Morals in fact

Socrates had a trying habit of asking people exactly what they meant by a particular word, or particular claim. The analysis would swiftly expose whether his opponent knew what he was talking about. It may not have got him many friends, but perhaps it got everyone a little closer to the truth. So today I suggest that we explore the word “ought”. I use it in the moral sense: I ought not to steal, rather than: I ought to have my car serviced.

Morality is a subject which has fascinated many philosophers over the centuries, and they must forgive me for converting their hard work into a few sentences. I start with utilitarianism. This is expressed as: the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s easy to understand. Although putting it into practice can be quite complex. While we associate it with philosphers such as Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill, there have been several others (going back to the Greeks) who would be described as consequentialists, and so belong to the same family.

Immanuel Kant, starting from a basis of reason, taught the principle that we should “Act only on a maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law.” For example if we claimed that people should be free to tell lies how would we react if others told lies to us – and what would be the effect on communication in our society?

The evolutionary approach holds that ‘good’ behaviour, such as communication and working together (as we find in some of the lower animals, but to a lesser extent) leads to success and so to successful breeding.

Natural Law theory – which was influenced by Greek Stoicism and taken up by the Romans, was adopted by Xtianity (involving God as creator). It remains the basis of Catholic moral principles. By observing natural law we flourish, by ignoring it we decline. Humans acting in accordance with their nature sounds commonsense but conclusions such as the prohibition of artificial contraception, or the condemnation of homosexual activity might raise an eyebrow.

David Hume taught that our choice of moral rules is the expression of our dispositions and our emotions. Words like ‘ought’ or ‘morally wrong’ do not add any information to the facts. Similarly, A. J. Ayer, holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. They are expressions of approval or disapproval, not assertions. This is sometimes called the Boo Hurrah theory.

But the main drift of philosophy has been to distinguish between right and wrong actions. Christian morality, if you hold it, does provide an ‘ought’ by involving God as creator. The sceptics follow the solution of removing any force from such an ‘ought’. But what meaning does ‘ought’ carry in the minds of others?

I discussed this question with the philosophy group which I run. Mainly agnostic but including two Catholics and an atheist. It took us an hour and a half, but right at the end someone concluded that the objective of morals was to benefit others, but including ourselves. Immediately, and without the help of the New Testament, everyone agreed that it was this concern which was common to all moral questions. We finished happily. But I was left thinking about the next question: where does this love come from? And why should we respond to it? I will bring that up on another occasion – but perhaps you have some ideas.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Morals in fact

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    It is a big shame that our author in eight paragraphs of total clarity can’t be holding meetings with the self interested lot up the road from him at Westminster who don’t even know the meaning of the word.

  2. Olive Duddy Marjory says:

    Please don’t use the spelling Xtianity for Christianity.

  3. Nektarios says:

    This is a very big subject and easy to get sidetracked into the alleyways of ‘I think’ or ‘in my opinion’
    which on the subject of Morality and its source disappears to be replaced by a Morality of convenience, as Barrie Machin mentions above as a Morality of ‘self-interested’ people.

    One cannot think one can exclude God and what He says from the discussion, To do so is to see the failure of whatever moral thought one has in one’s self and others.

    Looking through the OT it becomes very clear, the moral failure of us all. But what that failure consists of is a different terminology, which, when understood and followed helps one recover from moral failure.

  4. galerimo says:

    As a branch of philosophy, Ethics (or morality) seeks to establish value as a basis for human behaviour.

    The most basic value for humanity is freedom.

    Only God can and does give us freedom for our fulfilment as human beings.

    In order to maintain that received freedom, thereby achieving our true destiny of happiness,
    God has put God’s law of love into every human heart where it can be read using the faculty of conscience.

    Even more clearly God has revealed the program for maintaining and growing in freedom through the ten words of the Decalogue.

    And finally our freedom is gifted to us in Jesus who manifests compelling love In Himself.

    Therefore the word you offer for our exploration is spelt –

    Only
    Under
    God can there be any
    ‘Have
    To’

    What is bugging me is that word ‘Xtianity’?

    what in God’s name is that?

  5. pnyikos says:

    Maybe freedom is the most basic value in some respects, but there is no eleventh commandment saying, “Thou shalt not infringe upon the freedom of others.”

    And what meaning does this freedom have, if God made laws of the universe so precisely,
    that everything is determined from the beginning? You have rejected the idea of “miracles” in the sense of God intervening in the universe in a way that violates these laws.

    So, would you say that all our actions are determined by the laws of nature? If so, the word “ought” is devoid of practical meaning even if everything is “Under God.”

    • ignatius says:

      I don’t think we “rejected the idea of “miracles”..” at all. We only just began to reflect on the idea that ‘miracles’ could not be a result of suspension of natural law on account of the consequences such a suspension might have. Furthermore who has suggested that our choices are all determined by the physical laws of nature? The laws of nature tell me how to make a motor car but I don’t think tyey tell me what colour to paint it.

  6. Nektarios says:

    Was there ever a time among men and women when there was morality, and if so what is it?
    I answer, yes, there was morality, but then came the Fall.

    Secular Ethics is not a true definition of what morality truly is but highjacked by philosophers, politicos and kings and queens. Go through every book in the OT and the message of each is the failure to render a pre-Fall morality and the consequences.

    Secular Ethics is its forlorn hope to minimise the consequences of the failure of mankind to render a pre-Fall morality which itself has been a failure, the problem being, the rebellious fallen nature against God.

  7. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    — So today I suggest that we explore the word “ought”. —-

    I was thinking about that word an hour or so ago, as I read through a deck of slides made for a conference in Canada on the issue of artificial intelligence. It was full of shoulds and oughts and probably at least one or two musts. I was thinking how preposterous and pretentious that language was, in that the writers, probably mostly academics, were presuming to tell all the earth’s seven billion people what to do.

    It’s the source of moral authority that matters. So long as the source is merely human, and the force behind it merely law and force, it can never penetrate to the human heart. If A says that X is wrong, B is always free to disagree. If, on the other hand, God says it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Most men, I think, know in their hearts that all men are created equal. But most men also, I think, sense in their hearts that all men are small and the universe is infinitely greater. That feeling leads to awe and humility, and a willingness at least to wish that their lives were not so insignificant as they often if not always seem to be. And that leads, sometimes, to God, or, at least, to a desire for God.

    • ignatius says:

      Terrible words ‘ought’ and ‘should’ They only make sense if we add the suffix phrase:
      “try ones best to..”

      • David Smith says:

        Even so, the “ought” and “should” are still there: We ought to try our best to be the sort of people modeled in the United Nations “Universal Definition of the Perfect Person”.

  8. John Thomas says:

    Natural Law, “By observing natural law we flourish, by ignoring it we decline.” – but European literature is full of stories about people who behave very honestly, and whose fortunes decline and decline, and others who behave very badly, and do very well – and you only have to look around you to see such, no literature needed.
    I often think the need is to ask one’s very-moral agnostic friends just why THEY behave well (to my mind it’s illiogical) – they might appeal to Hume and suchlike, or not. A thing to do at your philosophy group, next time, Quentin?

    • Alan says:

      Those that behave badly can do well but I don’t think such examples make it clear that this would be the best approach towards such an end. I certainly can’t imagine it being a very effective approach to the success of a large, interdependent group or community if it were adopted by many or all amongst them. Then there are the people who behave badly who don’t fare so well to take into account too. If we could test its effectiveness I would guess that behaving badly/selfishly might be a high risk, high reward option for a few. Not clearly the most logical choice in my estimation.

      That’s assuming it was an attitude we could choose for ourselves on the basis of self interest in the first place.

  9. galerimo says:

    The controversy over the recent Gillette ad which calls on men to be accountable, respectful and become the best they can be, is a good example of ‘morals in fact, at least how morality is currently communicated in the public space. Far from the penumbra of Χριστόςianity!

    Bentham, Mill, Kant, Hume, Ayer that you mention and others explore values from within the context of their philosophical systems, some of these values are applied by themselves and others to create ideologies that find expression in our political thinking and then into social policy.

    How many of us even reflect on how the values embedded in our general culture have derived from such ideologies. Not many I would guess. Until the Gillette ad turns up on our screens.

    And it is just as likely to be our ‘breeding’, the way we have been brought up, mostly unquestioningly, that serves up these embedded standards and values and suggests them, perhaps also through the media, into our living.

    Predominantly they are the standards of liberal and post liberal democracies.

    Specifically, standards like autonomy – being the priority of the individual and their rights, fairness and equality, a voice for everyone, helping others less fortunate, sharing and caring, not doing anyone a bad turn – all very much derived from breeding, general social mores and the broad subtle impact of unquestioned ideology.

    And by the way, some people who profess no religious or any explicit moral code appear just naturally to be goodness and kindness personified, right to the fbre of their being. (God if free too!)

    For many the response to the fundamental question of morality, why do good?, is very likely, ‘that’s how I was brought up’.

    Which makes those standards eminently reviseable when classes like yours are offered.

  10. Nektarios says:

    I would like to draw your attention to a website. The Bible Project. It really is very good and answers so many of the issues surrounding morals and morality and something to pass on to others too that John Thomas and galerimo have raised.

    Go first to Proverbs and then Ecclesiastes on this The Bible Project website. Enjoy!

    • David Smith says:

      “Go first to Proverbs and then Ecclesiastes on this The Bible Project website. Enjoy!”

      Thanks. There are a few different sites with “the bible project” in their names. Could you give us a URL?

      • Nektarios says:

        David Smith

        I am sorry I don’t have the URL for The Bible Project. I know it is done in different languages. Google up the Bible Project and you will have it all OT and NT in English. It’s all FREE.

        It is very clear that Secular/liberal morality is not only not Christian, but proactive against the teachings in Scripture with its definitions and outcomes concerning morality which followed lead to man’s happiness, health, wealth and well-being and peace.

        It also shows there is no certainty in this life. A good person does not necessarily prosper
        and a bad person may prosper.

        As for people nowadays parading their moral rectitude, it’s called virtue signalling.
        The liberal mindset gives rise to intolerance and fascism and there is plenty of that going about at the moment with destructive effects.

  11. John Nolan says:

    I think that the controversy over the Gillette ad arose from the assumption that ‘men’ simply applied to the male sex. Gillette, of course, also produces shaving products for women, so it is reasonable to infer that the company meant ‘men’ in the inclusive sense. Why they should be dispensing moral advice is another matter.

    However, people these days are always parading their moral rectitude. Ask anyone ‘How are you?’ and the reply is usually ‘I’m good.’

  12. Alasdair says:

    Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who brings “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. Galatians 5:22-23.
    Therein is the source of our morality – no need to invoke human sources.

    • ignatius says:

      Alisdair…
      You’ll be telling me next that because I speak in tongues all my words are sweetness and light…..alas, were it only true….

  13. ignatius says:

    Thats kind of you Alisdair, thank you. It’s probably true for most of us.

    In our house we every year religiously scrutinize all 9 hours of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy…This means I know most of the words of the story! I particularly like the part before they go into the mountains of the Dead and Aragorn says to Elrond:
    “I give hope to men, I keep none for myself”
    It is the natural state of the christian life I think, a delight in holiness which goes along with a kind of shame in ones underlying condition of being a fallen creature with all that implies. This is not neccesarily personal lack of self esteem etc but more a simple awareness of who we are…the Apostle Paul of course bangs on about it endlessly, Augustine is even worse!! That’s chiefly why I’m not over keen on ‘should’ and ‘ought’ 🙂

  14. G.D says:

    Does not morality stem from the choice for love? As in ‘loving kindness’ not the romantic/sexual.

  15. ignatius says:

    “Similarly, A. J. Ayer, holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. They are expressions of approval or disapproval, not assertions. This is sometimes called the Boo Hurrah theory.”
    I think this view of AJ Ayer is probably quite an accurate one. Studied his book Language, Truth and Logic fourty years ago at university but makes more sense now.

  16. ignatius says:

    Actually this is all quite interesting. We all ‘know’ we should ‘try our best’ to be the kind of person we would wish to be seen as and that person, for the most part will be modelled on Christ. But when we get into ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ we, or at least I, tend to rile against what is perceived as punitive and disapproving moralising. Because of this inner rebelling comes out the thought:
    “Push off, don’t tell me what to do, I’m already trying my best..”
    I guess we all have the moral imperative written deep in our hearts and are forever striving for it yet conscious of our failings. There is also the issue of the speaker ..in other words how are the imperatives ‘should and ought’ couched, what is the intention behind their usage, is it exhortation or abuse? Utterances of this nature may be seen either through the lens of ethics or the lens of power, their intention my be noble or corrupt depending on the circumstance.

    • ignatius says:

      PS I just watched the gillette ad. The underlying message is about being ‘clean shaven’..very clever and accomplished semiotics.

  17. Alasdair says:

    With regard to the Gillette Ad. Allegedly its theme is based on the notion (very possibly true) that men, particularly young-white-heterosexual men, have lost their role in society.
    To quote Jordan Peterson: “Women know what to do – men have to figure out what to do. If they don’t engage with valued responsibility, the alternative is impulsive low-class pleasure”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s