Gerald O'brian


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What is the nature of morality?

Plato believed in an objective "good" and fought Sophists who argued that the idea of good is necessarily derived from an agenda and doesn't exist per se.
I can't reason myself to disagree with the Sophists...
If you believe in the supernatural, you most likely follow Plato on this one. But if not, how do you rationnally defend the concept of "good' as being part of the objective reality?

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    Nov 23 2013: I don't think any moral "norms" are objective or absolute but are conventions made up by society or genetically imprinted to benefit the survival of our species.
    Let's remove the fear of punishment and assume you could do whatever you want without any negative consequences (legal. society or god).
    Would your moral compass change ? Would you do some things that you are not doing now because of fear of punishment ? What is it where you would relax and what morals still hold ?
    I think under such circumstances we will find that some moral rules, even without fear of punishment, still hold (for most people that probably would be killing another person) and others are on shaky legs (perhaps stealing).
    Although this might vary form culture to culture.
    Some primitive tribes still engage in cannibalism. From a moral POV killing somebody seems to perfectly moral for them, although might most likely have "rules" as to who can be killed and eaten.
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      Nov 23 2013: Just would add:
      The nature of reality depends on how one approaches the issue. It is deeply connected with value-sets and ethics and these aspects oscillate between the approaches. The world view (or call it a paradigm) changes from epoch to epoch and the reigning world view determines which approach to morality will rule for a given epoch.
      One of the approaches of morality had been philosophical, normative (prescriptive) or analytic. Another approach is scientific or descriptive. Though these approaches have some common value sets between them, essentially they are different. The former recognizes a set of values independent of human evaluation, whereas the later recognizes a set of values based on common greater 'good' or least common 'suffering'.
      Moreover, morality is akin to statistics. The probability (1/2) of 'heads' while tossing a coin is only realized over a great many tosses. Same should apply to ideas like right, wrong, good or bad.
      • Timo X

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        Nov 25 2013: I don't understand your last point at all. How is morality akin to statistics?
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          Nov 26 2013: When one refuses to believe that the ideas such as good/bad, right/wrong etc are divinely determined, the essence of morality and ethics reduces to the greatest common desirable or or least common desirable. It is then the statistical experience of humanity. You may like to check the work of Sam Harris in this context.
      • Timo X

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        Nov 26 2013: Your post does not really clear up my confusion. I am not familiar with the work of Sam Harris but from the Wikipedia page on The Moral Landscape, I deduce that his ideas seem to very similar to mine. In this context, I understand your comment eve less. How is the statement that "the essence of morality and ethics reduces to the greatest common desirable or or least common desirable " related to the work of Sam Harris? Because that sounds like simple utilitarianism to me. And my question about the relationship to statistics remains.
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          Nov 26 2013: Ok. Let me try to explain.
          It is rather easy to start from the premises that morality or ethics (or the codes thereof) are sanctioned by God (Ten Commandments). God is the epitome of pure morality and his codes of morality are beyond challenge. Good/bad (or evil), right/wrong are then decrees and religion enforces these decrees. In cases, the authority can be seized by a ruler, a dictator or a monarch, though history shows most of them collaborating with God. The moral codes are then axiomatic. You either accept it or you risk your social and physical life.
          If on the other hand one refuses such authority and accepts morality just as a part of human knowledge of applied well being, a reason based faculty that is not absolute but is a set of time and situation dependent values, then moral codes become instruments to ensure greatest common good or lowest common suffering of human beings and animals.
          It may sound utilitarian to you but the other alternative seems almost criminal to me.

          The similarity to statistics is in the core driver that is the greatest common good or lowest common suffering. These common denominators require testing the validity of a moral code against a huge corpus of individual cases; in fact more the number of cases judged with reason the more valid the code becomes. The process is similar to scientific validation of a claim.
      • Timo X

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        Nov 26 2013: You make an 'if not this, then it must be that' type of argument. I do not think it is so black and white as you make it out to be. It is true that divine standards of morality are objective, but that does not rule out that there could be objective standards of morality that do not have a divine source. For example, objective moral standards could have evolved - which, correct me if I'm wrong, I think is exactly what Sam Harris is saying. If evolution is indeed the source of moral codes, I do not see that this would necessarily entail ensuring the greatest common good or the lowest common suffering. So the logic underpinning this last step, essentially your conclusion, escapes me.

        I believe I understand your point about statistics now, but I do not entirely agree with it. Saying that moral codes should be tested statistically does not imply that morality is similar to statistics. Compare: a hypothesis about the laws of nature should also be tested statistically, but does that imply the field of physics is similar to the field of statistics? Certainly not. Statistics is concerned with summarizing, ordering and interpreting data, whatever this data may be. Indeed, test statistics do not tell the researcher anything about the validity of the hypothesis, that is what theory is for. A charming and oft-cited example of this is the correlation between ice cream sales and shark attacks.
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          Nov 26 2013: I am unaware of Sam Harris's argument about evolution being the source of moral code. Please lead me to the reference to check it up.
          Let me quote Sam Harris himself:
          Human beings seek to maximize something we choose to call "well-being" (although it might be called "utility" or "happiness" or "flourishing" or something else). The amount of well-being in a single person is a function of what is happening in that person's brain, or at least in their body as a whole. That function can in principle be empirically measured. The total amount of well-being is a function of what happens in all of the human brains in the world, which again can in principle be measured. The job of morality is to specify what that function is, measure it, and derive conditions in the world under which it is maximized.
          I have heard Sam Harris arguing moral codes possible in line with greatest common happiness/well-being or lowest common suffering but at this point cannot remember the video link.
          Statistical summarizing, ordering and interpreting data that establish facts, which many refuse to accept as applied values, make it abundantly clear that it's along the lines of ensuring greatest common well-being or lowest common suffering our moral codes can be based.
          I believe that between the option of having many innocent people killed in a public place by some sick person and killing that sick person on the point of such mayhem, the later will be a moral choice. We just cannot stick to either an objective morality like 'never kill a person' or delve in the moral relativism like 'how do you know which is more morally appropriate, a certain killing or a possible massacre.'
      • Timo X

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        Nov 26 2013: I was wrong about Sam Harris' position. In fact, the Wiki page on 'The Moral Landscape' say that he explicitly contrasts evolved and moral actions. An good point that I had not thought about. Anyway, your link and especially your quote, even though it is not from Harris himself, make it abundantly clear that this is a form utilitarianism. The key innovation is that Harris contends utility could, in principle at least, be measured objectively - a notion that I support.

        Of course, and Harris admits this under point three, this still leaves us with the specific problem of distributing (or aggregating) well-being. Do we simply sum happiness, or do we strive for some specific distribution of happiness? If so, what distribution? If I understand correctly, Harris does not claim that he solved this problem, only that it is empirically solvable.

        And this is where your contention that it should have something to do with the "greatest common happiness/well-being or lowest common suffering " comes in. Since you do not remember the source, it is hard to check, but it appears to contradict what Harris writes under point three. Either way, what distribution does the cited sentence represent? Firstly, the maximization of greatest common happiness and the minimization of common suffering seem like two different things. Happiness and suffering are not necessarily two endpoints on the same scale, they could be two different dimensions similar to pleasure and pain (which you can experience both at the same time).

        Secondly, the term 'common' is too vague to be much use in a rule. A rule of distribution should precise, in fact, it should be mathematical. For example, John Stuart Mill would simply sum the utilities, thus leading to a hypothetical situation of one happy person among a population of unhappy ones. In your example, if the total happiness gained by the shooter were greater than the happiness lost by his victims, shooting them would be a moral action.
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          Nov 26 2013: I think the quote is from Sam Harris himself. Please read the last sentence of paragraph 7 of the Huffingtonpost article by Harris.
          I would agree, as Sam Harris did himself, that this is a 'form of' utilitarianism and not simply utilitarianism as you contended. This is not my central argument to start with, though it opens an interesting point that moral codes are arguably social utilities rather than divine decrees.
          In point three Sam is indicating the difficulty of aggregating well being over different individuals. The work of finding a methodology of summing up greatest common well being or lowest common suffering is unfinished, I am not sure how and where you see the contradiction.
          The common is vague till such time we can mathematically correlate individual perceptions of well being with precise coefficients. But we know the domain nonetheless. We know the range of well being between a healthy life and a diseased death and expect the range coinciding between most individuals when we go to sum up in social scale.
          In my example, the common suffering of having the sick shooter killed is less than common suffering of having many innocent people killed. The choice is for the society. There is no reason to think that the shooter's choice is moral because it does not appear to increase the common well-being or happiness, even subjectively.
      • Timo X

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        Nov 26 2013: The word count limits me. With the last sentence I meant to apply the summation rule to your example of a sick person shooting people in a public place. Good discussion by the way, I learned new things, and that always provides me with loads of happiness ;)
      • Timo X

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        Nov 27 2013: Harris admits that the problem of 'methodology' (as you put it) is yet unsolved, but your phrasing implies, to me at least, that you have some methodology in mind. That is either a breakdown in communication between you and me, or a contradiction between you and Mr. Harris. I'll keep it on the former.

        Getting back to the issue at hand, I am must conclude that I am still unconvinced that morality is similar to statistics. I agree with you that neurological research can help us discover moral rules. Surely, this process will involve statistics, but it does not make morality a matter of statistics. And I don't think it resembles flipping a coin either. I think that discovering universal rules of morality will involve a great deal more than statistics, and I think the outcome will not be a chance event at all. Instead, I believe this process of scientific discovery will be very similar to that in other social sciences such as psychology and economics.
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    Nov 23 2013: We all have to live with each other.
  • Nov 26 2013: I feel, it is not the individual, but the society decides the 'good' & 'bad'. Largely, society could mean a Religion, which has a far & wide following across human civilizations. Have we not seen....something seen as 'right' by a Muslim is absolutely 'wrong/bad' for a Buddhist.

    Thinking beyond the Religion, Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) argues well for the superiority of science over the religion. Sam defies morality in science, which simply goes by logical reasoning, irrespective of good or bad. He then wonderfully compares the question 'good' or ' bad' in every action similar to a question 'good health' or ' bad health'. He goes ahead to elaborate on the building up a global civilization based on 'shared values'

    I think.....we need to remove the influence of science or even the religion on defining 'morality'. A global village where the 'human values' are most respected should be the place to assess the rationality of the 'Good' & ''Bad' as we will have standard comparables.. In an effort towards this, we first need to standardise & grade the idealistic human values. The more one adheres to human values, so 'Good' he is, relatively compared to another who may not be observing such idealistic human values. Let us build such a Global Civilization....need of the day, indeed. .
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    Nov 26 2013: Reading a book by Bertrand Russel. Why does he and so many others say that science has its limits and that one cannot get its morals from science?
    I totally get my morals from science and expect the world to be a better place when everyone does.
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    Nov 26 2013: Is the 'supernatural' something, physical or non-physical, functioning beyond our traditional, four-dimensional, objective reality, or does the supernatural include all the as yet undiscovered and even unimagined features of these four particular dimensions? And what of the tenth dimension, etc.?

    No, I can't rationally defend the concept of 'good' as being part of our current concepts of 'objective reality', nor do I see the reason for doing so, at this point. Don't we still have a great deal of heavy, albeit compelling, lifting to do before the nature of morality can be fully appreciated?
  • Nov 24 2013: Conventions and Practices by Place : Kissing in public place is not considered bad morals in western countries and western culture but it is considered bad moral in India and some other eastern countries.

    Indulging into Prostitution is generally considered as bad moral character. But,there are some communities in India where prostitution is the traditional profession and it is not considered bad moral in these communities.

    Conventions and practices by Scale of Operation : When anything is done on a small scale then it is generally percieved as bad and when anything is done on a large scale then it is generally percieved as good.

    If a person owns a small tea stalls and sells tea then people often percieve that person as non-person,illiterate,bad. But, when a person operates a chain of tea stalls on a large scale just like Starbucks sells coffee then he is called an entrepreneur and also percieved as good person.

    If a woman engages herself into the prefession of prostitution on a small scale then she is considered as a degraded woman .

    But when the woman engages in a mass prostitution through pornography on a large scale then she is considered as a Adult Star and she also gets respect.This is the truth people may deny it.

    Wnen a person murders one or two people then he is considered as a criminal . But,when a person murders people on a mass scale then he is considered as a Hero.Osam bin Laden may be Villain for America but he is a hero for most countries and people.

    Conventions and Practices By Privilege : When anything is done by privileged people like Politicians,Saints and Sadhus,High Society Elite Class then it is not considered bad .

    Especially sex when privileged people engage them selves into sexual activities with many women then the society keeps quiet because it percieve it as good.

    When the same is done by the less priveleged class of people then the same thing becomes bad.

    This is how the world functions practically.Period
  • Nov 24 2013: The world functions in a strange way. What the world talks and what the walks is totally different . The world never walks what it talks .It has a different theory to talk and different theory to walk.

    People often say that sacrificing animals for religious rituals is bad.But,when the time comes to really walk the talk then herd mentality restricts from doing so and the end result is totally different.

    To understand morality let us first understand what morality is actually.When ever the question of moral or morality comes into picture we often say either good moral or bad moral.That means moral or morality is needs modifiers like good or bad.

    The word morality is derived from the word moral and the word moral is derived from the latin word mores , which means conventions and practices.

    There are certain conventions and practices which are general and there are certain conventions and pracices which are specific.

    All over the world there is a general convention and practice to greet each other whenever two people meet. This is a general convention and practice.

    But, how to greet specifically changes from place to place and culture to culture.

    In Western cultures when two people meet then they shake hands, kiss each other, say hi,say hello, say good morning etc. But,

    in India when two people meet each other they join and fold their hands and with folded hands they say Namaste,Pranaam,Sat Sri Akal etc.

    Now, comes what is good morality and what is bad morality.What is good moral and what is bad moral depends on various factors.

    universal conventions and practices : There are some conventions and practices which are universally considered bad like ;Murder,Rape,or any sort of crime.

    There are some conventions and practices which are universally considered good like greeting each other when two people meet.
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      Nov 24 2013: "universally considered bad like ;Murder,Rape"

      Not universal, if you know your Bible : "Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man." (Numbers 31 : 17)
  • Nov 23 2013: There is no village/town/city of morality. But, there is a man/woman/house (people) who are morally ok. So, where is morality? There nothing morality, it's in you, if you don't have, you can have it, you want it?. You can have it, without money. Anybody interested can followup farther. bel.
  • Nov 22 2013: Because it is an objective reality that we exist. It is an objective reality that we have choices, the most important one: to live or not. If we choose to live we need values, and those values can help lead to ethics. Pain and suffering are objective realities. We all know about those. We have felt them, etc. Those are objective foundations to develop ethics. It's easier to have a good life if we accept our interactions and need for trusting each other. So, there, we have life, we have reason. We have objective foundations.

    I did not say that it is easy to develop our ethics. But it's undeniable that there's objective sources for developing them.
  • Nov 22 2013: I find it a little disconcerting that people claim that their particular argument is Logical but I can not remember ever seeing a logical argument presented. I don't think that Spock ever presented a logical argument. He just claimed that it was logical and everyone believed him.
    • Nov 22 2013: You don't need to make an explicit argument to know that something is logical.
      • Nov 25 2013: Without explicit arguments how is logic different than intuition? What is it that makes something logical?

        I do not mean to be argumentative I would just like to know a bit of how people I am talking with think.
  • Timo X

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    Nov 21 2013: Disclaimer: I believe in neither gods, nor free will.

    Morality is an idea of human beings, so what is moral is determined by society. This is very evident in the fact that what people considered to be good in the past, is not necessarily what they think is good now. For example, the abolishment of slavery and other instances of emancipation. It follows that morality is not a matter of knowledge, but of opinion.

    But does this mean morality is completely relative? No, scientific research has shown that moral judgements have a neurological basis: reactions to moral issues are immediate and involuntary, much like emotions. Only after we experience them, we begin the process to consciously rationalise them. Because of this neurological basis and because all humans brains have similar anatomy, they will also have similar moral reactions. This may lead them to formulate similar rules: murder is wrong, theft is wrong, etc.

    One might think this is a somewhat fatalistic view, but I would disagree. Because even though our brains have similar reactions, they are not exactly the same. And the process through which we formulate moral rules is chaotic: small differences in our reactions may lead large differences in our rules. These rules in turn affect our reactions, which may cause us to change our rules, thus creating an ever increasingly diverse and complex set of possible moral rules over time. This, of course, is the source of disagreements on moral issues: some adhere to this rule, while others adhere to that. It follows also that thinking about and discussing the nature of morality is useful, because it affects the process by which new moral rules are formulated. I believe, although this is hard to prove, that this process leads to an evolution of moral rules. Each generation is slightly better, slightly more adapted to the human brain than the last.
  • Nov 21 2013: From the wiki for morality:

    Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are "good" (or right) and those that are "bad" (or wrong). The philosophy of morality is ethics. A moral code is a system of morality (according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with "goodness" or "rightness." Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. opposition to that which is good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles. (

    So, perhaps it is derivative of man's ability to think and choose.

    Given a choice with two outcomes that both effect a decision maker, a reasonable and objective decision maker, and the need for a decision, then relative good or bad is associated with the decision maker and the decision. The strength of conviction in the decision, the numbers of similar decisions, the numbers of people making the same decision all lead to a individual, group, and cultural morality.

    Arguments about whose decision is right, or most right, most popular, or most widely accepted is the stuff of philosophy, argumentation, debate, learning, and interpersonal communications.
  • Nov 21 2013: I do believe in the supernatural (I am a deist), but I don't believe in an objective good.

    I believe in good and "evil" as directions, not places. Think of a magnet. One end is south and the other is north, because that is what we have chosen to call them. We can think of our "moral compass" as built on a magnet with the ends named good and evil (evil is being used here to mean a direction, so something which is only a "little bad" would still go in that direction). Now two things are plausible in this model.

    The first is that we can use our moral compass to make choices about the direction we choose to go in and how far to go. That's why we all have one. And that is why each of us has at least a slightly different one.

    The second is that every choice has the potential for both good and evil. If we take a magnet and cut it in half, the result is a shorter magnet that still has a north and a south pole. Cut it again and the even shorter pieces still have both N and S. No matter how many times we slice it, as long as it continues to be a magnet it will have both N and S.
    Our choices are like that, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in more subtle ways, but no matter how small the choice, as long as a choice remains, it has the potential to lead toward good or evil.

    That said, we must recognize that humans are limited in their ability to understand objective reality. If objective good exists, we are unable to directly observe and understand it. The same is true of "evil." So we believe in both good and evil because each is necessary to the other. A concept of great evil is necessary in order to understand and appreciate great good.
  • Nov 21 2013: There are atheist/materialist philosophers who still posit an objective "good". They use a different criterion than "God says so."

    Utilitarianism: The greatest benefit for the greatest number.
    Epicurianism: That which shall produce the least pain or difficulty in the long run for an individual within a community.
    Stoicism, and others also exist. None of them require any sort of supernatural belief. All of them presume some absolute "good" or absolute standard of "good".
  • Nov 21 2013: There is no such things as a universal, objective morality. Its all what you make of it, and quite relative.

    Its one of those concepts like states, corporations, ideology, and depending on who you ask, religion. Its there only in people's heads, and yet there is no denying the effect is profound through how it affects people's behavior.
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      Nov 21 2013: I agree, but this thought brings new problems. Who am I to say, then, that homosexuals deserve a normal life in Islamic states?
      Why shouldn't women be treated as inferior to men, if that's the local tradition?
      The only way I can answer these is by stating that, for very practicle reasons, we need the whole world to become one single village. That of all possible villages, ones with equal rights, education instead of religion and a contempt for violence are the most prosperous in the long run, and more enjoyable for everyone.
      In other words, I believe that there's probably a lot of good reasons to brainwash children about the meaning of Scriptures, but these reasons cannot be logically defended in the world we can logically agree to wish for.
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        Nov 21 2013: And what if the morals and logic of this 'single village' turns against yours?

        Logic can be very brutal as much as morals can be.
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          Nov 21 2013: It'd be illogical if it did, in the kind of village I'm talking about.
      • Nov 21 2013: On a purely relativistic level, you cannot say that homosexuals deserve to live at all. You cannot say that women deserve any equality. You cannot say that any standard of decency or equality must be maintained or supported. If any society does not accept that standard, then a relativist must accept that or must reject relativism.
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        Nov 21 2013: Thats because this village stems from your logic and morals.
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          Nov 21 2013: I argue that logic is objective. If my moral idea of what works is wrong, it's objectively wrong and can be proven wrong with logic. And then I'm being an objective idiot if I don't change my mind.
      • Nov 21 2013: Who's to say what's right? The one with the bigger army usually enjoys that privilege.
        "Do as I say or I gut you like a fish" doesn't hold much sway in a purely philosophical debate, but its quite persuasive in the real world.

        Assuming no one tries to force their morality (or lack there of) on others, the "system" evolves naturally, in all sorts of weird directions. Its sort of like language--you end up with a whole mess of ideas and pretensions, connected together in a semi arbitrary manner, full of self contradictions and double standards, and yet it still somehow manages to support most of our needs on a day to day basis as well as emergencies, language to convey information, morality on how to act.
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        Nov 22 2013: I think logic is objective and thats what makes it cruel at times when it gets off sync with our morals, or makes our moral cruel, when it is in sync at other times.

        Your moral idea don't even have to be objectively wrong to fail, as it involves to many other subjective ideas, agendas, logic and realities which are out of influence of yours. Changing ones mind due to failures of others may just be opportunistic then.
  • Nov 21 2013: Smiling from heart to accept all around you,it is the most nature of morality.
  • Nov 21 2013: If we have an answer wouldn't that ruin the joy of philosophy?
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      Nov 21 2013: why would it?
      • Nov 22 2013: Maybe you are right That just crossed my mind at the time. IS it of value?
  • Nov 21 2013: I do not believe in the supernatural but I do believe in God.
    I would agree with you that without God there is no objective good that can be applied across individuals/cultures/nations or time.

    My logic in concluding that good is part of the "Objective Reality"
    Given that I exist
    Given that I haven't always existed
    Given that love exists
    Given that life is a joy
    Given that I can choose
    Then there must be a creator that is part of the objective reality that created me, free will, and Love
    Then such a creator is good and allows me the opportunity to follow a universal good.

    By the way. What is "The Objective Reality"?
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      Nov 21 2013: Objective reality is the idea that everybody, smart aliens included, can agree on rationnal explanations of a phenomenum.
      I don't understand your logic, assumptions and conclusion.
    • Nov 21 2013: Even assuming that the givens you list are , in fact, givens (every one of them can be challenged philosophically), they do not necessarily lead to your conclusion that they are a product of a good creator or that there is a universal good. Nor do they help us to understand what that universal good might be aside from your assertion that these things are good.

      I would, however, modify Gerald's definition of objective reality. For me, objective reality is that which exists regardless of our knowledge of it, has at least the possibility of being observed or experienced even if we have not yet done so, and is independent of our agreement regarding rational explanations.