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What is Morality?

Boris Kustodiyev. Morning.
It would be bad to bathe a baby in sulphuric acid, because of the very nature of the baby.
(Boris Kustodiyev. Morning. Source)

1) Introduction

What is "morality"? If I could answer that question perfectly, my works would probably be listed alongside the classics of Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other good philosophers like F.-J. Thonnard! But despite my lack of training, I'll still try to give you a quick overview, in a few pages, mostly to make you feel like learning more about this topic.

2) What is this discipline called, and what Science does it belong to?

Let's start by clarifying a few words. "Morality" is a short way of saying "Moral Philosophy", which is the fourth part of Philosophy, the Queen of Sciences. "Ethics" is the same thing as "Moral Philosophy", but with a Greek, not a Latin etymology ("ethos" means the same thing in Greek, as "mos, mores" in Latin).

Beware of some bad philosophers, who will try to make you believe all kinds of errors concerning Morality, like:

- "Moral Philosophy" is not the same thing as "Ethics"; or
- "Morality" is not part of Philosophy, but of another Science, like Sociology, or Psychology"; or
- "Morality doesn't exist"; or
- "Morality exists, but it isn't a Science", etc.

The rebuttal of these and many more errors is beyond the scope of this short essay. Please refer to the good Philosophy books mentioned above.

3) What is Morality, roughly speaking?

Let's suppose you have a house plant, say a geranium. If you want this plant to grow, to fulfill itself, to reach its full potential, you will do certain things, and avoid certain other things. For example, you will avoid watering your geranium with diesel fuel, and you'll avoid locking up your geranium inside a container which doesn't let the light through.

Why? Because, given the goal (the full development of your geranium), you will observe that some actions will help you get closer to your goal (which we will call "good" actions), and others won't (which we will call "bad"). Watering your geranium with diesel fuel is bad, because that greatly harms the geranium.

Moral Philosophy is a bit what you would get if you replaced the geranium by a man. We assume that the goal (strictly speaking, the subjective last end) is the self-fulfillment, the full development, i.e. the happiness of man. Moral Philosophy studies the means, the actions that need to be taken to get us closer to happiness. An action which leads us away from our happiness is a "sin". (Note that the word "sin" existed long before Jesus Christ. The concept of sin doesn't imply the Catholic Faith).

4) What is "Human Nature"?

Coming back to our example of the geranium, we can see that the goodness and malice of an action will depend on the nature of what we are trying to perfect. If you incorrectly define a "geranium" as being "an internal combustion engine using compression ignition", then it will be very good to "water" the fuel tank of this "geranium" with diesel fuel, and to "lock up" this "geranium" in a big and dark metal box (by closing the hood!).

For Morality, it's the same thing. Depending on the definition we will give to the expression "human nature", some actions might be considered as very good, or very bad. If, for example, you define man as "a being composed of matter and a spiritual soul created by God", your Moral Philosophy will be very different than if you define man as "a purely material product of a purpose-less evolution".

We can better see why Morality is not the first part of Philosophy. Indeed, to study Moral Philosophy, we must first study human nature (what is done in Philosophy of Nature), and the ultimate goal of human existence (the Supreme Good, also known as God, which is studied in "Metaphysics").

5) Some examples of incorrect definitions of human nature

There are all kinds of errors concerning human nature. Here are a few examples:

5.1) Purely formal freedom. This error claims that our freedom is purely formal, that we are nothing else than our freedom. In that case, "happiness" becomes equal to "100% free human actions", without any reference to truth concerning our human nature. It's as if the geranium, no longer being a plant which needs (by its very nature!) water and sunshine, could self-actualize by drinking diesel fuel, as long as this plant would freely choose what it drinks! With this error, just laws don't help us get closer to happiness, but supposedly become the main obstacle to our self-actualization.

5.2) Materialism and Ethical Relativism. A series of errors pertains to Materialism, the negation that we have a spiritual soul. For example, if we are the purely material product of a purposeless evolution, "human nature" becomes a very fuzzy concept. Since our nature isn't stable, then what perfects our nature becomes just as unstable. "Good" and "evil" become totally relative: what is "good" now, could be "evil" tomorrow, since our nature will have changed, according to this error.

5.3) Materialism and Legal Conventionalism. Another error related to Materialism is the denial of Natural Law. If we are the purely material product of a purposeless evolution, then God didn't create our spiritual soul. Since God neither determines our human nature, nor the actions which fulfill it, then we can't make the effort of knowing what God "had in mind for us". Human laws become totally conventional. Rape, for example, can become good (Parliament just needs to change the law!).

5.4) Materialism and the denial of responsibility. Another kind of error caused by Materialism is the reduction or the elimination of personal responsibility. If man is a purely material being, then freedom doesn't exist (matter can't be really free). We can't blame people when they act "badly", since they aren't really responsible for their actions. Criminals are not guilty, since they are the inevitable products of the material conditions of their education. Drug addicts are no longer responsible for their actions, so we must be content with supplying them with drugs and clean needles. Teenagers are condemned to having sexual relations outside marriage, because of their hormones, so all we can do is provide them with condoms, and so on. (Of course, there is some truth in this error, since we are not purely spiritual beings).

5.5) Excessive spiritualism. Some bad philosophers claim that man has a spiritual soul (which is true), but they then go on to claim that our soul is accidentally, not essentially, united to our body. This leads to all kinds of errors in Moral Philosophy, like for example that Physical Education is not considered important, or that our free-will is supposedly not strongly influenced by physical conditions (like disease, or drunkenness, etc.), or that human behavior can be supposedly understood without referring to Sciences like Biology, Psychology, Sociology, etc.

Of course, there are many other variations. What is important at this stage is to understand that any error concerning human nature will have very negative consequences on all of Moral Philosophy.

6) Conclusion

I've just scratched the surface of this topic, and many other questions can be asked:

- What is a law?
- What is conscience?
- What is a "value"?
- What is Natural Law?
- Etc., etc.

And don't forget that, in my opinion, to act well, you will sooner or later have to go "drink at the source", i.e. refer to good Philosophy books.

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