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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ethics and morality are considered synonyms by many scholars. Other philosophers and great thinkers have instructed us to pursue our own moral intuitions, or find goodness in fulfilling our duties, or that morality is found simply by obeying the rules set down by a divine being. Regardless of what is the basis for these theories of ethics, they all have the same goals in mind; promoting what is good.
Differences in Opinion
Clearly with so many philosophers and philosophies there will be some disagreement as to which is the proper way to pursue morality and moral behavior. There are those who claim that morality and moral rules are absolutes, something that is outside of human preferences and beyond questioning. In other words, that there are some things that are always good and some that are always bad.
Others believe that morality is relative to the situation, the individual, the society, and so on. Perhaps it is a little bit of both. We can most likely agree that some cultural elements are indeed relative (ideas about what age people should become married, for example), but there are lines that an overwhelming majority of people, perhaps all, even from differing cultures, would not cross. While we all might agree that 14-years old is young to be marrying in the United States, other cultures and societies allow it and even see it as a good thing. However, it is difficult for all humans to see murdering of innocents as a good and moral thing.
Let's review. Morality is the standard by which we determine what is good. While many of us are going to have different definitions of the idea of good, there are some fundamental criteria that must be satisfied. These criteria are the ideals of pleasure, happiness, excellence, creativity, and harmony. These still leave a great deal open for interpretation, however, and many different philosophers have tried to guide us in our moral behavior through their theories on ethics and morality. While some may point to divine guidance, others have found their morality in lessons of pure reason, personal intuition, and even personal gain. This raises the question of whether or not morality is an absolute quality, with rules and ideas that are not to be questioned, or if morality is simply relative, a human construct and, therefore, open to interpretation by individuals and societies.
A Look at Morality
- Morality is the standard by which we determine what is good.
- According to classical ideals, being good has five elements: pleasure, happiness, excellence, creativity and harmony.
- Ethics are the rules we use to guide our moral behaviors.
- An argument can be made as to whether moral behavior is absolute and unaffected by context or whether it is relative to the situation.
Test your ability to achieve these objectives after studying this lesson on morality:
- Provide a basic definition of morality
- Discuss the five elements associated with being good
- Highlight the factors that help us to choose moral behavior
- Explain the role of ethics in moral behavior
- State the arguments for morality as absolute or relative
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Morality Writing Activity
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.
- In your own words, define the meanings of "good" and "bad." How do these definitions help you to understand morality?
- What is moral relativism? How does this compare to the ethical view known as moral absolutism? Explain.
- Do you believe that some actions or behaviors should always be considered wrong no matter the situation? Explain your thinking.
- 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.
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