Morality is the principles of good/bad right/wrong behaviour, but what is the purpose of these rules?
To answer this question we have to look back and consider how morality came about, and how it served us in the past.
We will also have to examine moral theories, past and present, to see how they work and if their purpose is aligned.
Morality, the wonder years
If we consider early stages in our evolution, we struggled a lot more to survive than the comparatively comfortable lives we have now. Morality was yet to be conceptualised, but we can conceive of its beginnings.
The Pre-Morality Era
We can imagine Ug stealing food from Ogg and Ogg retaliating by smashing his head open with a rock. We have our first set of consequences, we learn that stealing upsets others and that there could be a serious consequence. Perhaps we learn from other experiences, things we don’t like happening to us we try not to do to others as we realise that we don’t like the way that made us feel, so we ought not to make others feel that way. Empathy would play a big role in the development of early morality.
That said, we do have to acknowledge the animalistic ‘alpha’ role, asserting dominance over others, but even then we can see in gorillas that if the alpha becomes too aggressive there is a revolt, and again we can see how we might have learned from consequences in the past.
We can imagine other situations where we work out that working together has worked better than serving ourselves.
Consider being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger, we might learn that working together and protecting others means we have a higher chance of survival. Perhaps in running away and leaving the others to fend for themselves, we lose our healer, or best warrior, perhaps the tiger breaks off and comes for us as a single target is easier to take down.
To start, I agree that this was not really morality. It had yet to be conceptualised, and folks were acting/reacting out of instinct, impulse, reflex and desire.
We are a social species, working together has helped us survive. These principles of good/bad and right/wrong have served to build collaborative and cohesive societies which in turn have allowed humans to flourish. As time went on and our cognitive process improved, we would conceptualise morality, considering why these things were right/wrong and consciously decide to act this way even if it was against our desires, and thus morality was born.
From this, we can deduce that, at least in the early stages of human development, the behaviours that helped us survive and flourish lead to the concept of morality, and therefore early morality’s purpose was human flourishing and wellbeing.
Next, we need to consider if that has always been morality’s purpose and if it is still morality’s purpose today.
To answer the question, ‘has morality’s purpose always been about human flourishing‘ we have to investigate the various moral theories.
I thought I would start with virtue ethics as this is the most different from all other moral theories.
As you may remember from our podcast on virtue ethics, rather than looking at consequences of actions, or following rules, it is about behaving in a virtuous way. Not only is it behaving that way, but it is also understanding why that is the most virtuous way to act. Rather than being action-centred, it is agent-centred.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, (1095a15–22) Aristotle says that eudaimonia means ‘doing and living well’. It is significant that synonyms for eudaimonia are living well and doing well.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia
To be more specific, eudaimonia translates to happiness, but the ancient philosophers did not use it the simple terms of feeling good, but more in reference to; live, act and be a certain way. In other words, eudaimonia is flourishing. If everyone was to act virtuously, not only would they personally flourish but everyone else around them would too.
So described, human excellence is general and covers many activities of a human life. However, one can see how human excellence might at least include the moral virtues. The moral virtue relevant to fear, for instance, is courage. Courage is a reliable disposition to react to fear in an appropriate way. What counts as appropriate entails harnessing fear for good or honorable ends. Such ends are not confined to one’s own welfare but include, e.g., the welfare of one’s city. In this way, moral virtues become the kind of human excellence that is other-regarding.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-ancient/
Again we see a link to wellbeing or ‘welfare’ and how it is related to more than just oneself. There are, of course, other aspects to virtue, like ‘justice’ which can be said to be more about keeping order/making things fair as a first-order purpose, but this too can circle back to that ‘living well and doing well’.
If you continue to read the SEP article I quoted above: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-ancient/ you will see quite a similar pattern between the various philosophers and morality, but it does note that some have challenged morality as a tool used by the weak to take power from the strong. When we get to the ‘Divine Command Theory’ section, I will expand on this further, however, the fact that someone might use morality that way does not mean that is what it’s purpose is.
Consider a standard workman’s hammer. Its purpose is to bang nails into wood. I can use a hammer to crack open someone’s skull. That doesn’t suddenly mean the purpose of a hammer is to do such a thing, it means that I used the tool in another way.
We ought to use the hammer as intended, but some will use it for nefarious purposes.
Of course, a hammer is designed with a purpose in mind. It is a tangible object and we are quite sure of its purpose.
Concepts like morality are much harder to pin things like a purpose on, especially as ones like morality that seem to have just sort of ‘happened’ upon us. As we’ve evolved, we have learned more about morality and [its] nature. With abduction, induction, and deduction we can pin at least part of the original purpose to be our flourishing and it looks like, in general, the Virtue Ethicists of the past agreed with this.
So what about other moral theories?
‘Hedonism‘ is a consequentialist moral theory about seeking pleasure and avoiding displeasure. The actions are judged based on the consequences, if it causes pleasure then it is considered moral and if it causes displeasure it is immoral.
This isn’t just your personal pleasure but those your actions will affect too. It is, of course, quite a flawed moral theory as we discussed on the podcast, but the question we are asking here is, ‘does seeking pleasure represent the purpose of human flourishing?’
If you understand this pleasure as some philosophers use it, it is akin to the eudaimonia we spoke of in the virtue ethics section, however there are some more contemporary views of hedonism that are more simplistic and view this as the colloquial pleasure or happiness. So what of them?
If flourishing is understood as living well and doing well, we could say that everyone who achieved this has lived well, but we couldn’t necessarily say they had done well as it depends on the pleasure they have sought. In general though, we would assume one acting by this moral theory would not be looking to cause others displeasure, so they probably would have done well too.
If everyone’s actions were designed to cause pleasure in themselves and others, our society would be happy, cohesive and collaborative, and therefore would flourish.
I think we can say, even though hedonism is flawed it does seem to represent the purpose of human flourishing, even if not in first-order.
‘Act Utilitarianism‘ is quite similar to hedonism, except it is about maximising utility. By utility, we are speaking of happiness (and subsequently, wellbeing).
We can break down the core principles like this:
- Pleasure or Happiness Is the Only Thing That Truly Has Intrinsic Value.
- Actions Are Right Insofar as They Promote Happiness, Wrong Insofar as They Produce Unhappiness.
- Everyone’s Happiness Counts Equally.
If everyone’s happiness counts equally, the idea is to maximise happiness, so if an action upsets one person but makes five happy, it is considered good/right/moral.
The conclusion isn’t too different from that of hedonism. If everyone acted trying to cause happiness for the most people we can say this would lead to a cohesive and collaborative society and therefore it would flourish.
Preference Satisfaction Utilitarianism
In short, ‘Preference Satisfaction Utilitarianism‘ is the consequentialist moral theory in which that which satisfies the preferences of those we interact with is considered moral/right.
If we spend our time satisfying each other’s, and our own, preferences, we will be a cohesive and collaborative society and therefore we can say that this moral theory also represents the purpose of human flourishing.
In ‘Welfarism‘ well-being is regarded as the only value to base morality on.
Popular use of the term ‘well-being’ usually relates to health. A doctor’s surgery may run a ‘Women’s Well-being Clinic’, for example. Philosophical use is broader, but related, and amounts to the notion of how well a person’s life is going for that person. A person’s well-being is what is ‘good for’ them. Health, then, might be said to be a constituent of my well-being, but it is not plausibly taken to be all that matters for my well-being.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/
So if we consider that the consequences of our actions should promote the well-being of ourselves and others, again we can say this has the qualities that represent the purpose of human flourishing.
It’s important to note that welfarism is one of those moral theories that is still quite new, and it is debated quite heavily on if the well-being aspect ought to relate to humans or all sentient life. Perhaps this is something to come back to at a later date.
‘Kantian Ethics’ or ‘Kantianism‘ is a deontological moral theory that sets its rules based on an absolutist consequential nature.
If everyone stole, killed, raped etc this would be bad and therefore no one should steal, kill, or rape.
This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of Kantianism, however, we can see that at the heart of it seems to be the well-being of humans. Thus we can conclude Kantianism also works toward the purpose of human flourishing.
‘Rule Utilitarianism‘ is the deontological version of Act Utilitarianism, it too is about maximising utility but instead of the consequences being regarded as moral or not, it is following rules that are supposed to maximise utility, and not following them is regarded as immoral.
Either way, as this is very similar to Act Utilitarianism I think it is safe to say that it too can be said to represent human flourishing.
Divine Command Theory
‘Divine Command Theory‘ or DCT can also be regarded as ‘religious morality’.
It is usually spoken about from an Abrahamic deity’s perspective but could be the rules a god has set out before us.
Like all deontological theories, it is following the rules that is regarded as moral, rather than the consequences of those actions.
As such, a common argument about DCT is that its purpose is to follow God’s commandments. This is actually a misrepresentation of what deontology is. What is moral is following the rules, but what is the purpose of those rules?
Whilst DCT is rife with issues and seemingly poor morals, there are a number of commandments like, love thy neighbour, do unto others as you’d have done on to you, be fruitful and multiply etc can be said to represent flourishing.
In fact, if God is real, He knows what is best for humans to flourish, and not only that, following the rules will not only keep the peace and build a collaborative society but also allows the soul into heaven which could be said to be an extension of flourishing into the afterlife.
However, this presupposes the deity actually exists. I think most of us reading this are of the opinion that we are at least unconvinced of this deity’s existence, and some of us go further to say we believe it does not exist. So then, we regard these holy books and systems of morality to be written by men, and we need to look at it through that lens.
A much better argument against the purpose of DCT being about flourishing comes from Nietzsche’s Critique of Morality that Dave first introduced me to on the podcast. There is obviously more to the critique, but we shall focus on the power aspect of it for a moment. If we consider the power balance that used to be in place with the nobles and commoners, the lord’s and the serfs, and how the rich few tended to have the power over the many.
In the Bible, there are many messages about how the meek are blessed, how we should give up our worldly possessions, how it is easier for the poor to get into heaven, how we should treat others how we want to be treated etc. This, in turn, gave the priests and poor ‘something’ over the nobles. They, in turn, might have felt somewhat humbled, perhaps not actually viewing themselves as ‘better’ any more, encouraging compassion and charity for their fellow man.
Now as history has shown us repetitiously, those in power are not necessarily humbled by religious morality, either seeing their power as given by God, or using that as an excuse. Perhaps not even caring for others. Again, how people use it doesn’t detract from the intended purpose.
We also see folks making massive profits off of religion like Joel Olsteen, he seems to represent the exact opposite of what the Jesus character was trying to achieve.
However, this rebalancing of power, could it too be said to benefit human flourishing?
If we consider it in today’s world, the 1% with 99% of the world’s money, controlling the markets, keeping people poor, keeping countless millions or even billions to themselves instead of helping the needy, for example, would not a shift that made them question their actions and perhaps make them more compassionate and charitable go some way to maximising well-being?
If DCT’s purpose was about trying to rebalance power, unless it was purely to give the priests power, would that not result in human flourishing? (In other worse, not a primary purpose but an effect of the purpose).
Even if it was the priests trying to get more power, yet there were commandments about being better to others, is that still not going to in some way benefit the species in general?
Divine Command Theory is the more tricky of the moral theories in regards to its purpose, especially as it has been used as another of the sticks we humans use to beat each other with, and the ruling class have often twisted to their own ends. (Consider the Kings of the past changing the Bible).
Whether commands from God or designed to rebalance power, I still think human flourishing is in there somewhere, but it has been muddied over the years, and not necessarily a primary purpose of this moral theory.
Moral Subjectivism / Relativism
Moral Subjectivism is the theory that whatever the agent decides to be moral is moral. Frankly, this doesn’t really hold up because we are constantly holding each other to standards above each other’s personal opinion when we feel it doesn’t best represent what morality is supposed to be. As such, I determine Moral Subjectivism as incoherent for the purpose of this discussion. Even then, people have an idea of what morality is supposed to represent, and what good is.
In a way, moral subjectivism is like that pre-morality state where we started to learn these behaviours based on desire, impulse, instinct etc. without any consideration for how for we have come as a species or morality has come as a concept.
Moral Relativism is a theory similar to Moral Subjectivism, but instead of the agent deciding the action as moral, we are stating that the culture or society defines what is moral. The subjects within that culture are held to that standard even if they disagree with it, and other cultures can have different morals, but they cannot hold each other to their standards.
In a sense, relativism does represent the purpose of morality, in so much that a collaborative and cohesive society will benefit human flourishing, so if everyone is held to the same standard in a society it ought to do just that. However, we can see some societies stating things as moral, like killing folks for being atheist or homosexual, which we would say are not. So even then we are holding the society to a standard above its personal opinion, and therefore showing that moral relativism isn’t the whole picture.
Both subjectivism and relativism suffer the same issues to the fact they do not seem to represent the whole picture of how morality is applied, and cannot fully explain why there seem to be so many different consistent attitudes in regards to the nature of morality.
In short, moral nihilism is the theory that nothing is morally wrong, or at least that there are no moral truths (not even subjective ones). Essentially invalidating morality. However, morality does exist, and as a concept, we have refined it and given it purpose. Like value, morality only exists extrinsically, so indeed it does not exist in a vacuum, but to argue against what it is, seems a bit meaningless to me. However, the arguments for moral nihilism do hold some credence, and it is hard to defend as it discounts any statements about morality.
If nothing is morally wrong, as moral nihilists claim, then it is not morally wrong to torture babies just for fun. So, according to the general principle above, one must be able to rule out moral nihilism in order to be justified in believing that torturing babies just for fun is morally wrong. Moral skeptics conclude that this moral belief is not justified. More precisely:https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-moral/
(1) I am not justified in believing the denial of moral nihilism.
(2) I am justified in believing that [(p) “It is morally wrong to torture babies just for fun” entails (q) the denial of moral nihilism].
(3) If I am justified in believing that p, and I am justified in believing that p entails q, then I am justified in believing that q.
(4) Therefore, I am not justified in believing that it is morally wrong to torture babies just for fun.
This moral belief is not especially problematic in any way. It seems as obvious as any moral belief. So the argument can be generalized to cover any moral belief. Moral skeptics conclude that no moral belief is justified.
I don’t know about you, but I worry about anyone that doesn’t think torturing babies for fun is morally wrong. Of course, they might think it is wrong, just that there is no moral truth to it being wrong.
However, moral nihilism doesn’t really argue against the purpose of morality, it is arguing against morality as a whole saying that it is essentially just what people believe to be the case (like subjectivism). The key difference is there is no truth maker in moral nihilism where as there is in subjectivism. Based on other moral theories it seems most people believe morality to be about flourishing.
It seems to me, a moral nihilist would equally argue against other intangible concepts like value, law, freedom, justice, truth or maybe even reality or knowledge, based on their idea they are just ways of expressing desires rather than ‘real things’. I’m not sure I see the point in this line of thought.
Roughly put, non-cognitivists think that moral statements have no substantial truth conditions. Furthermore, according to non-cognitivists, when people utter moral sentences they are not typically expressing states of mind which are beliefs or which are cognitive in the way that beliefs are. Rather they are expressing non-cognitive attitudes more similar to desires, approval or disapproval.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-cognitivism/
This is similar to moral subjectivism/relativism in the sense that people are making statements about what they believe to be the case, except it is saying they are doing so based on desires, essentially arational beliefs. Again, this is about the truthmaker, subjectivism and relativism have a truthmaker in the opinion or culture, non-cognitivism would say there is no truth-maker.
Of course with subjectivism/relativism there are clear issues with the theories, and with non-cognitivism basically stating the same thing, can we really say that it too doesn’t suffer the same issues?
Again, it comes back to the questions ‘Why do you believe that to be the case?’ and ‘What do you base that opinion on?’
Generally, you will find that the answer is along the lines of; the harm/suffering action X is causing someone, and there is evidence that supports the damage etc.
Conclusion on Moral Theories
It seems to be that most moral theories do seem to have human flourishing as part of the concept, usually as a first-order or an effect of the first-order goal, although with something like Divine Command Theory it could be a second or third-order effect rather than an initial purpose.
Subjectivism does not really represent morality in any way past that pre-morality state, and whilst relativism does seem to have human flourishing as a core suffers issues with not being the whole picture. Non-cognitivism seems to be subjectivism under another banner and as such does not represent the whole picture either.
Moral Nihilism basically states nothing is immoral. Essentially, it doesn’t speak much of the nature of morality or its purpose but basically nothing more than a concept of what people believe to be the case.
If I draw your attention back to my previous distinction of the hammer, how it ought to be used, how someone might use it, and how this ties in with the concept of morality: the hammer was created by humans. At one point someone subjectively decided to make a hammer for the purpose of banging nails into wood, and probably with some form of testing that this particular type of hammer would be best for banging nails into wood. Through the social contract, this became an objective standard.
Morality seemed to initially come about naturally and was born of these initial instinctual and emotional drivers. However, we humans have spent a lot of time; thinking about the concept, learning, understanding, hypothesising, refining, essentially creating different hammers that all seem to bang the nail in the wood, but with different qualities, like longer handles, fatter heads etc. We may have not got the best hammer yet, some seem to serve the job better than others, some make more sense with different nails and different forms of wood, but they all seem to be of the same purpose. We no longer act purely on desire and instinct. We no longer pick up any old rock to bang in that nail. We take the time to consider not only the hammer but if we should be using a screw instead of a nail.
So… Flourishing then?
From what I have read and the moral theories I have examined, it seems like flourishing is an intrinsic property of morality, or at least of morality’s nature.
That is to say, as we discussed in ‘On Value‘, even if someone does not regard flourishing to be part of morality that doesn’t mean it is not there, just like how there are intrinsic qualities in things, like medicine, that add value regardless of if someone personally values them or not.
So whilst both value and morality are ultimately extrinsic and thus without life, hold no meaning, we can see that there are intrinsic qualities to both.
Now if we look at other parts of morality, part of the purpose could be to keep order, but would we not say that fits the whole ‘collaborative and cohesive society’ and therefore, in a way, flourishing? I do agree, that morality may not always be used with this intent, and can be a stick to subjugate people into your ideals, but I am not sure we can say that because some humans have abused morality for their own ends, we can say that human flourishing is not part of the purpose of morality. In fact, I might even consider any system of morality that didn’t have human flourishing at part of its core not to be a system of morality at all, and be more a set of rules like ‘law’.
If we can derive an intrinsic quality (or purpose) of morality, we can then start to make objective statements about what furthers this purpose.
We can look at the facts in regards to the harm rape does to someone’s emotional, physical and mental well-being. It’s evidenced that it can also affect their friends and families in a negative way too. We can objectively state rape is immoral. What’s more, I would go so far as to say that it is a correct objective standard to say rape is immoral.
What I mean by that is, objective, when discussing morality, usually means above personal opinion and/or based on facts. What it does not mean is correct, universal, or absolute. TrolleyDave covers more in his article ‘On Morality – Part 1: Defining our terms‘.
Thus, based on the evidence we can make objective statements about it, but we have to understand that at times we do not have all the evidence to hand, something might not be fully conclusive and new evidence could mean that we need to change our thoughts.
This doesn’t make the moral any less objective, consider a scientific theory to is an objective statement based on evidence. New evidence could mean the theory needs adjusting or in some cases a complete re-write. So I’ll say again, objective does not necessarily mean correct.
‘I still think the purpose is your opinion and morality is ultimately subjective.’
There are many who will be saying this, I’ve had many conversations like it. I came to the conclusion based on the evidence I had and the various moral theories mostly seeming to represent that purpose in some way. Admittedly, DCT was less convincing but still seemed to have flourishing/well-being as part of its nature. There are, as demonstrated, those that argue against this purpose or even morality as a whole, but the arguments they provide for these positions is not convincing. I genuinely find it hard to argue against human flourishing being at least part of what these behaviours are supposed to represent, and whilst I agree the whole picture might be more than flourishing and well-being, I have yet to hear anyone present something to convince me otherwise. It usually just stops with someone asserting that my conclusion is wholly subjective without taking the time to understand the effort I’ve taken to come to that conclusion or present a sufficient counter-argument.
However, if we are charitable and said I had no basis in fact and it was a purely subjective view that the purpose of morality is flourishing (and it’s just a coincidence that most moral theories seem to represent that in some way) does it prevent us from making objective statements about this purpose?
If I have a subjective purpose of driving to Scotland as fast as possible, can I not make objective statements about the fastest routes at various times of the day? I do not have to value the fastest route, and in fact, prefer the scenic route, but I can still make those statements.
Does this not show that morality is not wholly subjective?
In fact, if morality was wholly subjective that would mean ‘Moral Subjectivism’ was true and that the agent decides if their actions are moral or not. The second we tell someone else they are being immoral we are holding them to a standard above their personal opinion and thus treating morality objectively.
Some might claim this is ‘an illusion of objectivity‘ but this seems like the gambit of someone more desperate to hold on to their belief morality is wholly subjective than admit that perhaps it is more complex than that.
Even if one thinks the purpose is wholly subjective, we can demonstrate how we can make objective statements about that purpose and how we treat morality objectively.
Thus, any rational person surely must conclude that morality is far more complex than a simple subjective vs objective debate.
Different ways to discuss morality
There are two main ways to discuss morality, normatively and descriptively.
By descriptively, we are describing how people use morality, how it is applied in the world. Essentially, descriptive morality is what people believe morality to be and what they think is right and wrong, regardless of what actually is right or wrong.
Consider it a bit like language, we can describe our use of any word to be anything. Cool means more than just a moderately cool temperature, there are objectively other definitions like a particular look or a positive response, but subjectively anyone can use any word to mean anything if they really wanted to, e.g. ‘I use cool to mean I am hungry’.
This is why a descriptive discussion of morality can be incredibly messy and confusing. People often talk past each other, speaking only from personal values without considering the bigger picture.
You could get someone saying morality is about eating cheese sandwiches and anyone not eating cheese sandwiches is immoral. Whilst this does seem like and is an absurd example, it demonstrates that descriptively this person is talking about their personal moral code rather than looking deeper into morality. People can make statements about the relative morality’s of different cultures.. but does a culture thinking something like throwing homosexuals off buildings is moral, make it moral, or would we hold them to a standard above their opinion?
Normatively we are making statements about what morality ought to be. It is what is right, regardless of what people believe. A normative approach to morality would be beliefs about a code of conduct that, given the same information, all rational persons would have about it.
If we discuss a specific moral theory, say act utilitarianism, and apply it to a situation, or a thought experiment like the trolley problem, we can say they ought to pull the lever.
There does not seem to be much reason to think that a single definition of morality will be applicable to all moral discussions. One reason for this is that “morality” seems to be used in two distinct broad senses: a descriptive sense and a normative sense. More particularly, the term “morality” can be used either:https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition
1. descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior, or
2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.
Which of these two senses of “morality” a theorist is using plays a crucial, although sometimes unacknowledged, role in the development of an ethical theory. If one uses “morality” in its descriptive sense, and therefore uses it to refer to codes of conduct actually put forward by distinct groups or societies, one will almost certainly deny that there is a universal morality that applies to all human beings.
I write more about what ‘normative’ is really about in this post here.
Ought? Isn’t that a subjective value judgement?
There are 2 common objections to ‘ought’.
The first is that ought is a subjective value judgement. I’ve demonstrated that value is not wholly subjective in ‘on value‘ but can we say the same when discussing morality?
The purpose, at least in part, behind the principles of behaviour seem to be human well-being and flourishing, I may not personally value human flourishing and therefore not really care about morality, but I could still make objective statements about what one ought to do to best represent morality or specific moral theories. Thus, ought is not a subjective value judgement.
The second is you can’t go from an is to an ought without a subjective value judgement.
For example, we cannot go from ‘it is sunny outside,’ to ‘I should put sunscreen on‘ without ‘and I do not want to get burned/risk cancer‘ in the middle… But if we consider how the ought should be applied (meta-normativity?) it is, given the same information, that which all rational persons would believe/value/describe etc.
No rational person wants to get sunburnt, no rational person wants cancer. (Sure there could be outlier exceptions like doing it for a lot of money, but without the absurdum my statement stands). They don’t want those things for objective reasons (that will be experienced mostly subjectively but also others will be affected). The pain, the suffering, the death etc. It’s not good for our well-being.
If someone does not care about their own health or being in pain, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from the sunscreen, they still ought to wear it for their well-being even if they don’t personally value this.
So we can go from that is to the ought without a subjective value statement too, and if we consider this about morality we can process things like this:
As an example we will go from Abuse Causes Harm (is) -> We Should Not Abuse People (ought)
- Abuse causes harm (Is)
- We can see from the evidence the harm this can do to someones emotional, physical, mental wellbeing. (Is)
- This can cause ongoing suffering, and affect their friends, family and interpersonal relationships (Is)
- We can see some abusees go on to be abusers, carrying on the cycle of abuse, repeating steps 1-4 (Is)
- What best represents morality’s purpose seems to be human flourishing/wellbeing. (Value Judgement) – [however this is not purely subjective, this is based on everything you have read above, and I do not need to personally value it for this to hold true.]
- Therefore we ought not to abuse people and regard abuse as immoral as abuse does not seem to be good for our wellbeing/flourishing (Ought)
Even if you regard that value judgement as a subjective one, the ought will still be an objective statement around what best represents that subjective value judgement, thus showing again that morality is more complex than a simple objective vs subjective.
From subjective to objective
So can something that is subjective become objective?
Things humans create or conceptualise, or things that benefit us are ultimately extrinsic, that is to say, they wouldn’t exist in a vacuum.
We showed the example of the hammer being created by someone who thought it would fit the purpose and then being accepted by a larger group of people and eventually becoming an objective standard. In fact, over time this standard would have been refined and improved creating new objective standards for its use.
Early morality evolved as we did as a response to consequences, environment, empathy, and helped us survive through collaborative and cohesive societies.
As we have continued to develop our thoughts on morality, and philosophers have put forward different systems of morality, human well-being and flourishing seemed to be part of their purpose or nature.
Like the hammer became the normative way to bang nails into wood, does morality’s purpose not normatively become human flourishing and well-being? As such, we are saying people ought to use hammers to bang nails into wood, and people ought to regard morality’s purpose as flourishing and well-being. Regardless of what people believe hammers and morality should be used for, we are holding them to a standard above their opinion.
This might seem a bit like an ‘ad populum fallacy’ to some, but it is how things seem to work as well. Remember, these things touted as fallacies are not always fallacious.
In Conclusion of Morality’s Purpose
In case it was not obvious, I believe that morality does have a purpose and that purpose is human flourishing and well-being. Perhaps this originally derived from survival, empathy, instinct etc. but clearly blossomed into much more. It might not be how morality has always been used, and with some systems of morality, it could be said that instead of a first-order purpose it is more of a second or third-order effect. For the most part, it does seem that this quality has always been part of morality’s nature in some way.
I base this on how morality evolved with us, and how the various ethical systems that are put forward seem to have our well-being in mind.
I also based this on how people make judgements about holy texts and other societies as being immoral due to the treatment of other humans (well-being).
There seems to be some innate sense in most of us that well-being is part of morality, and perhaps this driver is empathy. I definitely agree that empathy is part of morality, and those without it would likely have less regard for the topic.
I think someone can subjectively value well-being or not, and someone can descriptively say that morality is not about well-being, but I do not think that detracts from well-being and flourishing being intrinsic parts of what morality ought to represent.
Moral subjectivism is like the pre-morality state. People acted on desires, impulse, reflex, instinct and empathy.
Over time, there became an intersubjective agreement of standards in tribes/cultures/societies of how we ought to act. People were held to this standard regardless of their personal opinion. This is akin to Moral Relativism.
As morality was conceptualised and examined, many theories were created to help best represent the purpose of morality from which objective statements about right and wrong can be made.
We’re now at a point where we have various objective standards, what appears to be a normative purpose in many, if not all, of them and people who essentially argue that morality is just an illusion or us acting on desires, even though there are times we can show morality stops us from acting on our desires because they might not be a moral action.
Even though ultimately extrinsic, and initially subjective, I think morality and its purpose have come much further than that. I can even conceive of a future state where it will also include all sentient life and the way we treat our planet, and not just because it is to the benefit of our species.
The only thing left for us to consider is, should these principles of right and wrong that seem to benefit our well-being and flourishing apply to only us, or all sentient life?
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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Comments on “Does Morality Have a Purpose?”
That’s a great essay! You’ve clearly given ethics plenty of study and thought. It would be tedious for me to go through all the things I agree with you about because there are so many things about which we’re on the same page!
My main points of difference with you are that, IMO, you too quickly conclude, in your early discussion of virtue ethics, that morality is primarily about human flourishing, and secondly in assuming that “human flourishing” or “well being” is different from hedonism broadly understood; i.e. in the way Henry Sidgwick viewed it. In Sidgwick’s view all desirable or pleasant states of consciousness, including having a sense of purpose, are forms of pleasure.
It seems more likely that, if anything matters, it is the flourishing of desirable or pleasurable states of consciousness in sentient beings. The species in which that flourishing occurs is irrelevant.
If you’re interested in two leading contemporary philosophers who think along these lines, I highly recommend this latest collaboration of Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer. You may find that you end up agreeing with these two hedonistic act utilitarians more than you expect.
Thank you so much for the response! Especially one as kind and detailed as yours 🤘🥰👍
That’s a great point in regards to hedonism – there are varying views on it, and you are correct that it is often viewed in a similar way as Eudaimonia.. as well as a more contemporary view that is more basic and separates the two, so I think I’ll tweak the article and make that a bit more explicit.
I also sort of agree with your point in regards to flourishing of sentient beings…but then that can come back to personhood and the way you view it, either as a scale or a more binary way.. as well as considerations of how our genetics “programs” us to favour those closer to us (both genetically and emotionally), not just species wise but when we consider family, we are often more likely to choose a family member over a friend, a friend over a stranger etc. So perhaps the question of personhood and familiarity should be brought in as a follow-up to this article.
I will also add in a note to the welfarism section as there is the discussion on whether welfarism ought to be able just human well-being or the wellbeing of all sentient/living things. I believe singer is in favour of all living things wellbeing but I must admit I’d have to look that one up as I can’t remember.
Thank you again for you comment. You made my day 🥰
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