In a previous article, I discussed the possibility of a naturally occurring morality; one that emerges from interacting biological systems and is characterised by cooperative, selfless behaviours. Nature is replete with examples of such morality, in the form of in-group favouritism, cooperativity between species (symbiotic relationships) and the delicate interrelations between lower forms of life (cellular interaction). But we humans seem to have taken morality to a higher plane of existence, classifying behaviours and thoughts into a menagerie of distinct categories depending on the perceived level of good or bad done to external agents. Is morality a concept that is constant throughout the universe? If so, how could morality be defined in a philosophically ‘universal’ way, and how does it fit in with other universals? In addition, how can humans make the distinction between what is morally ‘good’ and ‘bad? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

When people speak about morality, they are usually referring to concepts of good and evil. Things that help and things that hinder. A simplistic dichotomy into which behaviours and thoughts can be assigned. Humans have a long history with this kind of morality. It is closely intertwined with religion, with early scriptures and the resulting beliefs providing the means to which populations could be taught the virtues of acting in positive ways. The defining feature of religious morality finds it footing with the lack of faith in the human capacity to act for the good of the many. Religions are laced with prejudicial put downs that seek to undermine our moral integrity. But they do touch on a twinge of truth; evolution has seen the creation of a (primarily) self-centred organism. Taking the cynical view, it can be argued that all human behaviour can be reduced to purely egotistical foundations.

Thus the problem becomes not one of definition, but of plausibility (in relation to humanity’s intrinsic capacity for acting in morally acceptable ways). Is religion correct in its assumptions regarding our moral ability? Are we born into a world of deterministic sin? Theistically, it seems that any conclusion can be supported via the means of unthinking faith. However, before this religiosity is dismissed out of hand, it might be prudent to consider the underlying insight offered.

Evolution has shown that organisms are primarily interested in survival of the self (propagation of genetic material). This fits in with the religious view that humanity is fundamentally concerned with first-order, self-oriented consequences, ann raises the question of whether selfish behaviour should be considered immoral. But what of moral events such as altruism, cooperation and in-group behavioural patterns? These too can be reduced to the level of self-centered egoism, with the superficial layer of supposed generosity stripped away to more meager foundations.

Morality then becomes a way of a means to an end, that end being the fulfillment of some personal requirement. Self initiated sacrifice (altruism) elevates one’s social standing, and provides the source for that ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ we all know and love. Here we have dual modes of satiation, one that is external to the agent (increasing power, status) and one that is internal (evolutionary mechanism for rewarding cooperation). Religious cynicism is again supported, in that humans seem to have great difficulty in performing authentic moral acts. Perhaps our problem here lies not in the theistic stalker, laughing gleefully at our attempts to grasp at some sort of intrinsic human goodness, but rather in our use of the word ‘authentic’. If one makes an allowance and conceeds that humans could simply lack the faculties for connotation-free morality, and instead put forward the proposition that moral behaviours are instead measured by their main direction of action (directed inwards; selfishly or outwards; altruistically), we can arrival at a usable conceptualisation.

Reconvening, we now have a new operational definition of morality. Moral action is thus characterised by the focus of its attention (inward vs outward) as opposed to a polarised ‘good vs evil’, which manages to evade the controversy introduced by theism and evolutionary biology (two unlikely allies!). The resulting consequence is that we have a kind of morality which is not defined by its degree of ‘ correctness’, which from any perspective is entirely relative. However, if we are to arrive at a meaningful and usable moral universal that is applicable to human society, we need to at least consider this problem of evil and good.

How can an act be defined as morally right or wrong? Considering this question alone conjours up a large degree of uncertainty and subjectivity. In the context of the golden rule (do unto others as you would have done unto yourself), we arrive at even murkier waters; what of the psychotic or sadist whom prefers what society would consider abnormal treatment? In such a situation could ‘normally’ unacceptable behaviour be construed as morally correct? It is prudent to discuss the plausibility of defining morality in terms of universals that are not dependent upon subjective interpretation if this confusion is to be avoided.

Once again we have returned to the issue of objectively assessing an act for its moral content. Intuitively, evil acts cause harm to others and good acts result in benefits. But again we are falling far short of the region encapsulated by morality; specifically, that acts can seem superficially evil yet arise from fundamentally good intentions. And thus we find a useful identifier (in the form of intention) that is worthy of assessing the moral worth of actions.

Unfortunately we are held back by the impervious nature of the assessing medium. Intention can only be ascertained through introspection, and to a lesser degree, psychometric testing. Intention can even be illusive to the individual, if their judgement is clouded by mental illness, biological deformity or an unconscious repression of internal causality (deferring responsibility away from the individual). Therefore, with such a slippery method of assessment regarding the authenticity and nature of the moral act, it seems difficult that morality could ever be construed as a universal.

Universals are exactly what their name connotes; properties of the world in which we inhabit that are experienced across reality. That is to say, morality could be classed as a universal due to its generality amoung our species and its quality of superceeding characterising and distinguishing features (in terms of mundane, everyday experience). If one is to class morality under the category of universals, one should modify the definition to incorporate features that are non-specific and objective. Herein lies the problem with morality; it is such a variable phenomenon, with large fluctuations in individual perspective. From this point there are two main options available given current knowledge on the subject. Democratically, the qualities of a universal morality could be determined through majority vote. Alternatively, a select group of individuals or one definitive authority could propose and define a universal concept of morality. One is left with few options on how to proceed.

If a universal conceptualisation of morality is to be proposed, an individual perspective is the only avenue left with the tools we have at our disposal. We have already discussed the possibility of internal vs external morality (bowing to pressures that dictate human morality is indivisibly selfish, and removing the focus from good vs evil considerations). This, combined with a weighted system that emphasises not the degree of goodness, but rather the consideration of the self versus others, results in a useful measure of morality (for example, there will always be a small percentage of internal focus). But what are we using as the basis for our measurement? Intention has already proved to be elusive, as is objective observation of acts (moral behaviours can be reliant on internal reasoning to determine their moral worth, some behaviours go unobserved or can be ambiguous to an external agent). Discounting the possibility of a technological breakthrough enabling direct thought observation (and the ethical considerations such an invasion of privacy would bring), it seems difficult on how we can proceed.

Perhaps it is best to simply take a leap of faith, believing in humanity’s ability to make judgements regarding moral behaviour. Instead of cynically throwing away our intrinsic abilities (which surely do vary in effectiveness within the population), we should trust that at least some of us would have the insight to make the call. With morality, the buck definitely stops with the individual, which is a fact that most people can have a hard time swallowing. Moral responsibility definitely rests with the persons involved, and in combination with a universally expansive definition, makes for some interesting assertations of blame, not to mention a pressuring force to educate the populace on the virtues of fostering introspective skills.

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