Morality: An Introduction

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Introduction: Two Perspectives

Morality is a large and difficult subject, so we are not going to attempt to summarize it here: the aim of this article is to set out an overview of the subject, and describe the territory in a way which will help us to talk usefully about morality when the subject comes up.

One part of the reason why people find it so hard to talk about morality is that we use the term to talk about two quite distinct things, but rarely identify which kind of morality we are talking about.  For the sake of convenience, we will talk here about two perspectives on the subject of morality - other terminology is perfectly valid.

From the internal perspective, we live in a moral universe.  We believe that some things are right and other things are wrong, and morality is the study of how we distinguish between them.  Generally, we rely upon some laws, principles or code of conduct, but this body of standards must derive from a source which we believe has the right to make moral judgements - it is generally religious in some sense in origin, but the religion may have faded with time behind strong cultural influences.  Sometimes the religion is rooted in revelation, sometimes in philosophy, and sometimes in ancient traditions whose origins have been lost.  From this perspective, we explore morality formally through religion, and informally through story and culture.

From the external perspective, we observe morality and how it operates.  We do not ask if it is true, only how it works.  We recognize that many (but not all) people operate with a clear sense of morality, and that all human societies operate with an agreed (or imposed) morality.  From this perspective, we explore the origin and function of morality through philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.  People have been seeking to understand the origin of morality for a long time - both the origin in historic terms, and also the development of a personal sense of morality (see this New Scientist article for a recent example).  While many people ignore this perspective, hardly anyone objects to people studying it if they want to.

Many people work quite happily with both perspectives, and there is no inherent conflict between them.  The external perspective is clearly valid: morality (like religion) is observably a psychological and social reality, and can be engaged with at that level, whatever you happen to personally believe or disbelieve.  The external perspective generates many interesting questions, but the question we are going to briefly explore here concerns the status of the internal perspective.  There seems to be three basic options.

  • The internal perspective is true: we live in a moral universe and we can discover moral truths.  Within this perspective, our understanding of morality is generally rooted in a religious tradition - sometimes directly and obviously, at other times, indirectly and less obviously; because morality is real, an aspect of the universe we live in, like colour and weight, it can be treated as a 'given' - so (while it may be fun to try) we have no need to explain where it comes from or why it is useful.
  • The internal perspective is false: morality is an invented story.  Within this perspective, morality can be seen in various ways - some obvious examples are: as a helpful, perhaps necessary, shared fiction to keep society together; as a set of lies imposed by the powerful elite to keep the masses in their place; or as a set of lies imposed by the weak majority to prevent the powerful from achieving their potential.
  • The internal perspective is mistaken: we live in a moral universe, but morality is grounded in something other than religion.  Within this perspective, religion may provide an approximation to true morality, but will inevitably distort it; only a reliable source of knowledge, such as science and reason, can give us a solid basis for morality.

Three Options: Ways to Understand Morality

The Internal Perspective is True

If the internal perspective is true, then we operate within a moral universe.  We can use our reason and experience (and any other tool we can find) to help us distinguish right from wrong: we may get confused at times, we may be mistaken in places, we may fail to see obvious moral issues staring us in the face, but in the end we are exploring real moral issues, and have the potential for making real moral progress.

In fact, we have more than just the potential for making real moral progress: history shows us numerous areas when we can see this progress take place.  However, claims about the reality of moral progress do not negate the risk of that progress being undone: the progress may be real, but it is not inevitable, and can be reversed.

However, when we look at history over centuries rather than decades, it is hard to deny that real progress has been made in many areas.  For century after century, the world has become less violent (see The Better Angels of Our Nature).  Possibly the most obvious example of progress is the struggle to end legal slavery in much of the world.  More recently there has been legislation to decriminalize homosexuality, require equal pay for women and prevent racial discrimination.  Looking further back, we don't kill disabled or unwanted infants at birth, we (mostly) don't shut away disabled people from mainstream society.  These days, gladiators fighting to the death as popular entertainment and bear baiting are only encountered in history and fiction.  If you believe that these changes are good, then you believe that morality is real.

Most people functionally adopt this approach: they believe themselves to be moral people - or as moral as their circumstances allow, apart from the occasional moral lapse; they believe they can correctly distinguish right from wrong, at least most of the time; they want to pass their moral values on to their children.  And most people do not worry about where morality comes from: it appears to be a 'given', simply one aspect of the way the universe is.

The internal perspective rests on two basic foundations for most people: belief and experience.  We believe (for whatever reason) that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and we experience this internally, both when we wrestle with our conscience, and also when we make moral judgements and feel confident that the judgements we make are about something real - that they are not just expressions of our personal preferences, that they are not simply internalized social norms.

The origin of morality is not a problem for most religious people: their beliefs provide a sufficient explanation, whether it is an omnipotent God, or some impersonal force such as karma or the Tao.  Religions generally do not explicitly describe how morality originates, but they do provide a worldview within which morality naturally exists.  People who do not consider themselves to be religious have several options: stop thinking about the question ("I know that right and wrong are different, even if I don't understand where they come from."); find some source for morality which they can believe in but feels sufficiently non-religious; or shift to one of the other two options (morality is false or mistaken).

The Internal Perspective is False

If the internal perspective is false, then morality is not real, but simply a (mostly) useful fiction.  We invented morality as a tool to help society function, in much the same way that we invented money.  For the purpose of this discussion, it really doesn't make much of a difference who invented it, or why, but it can be very significant for the people who hold this position - clearly, it can make quite a difference whether you believe that morality is helpful or malicious; and, if malicious, whether it is imposed by the elite to keep the masses in their place, or by the masses to restrain the powerful.

Few people adopt this position: it is not comfortable.  The most obvious example is Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that 'God is dead' and therefore the higher human beings (the 'supermen' he talked about) could free themselves from their false belief in morality.  At around the same time, Dostoevsky was writing his classic, The Brothers Karamazov, in which an atheist points out, "If God is dead, everything is permitted."  This position is most commonly encountered in fiction.

(For more about this, please see Morality is simply a useful fiction.)

The Internal Perspective is Mistaken

This approach says that the internal perspective is mistaken, and we can find a basis for morality which does not rely upon belief.  This is a strange claim: every basis for morality which has been proposed to date relies on belief, in some form or another - feel free to disagree with this summary by providing a real counter-example.  You can reject the organized religions (and many people do), but you cannot hold onto morality without believing something.

If the internal perspective is mistaken, then morality is real but we (most of us, for most of history) have misunderstood its source.  According to this perspective, religion (or some vaguer belief system)  may provide an approximation to true morality, but will inevitably distort it; philosophy has failed to explain it.  The obvious questions then arise: where does morality come from, and how can we gain a more accurate understanding of it?

A significant number of people adopt this position.  They generally reject organized religion, but often recognize some alternative source of knowledge which they consider to be reliable: this is often another form of spirituality, but they sometimes  claim to rely in some way upon objective sources such as science and reason.  Many non-religious alternatives have been presented as a solid basis for morality, but these alternatives suffer from the same problem as the rejected religions: each individual believes in the adequacy of their basis for morality, but nobody is able to convince other people that they are right.

The fundamental problem with this position is the classic line: you cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'.  Whatever you can say or prove about the world can only be a description of the way things are, and no quantity of statements about how things are can possibly tell you anything about how things should be.  You can prove (perhaps) that we have evolved to be moral, or that people from many different cultures all share the same basic morality, or that moral societies are more successful than immoral societies, but no research can possibly tell you whether morality is real, or simply useful.

The interesting thing about this perspective is that it is verifiable: you simply need to produce a basis for morality which does not rest upon belief.  Many people have tried, but in the end, their arguments all boil down to a set of beliefs which the author claims to be obviously true, but which fail to convince the majority of people.

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris argues that morality is real, and effectively (in my opinion) demonstrates the danger posed by moral relativism.  It is an interesting book and, as you would expect from Harris, reasonably well-written, but it fails in its purpose.  Harris is not helped by the addition by the publishers of a subtitle: "How science can determine human values" - he does not claim that science can do this, only that he believes science will probably, one day, be able to guide our human values.  The main problem with this book is that it covers a large amount of well-trodden territory, and Harris seems unaware of how much has already been written on the subject.

To take one obvious example: Harris relies on Utilitarianism, which is roughly equivalent to a modern chemist referring to phlogiston.  As an abstract concept, Utilitarianism works brilliantly; but if you want to use it in the real world, you need to get people to agree on what is good, and find a way to compare apples with pears in the moral realm.  The theory is superficially attractive, but was effectively shot down centuries ago; the problems with it are well-documented and easy to find.

Many people today describe themselves as 'spiritual' rather than 'religious', which is probably an accurate reflection of where they are.  But spirituality is an individual thing: your spirituality may have nothing in common with mine, beyond us both agreeing that "there must be something".  And morality is essentially a social thing: it tells us how to behave towards other people (and not only other people, of course), so individual, personalized spirituality is never going to provide a basis for a shared morality.  So it seems likely that most people who hold this position never attempt to identify what they want to replace religion with as a basis for morality.

In Conclusion

Let us return to the three options. 

  • Option one: the internal perspective is true, we live in a moral universe and we can discover moral truths.  We can believe this, but we cannot prove it.
  • Option two: the internal perspective is false, morality is an invented story. Again, we can believe this, but we cannot prove it.
  • Option three: the internal perspective is mistaken, but we can find a basis for morality which does not rely upon belief.  But, in practice, every basis for morality relies on belief, in some form or another: you can reject the organized religions (and many people do), but you cannot hold onto morality without believing something.


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  • Option three - pragmantism - e.g. The Golden Rule is pragmatic in that if I treat others well I may more likely treated well myself. Evolution has perhaps delivered what we call 'moral behaviour' as a pragmatic development that creates a more successful society for the raising of children.  Perhaps the most 'moral' individuals survive long enough to produce children whereas 'immoral' people don't (or end up punished, incarcerated, executed) before they can have children. I have no idea whether there is any evidence for this. This line  argument can lead into very uncomfortable discussions about who/where/why have the most children, and whether they are countering or enhancing humanity's development.

    • Mark, perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, but this 'pragmatism' you describe seems to me to be a clear example of option two: morality is an invented story.  It is invented for the pragmatic reason that it is useful, hence the article I linked to, "Morality is simply a useful fiction".  Most people agree that morality is useful for society, but if we believe that morality is not real then, when we tell our children that lying is wrong, we are lying to them.  For their own good, of course.

      Morality is simply a useful fiction
      Some people believe that morality is not real, but simply a myth – a useful fiction. According to this perspective, people invented morality as a too…
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