Origin, Aspects & Reasons Behind Morality

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  • 0:00 Morality
  • 1:21 Origins of Morality
  • 3:01 Reasons for Morality
  • 4:08 Aspects of Morality
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What are morals? Where do morals come from? Why do we need morals? These questions have been debated throughout human history. In this lesson, explore some possible answers, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Nothing I am about to tell you is true. Either that, or what I'm about to tell you is exactly true. It really depends on whom you ask. For as long as humans have been writing things down, which is a long time, they have been writing about morality, systems of right and wrong, good and bad.

What is good? Fundamentally, inherently, what does it mean for something to be good or bad? What makes something right or wrong? How do we know? That's what morality is; it's the answers to these questions. Something good or right is moral; something bad or wrong is immoral.

That's a pretty important distinction to make, and again, we've been debating morality for pretty much as long as we've had brains big enough to do so. So, naturally, we still have no concrete answers. There have been hundreds of moral theories across human history, but nobody agrees completely on how to define morality. Some people even argue that morality doesn't really exist. It's a fascinating field of research. Here, let me tell you all about morality. Just remember that none of this is true, except the parts that are.

Origins of Morality

So, if we want to start understanding what morality is and what it means, I guess one good place to start is where it comes from. There are two basic divisions here. Some people believe that morality is universal. Right and wrong transcend time and culture and apply equally to everyone. For these people, morality is generally explained as coming from one of two sources.

First is a divine or supernatural power. If your moral system is based in religion, the way that Christianity is, for example, then universal morals are created by a deity for humankind. Even outside of a true religious system, many philosophers believe that morality is created by some supernatural force of the universe that governs right and wrong.

The other option, if you believe that morals are universal, are that since they apply to all humans regardless of culture, they must be genetic, created by evolution. Why would humans evolve to have morals? Well, morality maintains strong social groups, reduces fighting, and is beneficial for the survival of the species.

On the other side of this debate are those who think that morality is subjective. It is not universal; it is created by humans and distinct only to the culture that created it. Morality is still important here because it defines social relations and cultural values, but the same morals don't apply to everyone. According to people who support this idea, that's why there are so many different moral systems. Each one fits the needs of the culture that created it.

Reasons for Morality

Regardless of where morals come from, we also need to ask why they matter. Why do morals exist? Why do we need them? Do we need them? Again, there are two ways to answer this question. According to some, we are moral because we are self-interested, which we call an egoistic reason for morality. Morals give society a shared set of values and rules, and this gives people guidelines they can use to ensure their own safety, happiness, and success within that group.

The other reasons for morality are altruistic, or focused on others or the greater good. Altruistic morals help preserve group unity and stability by teaching us to be humble and to put the greater good ahead of our own needs. Those are the basic ideas behind the reasons that we are moral, and unlike the different ideas about the origins of morals, these are not mutually exclusive. In a single system of morality, some values can be motivated by self-interest, some can be motivated by the greater good, and some can be motivated by a mixture of both.

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