Is morality a human construct?

I’m involved in a discussion on morality on another board, which stemmed from an original though about killing in video games.

What one of the posters there (Patryn) postulates is that morality is more than just a human tool for complex social interactions. Rather, he argues, it could be that there is a framework that shapes morality. Here’s what he said :

Another poster (MacSeeker) had this to say:

My first argument was that morality is indeed nothing but a human construct. It evolved as we developed increasingly more complex social interaction. It is a tool that serves in helping us survive in a social environment.

I claimed that moral judgements are just that: judgements, and you need human beings to make judgements.

But I find this notion of a universal framework for morality intriguing. How do you weigh in on this subject?

Is morality a human construct?


I believe it to be a human construct also, but I suspect that certain elements of our morality are highly likely to be found in other sentient races as well, or at least others that achieve our level of technology. It’s difficult to imagine beings with our ability to kill without some kind of prohibition on killing, for example.

To believe that morality is abstract, on a par with physics, is to believe there is an over-arching Purpose in the universe, if not an actual God. As a soft atheist, I don’t rule out the possibility entirely, but I have no reason to believe it’s true.

I’ll add my vote to the “yes” crowd. We’ll go there with the IMO (no I can’t point to the specific gene or discard every possibility) – ah, when and where required. :slight_smile:

If the universe has moral rules and morality isn’t an human construct, to whom or what these rules would apply?

We’re assuming that it would apply to humans. But why not to animals or insects? If a female spider eats its male after mating, is this morally wrong?
What about the universe and its physical laws? Is big meteorit hitting our planet and killing a lot of people acting immorally? Or is gravity?
Would it apply to potential other intelligent races? If the abovementionned spiders evolved and acquired some level of awareness, would eating their mate become immoral?

Do these universal moral rules only apply within a specie, or is it immoral for a lion to “murder” a zebra to eat it? For a cat to play with a mouse for fun before killing it? Would a human killing the intelligent spiders from Orion be a murderer?
IOW, assuming that such universal moral rules existed, to whom/what would they apply and why specifically to these beings/things?

Also, what would be the nature of these laws? Physical laws are universal because they’re always “enforced”. The apples always fall on the ground, and never go up. But obviously, these universal moral standarts aren’t (there are murderers, liars, etc…) .At least if we assume that our moral standarts are somewhat related to these universals (see below)

Finally, maybe “you shall not murder” isn’t part of these universal morals. How could we know, exactly? Even assuming that these universal morals actually exist, as long as we have no knowledge about them, aren’t our morals at least a social construct?


That’s why morality is not universal even between societies, let alone individuals. It’s nothing more nor less than a set of rules without teeth in the absence of an observed transgression.

Like clairobscur indicated: Just you try & break some laws of physics…Go ahead, I’m waiting…Can’t do it? Hmm, rape your sister and then eat her dying flesh–now, not only can you do that, but you can get away with it too.

Kids, we’re animals. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking we’re anything more. The only morality we *must *follow is any morality that begets viable offspring. Anything else is “creature comfort” at best (not having to fight the neighbor for a hamburger) and “destructive to the species” at worst (birth control/medicine that disrupts the same population controls to which other creatures are subject).

Morality is a human construct. Without it we go back to the cave and to what we are genetically. With it, we conceive of evils hidden and intentional beyond the wildest nightmares of our ancestors.

If morality had an independant existance other than that given by human social order, one would expect that there would be a reflection of it in at least some hard-and-fast rules of human cultures.

But there isn’t. There’s not a single “universal taboo” in which a behavior is forbidden by all peoples at all times. Even incest, which is as close to a universal taboo that we have, is extremely flexible in its definition from culture to culture. (Some even permit father-daughter incest at certain times.)

Now, the man quoted in the OP is right to a certain extent: the need for a framework is inherent in all social interractions of every social species. Chimp societies, for example, have elaborate ettiquette/rules surrounding grooming and acknowledging status. But I don’t think this suggests that morality exists independantly, rather that morality is simply that which we have invented to tolerate one another. Hedonism and anarchy lead to chaos.

I think this is an excellent essay on the subject.

Morality is too specific to be part of the laws of the universe. Morality involves symbols which are familiar to humans but have no independent meaning on their own. The universe is much more general purpose than that. For example, there is no law of physics that specifically addresses family members, but there are plenty of moral constructs that do. In fact, morality itself is such a symbol and has no meaning by itself.

Well, but if you take that stance far enough, cityboy916, you could say that about most words. Excepting proper nouns and a few other words, most words are abstractions without specific representations in reality.

This does not mean, however, that words are unrelated to existence. Abstractions are simply identifiers of relationships or patterns in existence which may not include a specific instance. At least not one we can point to.

You can drop some objects and demonstrate an instance of gravity. You can even learn quite a bit about it that way. But it takes a couple hundrec years and a unique genious to postulate that it is in fact a characteristic of space.

Morality is something similar. It does not exist in the same way tha gravity does. Gravity works as it does regardless of any human conception of gravity. Morality is different, but only because of its unique characteristic of being a method or hierarchy of values for use by humans. That is, morality doe not operate in the absense of sentient beings because it is something that sentient being use. Human brains don’t operate in the same way without human either.

So, if I may address the title of the OP, yes, morality is a human construct. It is, however, a construction of the hierarchy of values necessary to exist. It is both a human construct AND an aspect of reality.

Great link, BTW, Lissa.

I don’t think morality is a construct so much as it is bound up in our evolution.

Short answer: yes, but so is the law of gravity!

Firstly, as others have said, we must ask which entities “morality” is applicable to. Gravity is not applicable to the everything either, only entities with mass. Similarly, morality is not applicable to the entire universe, only certain entities. Precisely which subset morality applies to depends on one’s definition, but we might agree some generalisation such as “entities capable of suffering” (thus encapsulating aliens, animals and even future AI in one fell swoop).

The universe is so. It is how it is, not some other way. We have words for “how the universe is, rather than how it isn’t”: Law, theory, truth are some of them. Gravity can be said to exist physically, by reference to bosons, warped arrangements of spacetime and the like. Suffering might also be said to exist physically, by reference to neurophysics, pain receptors and so on.

But what of the law of gravity? Or, if I may characterise “morality” in such a way, the “laws of suffering”? The only places these things can be said to exist is in sentient minds. Whether one adopts a physicalist perspective, as I do, or one considers thoughts and concepts to be somehow distinct from the physical, the same conclusion is inevitable: the universe is so. Descriptions of it, from physical laws to systems relating to the suffering of sentient beings, are human constructs.

I thionk perhaps you have misunderstood what cityboy916 was saying, pervert. (Or else I have. Time will tell.)

The issue with morality as an element of Natural Law is not that the word itself is a symbol refering to an abstraction. As you note, this is true of most words. The issue is that the elements upon which morality operates are themselves abstractions as well. The Law of Gravity, to follow the established example, is an abstraction formed by human minds to explain the behavior of physical objects. We understand pysical objects to be a basic component of the Universe, and thus we comfortably make the identification that gravity is a Natural Law (in the sense of universal, natural, bound inextricably to the world in which we exist).

So, one question becomes: what are the objects present in a moral valuation and are those object similarly “basic to the universe”> The category here is important. All squares possess the property that a square object can fit into a round hole only if the diameter of the hole exceeds the length of the diagonal of the square. This property applies to all square objects, so in that sense it is categorical. Square objects and circular holes exist in nature (setting aside, for the moment, issues of “perfect squares”) so this property is natural. But I think most people would agree that it is not a Natural Law. The distinction, i would argue, is our sense that squares and circles are not somehow “basic categories” of our world.

Another question becomes: do moral principles exist that can be applied generally across all possible elements in our category of “moral objects”? As teh excellent link Lissa provided shows, differnet people find different answer to this question. My own contribution to the analysis will be this: it is semantically empty to define a type without being able to test an element for membership. If we declare that there are moral precepts that have universal application, then how do we identift those precepts? And by what authority do we find certainty in our identification?

Now, I personally answer the questions as follows: [ul]
[li]The objects of a moral valuation are a consciousness and a choice.[/li][li]Those elements are natural.[/li][li]I am comfortable asserting them as “basic” to reality as a working hypothesis.[/li][li]I have no idea whether moral principles exist that can be applied generally across all consciousnesses and choices **because . . . **[/li][li]I have no means of reliably separating a “universal” moral principle from a “personal” moral principle.[/ul][/li]
Thus, for me, the answer is yes, morality is a human construct. More specifically, no universal moral precepts can be identified that would bear inclusion (like the Law of gravity) among the set of Natural Laws.

Sociology geek checking in.

It depends on what you mean by “construct”. The usual implication, tacic or overt, to phrases like “human construct” or “social construct”, is that “the content could have been constructed differently and has no inherent, innate validity”.

Kneejerk lefties of the short-attention-span variety tend to like heading off in that direction because it lets them dismiss the Jerry Fallwells and George W Bushes who tend to discuss morality as permanent, established, cast in stone, immutable, and known beyond the shadow of a doubt. It’s a stupid tactic (although it works often enough in many venues because they are arguing with even more stupid people who don’t trip them up on it), because once you’ve said “Your so-called God-given morality is, like all moralities, a social construct and people only ascribe to it because they were brought up with it” you leave yourself open to the proposal that the only reason we consider Martin Luther King to be a more morally admirable person than Adolf Hiter is that we were brought up to do so, and that this belief has no more inherent validity than the beliefs embraced by Aryan Nation and therefore we have no business criticizing Aryan Nation for the same reasons we just used to dismiss the morality blatherings of Jerry and George.

The same applies to culture and art, where the “social construct” stuff is so often used to “deconstruct” the enshrinement of white male Eurocentric canons of literature, art, and music. Rather than argue that this Brazilian composer or that Asian-American novelist is the equal or superior of Schubert or Milton (and therefore should be taught to undergraduate students or discussed in lit-crit/music-crit courses) on the basis of the quality of their work, it is often argued that not only our existing standards of quality but any and all conceivable standards of quality, being “social constructs”, are relics of our social and historical location and artifacts of who had the power to define the standards we’ve inherited, etc, etc, etc, (and therefore there’s no legitimate reason to insist on Schubert and Milton instead of Villa-Lobos and Amy Tan). But based on that logic you can’t defend Villa-Lobos as being of more merit than the MacDonald’s TV commercial jingle, or Amy Tan as being better literature than a Silhouette Romances paperback or the Bazooka Joe comic on the inside of your bubble gum wrapper.

It’s long been a fallacy widespread within sociology and became especially rampant within the body of perspectives calling themselves “postmodern” or “poststructuralist” that held sway in the early 90s.

More of my attitude towards this stuff here: Missing in Action: PostStructuralist Feminism and/or Radical Feminism in the Academy

My answers: do I think morality is (just) a social construct? No. Do I think we have certain distortions in our perceptions and comprehensions of morality which are social constructs? Yeah, you betcha. But a free and open discussion of what we each feel to be moral and right, absent of any overarching moral authority shoving its institutionalized defintions thereof down our throats, will ultimately wash those distortions and hand-me-down misconstruals – our true sins, if you will – away.

I’ll cop to that. I most certainly may have misinterpreted him.

Agreed. This makes the problem more difficult, but only marginally so. Abstrations can be patterns in existents or they can be formed by finding patterns in other abstractions. The farther away from existents you go the harder it is to keep all the abstractions in mind. However, it does not change the essential formula.

Quite so. And the answer as you said is “The objects of a moral valuation are a consciousness and a choice.”. Although, I would have said consciousness with a choice. But I think that is nitpicky on my part.

Ah, but I think we do have a method of applying moral precepts universally. What we need is one more step along the path of identifying moral actors. Consciousnesses with a choice. That step is the purpose of morality. Morality is not simply some arbitrary set of valuations which a consciousness may adhere to or not. It is a hierarchy of values used by a consciousness to help it make choises amongst various actions. We may not be able to come up with an exhaustive list of such morals that we both agree apply to all consciousnesses, but I think we can agree that the continued existence of any individual consciousness has to be at the top if not define the top of such a hierarchy. That is, the life* of the individual moral actor in question can be said to be one such “universal” moral principle. Personally I think there are other universal moral principles which can be derived from this one. But this one is sufficient to make my point.

Morality is a human construct. But it a construct which provides a tool for living in reality. It is therefore tied to reality. Additionally, various proposals for moral systems can be tested against reality and their adherence or lack thereof to the purpose of morality can be judged.

See SentientMeat for another formulation of a universal moral precept.

*I should not here that I do not mean life in the simple biological sense. I mean life as a conscious moral entity. It might, in fact, be possible to formulate principles which would surpass the biological life of a particular consciousness in the hierarchy of values.

I think evolutionists and game-theorists are coming up with very lucid and plausible theories about the origin of what we call “morality” which require no appeal to any universal constant or metaphysical agent, beyond natural selection. That means, quite literally, that if something gives a member of a species a selective reproductive advantage, anything, and I mean anything goes. That the world is not in a state of total wanton chaos is simply because for any species bring about such a state is maladaptive. Selective pressure makes this so, and quite possibly nothing else.

I don’t want to overgeneralize, but I see social scientists treating things like “mind” and “culture” as if they are “epiphenomena” that somehow reside in some way on a biotic substrate, yet transcend that substrate. I think Ockham’s razor makes tidy work of that hypothesis. “Social constructs” need be regarded as nothing more than emergent phenomena in a complex system, in which the rules of natural selection are the only ones that count. That we follow certain social standards of morality is not an accident (selectively speaking), but that’s not to say things couldn’t be very different under different conditions. If we look at human history, that’s clearly the case. Are we now more moral than we were? I’d say that’s the wrong way to pose the question. Rather, I would ask “Are our standards for morality shaped by what is adaptive behavior given our circumstances?”

Another thread posed the question: Was Columbus evil? I’d say that’s a meaningless question. A better question might be “Was Columbus’ behavior maladaptive, given his circumstances?” The answer would probably be “no”. Columbus helped pave the way for a period of highly successful colonization of the New World, and that his methods were brutal by today’s standards in no way changes this fact. Eurpoean society outcompeting New World society is nothing more than Darwinistic Natural Selection at work. That we now abhor such behavior is nothing less; we can’t afford to be as aggressive today as Columbus back then, because the rules of the game have shifted. That we feel dismay at Columbus’ mistreatment of indigenous peoples is largely a function of circumstance. In the past we may have reveled in it. Would be we immoral, then? Again, I assert, that’s a meaningless question.

Yes that is the point I intended to convey.

But the essential formula is perpetuated by sentient beings. It is not necessarily a universal law in itself. Some abstractions exist universally, some do not.

But since sentient being exist, there is not exxential disconect between abstractions which involve them and no other existants.


Of course we do. The question is not, "Can we . . . ". The questions are, “Are we justified in . . . ?” and “How can we be certain?”. I am not trying to quiblle, here, and I suspect that you are really answering the question “Are we justified in applying [a specified set of moral precepts] universally?” But I thought it warranted pointing out that it is trivially easy for us to assert a method for determining a universal morality. One, quite literally, need merely say so.

Now, for me the most fundamental question when discussing morality is the final one: “How can we be certain?” You did not address the issue of certainty directly, but your implies a leaning toward “proof by enumeration” in the argument:

I don’t want to waste time sweeping up strawmen, though, so I will wait until you define your position explicitly before responding further on the question of certainty. On other matter . . .

Agreed, but my point was not that the formulations became more or less complex. My point was that the set of Natural Laws is itself an abstract concept whose membership test includes an aspect of “basic to reality”. In other words, those things we speak of as Natural Laws are things that, like gravity, act upon elements that we consider basic to the structure of reality. Thus, the issue is whether the abstractions upon which morality operates can similarly be considered “basic”. Without delving too far into the nomilaist:realist:immanent realist debate, I will just note that for some folks the answer to that question will necessarily be: No, abstractions are not basic components of reality.

That isn’t rally my argument, though. I was just trying to explain what I thought cityboy916 was saying. For myself, as I said, I am comfortable asserting as a working hypothesis both conscoiusness and choice as basic elements of reality.

Probably, but I have been known to pick a few myself. Just for fun, I will explain that I chose my phrasing specifically to avoid raising a side discussion about “ownership of thought”, “relationship as a basic element”, etc. I do not object to consciousness with a choice if you prefer, though if push comes to shove I prefer consciousness making a choice once we include a relational aspect. I say this because I view morality as a property of action not a property of state.

The next nit is yours.

For myself, I would argue that morality has no purpose. Purpose is a property that applies to conscious agents.

Well, I would agree that the word arbitrary is unfounded. I suspect, though, that you had a stronger objection in mind. The second sentence does not seem to limit the possibilities outlined in your first. In fact, the second sentence would apply equally well to an arbitrary heirarchy of valuation to which a consciousness may or may not adhere while making any given choice.

No, I’m afraid we can’t. I really see no reason to exhalt the continuation of any individual consciousness as an absolute good.

Well, obviously I will not accept any derivations from this principle until I accept the principle itself. I agree, however, that if you convince me of this one it will be sufficient to make the point. (Though we may still have the issue of certainty to address, depending upon how you convince me.)

I do not understand this idea of testing, but I think this relates to the “purpose of morality” question.

I went back and reread his post, but I cannot see the formulation to which you refer. He mentions a hypothetical “Law of Suffering”, but he does not explain the formulation nor the content. There could well be such a law, but the pertinent questions remain: “Are we justified in . . . ?” and “How can we be certain?”

Cite? Not to be difficult, but I have read a fair bit of game theory and nothing I have run across addresses the question of the origin of morality at all, and I would be very surprised if evolutionists were addressing the question. Evolutionists tend not to discuss issues of origins. Evolution is more of a transformative study. Game theory models likewise tend to address the aggregation and transformation of elements over time, rather than the origins of things.

I suspect that whatever models you are thinking of really address how what we might describe as moral rules of behavior might provide a selective advantage to organisms living under certain classes of material constraint. I am always looking for new things to read, though, so please do post some cites if you have them.

Perhaps, but saying so is actually a declaratin of a moral precept. If one begins by exhalting survival as the final arbiter of morality, then one need not even run the simulation. Your moraity[sup]1[/sup] is already defined. The rest is mechanics.

Quite a few physicists and mathematicians are fond of epiphenomena, too. I think the matter of where the razor shaves is less cut and dried than you make it seem. I want to ask, though, is it your position that consciousness is an illusion? Is behavior determined fully and completely by physical interactions?

I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but that seems to be the thrust of what you are saying. If so, then I would love to discuss the evolutionary advantages of abstractions with you. If not, then I ask you to restate your position so that I can understand you more clearly.

[sup]1[/sup][sub]In this case, it would seem to fall pretty clearly into the consequentialist/utilitarian camp: morality defined exclusively by the outcome of events.[/sub]

We may need to have that nominalist:realist:immanent realist discussion after all. :stuck_out_tongue:

Well, here’s a page with a number of good references. I think part of your problem is you are focusing only on game theory, or only on evolution. You can probe the questions of origins by synthesizing the tools of various disciplines to study emergent phenomena. What you can do with a multidisciplinary approach is create simulations that are games that contain mutable elements and non-deterministic variables. You can watch these systems evolve and test phenomena like altruism: Do they confer an advantage on cellular automata? And so on.

I don’t exhalt anything, I just haven’t heard any convicing arguments demonstrating the need for much more than natural selection to shape the evolution of emergent phenomena. If human behavior as just another manifestation of emergent phenomena, then the same fundamental rules apply to societies as they do to cells, or pre-biotic primordial soups. Natural selection works from molecules on up; the rest really is mechanics, perhaps. I can’t say that this is THE answer, I just haven’t heard anything to the contrary that isn’t metaphysics, and is hence not scientific. If it’s not scientific, there’s no hope to study it scientifically. A scientist, IMO, should follow the scientific route until it either hits pay dirt or does not. I certainly don’t think the scientific route has been exhausted yet. Far from it.