Morality as a characteristic

In The moral saucepan I argued that one could take an objective look at morality, but this leaves many questions. I then did a follow up defining the terms, which is going to be vital in the subsequent discussion, so check that link if you haven’t already, I’ll be here when you get back.

Characteristics are things that can be objectively examined. So if morality is a characteristic, then it can be objectively examined. The problem here is defining morality as a characteristic, can it be done? The first thing is the definitions, objectivity is based on examination of external reality, while subjectivity is based on personal feelings. I’m not going to deny that morality is closely linked to emotion, or feelings. This relationship is vital, but an objective look at this will reveal some interesting things regarding emotion and morality.

If I stated that morality was a characteristic of human beings, this would be a factual claim, and would therefore be open to factual enquiry. There would have to be something about morality that was somewhat universal, not influenced by a specific timeframe or geographical location, that is, it would have to transcend cultural uniqueness. There is such a characteristic, but one must consider the definitions for moral and morality, which regard right and wrong behaviour, and following the rules of right and wrong behaviour.

In the oldest records of right and wrong, Mosaic Law; The Hammurabi Code, and many others, throughout history and regardless of geographical location all have a common characteristic. The laws of a land contain the consensus of what that culture sees as right and wrong. Those laws may change, they may be fluid, but there is one characteristic that seems to transcend time and space, that is, the purpose of the laws. All cultures have the purpose to preserve themselves, and with that comes the defining of right and wrong according to what is seen as beneficial to that society.

Laws, the rules of right and wrong, which occur within a society generally don’t focus on the needs of individuals, but rather on maintaining a healthy and peaceful society. As far as individual protections go they are there to provide people with a sense of safety and well being, which is essential to the maintenance of a peaceful society. Even in ancient times, when people gave human sacrifice, it came from the perspective of well being of the society in general. It was believed that appeasing the gods would bring good growing conditions and good crops, hence the rather misguided practice. The thing here was, that the emotion of fear was used to drive the decision. In these cases, morality was very subjective, it was based on feelings (in that example, fear) not on reality. Nowadays, we have the benefit of being able to examine the effects that moral issues have on society, and can use something other than emotional knee jerk reactions to drive moral decisions.

I’m going to conclude this post with a quick summary. Morality has to do with right and wrong behaviour. If it is a characteristic of humans, then it must be observable. Right and wrong throughout human history has been defined by laws put in place to maintain stable societies, even individual protections serve this purpose. Morality can be viewed as the human characteristic that preserves societal well being as a whole. Therefore, as a characteristic, it can be objectively studied, through modern scientific/social methods, utilising empirical data. The fact that right and wrong is defined by society, for social benefit, speaks for it’s objectivity.


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