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What is Morality? - Definition, Principles & Examples

Lesson Transcript
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.

Morality is, simply put, the human attempt to define right and wrong, or good and bad. Explore the definition, principles and examples of morality; what it means to be 'good' in terms of pleasure, happiness, excellence, creativity, and harmony; and a look at ethics, including absolutes and relative morality. Updated: 08/28/2021

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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  • 0:00 What Is Morality?
  • 0:45 What Is Good?
  • 3:35 How Do We Be Moral?
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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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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Additional Activities

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.

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