What is Morality? - Definition, Principles & Examples

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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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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lawrence Jones

Lawrence "LoJo" Jones teaches Psychology, Sociology, Ethics and Critical Thinking

As a society, we try to teach our children the difference between 'right' and 'wrong.' What we are teaching them is really just basic morality. Read on to learn the definition of morality, examine some of its principles, and look at some examples.

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.

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