(This essay arose from my listening to a radio discussion about whether cultural differences mean that each country or culture is entitled to its own conclusions about what is morally acceptable. The particular case discussed was the practice of genital mutilation of girls, sometimes referred to as female circumcision. This is regarded by the practitioners to be a justifiable part of their culture, while outsiders claim that such practices are inherently immoral. In essence, the argument is about whether morality is absolute or relative, or in other words, is there ever any absolute justification for claiming the high moral ground. If there is such a thing as an absolute code of morality, what could be its foundation? For example, some people think morality is divinely ordained, and others think there is some natural law of morality. I think there is more to it than that.
While these foundations apply to morality, and by extension to religion, they also apply to what we think is true about many other things, such as our health, how society and the economy work, and how the planet and the universe work.)
Types of Foundation of Morality
In the previous chapter the case was made that without free will no one would be morally responsible for their actions, and that free will could not occur in our deterministic world. But almost everyone acts as if they have free will.
And almost everyone has ideas about what things are OK to do and not OK, or in more formal terms, what is right and wrong, or moral and immoral. But, while there is general agreement in principle about such things as killing other people, or stealing, there is great dissent on details, and even greater dissent on many other matters. Members of the same community, religion or family often disagree on some moral details. So, when people take the moral high ground on actions that others think are acceptable, is it just a matter of different opinions of what is right and wrong?
The issue can be illustrated with a simple story. A young person who has experienced life only in a high-rise city visits a small country town for the first time, and having, with some amazement, quickly looked over the shopping centre, goes one street back to see where the locals live. There are single-storey wooden houses in large, often unkempt, yards with flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and sometimes wire-netting enclosures occupied by birds. Approaching the back yard of a house on a street corner, the visitor hears a strange squawking noise. When closer, it is obvious to the visitor that the noise is coming from the yard, and on looking over the fence the visitor sees a largish bird being held by the legs, with its wings also held by the same hand, and its head hanging down. Suddenly the bird is lowered so that its neck rests on a block of wood and then an axe swiftly falls. The bird’s head flies off and its body jerks in all directions with blood being flicked around from the neck. The visitor is horrified and angry, and blurts out at the perpetrator of this terrible deed, ‘Jesus Christ! Don’t you know that poor bird felt pain and terror just like you, you murderer!’
The foul murderer is momentarily preoccupied trying not to be a bloody foul murderer, because the bird’s body is still threshing around and bleeding. But shortly the threshing and flicking subsides and the butcher, still holding it, turns to the still glaring accuser and says, calmly but a little sorrowfully, ‘Please don’t take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’. To the visitor, the name of Jesus Christ is just a word, exclaimed purely for emphasis and its use has no moral or religious significance. The local resident is fully aware of the food chain, and knows the dead fowl owed its life to the very fact that is was good eating, and anyway would have been taken long ago by a local fox if its enclosure were not kept secure. So here we have two moralities, with neither person likely to convince the other. Is there a way of settling such differences?
Could there be some authority to refer to? I suggest that there are sources of information that people accept as authoritative and relevant to particular moral issues. I call these sources foundations of morality, and think there are five main pretenders to the title, namely:
- observed Nature;
- some individual personal source;
- revealed supernatural truths;
- logic applied to desirable principles;
- evolutionarily developed morality driven by an impulse to preserve social cohesion.
There is no clear dividing line between these foundations, as each contains elements of others. Each foundation will support conflicting moral codes. Different people will justify a particular moral principle on different foundations. A person might rely on different foundations for different issues. And each foundation imposes its own kind of morality. (In passing, it might be mentioned that some of them are foundations for other beliefs as well as those about morality. Also, they may have no relationship to any theory of how morality might have become a part of human nature. And they do not necessarily relate to how particular moral positions were arrived at by the individual person.)
Nature, Including Innate Human Nature
When we observe a young child doing something that we think of as very good behaviour, such as being actively cooperative or sharing, do we regard it as being morally good, or is it just the same as some other, “neutral”, action such as playing with a toy? And what about behaviour that we disapprove of? I would regard all such “naive” kinds of behaviour as neither moral nor immoral, irrespective of whether we approved or disapproved or just accepted. So I think that morality implies more than the way we think about particular actions.
Invoking Nature as a foundation of morality implies that the natural order by which the world works also decrees how we should “naturally” behave. Nature is invoked in several current debates on matters such as homosexuality, contraception, abortion and treatment of animals. If nature provides for the survival of the fittest, i.e., the fittest to produce the next generation, then homosexuality couldn’t be natural. Observed nature, however, seems to abound in examples of homosexuality, not just in Homo sapiens, but also throughout a wide range of species. In fact, if we look widely it is easy to find that nature provides examples of many greatly different, and sometimes astounding, kinds of sexual behaviour, and a great diversity of behaviour associated with other biological processes. However, some people would claim that human beings are special, and the only kind of nature that is relevant to morality is human nature. But whose human nature is to be taken as typical? The theory of evolution may be invoked to argue that everyone has naturally and justifiably reached the social situation they find themselves in. Various species with competitive, industrious or cooperative characteristics are given as examples of good or justifiable behaviour. And the food chain and the necessity of predators to sustain ecosystems can be used as arguments to counter those based on cooperation or compassion.
All sides of a debate about morality may find supporting cases in nature. Nevertheless, we seem to have some instinctive feelings about right and wrong. We all have a concept of fairness, even though our personal condition tends to influence what we think is fair and unfair. Also, there are innate human tendencies (that are not always obeyed) relating to the need for human societies to survive, such as avoidance of inbreeding, protection of territory, and cooperation in communal tasks. These are seen also in some social animals and insects. Such innate needs and feelings influence the other types of foundation listed above. But also, some innate human characteristics, such as sexual drive and self-interest, promote behaviours that are widely considered to be immoral.
Are there any scientific principles on which to base a system of morality? We have seen a couple of dubious examples from biology. But a lot of research has been done by psychologists and neuroscientists into the things that influence decisions and the relevant processes of the brain. Certain behavioural preferences seem to have evolved, but the specific details of morality are partly the result of environmental factors and partly matters of fashion. A study of human behaviour and preferences developed by Jonathan Haidt, a professor in social psychology in the USA, refers to six “moral tastes”, drawing an analogy with the tastes of sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. The moral tastes are care/harm, fairness/cheating, group loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression. These would seem to be acceptable categories in which examples of behaviour might be judged as moral or immoral. But are they attributable to personal decisions or to natural processes? Whichever it is, nature does not supply criteria on how to make a judgment on a specific act of, for example, the fairness/cheating category: both fairness and cheating are observed in biological nature.
Nature as a foundation for morality provides guidance about aspects of the way we live, such as prohibitions against, for example, eating pigs, seafood and cows, and drinking alcohol. Some of these have been incorporated in the codes of some religions. However, because the particular moral positions relating to these “tastes” vary from place to place and from time to time, they are not given universal acceptance. But few, if any, moral positions are accepted universally under any of the five foundations.
As a foundation, nature has the advantage of being able to be observed. It provides grounds for revision in the face of new evidence. But the evidence is ambiguous, and people often find only what they want to. Moreover, if nature is so reliable, why not just do what it dictates? Well, the natural world is so diverse that there is no aspect of behaviour where there is a single “normality” to use as an example, and also because a prime use of morality is to balance the contradictory aspects of human nature.
In addition to the detailed formalised idea of nature as understood by everyday experience and by science, there are ideas, expressed in the concept of karma and in the principles of Daoism, that have some bearing on morality. Karma is an important part of the Hindu religion. It is seen as a basic aspect of the world, by which certain kinds of actions are inevitably rewarded and other kinds are punished. The rewards and punishments do not typically occur during the current life of the person committing the actions, but in some future reincarnation. This does not happen at the will of some deity or other higher power: it is merely the natural operation of the world. The implication behind the idea of karma is that acting in ways that bring reward is virtuous or moral, and acting in ways that bring punishment is immoral. What particular actions are virtuous or immoral is not precisely specified, but they usually relate to compassion/cruelty and honesty/dishonesty. The concepts behind Daoism are less tangible. According to Daoism, the world is always changing. There are opposite, but not necessarily opposing, elements, the yin and the yang, involved in the changing processes. The Dao, which humans cannot understand, is some sort of essence behind the changes. Because the changes are inevitable and cannot be understood it is better to accept them. In accepting them, one should “go along with them” by actively “acting naturally”. Daoist sages, and others, are vague about which actions meet these requirements, but modesty, honesty, compassion and lack of desire for worldly goods are seen as virtues.
Other kinds of idealised nature are aspects of personal systems of belief, and are better considered as part of that foundation.
Individual Personal Moralities
Most people’s idea of what is right and wrong is a bit like their finger print; similar to many other people’s but unique in the small detail. Significant incidents in life, combined with personality, affect how we feel about certain moral issues. Feelings of disgust at particular types of actions or things can become deeply held moral attitudes. Vegetarianism is an example. It can be strongly embraced for purely personal reasons by someone brought up in a culture where the diet typically includes meat.
We can unconsciously develop moral positions, and not realise we possess them until something happens to awaken them. Some people have a Gnostic assumption that each person should look “inwardly” for their own morality, and “discover” moral principles through introspection.
A few people acquire such distinctive individual systems of morality that they put themselves outside society and above those who follow other systems. Very often they have one or two unusual moral precepts that condemn some aspect of the behaviour of the general populace or require some particular unusual practice (which other people might abhor). People with such individual systems are regarded either as having some mental disorder, as being habitual criminals, cranks or fanatics, or, occasionally, as seers or prophets bringing special revelations. Some of these people may become the founders of new religions. That doesn’t mean that the morality of any of these people is entirely different from other systems of morality: in most respects it may be fairly conventional.
From time to time, influential members of a religion introduce additional moral precepts that have no social benefit and are not prescribed in the foundational texts of their religion. Modern Christianity and Islam have a lot of differences from their earlier years. These differences are exemplified in the different sects of these and other religions.
That doesn’t mean that the morality of any of these people is entirely different from other systems of morality: in most respects it may be fairly conventional. Whatever type it may be, an individually founded moral principle is only as good as the persuasive power or influence of the person espousing it, or its appeal to others.
Revealed Supernatural Truths
All religions are founded on texts or remembered traditions that purport to contain revealed supernatural truths.
All religions prescribe moral codes that apply to duty in thought word and deed, against which there is no arguing. As supernatural truths, these codes are considered to be superior to human and natural interests and opinions. The codes refer to obligations, permissions, prohibitions and penalties. Attitudes to transgression vary from compassion, to forgiveness to vindictive punishment.
Divine wisdom has designed these codes as guidelines for the proper operation of societies and for the proper relationship between humanity and deity. If you subscribe to a religion, you should have no problems about right and wrong: it is all laid out for you.
But it is not just obeying rules for a reward or to escape a punishment. This morality requires beliefs about the sanctity of doing right and avoiding doing wrong. It leaves little room for rationalisations when compliance would be inconvenient or costly. So followers of the revealed religions are prominent in works of charity and compassion. Awareness of this “goodness” reinforces believers’ adherence to their religion: and it often draws admiration and support from outsiders, and sometimes conversion. However, many belief systems are susceptible to puritanism, which can become piously lacking in compassion, irrespective of their foundation.
In most religions, the rules are either contained in or derived from sacred texts, which are usually very old. The texts usually contain ambiguities and contradictions. They usually refer to social conditions different from the present, and may not include issues that now need moral resolution. They require interpretation, which often results in the inclusion of bias that was not implied or intended in the original. For example, a bias against women has crept into most religions. Elements from a previous religion or cultural practice can return. Once adopted, these additions are difficult to remove, and may even be emphasised. Selective emphasis on particular religious principles has always been used to suit personal preferences and situations. All of these things lead to uncertainty and controversy about what is the “true” revelation. And this is within each religious tradition. It is amplified by the diversity of the many different traditions. When one religion prevails in a particular country, much of its moral code is usually incorporated into law. This need not be a bad thing, since the initial ideals of religions are usually conducive to a stable social order.
In secular societies, some of the religious requirements or prohibitions are not enforceable by law – you don’t have to observe the Sabbath or honour your father and mother, for example. Also, some current matters of moral concern may not be covered by the foundation texts, such as those relevant to animal rights, the environment and biological technology. Nevertheless, “revealed” moralities are still very widely accepted. But those who believe in them have to find their own way through the ambiguities and contradictions. Then, in any difference of opinion, they need to convince others that they have the true interpretation, that their particular text is the true revelation, and revelation is the true foundation.
Logical Systems of Morality
In the three types of foundation so far discussed there is the probability of “victimless sins”. Victimless sins are acts or omissions that harm no one and have no apparent moral implications other than the fact of being decreed to be immoral. Such apparently purposeless requirements or prohibitions often strengthen community loyalty, by making distinctions either between the community and other communities or between the community and individual personal interests of members. Examples of victimless sins are using certain prohibited but otherwise inoffensive words, doing or omitting to do certain things at specified times or on specified days, and having ones beard or hair cut.
You don’t have to accept the moral authority of nature or inner urges or revelation to have firm ideas about morality. Morality can be derived from what are thought to be desirable principles, such as fairness, trust, etc., without including apparently unjustifiable requirements. Such principles may be similar to, and influenced by, some of those prescribed by nature or by religions. But things like worship, celebration of religious events, and ancient prejudices would not be seen to be logically relevant to morality.
Well-known sets of desirable principles are: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; To each according to need; from each according to ability; the sanctity of life; and the undesirability of suffering, which have been used to derive systems of ethics. The idea of building a society on such principles has strong elements of utopianism, with all the hope and anxiety to succeed that is found in idealistic ventures. And in this there are pitfalls. To develop a logical code of morals it is necessary to set out some premises, such as “liberty is good”, “equality is good”, “fraternity is good”, and then derive a suitable set of things that must be done and must not. But then difficulties arise. How is liberty good, and anyway what is liberty? Perhaps it is good because people like to be free, and that is what liberty is. But, to answer the question it is necessary to first decide who are to be free, what they are free from, what are they free to do and what they are not free to do. It then becomes obvious that giving one person some kinds of freedom may interfere with the freedom of other people, so freedom is not entirely good. Also, different people prefer different kinds of freedom. All desirable principles, simply expressed, contain potential contradictions. This doesn’t mean that logical systems are inherently impractical.
All systems of morality must trade off benefits against adverse effects. The difficulty is in achieving a workable trade-off in the absence of any authoritative criterion. One logical system of morality, Utilitarianism, tries to achieve the trade-off using the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. (Sometimes happiness is the criterion rather than good.) But in practice, how do you measure one kind of “good” against another, or one person’s preferences against another’s? How are minorities catered for? How do you include bad things in the equation? What about penalties, such as fines or jail? One modern moral philosopher, Peter Singer, thinks utilitarianism can work. But he accepts that utilitarianism raises tricky questions, such as:
- why are all people considered equal?;
- why are non-human creatures allowed only minimal consideration?
These queries, and some of Singer’s conclusions, notably the acceptability of killing some babies born with severe disabilities, challenge the sensibilities of many people, particularly, but not only, those whose moral code is based in the teaching of a religion. Singer intends compassion and individual preference, not callousness. He thinks that the life of some people born with severe disabilities would contain such suffering that would far outweigh any enjoyment, so killing them would be a morally justified as saving them from the suffering. The question is how to weigh up the balance between potential suffering and enjoyment from the point of view of the person concerned. Indeed, how can one ever speak for the person concerned in such cases? The issues surrounding Singer’s ideas demonstrate that life is too complicated for general principles to be “absolute” or “natural” criteria of good and bad. This is not to dismiss the idea of principles: religious edicts, such as keeping the Sabbath holy, have also caused problems – minor in this case – when taken to logical extremes. (Singer’s moral philosophy may be said to have an individual personal foundation based on logic applied to a set of desirable principles. And to many people he is an inspiring guru.)
There may be claims of some generalised desirable principles. For example, a system of morality might cover:
- obligations towards other people;
- the comparative roles of women and men;
- sexual practices;
- ownership of goods and land;
- treatment of people (individuals or groups) who are noticeably different in appearance, behaviour or belief from the majority of the population.
But for such principles there must be criteria to decide what particular acts are morally good or bad. Can a logical system be so complex as to cover agreed desirable and undesirable acts for all of these categories of principles? I think it can, but as in most moral systems, there will always be room for argument, about the principles themselves and about how they apply to particular cases.
Judging whether a particular act was moral or immoral would presumably be a matter of testing the extent to which the act complied with or violated the particular principle. The testing might consist of a logical analysis of the deed in comparison with the spirit or the literal interpretation of the principle. Or it might consist of comparing the act with a prescribed list of cases. Or it might consist in considering the outcomes of the act. (If the outcome was not intended, the morality of the act would depend on the intention not the outcome.) Judging according to outcomes is called consequentialism. But consequentialism is tricky. A “good deed” could have both good and bad consequences. If it affects more than one person, in whose judgment are the consequences good or bad, and can they be weighed against each other to get a net good or bad result? How far into the future should account be taken of the train of consequences? The suffering of past generations may, or may not, be seen as providing advantages for later generations.
These questions might be just hair splitting, at least for most practical cases. But if logic applied to principles is to be a useful foundation of morality it should not have too many unresolved issues. One way to resolve the issues is to produce sets of rules, which often become rigid and too narrow to fit practicable needs.
Another set of desirable principles is contained in the philosophy, or religion, of Confucianism. These principles, which have the objective of maintaining an orderly society at all levels from family to emperor, prescribe the acceptance of hierarchies of authority and obedience, and courteous behaviour in all personal relations. It is implied that scholarly learning is important for the maintenance of these principles. Confucianism is not utopian, and to modern Western thinking its principles may not all seem desirable. It does not proclaim equality, or fairness or happiness. Nonetheless, it is, perhaps, the one set of principles that is practical and unambiguous. Confucianism has been a significant and sustaining factor of Chinese culture for more than two thousand years.
Confucianism consists of a set of rules that are not to be argued about. There is no point in claiming that they need justification. Morality based on a set of rules is called deontology. Deontology tends to become entrenched in religions and also in societies based on desirable principles. And it is easy for the foundational origins to be obscured by the rules.
The practicability of logical systems depends on how they affect behaviour. The attitude to transgression adopted by adherents should depend on the rationales behind the system, and ideally would be compassionate and restorative. But if we regard the French revolution and totalitarian communism as logical systems of morality (some people have called them religions) in practice these have been cruelly and often self-righteously vindictive. One reason is that the logic is applied too rigorously and too simplistically, ie in a “fundamentalist” manner.
If there were only one desirable principle, such as freedom or equality, it could hardly cover the morality of all kinds of behaviour – although the single principle of equality seems to be the essence of socialism and communism, and happiness or “good” seems to be essence of utilitarianism. But when there is more than one principle the requirements of one may oppose the requirements of others. Constraints of freedom, for example, are needed to ensure equality, and vice versa. In practice the balance between such requirements is seen in issues such as individual rights versus the power of the state, often described as private benefits at the expense of common costs. Other cases refer to the rights and care of minorities in the face of intolerance or financial support from the majority.
This raises issues of who decides, and on what moral authority. Developments in scientific research and medical technology, along with greater public interest and concern in them, have made it necessary to have a process to resolve such issues. In many countries there are now ethics committees and ethicists employed in research and medical institutions, whose function is to oversight the institutions’ activities and make decisions on the morality of specific practices. There is now also attention to these issues in the philosophy departments of universities. The foundation of such deliberations is usually logic applied to what are currently deemed to be desirable principles.
In short, all such principles have two basic weaknesses. The first is that while each seems straightforward when it is just a name, it becomes complicated when applied to the myriad situations of human society, and it often becomes self-contradictory or in contradiction with other principles. The second weakness is that each principle requires its own justification. What makes liberty, equality, fraternity or happiness, etc., a desirable moral principle, particularly when “too much” of a particular principle becomes undesirable?
That does not mean that this foundation is of no use, but when it is used it should be applied with a lot of care and clarity, and very little or no arrogance.
Social animals behave as if they have some code of conduct. When members of their society act against the code they are punished if they are found out. Examples of such violations, which are usually furtive, are not sharing food, not doing tasks expected of them and having sex with members that they are not “entitled” to. Different species have different codes, which seem to have evolved to meet the needs and environment of the particular species. Some animals such as elephants and chimpanzees show clear evidence of empathy. Some have a sense of fairness and will share generously when a companion is seen to have been treated unfairly. It is a moot point whether these are examples of moral action. I think they are innate, and that human morality has a strong innate element but requires something additional.
Human societies have always addressed the issues arising from the complexities of conflicting human desires and needs. Sometimes this occurs by looking at desirable principles, sometimes by the precedent of religion and sometimes by addressing issues as they arise. In other words, systems of morality are continually evolving.
Humanism is an attempt to develop a practical system of ethics based on desirable principles, but taking account of the ambiguities of practical requirements and human feelings. It looks for rigorously confirmed evidence for any assumptions used in arriving at its conclusions. Over the few centuries of its existence it has developed in line with the findings and processes of science and with “enlightened” opinion. For example, while espousing fairness and equality, it did not initially give much regard to the equal rights of women. This only illustrates the arbitrary nature of intended desirable principles.
A moral code that has much in common with the Humanists is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This was intended as a seminal text for a universal ethics based on desirable principles. Hopes were that it would gradually become more widely adopted, but it was never enthusiastically embraced by some members of the United Nations. Recent events demonstrate that its principles are struggling to hold their initial acceptance, as nationalistic, religious and selfish issues challenge them.
The Process of Change
Additional moral positions often become accepted across the diverse faiths within secular societies. The changes made to Humanist ideas during the centuries, the changes clearly obvious in all religions since their foundation, and the explicit intent behind the UN Charter of Human Rights are all examples of an evolutionary process in systems of morality.
This is in contrast to the assumption of eternal absoluteness of moralities based on revelation or abstract principles. Some societies, applying a degree of expediency, accept flexibility in what is moral and immoral. (This does not stop some members of the society being extremely rigid or precise on particular matters. But this is not confined to morals: it can apply equally to the rules of a social club or political party.)
Some moral principles struggle for recognition while others are quickly accepted. Like fashions, some flourish for centuries; others soon wither. All this seems to be caused by changes in the prevailing conditions inside and outside societies, suggesting that there is something resembling survival of the fittest within the world of moralities. But as with biological evolution, there is no necessary progress towards some “higher” or “fitter” form, just opportunistic adaptation to changing conditions. In any society there will always be conservatives who will oppose changes to public morality. This is no bad thing, because it is important that all changes are subject to scrutiny.
Although such rules of morality are merely responses to the current whims of fate or society, and are not divinely revealed nor the outcome of eternally good principles, they can be justified as “good practice” or the latest stage in a particular line of evolutionary development. Ideas such as fairness and emotions such as disgust are factors in shaping evolved moralities. But there is no intrinsic or agreed version of what is fair or what is disgusting. In any society a collection of precepts and practices will evolve with fairly general approval, and may be reinforced over time as customary or “obvious” truths. Sometimes those who learn their morality from a religion founded on revelation will attribute their evolved morality to the same revelation. I think it is very likely that many of the rules and rituals of the established religions arose through a similar process of evolution.
Some moral rules that have evolved in particular cultures seem very strange to members of other cultures. The rules may relate to clothing, words, topics of conversation, preparation and consumption of food, etc. One kind of example is the eating of meat from pigs or dogs. Adherence to such evolutionary rules may provide no apparent advantage. Violation of them may have no apparent bad effect on people, on society or on the natural environment, but within the culture it is still treated with condemnation and disgust. These rules may seem self-evident to those who accept them but are difficult to explain to outsiders.
It is not only different contemporary cultures that have differences in their ideas of what is moral and immoral. Historically, cultures change their moralities as their knowledge and beliefs change, and as their wealth and other circumstances change. During periods of change there is usually disagreement between the “progressives” who welcome the change and the “conservatives” who don’t.
Evolutionary systems of morality exist beside another evolutionary code of right and wrong that is similar to them in many ways – the law of the land. But they are not deliberately created artefacts, as are laws. They have a lot in common with the law, and each influences the other. So why is not the law the acceptable morality, built on the same foundation?
The Law of the Land
A few societies are theocracies, i.e., the law is prescribed by a particular religion or non-religious social dogma. In these societies the law is, at least officially, the moral code. (In passing, it is worth noting that liberal secular societies can very easily lapse into acquiring increasingly rigid moralistic social dogma.)
In secular societies the laws have usually evolved by a system of continual considered changes and additions to earlier law, usually made in response to particular issues or to changes in the needs or workings of the society. They are well-documented systems, and include formal processes for deliberating and deciding individual cases where compliance is in doubt. They have elements in common with moral codes, and a few people might see no reason to have any other moral code than the law. Whenever the law strays far from what the general populace considers to be reasonable it ceases to be obeyed, and its agents become less diligent in enforcing it. So the law should never be too far from the morality of the public. In any case, if the law is what the state considers to be right and wrong, a separate set of ethics might seem subversive.
The issue of possible subversion is answered by the general perception, in virtually all societies, that the law is imperfect and often reflects the interests of influential groups. So, if the law were to be the moral code, there would be no other accepted ethic to restrain excesses of powerful interest groups. This is a always a danger in theocracies. Secular societies consider it unacceptable for the law to impose a particular religion upon citizens of other beliefs, but may disallow certain practices of some religions on moral or social grounds They also like the law to be flexible enough to meet changing needs. New moral sensibilities arise to challenge what is currently considered to be both right and legal. Examples are anti-slavery, environmental protection, male/female equality and animal rights. These have an origin and a force that precedes the law of the land. Sometimes they are only reluctantly embraced by established religion.
When morals are rigidly applied, all sorts of trivial anomalies result in convolutions of behaviour, for example, the rules of what activities constitute work on the Jewish Shabbat (or Sabbath). But it is widely considered that the sanctions applied by the state should not be applied to all moral breaches, and that it is reasonable for some members of society, such as those with greater social responsibility, to be subject to more stringent moral requirements than the public at large. (Some people in high positions don’t share this view.) The law implies compulsion to obey, with penalties for infringements. It is very easy, particularly in authoritarian communities, for the populace to develop an attitude that the only reason for obeying a particular law is to avoid the penalty. The interpretation of law must be precise whenever a judgment is to be made, and this may require splitting of hairs or accepting loopholes. Morality implies awareness at the time of whether a contemplated action is right or wrong. But the law cannot punish actions that are considered immoral if they are not illegal. Societies recognise intrinsically different roles for moral codes and the laws of the land. Driving on the wrong side of the road may always be illegal, but not always immoral. Various forms of adultery may not be against the law but would be thought to be immoral by many people. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.
Since the purpose of law is to enable society to be governed impartially, the law should always be uniformly implementable. On the other hand, morality helps society to function from the individual personal level, taking into account personal and arbitrary ideas of right and wrong in different sections of the society. Morality could be thought of as a set of rules of behaviour, including thoughts, and emotional attitudes about these rules. The law could be thought of as a set of rules of behaviour, usually excluding thoughts but not intentions, with an intellectual attitude to the rules and formal sanctions if they are not obeyed. There are, of course, institutions that regard their systems of morality (or codes of ethics) as law, and accordingly apply sanctions.
Having discussed five foundations, have I covered the whole spectrum? What about history? Is it the history of the Jews rather than revelation that requires certain religious rituals, such as celebrating Passover, and justifies their occupation of Palestine? Did the history of battles centuries ago justify the (Orthodox) Serbs in wanting to oust Muslims from Kosovo? Did the success of the Pilgrim Fathers in the face of adversity justify the later doctrine of a “manifest destiny” for European peoples to take over North America? If the answer to any such question is yes, there may be a case for adding history as a sixth foundation. History has many diverse branches. Much of it would sit comfortably in the evolutionary foundation. And while my five foundations are quite distinguishable and different in kind, there are a few overlaps at their edges. Some of the other parts of history would fit into the edges of the Nature and Revelation foundations. I do not think there is a sixth foundation.
Summary of the Five Foundations
The foregoing discussion can be summarised as follows.
Nature exhibits many kinds of human (and animal) action and motivation, but does not prescribe what we ought to do, or why. A major function of morality is to persuade people to act in a way that will balance the contradictory aspects of human nature. But it is society not nature that decides what is an appropriate balance. Nature does, however, give examples to choose from to suit our prejudices or preferences.
Individually derived systems of morality can be justified only within the particular person.
Revelation, despite its claim to absolute truth, has not led to a single coherent moral code, but to multitudinous differences and inconsistencies. This must cast doubt on its validity. Religious moralities are subject to interpretation, sometimes by personally biased authorities, sometimes by conscientious believers. Human nature bends rules and makes new ones to suit a range of aspirations, and these are then sometimes assumed to be revealed truths.
Logical systems based on desirable principles tend to be rigidly prescriptive. The principles themselves are arbitrary, and are derived from human aspirations arising from recent or imminent events, and are usually utopian. But logic based on desirable principles may influence flexible systems.
Socially-derived evolutionary systems of right and wrong can quickly swing in different directions. This is illustrated in the varying attitudes to foreigners in many countries throughout history. But these systems tend to be the fairest in communities where there is a mixture of different religious and/or secular beliefs.
After looking closely at all these foundations, human nature, with all its peculiarities, complexities and contradictions, seems to be the architect of all moralities, irrespective of how each is justified. No foundation is demonstrably or unequivocally superior.
What does this say about moral relativism? Consider, for example, genital mutilation of young girls. This is often associated with Islam, although it is practised also by some communities that claim to be Christian, and it was practised before the appearance of these religions. It is neither prescribed nor supported by the Koran or by the Bible. In the cultures it is associated with, women are usually subjugated by men and are blamed for men’s lust for them. It causes pain, humiliation and sometimes death. Some people might rank it with male circumcision, but its physiological and emotional effects are vastly greater. The acceptance, indeed the active support, of female genital mutilation is an instance of an evolved moral position that has acquired pious justifications. One rationale to justify it is that it decreases the sexual desire of the woman, which makes for a more stable marriage. While this may seem to be a false argument (and there is no corresponding action to decrease male sexual desire), it is apparently believed in some societies where female genital mutilation is practised. Perhaps our moral outrage towards it is another instance of pious moral justification.
In many societies there are cultural impositions on some or all members, impositions that may seem to outsiders to be unjustifiable, or even barbaric. But those subject to the impositions often accept them as facts of life, or as providing a sense of identity, belonging, piety, or safety. In some male-dominated societies, wearing the burqa, which is an all-enveloping female garment concealing the shape of the body and limbs and covering the face, can be a refuge of anonymity and desexualation for women. But in Western societies it is seen as an affront to women. We might think that for a woman to feel the need to wear the burqa in her own country is a reflection on that country’s culture, and wearing it is not needed in our culture. And we might regard it as subjugation of the woman. But wearing a burqa may also be an affirmation of religious faith, irrespective of the country the woman is in. One of the justifications for banning it in a Western culture is the claimed danger of allowing people to conceal their faces in public. This may sometimes be a disguise of religious intolerance.
Merely taking the high moral ground on issues such as this results in counter-claims of “cultural imperialism” supported with examples of our own failings. If those who practise it can be convinced that it has no religious justification and no social advantage, a meaningful dialogue might be possible. But accusers would first need to acknowledge any practices that should be abandoned in their own culture. Only then might it be possible to discuss specific adverse effects of the practice.
Consider a hypothetical conversation between a mother who wants her daughter to be “circumcised” (as she herself has been) and someone opposed to the practice who then tries to take the high moral ground.
Mother: It’s too bad. I want my daughter done but it is illegal in this country. I will have to take her back to Africa.
Opponent: I think it is cruel to subject children to such treatment.
Mother: Life in my country has many cruel things, and most of them last a long time.
Opponent: But it would be maiming her, and cause unnecessary difficulty with childbirth, and deprive her of the enjoyment of sex.
Mother: Our society managed to survive. It is part of our customary way of life.
Opponent: It is a barbaric custom.
Mother: You have your own barbaric customs. How many of your people are homeless or have to live in poverty and squalor? So you look after your barbarity and we will look after ours.
A stand-off like this might have been avoided if the moral principles and their foundations had been included. The opponent might also have said that, unless the daughter was aware of possible adverse effects of the procedure, that it would not have any benefits, and that it was not a religious requirement, but she still actively wanted to have it done, it would be a needless act of cruelty. The opponent might have justified her stance on the moral virtues of love and compassion, as against cruelty.
The mother might also have said that if she were allowed to have her daughter “circumcised” by a surgeon here in Australia, the process would be no more painful or dangerous than cosmetic surgery, tattooing or body piercing, which are already practised legally (but are rarely, if ever, imposed and usually have less damaging consequences). She might have justified her stance on the evolved moral code of her cultural community, which accepted female genital circumcision.
(It has been reported that most female circumcision is performed under professional hygienic conditions on willing girls and women for cultural or cosmetic reasons, and it is often requested by the person undergoing it. This is said to be no more invasive or damaging than male circumcision. However, male circumcision – which is often performed shortly after birth – is vigorously condemned by some people, who say that it is mutilating and reduces the satisfaction of sexual intercourse. Others, however, promote it for health reasons, and say any problems it may cause are outweighed by the benefits. The more widely known and mutilating form of female circumcision, which is the subject of this discussion, is practised in only a few “unsophisticated” tribal societies.)
Claiming moral superiority is likely to be successful only when both sides accept the same moral code on the particular issue. And before confronting a claim that something is innocuous when you think it is actually immoral, it may be worth enquiring about the foundation of the claim. You may then want to contest the foundation, but in doing that you will probably have to defend your justification of your own foundation.
Further, all systems of morality are affected by significant inconsistencies. No matter which foundation you support your morality upon, you will find opposing moralities relying on it also. And you will also find your own foundation disputed. So when tempted to take the high moral ground, or confronted by someone else who has succumbed to the temptation, it is prudent to consider the foundations on each side before arguing the details.
This is not to say that one morality is as good as another and we should learn to live with ones we abhor. Societies need to hold together or their members will suffer, and an agreed morality is important for cohesion. Also, societies need to endure, and getting the right morality is important for this. What is right depends on human nature and environmental factors – geography, availability of vital resources, the disposition of neighbouring societies, etc. Some systems of morality have endured for a long time and some have died out quickly. As environments change, moralities that accommodate the changes will serve better. Some moral principles such as friendship, cooperation and service to a common cause are more likely to sustain a society than others that tend to alienate or subjugate some of its members from each other or cause pain and discomfort. That is my (unemotional) defence for taking the high moral ground against female genital mutilation. It is, of course, a personal not an absolute defence. It rests on two foundations, logical/high principles and evolutionary. My relevant high principle is the very imprecise concept of compassion, and my evolutionary justification is the the liberal Western idea that children have certain rights from a very early age.
Is it justifiable to say that condemning something like the infliction of needless pain and mutilation is an example of an absolute moral principle? While it is tempting to say yes, I think this issue raises the same problems as other “high principles”. It has been said that most of the horrific things that people do are done in the line of duty. That may or may not be true. But if the genital mutilation of young girls is an example of such a duty, it suggests that we should be careful about what we regard as a duty, particularly a moral duty that causes harm or distress, and that we should try to understand how it has been justified and why it should, or should not, be obeyed. However, conscientious objection is still just a contest between foundations of morality. And this points to the difference between the substance of a moral code and the foundation used to justify it.
There is no absolute criterion for deciding the relative justifications of my five foundations. There is no absolute criterion for assessing moral obligations relating to the differing needs or preferences of different people or of different species, or between animate beings and inanimate objects. There is no absolute criterion for assessing moral obligations relating to present circumstances and possible future circumstances. We can do no more than try to assess individual or general cases, and hope that our differing assessments do not cause too much grief.
Postscript: An ideal system of morality?
If there can be no absolute criterion of morality, could there still be some workable ideal system? What might be the characteristics of an ideal system of morality? Should it be of unquestionable authority, or capable of revision whenever aspects of it become unacceptable? (But what would be a criterion for acceptability?) Should it embrace all areas of behaviour or be concerned with merely sustaining the harmony of society? Should its attitude to observance be rigorous or prudent?
Would an ideal moral system apply to one period of time or for all time; for each person individually, or for, say, each nation or religion, or for the entire world? Should, for example, a moral foundation give justification to conducting trials of citizens of foreign countries as war criminals?
Should a moral system be codified as a set of rules or principles that must be followed, or should there be a way of assessing outcomes of individual acts and failures to act? Codifications need to be increasingly complex as societies become more complex. They also need to be easily understood without being ambiguous, but these two criteria are incompatible, as illustrated by the complexity of the law and the continual challenges to its meaning. And a particular outcome can be seen to be good by some people and bad or mixed by others.
Throughout history there have been many shifts in beliefs about the nature and enforcement of right and wrong. Across modern cultures and between and within religions there is great diversity. In fact, each person’s unique set of morals changes continually, if only in small ways, according to personal circumstances.
Whenever things of value appear to be threatened, a person, or indeed an entire nation, may quickly change its morality from one of compassion to one of hostility or rejection, often justifying the change as pragmatism or realism. The threat may come from foreigners, or a section within the society, or from a new deadly disease, a natural disaster or economic competition. But also, circumstances may sometimes lead morality towards greater compassion.
What may seem to be the right kind of morality can quickly come to be regarded too casually, with its strengths taken for granted and its perceived exceptions exaggerated. There is no panacea that will address all the peculiarities of human nature through good times and bad. And, I think, there can never be an ideal system of morality, irrespective of the foundation on which it is justified.