WHAT IS THE NATURE OF MORALITY?
Discovery of some universal moral truth, something called the ‘meaning of life’, has been the purview of moral philosophy and religions for many thousands of years. Philosophers and religious thinkers alike have struggled to create a firm foundation of moral certainty. They seek to establish morality as fact, seeking to derive an absolute moral law using either pure reason or induction from intuition. Today, by all accounts these great moral projects to deduct or discover an absolute moral truth have utterly failed. There is virtually no consesus or progress amongst those attempting to derive morality from pure reason, and the claims of religion have faltered in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence undermining their literal truth.
We are left with the disturbing confrontation that there may be no universal moral truth. This is the plight of much of our current society. Humanity is confronted with a feeling of being lost, alone in a moral wasteland. This desert, this moral relativism, is an extremely unpleasant existence for any person who experiences a strong moral intuition. We have a powerful sense that morality in some form exists, yet, at least superficially, the scientific destruction of many of the premises of absolute moral law seems seems to lead towards morality being discarded altogether.
Yet morality remains – it has an observable effect on our own life and the lives of others. Who can stand unmoved when confronted with human suffering? How many are indifferent to the death of innocent lives? Who can find meaning and purpose in an amoral life? Anywhere in history, anywhere in the world, we find many people acting morally, though the form and depth of their sacrifices vary greatly. Great movements and nations are founded upon the delcaration of great moral sentiment. Morality’s presence is undeniable, it is real, it is part of many of us. Its specifics, its form, its content vary, and probably no one alive has a complete understanding of the morality of others or themselves. But it is not neccessary to know it in every detail to acknowledge or celebrate its presence. Morality is real, and it is physical.
To claim morality does not exist, or to say that it stands absolute and separate from us, to be discovered like some kind of buried treasure, fundamentally mistakes the nature of morality. You read this passage, because you are a moral creature. Your interest in morality exists because you are moral. Somehow, your morality existed before philosophy mattered to you. It is a part of you, woven into your fabric. Morality is not separate; it is not a thing to be obtained; it is not imagined; it is not a law from above. It exists only as part of you. It is physical; it is real, just as you are.
This is the understanding that gives us insight and gives life to our morality – morality is a physical characteristic or quality of a living creature. And our moral instinct gives birth to a desire to investigate it. We may not know morality in its entirety or in perfection, but we feel it is our duty to pursue that ideal as best we can.
We can sidestep the poor choice of a false dichotomy that is daily presented to us. Moral absolutism mistakes morality to be a perfect factual answer to our questions, to be discovered through ungrounded metaphysical reasoning. Moral relativism mistakes morality as an illusion to be discarded and forgotten, blind to the evidence of its incredible power in the world. Our philosophy of moral physicality recognises morality as a fundamental part of many humans, and as something that grows in the fertile soil of human society. The light of knowledge and fact, far from being in opposition to it, give life to it. When we understand morality as a human quality, the barriers to its investigation are removed, and the prospect of a moral life emerges.
And so the investigation begins. We seek to develop and refine our morality. Through careful investigation and contemplation of moral decisions, the moral world and our own morality as a human, we ask – what is the nature of morality?
What do we know of morality? Where do we see it? To begin with, the occurence of morality is centred around people. We cannot observe the ocean or a rock and judge it immoral. A rock in-and-of-itself can not be moral. It seems that a human must pick it up and do harm or good with it. Morality seems to be inseparable from us as a species. When we observe the evidence of biology, we can say that it also seems to be part of other species, though in most cases it appears to be to a lesser extent.
When we observe this morality, we do not encounter it as a simple characteristic – it is not like hair colour or height or weight. Our perception of a person’s morality is derived from a person’s behaivours over time. It also seems that the significant behaviours are that person’s interaction with humans and other animals. If we strike the ground, we do no wrong. If we instead strike a human, and the morality of our actions are questionable. Morality exists as a behaivour, an interaction, a kind of bond between living organisms. This is not imply morality has any special metaphysical or spiritual status. The decisions that drive morality are, if we have the courage to face the truth, nothing more than activity in the neural pathways of the brain. Yet this activity is, for us concerned with morality, significant.
Not every interaction between humans or organisms is a moral affair, however. When a human assists another human, it is not always out of a desire to help or an intrisic valuing of that human. They might, for example, provide goods as part of a trade in which they almost benefit, or they might assist another human out of fear of attack. These, whatever else they are, are not moral acts.
For an act to be moral, there is a require for something greater. It seems neccessary that there is a particular pattern of behaivour, from which we can perhaps infer a motivation, that suggests an intrinsic valuing of the other organism for its own sake. This seems to be the essence morality. Yet why would such a thing occur?
Morality appears present in most human societies, so the reason it occurs must be ubiqutous indeed. It seems to exist in many forms. A plethora of religious and philosophical traditions have gripped the world in different places and times. Within these traditions, individual differences express views of morality in a great variety of forms.
And yet we see many instances where morality is lost, perverted or manipulated. Outbreaks of murder, decadance, genocide, or apathy are by no means rare amongst humans. Morality does not stand constant and independent.
Morality is woven into the fabric of humanity, yet its influence rises and falls in both society and the individual. We can begin to understand morality when we understand these factors.
Next – Morality relies on knowledge