Ellen Feig

Professor, Bergen Community College


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Based upon a discussion we are having in the Idea area, I wonder - how do you define morality and why? Where does your definition come from?

I have been working on curriculum for college students that incorporates literature and the notion of being a moral, ethical person; it is clear that I need to step back and first come up with a clearer definition of morality or ethics.

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    Jan 26 2013: Per below, I think courage arises when you see something will be good, but you will have to stretch yourself to do it. For instance, I like to listen to talk radio, and I like to call in from my position as one of the audience and talk on the air, ask a question or make a comment. It is hard for me to call in, I suppose I'm afraid I won't be quick enough on my feet, or entertaining enough. But I always go ahead and do it anyway, which for me takes courage. And it's usually quite rewarding, I learn a lot and I think I become a little more assured. I believe it is moral to challenge yourself this way, that ideally we should all be trying to grow in what we can do, what we know, what we have experienced.

    You know, that's another area you don't see examined in morality, the importance of being true to yourself and investing in your own growth.
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      Jan 26 2013: I agree with you on your definitions but struggle with the subjective nature of morals..if we learn morals from a culture that acts in ways that seem unethical (i.e to society) then how do we ever become ethical beings? I know it this is circular thinking but it is weighing on me as an educator when I see the real lack of concern for others in young people.
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    Jan 25 2013: Like I said in the other conversation I like the “The Nine Noble Virtues”.
    1. Courage
    2. Truth
    3. Honour
    4. Fidelity
    5. Discipline
    6. Hospitality
    7. Self-Reliance
    8. Industriousness
    9. Perseverance

    Although history books tell us that they came from the Vikings, I would say the route of all virtues developed from the unique ability humans have to think ahead.
    In that the desire to be better in the future would not arise without the ability to think ahead.

    One reason I really like them is because interlock/interact with each other, much like the triangles of the Valknut. (That I believe symbolize them) AI; it take discipline to have perseverance, and it take perseverance to be discipline. The truth gives you courage, and it takes courage to see the truth. Etc. etc.
  • Jan 29 2013: Morality and ethics is one of the cornerstones of the civilized society and it evolves with the human race. In the name of moral values we have done great things and very destructive ones as well. What is today morally acceptable it wasn’t centuries ago. But something I’ve been noticing is that with the knowledge exchange, the internet and open forums we are arriving to a consensus that morality is beyond religion, beyond race, beyond culture. I think we might be close to a unified vision based on our common and simple needs to live in peace with our neighbors.
  • Jan 28 2013: Morality consists of the guidelines within a particular society which offers its adherents the greatest possibility of a successful life within that society. There is often a tension between what we wish our culture's morality was and what it actually is. There are also institutionalized moralities which have originated in different cultures which are destructive when taken out of context. Morality is what works. To insist that someone adhere to a morality which does not work is immoral.

    Experience, common sense, observation, wishful thinking.
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    Jan 26 2013: .....
    Hebrews 10:16 (KJV)
    This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;

    The rules we should live by are hard-wired by our creator. In order that we may have free choice, we can overcome them by deliberately ignoring them, but the fact remains - they are present in each one of us.

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    Jan 26 2013: Thank you all for your insightful responses - I really struggle with this idea that morality, and in many instances ethics, come from experience of a person or culture; does that mean that there is not a code of morality that transcends all cultures or religions? I remember years ago learning how the Golden Rule (do unto others...) was something that all religions espoused. However, if that is true then how do humans continue to kill in the name of religion - doesn't that destroy the very essence of the golden rule? The next issue is the idea that morality comes from past successful experiences. My questions is what defines successful experiences? I was having this conversation this morning with my family who has always valued money as the definition of success - by this definition I am the least successful member of my family as I make the least amount of money. However, I am passionate about my job and the work I do so isn't that success?

    This is all very circular thinking and may simply be impossible to define but what happens when each of us or each group has their own idea of what is moral or ethical? Would that lead us to potentially hurt others in the name of our own sense of morality? If I am brought up in a culture that says it is okay to kill in the name of a higher power, that in fact it is ethical to do so, does it make that moral?
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      Jan 26 2013: it's really not that complicated. You have values which are based in your experience. I have values based in my experience. When we are young, those experiences come from our parents but as we grow we are exposed to experiences that include teachers, co-workers, friends etc. Some experiences we embrace and some we discard and that is how different people can create different values who have undergone the same experience. That is why some of your values have priority over your family's values.

      Values dictate morals (how we act towards others) and ethics (how we talk about morals personal or shared)

      There is no overarching morality although here in the west we like to pretend there is one. In some societies cannibalism is practiced perfectly moral and ethical. In past societies human sacrifice was the norm. We can only navigate value systems and come to social values and morays when we move into community. Those can eventually translate into law.

      It's pretty linear to me but navigating value systems takes practice. The more cultures and value systems you are exposed to the easier it gets.

      Most, if not all, conflicts can be broken down into a clash of value systems. Everything from abortion to immigration to gun control to euthanasia (hmm human sacrifice??)

      I would recommend you see if you can get your hands on an open source syllabus for biomedical ethics. It might be a good start for the ethics piece. Most hospitals have an ethics board. You might want to see if they would have any board development documents that could help.
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    Jan 26 2013: .
    Morality is the rules of SYMBIOSIS. They are our ancestors’ successful experiences formed 10,000 years ago and saved in our DNA.
    SYMBIOSIS makes humankind survivable.

    (For SYMBIOSIS, see the 1st article, points 4-8, at https://skydrive.live.com/?cid=D24D89AE8B1E2E0D&id=D24D89AE8B1E2E0D%21283&sc=documents)
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    Gail .

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    Jan 26 2013: For me, morality is something that one learns in a religious context. Ethics are something that one feels.

    Where do my definitions come from? From observing life happening around me and by becoming self-aware.
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    Jan 26 2013: According to me , morality does come from the codes that your parents have taught since childhood regarding the behaviour etc. It also relates to teachings from the environment exposure during the course of time. I feel so since moral standards does differ from person to person since their perspective regarding a particular thing is different.
  • Jan 26 2013: To me, morality is the art of choosing the right thing to do based upon a series of principals defined by both the individual and the group. A person's acts are moral when they are driven by the principles defined by the group, and immoral when the person acts upon his/her own set of principles and generate conflict with the principles of the group.

    Ethics is another art, the art of making responsible decisions by properly pondering the damaging and beneficial consequences of such act.

    So morality is basically irrational while ethics is basically rational. Morality is about choosing what's right while ethics is about choosing what's best, but right and best may be different things, and even opposite. Thus,each human act can fall into 4 categories:

    1.- moral and ethical
    2.- immoral but ethical
    3.- ethical but immoral
    4.- immoral and unethical
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      Jan 26 2013: Hi George
      Can I get examples of # 2 & 3 category (example explains things in a clearer way at least to me) ?
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        Gail .

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        Jan 26 2013: I'll give you some examples

        In America, gay marriage is immoral to many, whereas gay marriage (equal treatment under the law) is ethical to a growing number of people (now a majority of Americans). Soon, gay marriage will be both moral and ethical except for a few fundamentalist religious people who believe differently.

        Example 2: After 7 years of trying, my sister was finally pregnant. A sonogram showed that the fetus did not have a brain. It only had a brain stem. The "thing" that would never have the capacity to know that it was alive, would live for anywhere from 3 months to 6 years. The costs to the family would be more than financial. In addition to banktrupting them, it would have required so much effort and attention that the already living child would have paid a very real and severe price. If the parents gave up the unadoptable child (immoral) it would have placed a great and unfair burden on community (government) that would have had to pay people to take care of it (also immoral). Thus, they arrived at the conclusion that though immoral (in their belief system), an abortion was ethical.

        #3 and #2 mean the same thing
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          Jan 26 2013: Thanks for your examples.
          To me it's difficult to draw line between Morality & Ethics....at times these sound synymous to me.
          The way @ Kate Blake tried to draw line between these two in her post above seems convincing one...even taking that in consideration..

          The first example you gave seems to me is not a dilemma of morality vs ethics rather it's inability of law system to evolve as quick as personal morality / ethical standard of group in society evolved.

          Rreally appreciate your sharing personal story that brings things in the perspective how theoretical things can impact our lives (sincerely trying to feel what kind of pain your family went through to take that decision).The decision taken is absolutely moral to me but may not be Ethical from societal view point....
      • Jan 28 2013: Sorry I made typing mistake...
        Category 3... is moral but unethical

        Example of category 2: You eat human flesh as your only survival resource, it is clearly immoral but if you don't have any thing else to eat and you are starving I think it is ethical.

        Example of category 3: A single medical doctor going to bed with an adult patient, it is not immoral as both are adults, single and consented, but it is clearly unethical.
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    Jan 26 2013: Morality is a cultural agreement of what is moral or not.

    Ethics is best defined as survival. Survival is not a yes or no, there are infinite degrees of survival, as it is survival of all life.
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    Jan 26 2013: Well, for me, being moral at any one moment might involve different principles, and I don't know if I can articulate them all. I would say it's important to be kind. I think it's important not to waste people's time. I think it's important to stay fresh, to say fresh things and come up with fresh ideas. Take risks. To not be emotionally violent.

    I guess I've cobbled together a morality from many sources--things I've read, people I've met, experiences I've had. I probably follow the 10 commandments except the ones about god since i'm an atheist. To some degree I really value feeling--one brings many influences to any one situation, and, using those influences and thinking about the current situation, one does what feels right.
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      Jan 26 2013: So I guess the reality is that morality has many definitions and they are contextual - personal, cultural and at times religious.
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        Jan 26 2013: Well, I don't know, Ellen. I think one difficulty is that people may share a general moral principle, but disagree on how to actualize it. For example, you and I may both agree it's important to be kind. A beggar may ask us for money. You may give him money, believing that that is kind because he may need it for food. I may not give him money believing that that is kind because he will only spend it on drugs and alcohol. I do believe, however, that in this scenario there is one action that is the kindest, but we might have to discuss the situation at great length before we could decide what is kindest. So maybe one is always refining one's morality, new situations may come up where different courses of action are possible, and one needs to keep thinking about them and discussing them with other people to decide what is most moral. We have to keep doing that with the issue of keeping people on life support, don't we, or the stem cell stuff. In the meantime, living in the real world, having to make fast decisions, I'm going to do what feels right.

        One thing I don't see mentioned much in studies of morality is courage. Do you agree? Why wouldn't courage be mentioned? It often takes courage to be moral, for instance to stand up for an unpopular position one believes is right.
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          Jan 26 2013: Yes I absolutely agree and of course that leads us to another questions as to what courage means and who do we consider courageous
  • Jan 26 2013: Ellen,
    Could we assume morals 10,000 years ago are the same as today, i.e. there always have been morals for humankind to discover? Or are morals a collection of good human beings recognize as valuable for all persons, the collection amassed by experience? I like to the think both as correct. Morals infers relationship with others; a loner not relating has no comparison.

    Now, if morals are accepted ideals and people relate kindly, respectfully, and are tolerant for their harmless behavior, then being immoral would suggest behavior not found to be in harmony with the epitome of human understanding of right and good behavior. Consider for example, if two persons want a marriage, a family and children are in the home who need guidance, love, training for future self reliance, would it not be immoral for one of the adults to have an extra marital affair which threatens the family? Consider any other example of relating to persons that result in harm. Anything. Being not in harmony with the larger definition, amassed over large amounts of time in culture and law, seems immoral to me. Apply this to any life situation.

    Consider adults squander family funds on drugs or maybe adult toys and hobbies while family is in need of care. Is that out of harmony with the larger definition? I think so.

    So, for me it boils down to quality of relationships. Being moral means love, caring, sensitivity, respect---any behavior not threatening to others.

    Could these thoughts fit into your definitions somehow? To me these are ideas worth spreading.
    Thanks for a great topic.
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      Jan 26 2013: Yes I believe that relationships and the way we treat others can either be moral or immoral...of course it again becomes an issue of subjectivity and culture
      • Jan 26 2013: Subjectivity and culture, indeed. Would the ultimate possible definition involve the very best humankind has amassed over long periods? In other words, the highest ever achieved? To me this is a vital consideration when applying moral judgements in any culture.

        Good topic!
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    Jan 25 2013: Our values (what is right/wrong, good/bad) dictate our morals (how we behave) and ethics is the language we use to discuss our morality with others.

    Sorry posted this in the other discussion.

    Values come from experience. The rest is sequale to values. That is all.
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    Jan 25 2013: Here are the various different uses of the term from the Oxford English Dictionary: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/122093?redirectedFrom=morality#eid
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      Jan 25 2013: Interesting...my question is always so where did these come from?
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        Jan 25 2013: Isn't that the beauty of the OED? You can see the references below!

        Or do you mean the specific mechanisms through which people reached their values through their cultural contexts?
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      Jan 25 2013: Fritzie....your link takes you to a page where you have to sign in with a pass code....
      not to the page defining morality.

      Are you able to copy paste the definition for our benefit?
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        Jan 25 2013: Please try it again. I have no pass code and when I click the link, I get right there. I am using Internet Explorer.

        The definition is too long to paste here, or I would do it for us.