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Colin Erskine

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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 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.

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