What does it mean to be moral?

In your opinion. To me, it means treating others as you would want to be treated.

It depends on how it’s being said, of course, but I think in the way the question is framed:
To act in a way consistently with (and to an extent exemplary of) ones own system of values.

You have after all people who, for deeply-held moral reasons, kill others without wanting to be killed. You may call them immoral, but that’s only because they are inconsistent with your values, not their own.


That’s way too individualistic a view of morality. There is no denying that there is a very strong social component to morality. It helps people to live together and form societies. There’s no way what Jeffrey Dahmer or any serial killer believed can be considered moral for anyone, because a Jeffrey Dahmer threatens other members of a society. Killing may be allowed in certain contexts within a society, but only when it’s viewed to promote the good of the society, be it the sacrifice or eating of enemies, war, etc.

As societies develp and unify, so too does the moral code. As societies grow, the number of people it protects grows as well. That’s why we see larger societies shun some of the killing practices of hunter-gathering groups. Just as societies can be considered to “develop”, so too does moral values. Just as a hunter-gathering society is viewed as less advanced, so too can it’s moral system. That means that not everyone’s moral view is correct for themselves and there is a platform on which a moral judgment can be more universally evaluated (I say more universally, not absolute universality - moral values can only develop and approach an asymptote of universality).

Rasava makes a very good point.

Morality is a delicate dance between the societal conception of the good as well as the individual. To be moral, one must find a way to navigate between the two.

A committed serial killer can, for example, be true to their own moral code but at the same time it is a very poor definition of morality that considers them a morally realized individual.

But on the other hand, a little Eichmann can dutifully follow the morals of their society (no matter how horrific they may be) but without authentic engagement they are a mass murderer pushing the “gas” button.

In between those extremes lies morality. Morality is to embrace the mean between what society dictates and what the individual wills. Like Rasava, I’d say that society does and ought play a primary role in this with individual sentiments playing a remonstrative role. Sometimes remonstration requires radical action, to be sure, but that is the exception and not the rule.

Morals, such as in ‘the moral of the story’, are summaries of generally applicable attitudes to have or actions to take: all with relevance to preserving, maintaining, or changing “for the better” (in terms of use value) your conditions in which you live.

As such, they all have an instinctual bias.

It’s already been covered how these ‘conditions in which you live’ have changed over the course of history. The example that the OP gives is merely a reflection of this instinctual bias in contemporary conditions in which you live.

In the days where outside threats were still substantial and engaging, morality would have been a reflection on the much needed strength to win over against the common foes to the society in which you lived and the ‘best’ (in terms of use value) conditions for this.

Nowadays, outside threats have been all-but neutralised to avoid nuclear war. Naturally, governments do well to exaggerate threats to bring about the same unity as described in the last paragraph. But mostly, everyday life is now turned inwards towards fellow members of the same society and away from the no longer perpetually threatening outside forces. This is why nowadays, we have morals like “treating others as you would want to be treated”. Our suspicion has been turned to our ‘neighbours’. The morals of today thus embody this suspicion and the mutual obedience to weaken one another to minimise internal threats - again out of the instinctual desire to minimise the threats to current conditions in which you live.

I agree; so does language. Language is intimately enmeshed with society and culture, and if someone from my culture says to me “that’s immoral”, I have a very good idea of what is meant and why. If someone from a completely different culture says the same, in some cases I will not understand until I have a better understanding of the culture they come from.

I don’t believe that Dahmer acted out of a sense of exemplifying abstract values, although I’m not overly familiar with the case. I would certainly agree that my original definition requires something about conscientious action - not born of fear, delirium, psychosis or so on.

“Morality” is a social justification, not an absolute. If Dahmer did claim he was acting because he believes in X values which logically forced him to commit Y, then society would compare his values with its own and pronounce him immoral. As a motivating force, however, his morality is what motivated the actions, and short of finding a fault in his logic, it would be hard to prove him wrong to himself.

Society penalises people whose values do not correspond to its aggregate values - a great many people who’ve held values we hold today have been put through immense trials, to the point of execution, because their values did not fit with those of their society. The reason that a society has values at all is that “ones own values” correspond in the vast majority of cases with those of ones society, or within the tolerances allowed by the society. And those who lie outside those tolerances are judged immoral.

I stand by a revised definition: “To be moral is to conscientiously act in a way consistently with (and to some extent exemplary of) ones system of values”. However, I believe that to be moral is not the same as to be judged to be moral.

That does not mean a more universal morality is necessarily more correct, unless you are either correlating size with progress or making universality a measure of correctness in itself. A modern-day morality may prove to be fatal for a primitive hunter-gatherer group, and they would rightly regard theirs as superior insofar as it protects its members (the society) better, no?

morals are whatever the guy with the biggest gun says they are



I think you are oversimplifying and thereby doing a disservice to warrior morality. While the Greeks, for example, did value strength and domination; indeed, those play a central role in the conception of kleos, they also valued loyalty and guest-friendship. Their values are far more similar to ours than I think you are giving them credit.

Why is it so complicated?

Morality is not a science, it is not anything more than a striving, act, attempt. And that attempt should be to minimize suffering, which is a universal negative. It is a universal negative because it is the only IN ITSELF that we know of, suffering in itself is negative, it has a nihilating effect on sentience, it causes a mind to turn into itself and eventually be consumed in itself.

The suffering of myself, and others I care for, might be an obvious negative (and even then it not allways an universally applicable maxim). But the suffering of, say, the bully from the other rival group isn’t that obvious a negative to me. Should I go out of my way to minimize his suffering, allways, never, sometimes… . You get the picture.

It’s not that complicated, but not for the reason you stated. Morality are the rules of a group, taking in account the specific relation of an individual to that group, that’s what’s usually understood by the word. To be moral is to follow these rules - maybe of several groups -, whatever they may be. It all depends, is contextual, and can’t be systemized. Everybody more or less knows their own position, if they live somewhat with their eyes and ears open.

If you want to hang yourself up on word games, be my guest. The word morality has a few centuries of dogmatism tied to it anyways. Lets throw the word in the trash and use the word ethicism. Ethicism is to responsibility as morality is to goodness. You have a responsibility to minimize suffering not a commandment. The bully, when he hurts, it is the same hurt as any other consciousness would experience. If I cut you I am essentially cutting myself because we are both identical at an objective standpoint- in terms of our capacity to suffer. I am with Nietzsche on the idea that resentment is basically a corruption of intelligence. Besides. very few individuals hurt out of pure malice- the bully for instance is most likely doing it as a compensatory act, maybe to compensate for an abusive father.

And I already know what you are going to say. Should we minimize the suffering of murderers by not imprisoning or killing them? No. We should minimize the suffering of those they would do hurt to, because they are greater in number. And we do that by killing and imprisoning those murderers. It doesn’t hurt to be a little utilitarian with our knowledge.

I’m not playing word games, morality is a group thing. Although i’m not a scientist, i think it’s save to say we’ve evolved traits to devellop morality in our group. It was usually ok to bash in the brains of a rival groupmember. Universality of moral rules is much more the result of a few centuries of dogmatism, religious and philosophic. But even with these dogma’s in place, the morality of the small group has probably allways been more important, you just couldn’t tell that to the local priest publicly.

Well i’m out of luck then if the bully doens’t think he is cutting himself when he is cutting me. Is it ok to cut his abusive father then as a compensatory act?

Utilitarism is a sick system. It’s not even an argument. Is it moral to kill your chronically ill sister to eleviate her of her suffering, as well as the suffering of your parents who feel responsible to take care of her?

Euthanasia? It is a beautiful, moral, righteous think to kill her if she wants you to do so. Utilitarianism is not a system, an argument, no- it is an attitude. If the act demanded to alleviate suffering would cause an incidental suffering greater than that it would seek to remedy, then it is not advisable to commit that act. See? How easy was that? Why do you need to nit-pick this, what I am suggesting is entirely rational.

It amazes me how so many people interested in philosophy will relegate morality to mere arbitrary “rules of a game”, rules which harm the individual’s freedom for a dubious conformist motive. It seems as if my fellow Americans (sorry for sounding like a politician) have a difficult time distinguishing between true freedom and anarchy. There is a way to be highly individualistic yet recognize the dependence we all have on social norms.

I think in this post I have to challenge what I see throughout this thread as a perception of the “arbitrariness” of moral codes. I don’t think they are. There is a basis for them separate from the single individual or from the whims of despots. That basis is not some Kantian categorical imperative or medieval natural law, God or any purely objective, purely absolute thing. As philosophers, we’re still over-reacting to the fact that morality has been found to have no PURELY absolute basis. We can’t see that morality does have a sound basis, but just an “absolute enough” basis. It’s not an objective one, it’s an inter-subjective one. Instead our reaction is to go the other way and reject morality outright or relegate it to a set of relativistic rules.

The old view of moral foundation is that there is one thing or set of things that must univesally apply to all morality to justify that one thing is absolutely and unquestionably moral vs. not moral. This is similar to the concept of essences in things, the Aristotlean “formal cause”. It doesn’t work that way. Let’s face it, humanity can’t get anything absolutely or positively right, in science in society or in morality. As we progress in developing our science, we progress in developing moral codes. We’re learing as we go. Why does evil exist? Undeveloped individual moral consciences and undeveloped social moral codes.

To be this prescriptive, and to say that morality can develop, of course requires me to provide some justification that morality can be evaluated. Again, that standard of evaluation is based on the inter-subjective standards of morality, not objective ones.

Here’s what I mean by inter-subjective. As an individual, I will perceive someone to be “like” me. That likening extends to an emptahy, compassion, and/or rational analogizing of that person to me. The reasons I liken myself to person B may be very different than the reason person B likens themselves to person C. But the result is the same - we LIKEN ourselves to one another in our group. This “likening” emerges from a social context. It’s circular and more of a positive feedback loop than a “which one happens first” situation. I start with discussing it at the individual level here. So there is not one thing that causes us all to liken ourselves to one another, but it happens nonetheless, and it’s that web of interconnected analogical relationships - an internetwork of empathy, if you will - from which moral codes naturally evolve. Morality is a sociological emergent property of the likening of individuals to eachother, where I respect the other person I am likened to because in the likening, I apply the “golden rule” concept that if I will be pained by something, so will the other person. Creatures who perform this act are considered equals in the social context and I call them “derived” rights holders, meaning their rights to protection and moral treatment stems from the fact that they are deemed “equals”. When a moral practice stemming from this likening reaches a critical mass of acceptance by derived rights holders - probably for different reasons for each individual - the moral practice becomes codified and promulgated for all. The critical mass can generally only be reached where the collective group sees the practice as promoting good for the society as a whole.

This is not arbitrary - it is an emergent outgrowth of individual human psychology and the gathering into societies for greater benefit. This is the “dance” of individual v. society that Xunzian alludes to in another post here.

Yes, many societies promulgate codes we intuitively would consider immoral, even evil. The prescriptive standard by which social mores may be measured is based on whether the codes promote INCLUSION of more derived rights holders than EXCLUSION. A warrior village that attacks its neighbors constantly certainly has, on a descriptive level, a moral code that protects its members, but prescriptively is not a well-developed morality because it is more exclusive of who it considerd derived rights holders, and members of its social context, than say, a modern nation that does not by definition see outsiders as the enemy merely because they are “not us”.

Of course, a one-world society is not in and of itself a more well developed moral society. That world could torture and kill certain members like a Stalinist state and be no better than (if not worse than) a violent hunter-gatherer society or a society where, as Impenitent would say, is ruled by the bigger gun. A moral social context doesn’t even need to be tied to a government by definition, although it often is.

Basically I could compare the basis of morality and its core as similar to the core of the internet. Neither really have a core. they are instead a web of different components that, while they connect to eachother through different methods, emerge as a single coherent sound force.

So what does it mean to be moral - to be moral is to promote a social context in which you can justifiably liken yourself to the largest collection of entities possible, finding common ground with more than less, and promoting a social context that is more inclusive than exclusive. The tricky part is where you stop being inclusive. Do you treat animals the same as us? Plants? Unborn fetuses? This may lead us to a different class of rights holders that I won’t discuss here. But under this framework, most of the moral issues of the day ultimately ask the question “who should be included as derived rights holders?”

Yeah definitely. But my intention, in this case, was to bring the focus to the changablity of morality. You are right as well.

I guess that’s why you have moderator status on this forum eh, Mr big-gun-pic-signature man :wink:
I can’t believe you actually believe what your signature says as being the most effective solution. Scary republican :confused: Those guys have messed up morals 8-[


I’m with Diekon, utilitarianism is a sick system. Not in the least that it has the capacity to commit atrocities towards minorities based on majority rule. The most intelligent people in the world are a minority you know, yet you value the non-corruption of intelligence that is resentment according to your quote. And you advocate utilitarianism?

The use of utilitarianism can only be to ensure that if there ever was a rebellion, you’d have numbers on your side. You are against suffering and you believe that the suffering of the minority is less than the suffering of the majority? Utilitarianism is pro-suffering towards the minorities if it serves the majorities.

It also favours the most common mediocre average people. Apparently you have no sympathy for the less able minority. And/or the most able minority who bring about the greatest achievements and displays of strength that mankind is capable of. And you are against suffering?!

Rasava. Morals can indeed be all sorts. And they all come about according to consistencies between people, or from a single person’s personal point of view like in a new year’s resolution, or consistencies between group or individual and their environment etc etc. Because these conditions vary so widely, they do become rather arbitrary when viewed from high above, but in each instance lower down, yes, they always hold some kind of basis at the time too. Viewed again from high above, all morals do have things in common though. They have the potential to be taken too rigidly for too long, even after the point where they are no longer beneficial to anyone.

She doesn’t want you to. So no, no euhanasia, but murder.

I agree with some of what you say (I’m not American, so maybe not as individualist as you may have read me :wink: ) but not this. Science develops more accurate ways of telling us what we can say about nature, about what we can say about how things are. There is a progress in this, in that successive scientific paradigms can predict more, with more certainty and accuracy, than their predecessors.

Morality defines how we should act, dependent upon what we want to achieve. What we want to achieve is based on zeitgeist, or aggregate will, and psychology (with attendant nature vs. nurture debate). There is a development in this, based on a culture’s response to its present situation, its changing environment, the interaction with other cultures and values and how those values mesh with (and alter) its ideals. But there is no progress; Chinese culture (as a general) values stability over freedom, American vice versa - neither are progressions of the other, or in any way objectively superior, except in terms of delivering what its citizens want. They aren’t arbitrary, either - there are historical reasons for them being the way they are. It’s like evolution - adaptation, not progression.

If fascism were to achieve a serious world presence, appealing as it does to fear, protectionism, pride/victimhood - all concrete aspects of human psychology - and the world fell to war with itself, we would consider that immorally terrible, barbaric. They in their turn would consider us immorally weak and tolerant, allowing our bloodlines to be polluted. The golden rule doesn’t save you - ‘do as you would be done by’ is an admirable guide as far as it goes, but if you celebrate large-scale conflict as a way of determining racial strength and expect and desire that other races will do their best to separate themselves and prove their worth in battle as this is the way existence should be (and yet of course your race will emerge victorious), there’s no conflict with the golden rule. You can encompass the whole of humanity in your wishes just as easily.

Evil is the only the lack of morals? What about overdeveloped individual moral consciences? People who are ahead of their time are often called evil too. Are philosophers who support voluntary euthanasia ahead of their time or just supporting evil?

But not with him on the idea that suffering is a necessary part of greatness?