Lisa asks: What Are Morals?

A quick look at morals – what they are and what they do!  By Lisa McLellan

Moral facts

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 culturesbut 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…


3 responses to “Lisa asks: What Are Morals?

  1. Your opening line is a load of crap so I’m not gonna bother to read this one.

    Moral Facts – 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.

    So what your saying is buddists don’t exist….

  2. To put that opening statement another way – if you disagreed with something a person did (on moral grounds) then you would disagree with it no matter who that person was. For instance if someone stole from you it would be wrong no matter who it was. I do agree there are holes in this argument, we make allowances for different people all the time. However, you might agree that morals have to be general enough to apply to most scenarios otherwise they aren’t morals, just practical judgements based on certain circumstances.
    How does that mean buddhists don’t exist?
    x Editor

    • I must admit that this is not my best work – my aim here was to try and highlight the problem. Alice did a good job of clarifying that opening statement which I admit is pretty ambiguous as it stands. Of course, as Alice says, we make allowances for different people all the time, due to mitigating circumstances perhaps. The point is that when we think about morality, we generally consider that if it is wrong for me to x in circumstances Y, then it is also wrong for anyone to x in circumstances Y. I am not denying that Buddhists exist – of course they do, and of course their are those who disagree. If you choose to deny that morality is objective then the moral problem is resolved. You may be willing to accept that there are no such thing as moral obligations, and the we may act as we see fit, allowing others to do the same. If this is the case then we would never have grounds to expect others to abide by whatever moral code we personally choose to adhere to. I may personally consider it wrong to sexually abuse children, but if someone else disagrees then it would be their perogative to make this decision. If morality is not objective then they would be morally entitled to do this provided that it was not prohibitted by their personal moral code. I hope that this clarifies the problem for you slightly!

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