A quick look at morals – what they are and what they do! By Lisa McLellan
When I make a moral judgment (i.e. it is wrong to kill an innocent person) I hold this to apply to everybody, not just to myself.
If it were subjective, I would have to admit that although it is wrong for me, it is not wrong for you. Morality is not like this, however – if I believe that it is wrong to kill an innocent person, then I believe it is wrong for you to kill an innocent person. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with me. We don’t just make up our own moral codes arbitrarily and accept that others will have different moral codes.
We do construct moral codes that differ between individuals, societies and cultures – but this is because we don’t always know exactly where the boundaries of morals lie – especially with contentious issues like abortion, euthanasia, torture (think 24!) – not because we consider morality a matter of personal taste. We assume that wherever these boundaries lie they must apply universally. Just as contradictory scientific theories can’t both be right, contradictory moral codes cannot both be right.
Compare this to ‘marmite tastes good’. This statement is not a fact about Marmite. It may be true for you that marmite tastes good, but for me that marmite tastes awful. We would both be right. The same cannot be said for a moral statement. A moral statement has to be an objective fact.
Can facts motivate?
Can an objective fact motivate you to act? David Hume suggests not. He argued that beliefs must be combined with desires in order for us to act on them. I believe that there are cans of coke in the shop, and that I can buy one for less than £1. I also believe that I have £1 in my pocket. These are facts, but none of them will lead me to buy a can of coke unless I also have a desire for coke.
Are moral beliefs any different? The knowledge that my dishes are dirty will only convince me that I ought to wash up if I want clean dishes – or a tidy kitchen – or happy flatmates, etc. As Hume’s mantra goes, you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. If morals are facts then morals alone will not be enough to make me feel I ‘ought’ to do anything. How could a fact motivate me to act if I don’t want to?
Is Morality motivating?
You ask Superman, “Why did you save the baby from the burning building?” He answers “Because it was the right thing to do”. Would you ask him for another reason? No! The right thing to do is good enough. To ask for more would make it seem like you didn’t understand the concept of right things to do. And you wouldn’t want the man of steel thinking you’re a moron.
We may not always be sufficiently motivated to do what we know is right, but it seems that moral beliefs are motivating. We generally agree that being ‘the right thing to do’ is a good enough reason to do something. In admitting an act is right, we admit that we have reason to do it. Moral beliefs, it appears, are in themselves motivating.
So if bare facts don’t motivate us what makes morals both factual and motivating? Are they not facts – or not motivating? Or are facts (like Coke costs less than a pound) a motivating force in your life…