What is Morality? - Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:00 Morals
  • 1:20 Defining Morality
  • 3:36 Characteristics of Morality
  • 5:40 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 is right and what is wrong? Explore the fine lines that make up morality and discover what this means to different people. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


I'm going to show you a scene, and you tell me if it's moral or not. Ready? Here it is. (please see video beginning at 0:10) So, was that moral? Now, keep your eyes on that scene. Is it moral now? How about now? Trying to figure out what's right and what's wrong is not always easy to do. Not at all. People across history have devoted their lives to answering the question of morality, the differentiation between right and wrong. Actually, entire societies have devoted their existence to this question. Something that is considered right is moral, and the opposite, something wrong, is immoral.

If something is completely outside the realm of morality, it is amoral. Wait, can something be outside the realm of morality? According to some people. It's important to understand from the beginning that there is no universally accepted morality, no code of behavior agreed upon by all societies at all times across Earth's history. So, what is right? What is wrong? And how do you decide?

Defining Morality

One way to try and define morality is through ethics, the philosophical study of morality. In the field of ethics, morality is often defined in one of two ways. First is normative, in which actions are judged by their merits, allowing societies to develop codes of conduct for behavior. The Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is a classic example of normative ethics, since you are determining morality through your actions. Other examples could include helping someone who is lost, or finding a wallet and turning it in to the lost and found. If your actions to another person align with how you want to be treated, they are moral.

The other side of this is descriptive ethics. If normative ethics try and define how people should act, descriptive ethics ask what do people think is moral? This branch of ethics does not actually claim that things are right or wrong, but simply studies how individuals or societies define their morals. What makes something right or wrong in a specific culture?

While normative ethics actually define what is right and wrong, descriptive ethics define morals in terms of their cultural or personal significance. Morals are seen as part of a greater system that is not objective or unbiased but is created by a culture, like language. So, while in normative ethics we may say that it is moral to turn in a lost wallet, in descriptive ethics, we simply define that a certain society sees this as moral. We don't actually judge it as right or wrong.

These two branches of ethics are just a few of the ways we try and define morality. While there are many more, most of them can be broken into the same divisions as these two. Some theories define what is right and wrong as objective truths, others see morals as entirely subjective, only definable through their respective societies.

Characteristics of Morality

In their many studies of morality, researchers have identified common traits that go into defining what is right and wrong.

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