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What is Morality?

Katherine Bailey, Lawrence Jones, Jenna Clayton
  • Author
    Katherine Bailey

    Katherine Bailey has taught Humanities for thirty years in community colleges, private colleges, and universities. She has a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Florida State University and is the author of Encountering the Humanities (Great River Learning).

  • Instructor
    Lawrence Jones

    Lawrence "LoJo" Jones teaches Psychology, Sociology, Ethics and Critical Thinking. He has an MA in human behavior.

  • Expert Contributor
    Jenna Clayton

    Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

What is morality? What is the meaning of ethics? Learn the moral definition and moral principle examples. See the types of morality and important theorists. Updated: 08/25/2021

What is Morality?

Morality from the Latin moralis, meaning customs or manners, is the area of ethics that focuses on an existing set of values adopted by a society or culture, and whether an action aligns with those values or violates them in some way.

Morality is concerned with the idea of what is good, based on five classical considerations:

  1. Pleasure
  2. Happiness
  3. Excellence
  4. Creativity
  5. Harmony

Morality falls under the discipline of philosophy, which is the study of the nature, causes, and principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning. Concepts of morality are subjective (based on individual or societal perceptions) rather than objective (based on facts and reason) and is the human attempt to define right and wrong in thought and behavior.

The main branches of philosophy and their area of focus are:

  • Ethics: How do we judge good vs. evil, right vs. wrong?
  • Aesthetics: How do we judge beauty?
  • Epistemology: How do we know anything?
  • Metaphysics: How do we know what is real?
  • Logic: How do we reason and form valid arguments?

Moral standards are values that a society uses to determine reasonable, correct, or acceptable. Some standards are universally accepted; for example, most societies believe killing is wrong, but some make an exception for killing in a war fought to protect the country or killing in self-defense.

Some standards are not universally accepted, such as whether euthanasia, abortion, or the death penalty are morally acceptable and under what circumstances. Additionally, codes of conduct, such as civil behavior or good manners, also vary from one society to another.

Other moral standards are more open to individual interpretation, such as how to raise children responsibly. For example, most people would agree about basics such as providing a safe environment, food, shelter, and education. At the same time, many might disagree about the morals behind how to discipline their children.

What is Morality?

What would you do if you found $50,000 dollars in a bank bag on the way home from work tonight? Would you turn it in and hope for a reward? Or would you keep it for yourself? Or would you just keep it for 24 hours so you could roll around in it for a while before returning it? Our answer speaks of our morality; of what we think is the right thing to do.

So what is morality? The simplest answer is that morality is the human attempt to define what is right and wrong about our actions and thoughts, and what is good and bad about our being who we are. But that's not really all that simple, is it? Philosophers have been attempting to provide answers to this question for thousands of years! Perhaps if we stand upon their shoulders and look at this question we can find some answers that will be meaningful for us.

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Moral Principles Definition and Theory

Moral principles are the foundational beliefs behind moral standards. For example, the principle of equality is the belief that every person has the same rights and that no life is inherently worth more or less than another. This principle gives rise to moral standards ranging across many specific topics and issues, such as fair treatment under the law and workers' rights.

Morality and Culture

Views of morality vary from one culture to another because they are shaped by varying influences. History and tradition have a powerful influence on some cultures, which preserve their identity through longstanding practices and beliefs, including a shared vision of right and wrong. For example, moral principles about women's roles may be strongly defined and unique to the culture, though they vary differently from perceptions in other cultures.

Religious influence, including dogma that defines sin or wrongdoing, may grow or diminish within a culture, and experience may influence the moral principles of culture; an example is the Holocaust and its effect on perceptions of the dangers of tolerating racism.

Morals and Ethics

Morality is a subset of ethics, a branch of philosophy that approaches right and wrong issues through logic and reason. Morality is concerned with individuals and communities' right and wrong behavior, who may draw their moral standards from philosophy, religion, history, cultural traditions, or a combination of these areas.

Types of Morality

  • Descriptive morality refers to any given culture's beliefs about what constitutes moral behavior for the group and individuals, covering most aspects of existence from proper or correct ways to conduct all human activities such as interpersonal relationships, governance, business, and education. Descriptive morality is relative to the culture and individual.
  • Normative morality concerns objective questioning of right and wrong, rather than subjective cultural standards.

Religious Morality

Religious morality usually derives from or is influenced by received wisdom such as sacred texts rather than rationality, experience, or empathy. Religious morality standards may include areas not covered in secular moral standards, such as specific dietary rules, gender-specific prohibitions, and beliefs about sexuality.

Humanist Morality

Humanist morality standards are derived from reason and informed by human empathy rather than received wisdom from a deity. For example, humanists do not believe in any inherent wrong in homosexuality; by basing their belief on the view of medical and psychiatric professionals that homosexuality is not a mental illness or flaw, but rather one of a range of normal human sexuality. To humanists, reason dictates that behavior that does not harm others should not be considered immoral.

Moral Principles Examples

Moral principles are the foundational beliefs on which moral standards and behaviors rest. They include beliefs as the right of all people to equality and justice under the law, the rule of reciprocity, the Golden Rule, and the duty of protecting the weak and vulnerable.

Example 1

The evolution of human rights has been a process of challenges to existing moral standards. Much progress has been achieved by individuals who placed moral principles above the existing law.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and derived his stance from several moral principles, including:

  • The principle of equality of all people
  • The principle of challenging unjust laws
  • The principle of non-violence as a moral path to social change

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What is Good?

We must begin with a foundation upon which to build our understanding of morality, so let's begin with defining what is meant by 'good.' After all, that seems to be the focal point of understanding morality; understanding what it means to be good.

Lots of things are referred to as good. Food is good. Sleep is good. Playing games and hanging out with friends is good. Chocolate is good! Actually, chocolate is very good. But a list of things we personally find to be good doesn't offer much help in understanding morality, or what it means to be good. So, we need a baseline of fundamental ideas in order to shape our understanding of goodness. So, what is necessary for something to be considered good? Classical ideas break it down into five different elements.

Pleasure

Without pleasure, nothing can be truly enjoyable. In order for anything to be good, we must enjoy it. Now this doesn't simply mean, 'If it feels good do it' kind of pleasures. We have to understand that there are long-term ramifications and that we can impact others with our pursuit of pleasures. So, what the pleasure philosophers are speaking of is the idea of higher pleasures and an effort to ensure long-term pleasures. Perhaps you enjoy a fine brew from the local pub? That can certainly be a pleasure to some. But what happens if you enjoy too many of those brews? Well, the morning after can be very unpleasant, indeed, and pleasure goes right down the toilet, so to speak.

Happiness

We all wish to be happy. If our idea of good didn't include getting to be happy, then why in the world would we pursue it? Happiness, like pleasure, isn't simply for the moment but rather the search for long-term and personally meaningful happiness.

Excellence

This is a higher form of pleasure that leads to a deeper satisfaction in life. Take movies, for example. We all have our favorites, but we can certainly acknowledge that there are some films that are really very good. However, there are some that stand out as excellent.

Creativity

All beings need an opportunity to create, even if that which they create is another being through procreation. Creativity is considered a necessary element within the definition of goodness.

Harmony

Finally, we must all be able to have the chance to enjoy our pursuits of pleasure, happiness, excellence, and creativity. Without harmony and peace, we have very little chance to experience any of the other elements of goodness. Imagine if you were a child in a war-torn country where each day the threat of violence was prevalent. Would you be focused on happiness? Or would you just be focused on survival? Thus to be good, to be moral, one must have the opportunity to pursue it.

How Do We Be Moral?

Here's where the ideas of morality get a bit more complicated. After all, we all don't agree on what is good, so how can we agree on what is the right thing to do in order to experience goodness? Some people, when defining 'good,' focus on personal gain, while others believe we should all work for the betterment of all.

How we can be moral and how we understand morality is determined by many factors; the environment in which we develop, the philosophies and perspectives we are exposed to in our lifetimes, and our personal experiences with happiness and unhappiness and what we see as the causes for both.

Morality and Ethics

Many philosophers have attempted to guide us in our quest for morality and moral behavior. Some offered simple guidelines and rules for our behavior. We often refer to these as ethics.

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Video Transcript

What is Morality?

What would you do if you found $50,000 dollars in a bank bag on the way home from work tonight? Would you turn it in and hope for a reward? Or would you keep it for yourself? Or would you just keep it for 24 hours so you could roll around in it for a while before returning it? Our answer speaks of our morality; of what we think is the right thing to do.

So what is morality? The simplest answer is that morality is the human attempt to define what is right and wrong about our actions and thoughts, and what is good and bad about our being who we are. But that's not really all that simple, is it? Philosophers have been attempting to provide answers to this question for thousands of years! Perhaps if we stand upon their shoulders and look at this question we can find some answers that will be meaningful for us.

null

What is Good?

We must begin with a foundation upon which to build our understanding of morality, so let's begin with defining what is meant by 'good.' After all, that seems to be the focal point of understanding morality; understanding what it means to be good.

Lots of things are referred to as good. Food is good. Sleep is good. Playing games and hanging out with friends is good. Chocolate is good! Actually, chocolate is very good. But a list of things we personally find to be good doesn't offer much help in understanding morality, or what it means to be good. So, we need a baseline of fundamental ideas in order to shape our understanding of goodness. So, what is necessary for something to be considered good? Classical ideas break it down into five different elements.

Pleasure

Without pleasure, nothing can be truly enjoyable. In order for anything to be good, we must enjoy it. Now this doesn't simply mean, 'If it feels good do it' kind of pleasures. We have to understand that there are long-term ramifications and that we can impact others with our pursuit of pleasures. So, what the pleasure philosophers are speaking of is the idea of higher pleasures and an effort to ensure long-term pleasures. Perhaps you enjoy a fine brew from the local pub? That can certainly be a pleasure to some. But what happens if you enjoy too many of those brews? Well, the morning after can be very unpleasant, indeed, and pleasure goes right down the toilet, so to speak.

Happiness

We all wish to be happy. If our idea of good didn't include getting to be happy, then why in the world would we pursue it? Happiness, like pleasure, isn't simply for the moment but rather the search for long-term and personally meaningful happiness.

Excellence

This is a higher form of pleasure that leads to a deeper satisfaction in life. Take movies, for example. We all have our favorites, but we can certainly acknowledge that there are some films that are really very good. However, there are some that stand out as excellent.

Creativity

All beings need an opportunity to create, even if that which they create is another being through procreation. Creativity is considered a necessary element within the definition of goodness.

Harmony

Finally, we must all be able to have the chance to enjoy our pursuits of pleasure, happiness, excellence, and creativity. Without harmony and peace, we have very little chance to experience any of the other elements of goodness. Imagine if you were a child in a war-torn country where each day the threat of violence was prevalent. Would you be focused on happiness? Or would you just be focused on survival? Thus to be good, to be moral, one must have the opportunity to pursue it.

How Do We Be Moral?

Here's where the ideas of morality get a bit more complicated. After all, we all don't agree on what is good, so how can we agree on what is the right thing to do in order to experience goodness? Some people, when defining 'good,' focus on personal gain, while others believe we should all work for the betterment of all.

How we can be moral and how we understand morality is determined by many factors; the environment in which we develop, the philosophies and perspectives we are exposed to in our lifetimes, and our personal experiences with happiness and unhappiness and what we see as the causes for both.

Morality and Ethics

Many philosophers have attempted to guide us in our quest for morality and moral behavior. Some offered simple guidelines and rules for our behavior. We often refer to these as ethics.

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  • Activities
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Morality Writing Activity

Discussion Questions

For this activity, respond thoughtfully to the following discussion questions about morality and ethics. For each question, write at least 2-3 sentences. Make sure to answer all parts of the questions and provide specific details whenever possible. Keep in mind that you may need to conduct further research to adequately answer some of these questions.

  1. In your own words, define the meanings of "good" and "bad." How do these definitions help you to understand morality?
  2. What is moral relativism? How does this compare to the ethical view known as moral absolutism? Explain.
  3. Do you believe that some actions or behaviors should always be considered wrong no matter the situation? Explain your thinking.
  4. Robin Hood is a legendary character known for stealing rich people's money to give to the poor. In your opinion, were Robin Hood's actions morally good or bad? Explain.

A Possible Response to Question #4:

It was good that Robin Hood wanted to help the poor. However, stealing something that is not yours is wrong in almost every situation. In many of the Robin Hood stories, the poor people are being mistreated in society. This mistreatment is morally wrong. This fact, however, does not mean that it is now okay for Robin Hood to rob from the rich.

What is the definition of morality?

Morality is the human attempt to define what is right and wrong in thought and behavior, resulting in a system or set of ideas about good vs. bad action, and the basis of any individual or community belief in what constitutes good behavior or proper conduct.

What is morality example?

The evolution of human rights has been a process of challenges to existing moral standards. Much progress has been achieved by individuals who placed moral principles above the existing law. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and derived his stance from a number of moral principles, including the principle of equality if all people; the principle of challenging unjust laws; and the principle of non-violence as a moral path to social change. Dr. King drew on Judeo-Christian teachings, philosophy, political theory, the U.S. Constitution, and historical precedence when deciding the course of his successful leadership in the Civil Rights movement.

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