members of a single species are usually fairly evenly matched in strength and fighting skills. A lion is very unlikely to be killed attempting to kill an antelope, but is fairly likely to be killed when attempting to kill another lion, so lions that focus on eating antelope rather than killing other lions may tend to pass down their genes more effectively (even though there are obvious reasons why one lion might be benefited if it does manage to kill another). What’s more, social species may ostracize the members of their group who they feel threatened by, which could dramatically reduce the chance of survival for a “murderer” (by which, in this context, I mean a creature that kills members of its own species). A “moral feeling” would be one possible way, among many, that our genes could urge us not to kill members of our own species.

It is worth noting that even if genetics is not the best explanation for why there are some generally agreed upon moral principles (e.g. “the murder of innocent people for personal gain is immoral”) , that still does not imply that morality is a single, well defined concept. The trouble is that people may come to the same conclusion for very different reasons. If a Utilitarian believes that murder is immoral because it increases suffering, whereas a Kantian believes it is immoral because it violates a universal principle, that does not by any means imply that the Utilitarian and the Kantian mean the same thing by the word “immoral”, or that their principles are generally compatible. Likewise, a Christian may ultimately feel that murder is wrong because of the Biblical commandment “though shalt not kill”, but will likely disagree with the Utilitarian about many other ethical questions (such as the wrongness of homosexuality or premarital sex) since the underlying principles guiding their beliefs are very different. The point is that although there is a reasonable amount of agreement that some kinds of murder are immoral, there is much disagreement as to why they are immoral.

The most difficult part about addressing moral questions such as “is murder immoral?” is providing strong reasons for choosing one definition of morality over another. For some reason though, the definition of morality rarely comes up in discussions about ethical questions. Unfortunately, if we fail to make a choice of definition then our conversation must remain vague or rhetorical. We may be able to convince other people to take our point of view (e.g. by appealing to their emotions, or demonstrating inconsistencies in what they say), but we cannot be sure that they (or even we) genuinely understand what we are discussing. It is a bit like having a discussion about interior design with someone who uses our definition of “table” as their definition of “chair”. We might sometimes have what may sound like a more or less intelligible conversation, and we may even convince each other of certain things, but we cannot truly understand each other.

You may find this discussion of morals very unsatisfying because deep down you are absolutely convinced that morality is a real thing, and that certain actions are universally and undeniably wrong. But your strong feelings about morality do not contradict the idea that “morality” is a highly ambiguous word. I am not arguing here that morality is meaningless, nor am I arguing that morality has no well defined definition to individual people or even to specific groups of people. Utilitarians, for example, can talk about morality with each other with little confusion, since they are working with a common definition. My argument, simply stated, is that the word “morality” means many different things to different people, and that discussions about what is moral often rely on the false assumption that all parties involved can understand each other’s words.

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5 Responses to The Missing Definition of Morality

  1. sharon says:

    Please explain the difference between the two claims:

    1. Murder is wrong because God forbids it?

    &

    2. God Forbids murder because it is wrong?

    I look forward to your reply.

  2. clockbackward says:

    “Murder is wrong because God forbids it” is a claim that wrongness is defined by whatever God commands us not to do, whereas “God forbids murder because it is wrong” is a claim that wrongness exists independently from what God wills, and that God (for a reason unspecified) has decided to adhere to this concept.

  3. Julia says:

    Great article!

    I agree with you that when people are asked what they mean by “Murder is immoral,” they tend to reply with some variant of one of the definitions on your list. But I don’t think most of those definitions actually capture what people mean by the word “moral” at all.

    For example, your #6, what I might dub the most utilitarian definition of “moral”:
    “…usually reduces the total net happiness of society.

    I don’t think this works as a definition because when you exchange the word “moral” with phrase #6 in certain sentences, they go from sensible to nonsense. For example:

    (A) “He reduced the total net happiness of society, but there’s nothing wrong with that.”
    (B) “He acted immorally, but there’s nothing wrong with that.”

    Most people would agree that (A) is a meaningful sentence, even if they disagree with it. But I think most people would also agree that (B) is not a meaningful sentence. To say “there’s nothing wrong with acting immorally” feels like a contradiction to us. Which I think proves that phrase #6 doesn’t actually capture the meaning of the word “moral” as people use it — and I think any wholly descriptive attempt to define morality will fail for the same reason. The word “moral” describes how people SHOULD act (so it’s normative), which is a separate thing from describing what the result will be if people DO act a certain way (which would be descriptive, like your #6).

  4. clockbackward says:

    I would absolutely agree with you that phrase #6 does not capture the meaning of the word “moral” as most people use it… but it does indeed capture the meaning of the word as strict utilitarian’s use it. To a utilitarian who believes in the existence of absolute and immutable morality the phrase “he reduced the total net happiness of society, but there is nothing wrong with that” is a lot like saying “he did something wrong but it was not wrong.” Such a person generally believes that being bad is equivalent to reducing (or at least, having the intention to reduce) utility. If you assume that your ethical beliefs are the one and only TRUE ethical beliefs, as many people do, then you will likely think that everyone should follow those ethics too (for reasons generally left unspecified).

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