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"Morality" is an abused term/concept. Can you suggest a solid definition?

We use the term "morality" so liberally across different conversations. Usually metaphorically without getting specific. It bothers me to no end when excellent speakers use the term "morality" loosely as if it necessarily implies specific behaviors like "sharing = moral" and "murder = immoral." To me, morality always seems best defined as sound reasoning and conclusion forming. Of course, as opposed to unsound reasoning.

It seems really clear that morality represents only that basic intention in any living creature to do something right as opposed to doing it erroneously. That is, it seems morality comes down to the intent of doing what seems to make the most sense to the best of the abilities of the individual or group of individuals.

As a simple anecdotal example, consider indulging a vice and stealing a purse from a store and then getting caught. While it may have seemed like a rational thing to do under the circumstances of expecting to get away with it, upon getting caught it would become apparent that the decision was not well calculated and certainly most harmful to the one person you were intending to take care of most, yourself. Your failure to achieve your own aim of self-enhancement is what dictates your actions as immoral, even from your own perspective.

Of course, there are a number of vices one might indulge that have negative consequences not only for the self but perhaps for society at large. Any action a ruler might take which brings about the unrest and revolt of her people, would be highly suspicious as being immoral since a ruler's decisions ought to be made to enhance their rule rather than degrade it.

Moral actions in all cases, seem to be those which the individual (and perhaps other individuals) can observe as clearly having the intended effect both in foresight as well as in hindsight. All other actions seem to neatly fit the description of immoral.

I'm interested in hearing other holistic, absolute definitions of the term "morality"

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    Nov 3 2011: Morality is a constructed membrane for social action.

    There is no true morality and immorality, just as inductive reasoning is not perfect.

    Morality is the ever-changing set of rules on how we should act if we, as individuals and as a society, are to prosper.

    Murder is indeterminate. Murder of an individual who, if not murdered, would cause serious detrimental effects to society, is moral. Murder of an individual who, if not murdered, would cause serious benefits for society, is immoral.

    A problem lies in what is 'detrimental' or 'beneficial' to society. Once we as a society begin to formulate a unifying theory on what these two words embody, we will be able to define our morality.
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        Nov 4 2011: If society were to form some sort of technological hive mind (far into the future where all of our minds are all accelerated and interconnected by computer processors), this may allow for a fluid, balanced and clear transference and consideration of thoughts and opinions.

        This would have an effect similar to the way an individual mind operates today. Instead of a human whose actions have been stagnated by the different areas of his mind all bickering over the right thing to do, the human takes all experience into account and acts accordingly.

        Similarly, our capabilities in the future to share experiences and take into account all the experiences of others will become possible through super computer accelerating, and we will begin to transition from individual humans in a society to a single social organism.

        It may be a scary thought, and an extreme one, but one I've been thinking about nonetheless.
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          Nov 4 2011: Nick, it seems like we were drinking from the same fountain of thought. If/when Singularity happens, it may render the concept of "morality" moot. It would be interesting to see how our decisions would be guided, and whether or not they'd vary and/or diverge into opposing polarities, if we all shared the same experiences.
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        Nov 12 2011: I defer to Nature. Nature has no morality. There is no right or wrong or good vs. evil. Morality is my strong belief in something that has a past existence within my culture and is held in such person high-reguard, it can direct one's life choices. All that said, they have an equal chance of being right or wrong in terms of the law.
        Some folks think gambling is morally wrong some think its right, but legally it would only depend on the location the gambling was taking place.
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    Nov 2 2011: Morality is to act according a certain arbitrary subset of a 'system of actions', in which some are chosen as virtue, thus given more value, instead of others, which are devaluated and become vices. Morality can be found in aesthetical taste, sex, communication, food preparing and hygiene, or attitude towards others or political preferences, because they respond to a set of arbitrary values that become paradigmatic and –in a certain way– indisputable. Because of its arbitrary nature, morality is not universal, but a definition like this can be transposed to many contexts.

    The arbitrary choice of values comes from human needs, but human needs vary according to the environment, physical (productive) and cultural (ideological). This needs arise from the need of fulfilling of a collective or cultural project, a 'munis', that ultimately leads to some final end, a 'telos', but –again– the ends and means depend on culture. The fulfillment of one's role in the 'munis' leads one to 'be more', 'be better', more moral.

    Also, the values that are considered 'moral' change through time, a couple of hundred years ago an enlightened moralist would think that basic human needs for a colonist in South America would be different for the peasant, for the slave and for the indian, and he was right in his context, from his point of view, because those were the moral values of their time, and he was fulfilling his role in his social scheme. Now we could consider this moral as wicked and 'immoral', because it's not our moral system, nor thought schemes, nor economic conditions or social structures. Western thought has modeled a variety of ways to looking at values, from Plato, to St. Agustine to Derrida and beyond, but they are not unique, nor 'naturally true'.

    I tend to agree that when one discusses about moral things as natural, given, or axiomatic in any way, one has a non natural interest, a will to be accomplished though others, a will to exercise power.
    • Nov 3 2011: Morality and Rationality.. I don't think there's a difference at all. Both are informed and acted on subjectively based on context.
    • Nov 5 2011: Morality is to behave in a manner that is to the overall benefit of all concerned (and not just humans). It is difficult to come up with an agreed set of rules because life is complex. However, the principle is definitely not arbitrary.

      It is common for people to expect others to obey the law but make a special exception of themselves or close ones in the same circumstances. There is nothing arbitrary about that and it is definitely immoral.
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    Nov 16 2011: In any rational social structure Moral gets a smiley face and Immoral gets a frown face.
    Whether an issue gets a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down is a SUBJECTIVE decision made at will by the constructors of the society.
    Rules of morality are not transferrable, or enforceable, from one society to another.
    If the question is asked, "Is eating dogs wrong?" It will be necessary to stipulate in which society you are asking about.
    Morality is that which a given society deems good and acceptable.
    Immorality is that which a given society deems evil and unacceptable.
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    Nov 4 2011: Morality is in the eye of the beholder.

    My suggestion for an "absolute definition of the term morality": It is a subjective set of principles determined by the people of a community, whether that community be defined by geography or culture.*

    I use "subjective" because what is considered "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong," or "beneficial" or "detrimental," depends upon the unique perspectives of the person(s) supporting an idea/behavior and the person(s) opposing it. I use "determined by the people" because morality is a human construct, akin to religion and politics and everything else that ventures into "categorical imperatives." And, "of a community" because what is "subjective" to a person is also influenced by the person's social, cultural and environmental context.

    However, my suggestion for an "absolute definition" is not absolute. I may learn something tomorrow that may change it entirely. Such is the dilemma of a person trying to encapsulate and mummify a concept as ephemeral as "morality."

    * I use culture broadly: There is a science culture just as there is an American culture or a tribal culture.
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      Nov 7 2011: I agree with the suggestion that morality "is a subjective set of principles determined by the people of a community". Also with Fabio that "morality cannot be considered as absolute but related to a certain society, or group of people". I'm sure that the concept of morality has changed over time according to culture and level of enlightenment. The moral codes observed by the European countries who overtook African societies and before that the moral code of church in the middle ages as well as that of Sufi Islamism in the middle east were all completely different from each other even to the point of being misunderstood by one and another.
      Moral propriety keeps a community together with an understanding of what is right and wrong within that community. It is developed over time. What is right for one community may be unacceptable in another. One community's moral code may even be imposed on another in the event of conflict and defeat. What's worse, some people believe their moral code is superior to others. Here lies the problems we're seeing in the modern world. Why should a minority of Sunnis dictate the moral values of a majority Shias as we see in Bahrain? Why should western Christians impose their values on tribal homelands in Afghanistan? We may not be able to define morality except as a subjective construct but it sure is a hot topic!
  • Nov 3 2011: I like the suggested comparison but often know that we think we are hungry when we are just thirsty....the mind and body don't always register direct cause and effect the same way. How much of our genetic or mental capacity do we fully understand scientifically much less holistically (on an individual or global perspective). What is moral is not always clear, same as ethics, source of end result also product of originating idea.
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    Nov 3 2011: First, from, a definition of conscience:

    1. the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action: to follow the dictates of conscience.

    2. the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.

    3. an inhibiting sense of what is prudent: I’d eat another piece of pie but my conscience would bother me.

    Richard Joyce in The Evolution of Morality (2006) calls our moral consciousness ‘innate’. Joyce surmises that “morality [and therefore he argues, conscience, which has its basis in moral judgment] exists in virtually every human individual. It develops without formal instruction, with no deliberate effort, and with no conscious awareness of its special features.” Interpreting one of his co-thinkers on morality, Robert Frank (1988), Joyce reiterates that conscience is “a repertoire of judgments and emotions (most notable, guilt) that motivate behavior in accordance with accepted standards of conduct even when external sanctions are absent.” When you catch sight of a dropped wallet and find $100 in it, what would be the right thing to do, bearing in mind you also found the owner’s name and address? The decision you make will tax your conscience, if you allow it to. You do have a conscience because you are vexed by the temptation. How will you feel if you keep the money and throw away the wallet? How would you explain yourself if you give back the wallet and pretend not to know what happened to the cash? As you should be able to see from this we are capable of moral judgment because our inner moral sensibility dictates, persuades, implores us to make the morally right decision. This, in my estimation, is the meaning and implication of conscientiousness - or our sense of what is morally right and wrong.
  • Nov 2 2011: I think that morality is defined around our basic human needs and it is universal. Our needs are freedom of expression, freedom of choice and equality.

    " Your failure to achieve your own aim of self-enhancement is what dictates your actions as immoral, even from your own perspective."

    I would not tie morality to self-enhancement. Self-enhancement is optional goal of any human being. I think we need morality because we have limited resources and space on this planet and therefore we need to ensure that individual's actions do not cause harm or unfairness to others while we all share the same resources and space?

    If each of us lives on our own planet, it does not really matter, from morality point of view, what we do and there will be no notion of wrong or right.
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      Nov 2 2011: I think that you've got a point, morality implies enhancement in some way, but where do your moral imperatives come? Aren't they part of a greater system of thought that brought us democracy and other constructions? What if you ask the universal values in a completely different context?
      • Nov 3 2011: Yes I think democracy is built upon universal values and morality. What a different context are you referring to?
    • Nov 3 2011: "I think we need morality because we have limited resources and space on this planet and therefore we need to ensure that "

      to be clear, I think "morality" is in the "therefore."

      X is important "because" Y.. that is, certain behaviors are important because they seem to make the most sense in a particular context. Slamming on the breaks is important BECAUSE someone is on the road. Choosing a red tie instead of a blue one for a gift is important BECAUSE jim tends to like red instead of blue. Donating to a charity is important BECAUSE their cause is perceived to be in dire need.

      It always seems to work out that there's "Good Reason" behind moral behaviors.
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    Nov 10 2011: I share your frustation with word useage. I often wish that we would all stick to some basic agreement on the meanings of words and that is why I so often interject a dictionary definition.

    Here is one from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy:

    The term “morality” can be used either descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior or normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

    and another from Wikipedia:

    Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and bad (or wrong). A moral code is a system of morality (for example, according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. The adjective moral is synonymous with "good" or "right." Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles.

    I like going back to the original meanings in the original languages for clarity.
    I think a huge portion of this problem that you are articulating is that people are happily trying to communicate with only the fuzziest understanding of what particular words mean and yet they have well developed understandings of what they are trying to communicate.
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    Nov 10 2011: morality is a set of long held beliefs held by certain groups and cultivated and ingrained on their offspring for many generations. it has nonthing to do with right vs. wrong. Exanple, A slithering, slimy snake climbs a tree and eats a cute cuddly baby bird. The snake crushes the birds skull and loud shreeks are heard from the baby bird as it dies. I know, horrible picture to paint but has the snake done anything morally wrong? now substitute for the snake and bird and see how the sense of morallity creeps up. Morality does not define who or what is right or wrong, it is a feeling an individual has in response to life events.
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    Nov 10 2011: Pleasure and pain?
  • Nov 9 2011: I think it is possible that there is a way to somewhat define absolute morality, and it comes from the collective DNA. That is, the one factor which allows a species to continue vs. go extinct. I call it "Net Usefulness", or "Net Future Usefulness". This is the ratio between what a species contributes to the future of itself and its environment vs how much it consumes in resources. In other words, morality is measured by the individual's/community's/species' generosity toward the universe (including its offspring). In the historical record, this can be used to sieve out the civilizations that worked to improve the world vs. those that worked to make it worse. "The opposite of consumption is not frugality, it's generosity." - Raj Patel
    Humans tend to believe that their intentions can override their actions when it comes to morality. The fossil record doesn't agree. In the end, overconsumption of resources (political and environmental stability are resources, too) becomes immoral for any species. Some rules seem also to apply in general:
    Action taken based on unquestioned belief results in evil.
    Diversity is more important than quantity (most of the time).
    Beliefs don't matter: actions do.
    Randomness must be respected: sustainability/frugality/balance isn't enough to compensate for disasters.
    People are animals, and as such, they take actions based on natural instincts more often than intentionally. In order to moderate behavior, the feedback must be applied at the point of action, rather than the point of intention.
  • Nov 5 2011: Paul Zak is clearly using the term "morality" to mean empathy, not a thought but a feeling. I too feel uncomfortable with the term morality being thrown out there so freely as it has the right or wrong, black and white connotations. Either for the sake of brevity or maybe because of his particular background that's the word he's using, and hey, it's his talk. I do believe we all have a personal sense of what's fair, you could call that a "moral" sense if you want. Whatever it is, it seems clear you cannot separate the rational from the emotional when it comes to making "moral" decisions, they are interconnected. That's where oxytocin seems to come into play.
    • Nov 5 2011: Paul Zak could be using using the term "morality" to mean empathy but that is not clear at all.

      What is clearer is that he seems to be associating trust and empathy with feeling good and twisting that into implying that feeling good brings about trust and moral behaviour. He then tenuously links that to a specific chemical, oxytocin.

      Being able to trust someone is reassuring but the trust needs to be deserved. Better to drown your sorrows, moderately of course, than take oxytocin in order to trust a con man.

      Whether empathy makes someone feel good depends on the situation. Empathising with someone enduring great chronic anguish is not a pleasant experience. Rationalising feeling good about behaving morally in such a situation takes more than the superficial approach of Zak.

      "That's where oxytocin seems to come into play." Only if you trust Zak. I trust Colin Erskine is asking his question because there is reason to not trust Zak.
      • Nov 6 2011: Right, empathy is just one of the feelings he seems to associate with behaving "morally".

        I think you should take empathy for what it is, not a comforting feeling necessarily.

        It seems to me you are twisting a bit Paul Zack's talk, what he seemed to be saying is, look we've observed trust is more prevalent in the presence of higher levels oxytocin, that's it. Nowhere is he pushing we should all be pumping oxytocin pills in order to have a better world where everything is trust and good feelings, in his talk he actually hints caution against that conclusion.
        • Nov 6 2011: Actually, he concludes his talk by saying that if you do not like touching people that he can always shove the nasal spray up your nose.
  • Nov 4 2011: I agree, an absolute definition of morality must include the fact morality cannot be considered as absolute but related to a certain society, or group of people, in a certain period, area, climat ... and so on.
  • Nov 3 2011: Just an observation, but the statement "To me, morality always seems best defined as sound reasoning and conclusion forming. Of course, as opposed to unsound reasoning." seems to be a definition better associated with logic (left/right brain reasoning). Morality, like common sense, doesn't always seem to be logical, or in the best interest of the individual. I'm not religiously inclined but there is something to being accountable to something outside yourself. Perhaps best understood by a parents for their first child. Hard to define the feeling but when you do, you often recognize it. If it was easy to define better perhaps it would have been already done but I understand the frustration as a "buzz" word.
    • Nov 3 2011: "Morality, like common sense, doesn't always seem to be logical, or in the best interest of the individual." - I'll explain my position a bit more: I've observed the opposite to be true. While moral decisions aren't always intuitively logical they are necessarily an attempt at logical soundness. They may be fallacious by chance, but the intent is always soundness, getting things right/accurate in the broadest possible sense, over unsoundness, getting things wrong/inaccurate.

      Even if you were religious and you expected some behaviors would please your god while others wouldn't, the moral thing to do in any case would be whatever seemed to logically conclude in the pleasure of your deity. Eat apple = bad, thefeore no-eat apple, kinda thing.

      This is to suggest that something like taking care of your first born child and protecting them is actually a more sound conclusion for a parent to act on than the opposite. Especially if the proof for that course of action comes in the form of internalized feelings. Similarly, you could examine the rationality (aka. "morality") of eating when "feeling" hungry. The feeling is real and in the absence of any better ideas, you act on it.. you eat.

      That morality might somehow be the superstitious version of rationality while technically no different is highly suspect.
  • Nov 3 2011: Well, there you go. You got'em. All the "absolute definitions" you could have hoped for.
    And each one different for different reasons, some sound, some border-line ridiculous, some
    sounding like they border on wishful thinking, some maybe hitting it exactly on the head.

    "There is no morality other than the instances." from Mark Meijer

    I think that nails it. We may never figure it out, for the simple reason that we may not even
    be sane, but we have been living according to some moral codes that I personally believe
    were developed by insane people or at the least, extremely mentally ill people, with a lot of
    influence, corrupted power, and too much time on their hands. All this time in fact. Millennium.

    Therein lies the true meaning of the power of life. One can do whatever one wants. There really is
    no morality or immorality involved. That condition however, can and does get modified by many things.
    There isn't necessarily even a feeling or emotion involved in either, though there can be.

    On the other hand, there seems to be so much "immorality" in the world that it seems the only morality
    there is. Because of the sheer numbers, morality almost seems non-existent, uninvolved and uncaring.
    By why does it have to be? It is not existential.

    Is it immoral to kill another human being? Apparently not.

    Our definitions are not correct, accurate or even close.

    Then it comes from these "instances" that Mr. Meijer mentioned.
    Neither good nor bad, but good and bad.
    Why does one robot fight to keep another robot from destroying it?
    Why does one form of artificial intelligence kill another form of
    artificial intelligence?

    We do have both. Real morality and artificial morality, and I don't think most
    can tell the difference. Most people do not know the difference between right
    and wrong. Most will rigorously object to that but if what we have, came from
    insane people, then that is what we have been following, developing, ingraining
    and believing to be true.
    • Nov 3 2011: :)
      "We do have both. Real morality and artificial morality,"
      I would say we have sound conclusions and fallacious conclusions, respectively.
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    Nov 3 2011: I talk about historical and social contexts different that the one in we live, we share a greater sphere called by some 'West', that has developed historically, just as -say- the middle ages, or an uncontacted contemporary tribe in the amazon, or the future, which we ignore. In any of these contexts, society shapes and validates certain types of knowledge that constitute a certain way to build the truth, to render something so humane, and thus artificial, into nature. If you search for 'universals' in these contexts your results will be different.

    I believe as well in democracy, and it's my preferred moral compass, or prime structure, but I don't think it's natural or universal. I proselite about it, I judge from its parameters, but I must recognise that it's artificial.
  • Nov 2 2011: do what you want, as long as your not interfering with anyone else's right to do the same...
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      Nov 2 2011: It is YOUR morality (and mine too), but how can a greater, more abstract definition can be found. Yours and mine is an instance of the morality, not the morality.
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    • Nov 2 2011: Mark Meijer, not sure what you're saying. It's not as though altruism is an achievable standard, technically speaking. I wouldn't ever neglect the role the ego plays in decision making. Without my ego being involved to at least a small extent, I don't think the behavior could be attributed to "me."
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        • Nov 3 2011: "Altruism is to stop believing you are those thoughts called ego." - Which is impossible. For example, I think chairs could be said to be appropriately altruistic but people who make chairs can't be.

          "How would you know if that's not an achievable "standard", technically speaking?" - It's impossible to be selfless unless you have no self. Everyone has a self, so selflessness is clearly impossible. That's the way I've seen things for years. Altruism is, it seems to me, an unattainable ideal.
  • Nov 2 2011: Fantastic idea vein being mined here. I don't believe that the action must follow through in foresight and in hindsight. I do believe that a moral action should involve the enhancement of a situation. But when it comes to interactions among small groups or at large in entire societies, things become much more difficult to define as moral or immoral. I don't believe there is or ever was a neat definition of morality. I believe, whether from philosophical type reasoning, or from empathy related intentions. That everyone is assumed/expected to make decisions which will benefit themselves. Beginning from a baseline where all shall act in a way to enhance their own situation, then what choices are made from there are the defining aspects of morality. One shall choose to perform an action that brings them gain, but what if this same result could also be attained by a parallel action that brings gain to another person equally. Would all people stop their intention at the first option of self enhancement, without considering option 2 that brings another equal gain to another? I believe most people do in fact follow a fend for self mindset, trusting that another has themselves taken care of. I believe that this is where morality steps in, when your self enhancement turns into something that helps more than just yourself. If you could make 500 dollars a day, and by sharing your information with another, he or she might also make an equal 500. Would you openly share this strategy, or would you keep accumulating funds for yourself. There is no loss to you for helping the other person, so why would you not seek the second choice and benefit yourself and another person dually. I believe we all must take care of ourselves yes, but where possible we should take the choice that is beneficial to others and ourselves. I believe it is an intention thing, people should ideally perform actions which have an intrinsic value, they should do what is good for themselves and others equally