Five Contesting Foundations of Morality

(This essay arose from my listening to a radio discussion about whether cultural differences mean that each country or culture is entitled to its own conclusions about what is morally acceptable. The particular case discussed was the practice of genital mutilation of girls, sometimes referred to as female circumcision. This is claimed by the practitioners to be a justifiable part of their culture, while outsiders claim that such practices are inherently immoral. In essence, the argument is about whether morality is absolute or relative, or in other words, is there ever any absolute justification for claiming the high moral ground, and if so, on what authority.)

1. Types of foundation

Almost everyone has ideas about what things are OK to do and not OK, or in more formal terms, what is right and wrong, or moral and immoral. But, while there is general agreement in principle about such things as killing other people, or stealing, there is great dissent on details, and even greater dissent on many other matters. Members of the same community, religion or family usually disagree on some moral details. So, when people take the moral high ground, is it just a matter of different opinions of what is right and wrong?

This can be illustrated with a simple story. A young person who has experienced life only in a high-rise city visits a small country town for the first time, and having quickly looked over, with some amazement, the shopping centre, goes one street back to see where the residents live. There are single-storey wooden houses in large, often unkempt, yards with flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and sometimes wire-netting enclosures occupied by fowls. Approaching the back yard of a house that is on a street corner, the visitor hears a strange squawking noise. When closer, it is obvious that the noise is coming from the yard, and on looking over the fence the visitor sees a largish bird being held by the legs, with its wings also held by the same hand, and its head hanging down. Suddenly the bird is lowered so that its neck rests on a block of wood and then an axe swiftly falls. The birdís head flies off and its body jerks in all directions with blood being flicked around from the neck.

The visitor is horrified and angry, and says to the perpetrator of this terrible deed, "God! Donít you know that poor bird was a sentient being, capable of feeling great pain and terror? Jesus Christ! Youíre a rotten, cruel murderer". The foul murderer is momentarily preoccupied trying not to be a bloody foul murderer, because the birdís body is still threshing around and bleeding. But shortly it subsides and the butcher, still holding it, turns to the still glaring accuser and says, calmly but a little sorrowfully, "Please donít take the name of the Lord thy God in vain".

To the visitor, the names of Jesus Christ, Jupiter, Vishnu, and any current pop star are all just names to be said, and saying any of them, in vain or otherwise, has no moral or devotional relevance. The local resident is fully aware of the food chain, and knows the dead fowl owed its life to the very fact that is was good eating, and anyway would have been taken long ago by a local fox if its enclosure were less robust. So here we have two moralities with nothing in common.

Is there a way of settling such differences? Surely there must be some authority to refer to. I suggest that there are sources of information that people accept as authoritative and relevant to particular moral issues. I call these sources foundations of morality, and think there are five main pretenders to the title, namely:-

  1. Observed Nature;
  2. Some individual personal source;
  3. Revealed spiritual truths;
  4. Logic applied to desirable principles;
  5. Evolutionary development, preserving social cohesion.
There is no clear dividing line between these foundations, as each contains elements of the others. And it is unusual for anyone to justify their morality on only one.

Nevertheless each of these imposes its own kind of morality, as will be discussed below. No foundation leads to a single set of moral codes, and different people might agree on a particular moral principle but justify it on different foundations. So, if they are different and in competition with each other, must we accept the notion of moral relativism, ie, that one morality is no better or worse than any other? Or is there one true foundation among the five? Before tackling this, we should first look at each separate foundation.

(In passing, it might be mentioned that some of them are foundations for other beliefs as well as those about morality. Also, they may have no relationship to any theory of how morality might have become a part of human nature. And they do not necessarily relate to how particular moral positions were arrived at.)

2. Nature, including Innate human nature

By Nature I mean more than just the wild environment, but anything observable in the world, or believed about it, that might somehow impact on morality. Nature is used in several current debates on matters such as homosexuality, contraception, abortion and treatment of animals. If nature provides for the survival of the fittest, ie, the fittest to produce the next generation, then homosexuality couldnít be natural. Nature, however, seems to abound in examples of homosexuality, not just in Homo sapiens, but throughout a wide range of species. In fact, if we look widely enough, nature provides examples of many different kinds of behaviour, not only sexual, and great diversity of biological processes. Another application of evolutionary science to moral principles is Social Darwinism, which implies that everyone has naturally reached the situation they find themselves in. All sides of most debates about morality can usually find supporting cases in nature.

Nevertheless, we seem to have some instinctive feelings about right and wrong. We all have a concept of fairness, even though our personal condition tends to influence what we think is fair and unfair. Also, there are innate human tendencies (that are not always obeyed) relating to the need for human societies to survive, such as avoidance of inbreeding, protection of territory, and cooperation in communal tasks. These are seen also in some social animals and insects.

Such innate needs and feelings influence the other types of foundation listed above. But also, some innate human characteristics promote behaviours that are generally considered to be immoral.

Are there any scientific principles on which to base a system of morality? We have seen a couple of unsatisfactory findings from biology. Perhaps psychology, neuroscience or game theory might be useful in throwing light on social problems, but I donít think society is ready to trust them with morality.

Invoking nature implies some natural order that has decreed not only how the world works but also how we should "naturally" behave. Thoughts and intentions donít seem to have any role in this kind of morality.

As a foundation, nature has the advantage that it is able to be observed and agreed upon according to evidence. It provides grounds for revision in the face of new evidence. But the evidence is ambiguous, and people often find only what they want to see. Moreover, if nature is so reliable, why not just do what it dictates? Why? Because a prime use of morality is to balance contradictory aspects of nature. And is there any reason why nature should dictate what acts are right and what wrong?

3. Individual Personal Systems

Most peopleís idea of right and wrong is like their finger print; similar to many other peopleís but unique in the small detail. Significant incidents in life, combined with personality, affect how we feel about certain moral issues. So we unconsciously develop moral positions, and might not realise we believe that way until something happens to awaken it. Some people have a Gnostic assumption that each person should look "inwardly" for their own morality, and "discover" individual principles through introspection.

A few acquire such distinctive individual systems of morality that they put themselves outside and above those who follow other systems. Very often they have one or two unusual moral precepts, often condemning some aspect of the behaviour of the general populace or requiring some particular unusual practice. People with such individual systems are regarded either as having some mental disorder, as being habitual criminals, cranks, fanatics, or, occasionally, as seers or prophets bringing special revelations. That doesnít mean that their morality has no elements in common with other systems.

Whatever type it may be, an individually founded moral principle is only as good as the persuasive power of the person holding it.

4. REvealed spiritual truths

Texts or lore that purport to be revealed spiritual truths provide the foundation for religion. However, the revelation has been to the original prophet, not to the followers of the belief. Religion imposes a duty in thought word and deed, against which there is no arguing. Attitudes to transgression vary from compassionate forgiveness to vindictive punishment.

All religions prescribe moral codes, comprising obligations, permissions, prohibitions and penalties. Being spiritual truths, they are superior to human and natural interests. They might be thought of as being designed by divine wisdom to provide the best set of guidelines for the proper operation of societies and for the proper relationship between humanity and deity. If you subscribe to a religion, you should have no problems about right and wrong: it is all laid out for you. But it is not just obeying rules for a reward or to escape a punishment. This morality requires beliefs about right and wrong.

In most religions, the rules are either contained in or derived from sacred texts, which are usually very old. The texts usually contain ambiguities and contradictions. They refer to social conditions different from the present, and do not include issues that now need moral resolution. They require interpretation, which often results in the inclusion of bias that was not implied or intended in the original. For example, a bias against women has crept into most religions. Elements from a previous religion can return. Once adopted, these additions are difficult to remove, and may even be emphasised. Selective emphasis on particular religious principles has always been used to suit personal preferences and situations.

When one religion prevails in a particular country, much of its moral code is usually incorporated into law. This need not be a bad thing, since the initial ideals of religions are usually conducive to a stable social order. In secular societies, some of the religious requirements or prohibitions are not enforceable by law - you donít have to observe the Sabbath or honour your father and mother, for example. Also, some current matters of moral concern may not be covered by the foundation texts, such as animal rights, the environment and biological technology.

Nevertheless, "revealed" moralities are still very widely accepted. But those who believe in them have to find their own way through the ambiguities and contradictions. Then they need to convince others that they have the true interpretation, that their particular text is the true revelation, and revelation is the true foundation.

5. Logical Systems of morality

In the three types of foundation so far discussed there is the probability of "victimless sins". These are thoughts, words or deeds that donít hurt anyone or anything, but are against the rules. Examples are masturbation, using certain prohibited but otherwise inoffensive words, and cutting ones beard or hair. There seems to be no logic in regarding such things as immoral.

You donít have to accept the moral authority of nature or inner urges or revelation to have firm ideas about morality. Morality can be derived from what are thought to be reliable principles, such as fairness, trust, etc. Such ideas may be similar to, and influenced by, those prescribed by nature or by religions. But things like worship, celebration of religious events, and ancient prejudices might not be seen to be relevant to morality.

Well-known sets of desirable principles are Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; and To each according to need; from each according to ability, the sanctity of life, and the undesirability of suffering, which have been used to derive systems of ethics. The idea of building a society on such principles has strong elements of utopianism, with all the hope and anxiety to succeed that is found in idealistic ventures. And in this there are pitfalls.

To develop a logical code of morals it is necessary to set out some premises, such as "liberty is good", "equality is good", "fraternity is good", and then derive a suitable set of things that must be done and must not. But then difficulties arise.

For a start, the premises must be justifiable. Why is liberty necessarily good? Perhaps it is because people like to be free, and that is what liberty is. But, to answer the question it is necessary to first decide who are to be free, what they are free from, and what they are not free to do. It then becomes obvious that giving one person some kinds of freedom may interfere with the freedom of other people, so freedom is not entirely good. Also, different people prefer different kinds of freedom.

When the implications of each high principle are spelt out in detail, we see more incompatibility. These difficulties donít mean that logical systems are impractical. All systems of morality must trade off benefits against adverse effects. The difficulty is in achieving a workable trade-off. One logical system of morality, Utilitarianism, tries to achieve the trade-off using the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number of people". But in practice, how do you measure one kind of "good" against another, or one personís preferences against anotherís? How are minorities catered for? How do you include bad things in the equation? What about penalties, such as fines or jail?

Also there may be claims of omissions of particular desirable principles, or questioning some of those included. A brief list of the things that are covered by morality is as follows:

Can a logical system be so complex as to cover agreed desirable principles for all these things?

One modern moral philosopher, Peter Singer, thinks it can. He applies logic to the principle of Utilitarianism, but raises tricky questions, such as:

These queries, and some of Singerís conclusions from his answers, notably the acceptability of killing some babies born with severe disabilities, challenge the sensibilities of many people, particularly, but not only, those whose moral code is based in the teaching of a religion. Singer intends compassion and individual preference, not callousness. He thinks that the life of some people born with severe disabilities would contain more suffering than enjoyment, so there would be a moral justification to save them from the suffering. The question is how to weigh up the balance between potential suffering and enjoyment from the point of view of the person concerned. The issues surrounding Singerís ideas demonstrate that life is too complicated for general principles to be "absolute" or "natural" criteria of good and bad. Religious edicts, such as keeping the Sabbath holy, have also caused problems - minor in this case - when taken to logical extremes. Nevertheless, some individual principles, such as anti-slavery, have gained acceptance.

The practicability of logical systems depends on how they affect behaviour. Their attitude to transgression should depend on the rationales behind the system, and ideally would be compassionate and restorative. But if we regard the French revolution, Nazism and totalitarian Communism as logical systems of morality (some people have called them religions) in practice these have been cruelly and often self-righteously vindictive. One reason is that the logic is applied too rigorously and too simplistically, ie in a "fundamentalist" manner.

6. Evolving moralities


Humanism is an attempt to develop a practical system of ethics based on desirable principles, but taking account of the ambiguities of human feelings. It looks for rigorously confirmed evidence for any assumptions used in arriving at its conclusions. Over the few centuries of its existence it has developed in line with the findings and processes of science and with "enlightened" opinion. For example, while espousing fairness and equality, it did not initially give much regard to the rights of women. This only illustrates the arbitrary nature of intended desirable principles.

A moral code that has much in common with the Humanists is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This was intended as a seminal text for a universal ethics based on desirable principles. Hopes were that it would gradually become more widely adopted, but it was never enthusiastically embraced by all members of the United Nations. Recent events suggest that its principles are struggling to hold their present acceptance, as other, more nationalistic or selfish, principles seem to be favoured.

The process of change

Additional moral positions often become accepted across the diverse faiths within secular societies. The changes made to Humanist ideas during the centuries, the changes clearly obvious in all religions since their foundation, and the explicit intent behind the UN Charter of Human Rights are all examples of an evolutionary process in systems of morality. Changes in individual personal moralities might be likened to mutations in genomes in their evolutionary responses to the environment.

This is in contrast to the assumption of eternal absoluteness of moralities based on revelation or abstract principles. Some societies, applying a degree of pragmatism, accept flexibility in what is moral and immoral. (This does not stop some members of the society being extremely rigid or precise on particular matters. But this is not confined to morals: it can apply equally to the rules of a social club or political party.)

Some moral principles struggle to become widely accepted while others are quickly accepted. Some flourish for centuries; others soon wither. All this seems to be caused by changes in the prevailing conditions inside and outside societies, suggesting that there is something resembling survival of the fittest within the world of moralities. But as with biological evolution, there is no necessary progress towards some "higher" form, just opportunistic adaptation to changing conditions.

Although such rules of morality are merely responses to the current whims of fate or society, and not divinely revealed, nor the outcome of eternally good principles, they can be justified as "good practice" or the latest stage in a particular line of evolutionary development. In any society a collection of precepts and practices will evolve with fairly general approval, and may be reinforced over time as customary truths. To other societies, some of the precepts may seem strange or immoral. Sometimes those who learn their morality from a religion founded on revelation will attribute their evolved morality also to revelation

Evolutionary systems of morality exist beside another evolutionary code of right and wrong that is similar to them in many ways Ė the law of the land. But they are not deliberately created artefacts, as are laws. They have a lot in common with the law, and each influences the other. So why is not the law the acceptable morality, built on the same foundation?

The law of the land

A few societies are theocracies, ie, the law is prescribed by a particular religion or non-religious social dogma. In these societies the law is, at least officially, the moral code. (In passing, it is worth noting that liberal secular societies can very easily lapse into acquiring increasingly rigid moralistic social dogma.)

In secular societies the laws have usually evolved by a system of continual considered changes and additions to earlier law. They are well-documented systems, and include formal processes for deliberating and deciding individual cases where compliance is in doubt. They have elements in common with moral codes, and a few people might see no reason to have any other. Whenever the law strays far from what the general populace considers to be reasonable it ceases to be obeyed, and its agents become less diligent in enforcing it. So the law should never be too far from the morality of the public. In any case, if the law is what the state considers to be right and wrong, a separate set of ethics might seem subversive.

The issue of possible subversion is answered by the general perception, in virtually all societies, that the law is imperfect and often reflects the interests of influential groups. So, if the law is to be the moral code, there is no other accepted ethic to restrain excesses of powerful interest groups. This is a always a danger in theocracies. Secular societies consider it unacceptable for the law to impose a particular religion upon citizens of other beliefs, except for the requirements of the operation of society. They also like the law to be flexible enough to meet changing needs. New moral sensibilities arise to challenge what is currently considered to be both right and legal. Examples are anti-slavery, environmental protection, male/female equality and animal rights. These have an origin and a force that precedes the law of the land. Sometimes they are only reluctantly embraced by the established religion.

When morals are rigidly applied, all sorts of trivial anomalies result in convolutions of behaviour, for example, the rules of what activities constitute work on the Jewish Shabat (or sabbath). But it is widely considered that the sanctions applied by the state should not be applied to all moral breaches, and that it is reasonable for some members of society, perhaps those with greater social responsibility, to be subject to more stringent moral requirements than the public at large. (Some people in high positions donít share this view.)

The law implies compulsion to obey, with penalties for infringements. It is very easy, particularly in authoritarian communities, for the populace to develop an attitude that the only reason for obeying a particular law is to avoid the penalty. The interpretation of law must be precise whenever a judgment is to be made, and this may require splitting of hairs and accepting loopholes. Morality implies an awareness at the time of whether a contemplated action is right or wrong. But the law cannot punish actions that are considered immoral if they are not illegal.

Societies recognise intrinsically different roles for moral codes and the laws of the land. Driving on the wrong side of the road may always be illegal, but not always immoral. Various forms of adultery may not be against the law but would be thought to be immoral by many people. "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's." Since the purpose of law is to enable society to be governed impartially, the law should always be uniformly implementable. On the other hand, morality helps society to function from the bottom up, taking into account personal and arbitrary ideas of right and wrong.

This means that there are social systems of morality that are not covered by religion nor by law. People who accept the law may also accept principles that are consistent with the law but are not contained in them. Current examples are the morality of environmental degradation and animal rights.

7. Any others?

Having discussed five foundations, have I covered the whole spectrum? What about History? Is it the history of the Jews rather than revelation that requires certain religious rituals, such as celebrating Passover, and justifies their occupation of Palestine? Did the history of battles centuries ago justify the (Orthodox) Serbs in wanting to oust (Muslim) Albanians from Kosovo? Did the success of the Pilgrim Fathers in the face of adversity justify the later doctrine of a "manifest destiny" for European peoples to take over North America? If the answer to any such question is yes, there may be a case for adding history as a sixth foundation.

However, my five foundations were somewhat arbitrarily chosen, with the acknowledgement that there are no clear-cut distinctions between them. History, and perhaps other notional foundations might be considered to be aspects of one or more of the others, in the case of history, the evolutionary.

8. summary

In summary, we have seen that nature tells us a lot about human action and motivation, but does not prescribe what we ought to do, or why. It does, however, give examples to choose from to suit our prejudices or preferences.

Individually derived systems of morality can be justified only within the particular person.

Revelation, despite its claim to absolute truth, has not led to a single coherent moral code, but to multitudinous differences and inconsistencies. Religious moralities are always subject to interpretation - sometimes personally biased - by the authorities. Human nature bends the rules and makes new ones to suit a range of human aspirations.

Logical systems based on desirable principles tend to be rigidly prescriptive. The principles themselves are arbitrary, and are derived from human aspirations arising from recent or imminent events. But they may influence flexible systems.

Socially-derived systems of right and wrong can quickly swing in different directions. Australiaís varying attitudes to foreigners over the past hundred years or so is a good example.

Indeed, human nature, with all its peculiarities, complexities and contradictions, seems to be the architect of all moralities, irrespective of the foundation on which each is justified. No foundation is demonstrably superior.

9. moral relativism

What does this say about moral relativism? Consider, for example, genital mutilation of young girls. This is often associated with Islam, although it is practised also by some communities claiming to be Christian. It is neither prescribed nor supported by the Koran or the Bible. It is associated with subjugation of women by men. It causes pain, humiliation and sometimes death. The acceptance, indeed the active support, of female genital mutilation is an instance of an evolved moral position. Perhaps our moral outrage towards it, and the following idea of how to approach such issues, are also.

Merely taking the high moral ground can result in counter-claims of "cultural imperialism" supported with examples of our own failings. If those who practise it can be convinced that it has no religious justification and no social advantage, a meaningful dialogue might be possible. But accusers would first need to acknowledge any practices that should be abandoned in their own culture. Only then might it be possible to discuss the perceived adverse effects of the practice.

Consider, a hypothetical conversation between a mother who wants her daughter to be circumcised (as she herself has been) and someone opposed to the practice.

Mother: Itís too bad. I want my daughter done but it is illegal in Australia. I will have to take her back to Africa. Opponent: I think it is cruel to subject children to such treatment.

Mother: Life in my country has many cruel things, and most of them last a long time.

Opponent: But it would maiming her, and cause unnecessary difficulty with childbirth and deprive her of the enjoyment of sex.

Mother: Our society managed to survive. It is part of our customary way of life.

Opponent: It is a barbaric custom.

Mother: You have barbaric customs here in Australia. Your Aborigines live in poverty and squalor. So you can look after your barbarity and we will look after ours.

The mother might also say that if she were allowed to take her daughter to a surgeon in Australia, the process would be no more painful or dangerous than cosmetic surgery, tattooing or body piercing, which are already practised here.

If someoneís action or intention is derived from a morality different from ours, then we must expect them to resist any criticism of it based on ours. The moral high ground is a concept that can apply only when both sides accept the same moral code on the particular issue.

Further, all systems of morality are affected by significant aberrations. No matter which foundation you support your morality upon, you will find opposing ones relying on it also. And you will also find your own foundation disputed. So next time you are tempted to take the high moral ground or are confronted by someone else who has succumbed to the temptation, consider the foundations on each side before arguing the details.

This is not to say that one morality is as good as another and we should learn to live with ones we abhor. Societies need to hold together or their members will suffer, and an agreed morality is important for cohesion. Also, societies need to endure, and getting the right morality is important for this. What is right depends on human nature and environmental factors Ė geography, availability of vital resources, the disposition of neighbouring societies, etc. Some systems of morality have endured for a long time and some have died out quickly. As environments change, moralities that accommodate the changes will serve better. Some moral principles such as friendship, cooperation and service to a common cause are more likely to sustain a society than others that tend to alienate members from each other. That is my defence for taking the high moral ground against female genital mutilation. It is, of course, a personal not an absolute defence.

postscript: An ideal system of morality?

What might be the characteristics of an "ideal" system of morality? Should it be of unquestionable authority, or capable of revision whenever aspects of it become unacceptable? Should it embrace all areas of behaviour or be concerned with merely sustaining the harmony of society? Should its attitude to observance be rigorous or judicious?

Would an ideal moral system apply to one period of time or for all time; for each person individually, or for, say, each nation or religion, or for the entire world? Should, for example, a moral foundation give justification to conducting trials of citizens of foreign countries as war criminals?

Throughout history there have been many shifts in beliefs about the nature and enforcement of right and wrong. Across modern cultures and between and within religions there is great diversity. In fact, each personís unique set of morals changes continually, if only in small ways, according to personal circumstances.

Whenever things of value appear to be threatened, a person, or indeed an entire nation, may quickly change its morality from one of compassion to one of hostility or rejection (but often referred to as pragmatic or realistic). The threat may come from foreigners, or a section within the society, or from a new deadly disease, a natural disaster or economic competition. But also, circumstances may sometimes lead morality towards greater compassion.

What may seem to be the right kind of morality can quickly come to be regarded too casually, with its strengths taken for granted and its perceived exceptions exaggerated. There is no panacea that will address all the peculiarities of human nature through good times and bad. And, I think, there can never be an ideal system of morality.

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