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Morality is a complex system of principles based on cultural, religious, and philosophical concepts and beliefs, by which an individual determines whether his or her actions are right or wrong. These concepts and beliefs are often generalized and codified by a culture or group, and thus serve to regulate the behaviour of its members. Conformity to such codification may also be called morality, and the group may depend on widespread conformity to such codes for its continued existence. A "moral" may refer to a particular principle, usually as informal and general summary with respect to a moral principle, as it is applied in a given human situation.

Philosophers talk more about ethics than morals (although they often use both words interchangably). Ethics is an intellectual approach to moral issues that asks questions such as how one ought to behave in a specific situation (for example, is abortion morally permissible? This area of philosophy is more appropriately called applied ethics), how can one justify a moral position (for example, if one thinks one is morally justified in telling a lie to protect someone from harm, how would one go about justifying that position? This area of philosophy is known as normative ethics), and finally, philosophers ask meta-ethical questions concerning the justification of ethics or morality itself (for example, do the terms "good", "evil", "right", "wrong" make sense, and how do we justify the existence of "good" or is it all relative, and morality simply a statement of one's preferences (also known as cultural relativism).


An overview of Morality

Views on morality have varied greatly over time, and from culture to culture. Usually, a morality applies to fields in which the choices made by individuals express an intention relative to other individuals (even non-members of the society). Thus, there exists an academic dispute about whether morality can exist only in the presence of a society (meaning a plurality of few individuals), or also in a hypothetical individual with no relationships with others.

A concept of morality may tend toward any of the possible directions in a given field, and moralities exist that recommend heavy restrictions on behaviours, as well as moralities that recommend totally free self-determination, as well as a variety of intermediate positions.

The efficacy of a morality depends on the social position and political representativeness of the group that espouses it, and on its relationship with the norms of the related society. A morality is put into effect through its influence on the society's general rules and formal codes—especially penal codes and the determination of juridically correct conduct. The fields in which the influence of morality is most commonly appreciated are sex-related matters, financial and professional conduct (with the notable example of deontology), and human relationships in general.

A morality can be derived from many sources. For many individuals, morality is influenced, to a large degree, by religion or theology, but other, secular, ethical codes are also followed. Religions typically hold that morality is not a human construct, but is the work of God. For example, in Judeo-Christian religions, one or another version of the Ten Commandments is held to have been issued directly to mankind by God. Moreover, religions often hold that the human conscience, the internal mechanism through which one senses the moral aspect of actions, is infused in mankind by God. Non-religious individuals may justify morality on the basis of that improving the human condition or helping humanity is itself fundamentally 'good': they may aspire to base morality on humanitarian principles of reciprocal behaviour and prevention of suffering or through 'objective' approaches, such as utilitarianism.

For moral relativists, morality is viewed as a system of personal ethical conduct that the individual imposes on himself or herself. With this view, it is more concerned with individual choices, as a personal effect of free will, rather than with dispute resolution or conflict, and does not seem to imply a relationship with other individuals or groups. This subjective self-regulation can also sometimes be derived from religion or theology, but is also often seen as totally personal, unsharable, intuitive, creative and aesthetic (a "moral core").

Changes in morality

Moralities often include rules and regulations that do not have obvious reasons for existing, i.e., no immediate harmful results of transgression are apparent. This is sometimes because the harmful effects of such actions are largely indirect, but real nonetheless. Alternatively, the morality may derive from historical circumstances no longer common or relevant in society. Either way, the need for the particular aspect of morality may be questioned. It is not unusual for widescale changes in views on morality to occur, especially by younger generations in society. At times, this questioning extends to the society in general, even to the extent of liberalising laws which prohibited certain behaviours.

Morality and Darwinism

Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that human morality originated from evolutionary processes. An innate tendency to develop a sense of right and wrong helps an individual to survive and reproduce in a species with complex social interactions. Selected behaviours, seen in abstraction as moral codes, are seen to be common to all human cultures, and reflect, in their development, similarities to natural selection and these aspects of morality can be seen in as the basis of some religious doctrine. From this, some also argue that there may be a simple Darwinian explanation for the existence of religion: that, regardless of the validity of religious beliefs, religion tends to encourage behaviour beneficial to the species, as a code of morality tends to encourage communality, and communality tends to assist survival.

These explanations for the existence of morality do not, however, necessarily assist in deciding what is truly right for future actions. Should an individual's own morality really be determined by what is best for their genetic offspring (colloquially, but inaccurately, "the good of the species")? Viewholders counter that evolutionary psychology extends millions of years of empirical justification for our moral sense, provided that sense is indeed innate--more than recorded history could demonstrate. They claim sensible people would behave with morality knowing subconsciously that it has succeeded in the past. Still, an explanation of why and how humans could have a moral basis does not imply that they ought to hold these views.

Some observers hold that individuals have distinct sets of moral rules that they apply to different groups of people. There is the "ingroup," which includes the individual and those they believe to be of the same culture or race, and there is the "outgroup," whose members are not entitled to be treated according to the same rules. Some biologists, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists believe this ingroup/outgroup difference is an evolutionary mechanism, one which evolved due to its enhanced survival aspects. Gary R. Johnson and V.S. Falger have argued that nationalism and patriotism are forms of this ingroup/outgroup boundary.

Morality in Juridical Systems

In some juridical systems, the word morality concretely means a requirement for the access to certain charges or careers, or for the obtaining of certain licenses or concessions, and generally consists of the absence of previous records on (e.g.) crimes, bankruptcy, political or commercial irregularities.

In some systems, the lack of morality of the individual can also be a sufficient cause for punishment, or can be an element for the grading of the punishment.

Especially in the systems where modesty (i.e., with reference to sexual crimes) is legally protected or otherwise regulated, the definition of morality as a legal element and in order to determine the cases of infringement, is usually left to the vision and appreciation of the single judge and hardly ever precisely specified. In such cases, it is common to verify an application of the prevalent common morality of the interested community, that consequently becomes enforced by the law for further reference.

Last updated: 10-14-2005 21:03:31
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