What SHOULD our morals be?

OK, extremely difficult question here, that I’ve been thinking about a bit recently. And this is the first time I’ve ever ventured into GD, so be gentle. :slight_smile:

If you accept that morals are purely socially conditioned (not sure whether they are or not, but this is not that debate), then they could theoretically be just about anything. So what should they be?

Elaboration is required. Firstly, when I speak of morals I mean the things that are judged to be right and wrong, where most people will generally try to do right and feel bad about doing wrong. I know many people do do things that aren’t exactly right, but I don’t believe the majority feel such incidents to be really wrong. Stuff like using shareware software without registering, stealing towels from hotels, wasting all your time at work by posting at Straight Dope, etc. You know what I mean. It all fits into a grey area, that will always cause problems in this sort of discussion.

Secondly, there needs to be an aim of some kind for it to be meaningful to say that they should be anything. I would say that there are(/should be) two fundamental objectives of a system of morals:

  1. To promote the long term survival of the human species.
  2. To keep the quality of life for every member of the human species as high as possible.
    There may be other objectives as well, but I believe these two are fairly basic ones. And these ones are debatable as well. I certainly have no logical arguments for the survival of the human species being a good thing. The only thing is that we are humans, like it or not, and we’re probably always going to be fairly speciesist, and thus I don’t think these objectives are really terribly contentious.

Thirdly, such a system of morals does have to take into consideration the fact that there will be ‘deviant’ individuals, whose personal morals are significantly different from the generally accepted one. As a bad example, a moral code that had all forms of violence being the ultimate evil, an unthinkable crime in any circumstances, then nobody would be able to defend themselves from someone not restrained by such a moral code and was perfectly okay with killing someone.

Fourthly, the really difficult part of this question is that it has to be answered without reference to existing morals. You can’t just say it should be wrong to kill without saying why it should be wrong to kill, in terms of the objectives stated above. (I personally think that one’s pretty easy though, cause while being allowed to kill people MAY be justifiable in terms of survaval of the species [survival of the fittest, natural selection, blah blah blah], it ain’t too good for quality of life if you have to be constantly on your guard against potential murderers.) The same applies to all the other icky things that we don’t like to even think about much. It’s very difficult to put aside your idea of right and wrong, I know, but it’s necessary for this discussion. If you can’t face the possibility that things you think are very nasty should logically be considered right (or vice-versa), this thread is not for you.

Anyone with any thoughts on the matter?


Well, with these conditions, you are preconditioning this discussion on a (not necessarily true) viewpoint that a moral code is/should be utilitarian. I think they are contentious to the extent that they posit there are no higher goals than the benefit of humanity.


I agree, indeed I tried to say as much. But what other goals should we have, given that we are humans? Objectivity can only be taken so far. In the absense of any other goal the species should devote itself to, sticking with the good old biological imperative “thou shalt perpetuate thyself” seems like a good idea.
The quality of life thing is even more subjective really, and is actually based upon my belief that the only fundamental right people (should) have is the right to an enjoyable life. And arguing not from a completely objective point of view, but from an objective human point of view, most humans enjoying life is a desireable thing, because I am one of them, and I want to enjoy life.
I don’t think the ‘highness’ or lack thereof of goals in this case is relevent. We are humans. We can be objective and say that certain things are a good idea, even if they disadvantage us personally. We can do the same as a town, as a district, as a nation, etc. But it becomes a pointless excercise to carry it too far. I do not say that there are no higher goals than the benefit of humanity, merely that there are no more desireable goals for humanity in general than the benefit of humanity. Anyone who has a good argument to the contrary is welcome to try to convert me to their point of view.
(One aside, if another intelligent species [you know what I mean, even if I can’t define it properly] was encountered I would broadern this discussion so that they were included in ‘humanity’, even though I don’t give ‘animals’ the same right as humans for the purpose of this discussion. I’m not completely speciesist, I’m intelligent-life-ist, or some less clumsy term that someone else can come up with. Again, no rational basis.)

Hmmm… OK, this is my opinion, so I’m just going to say it. Understand that most professors of ethics would get pretty huffy at my blanket statements, but I’m calling it like I see it.

I would say we should be interested in the “long term survival” of the whole ecosystem, which includes the survival of many species.
Second to that, there are particular things that govern our relationships with other human beings.

To define morality as only based on obligations to mankind loses sight of the actual context in which we live. One way to put it is that we are part of the world, not the whole, and our first obligation is not to any relatively transitory phenomenon–such as a human being–but the whole.

I also think that trying to “keep the quality of life for every member of the human species as high as possible” is a poor idea. It’s too difficult to define an ideal “quality of life,” and people who focus on increasing “quality of life” can damage something big, important, and extra-human in the name of a rather small “increase” in human “quality of life.”

Defining morality as a human construct to benefit humans was the major error of the Seventeenth Century “Enlightenment”–Kant, Rousseau, Bentham, et al. The “utilitarian” push for higher quality of life was, specifically, Jeremy Bentham’s delusion. It informs much of public policy and conventional ethics today. It’s also usually practiced in such an unexamined way as to contain its own ruin–causing more problems than it solves.

Consider, for one example: If you feed the poor, to prevent mass starvation, they will have more children, thus creating more poor to feed. Overpopulation is, from an epidemiological standpoint, dangerous to quality of life. Plagues would ravage our cities if not for a massive medical effort. The resources necessary for medicine to protect us are, like everything else on our planet, finite. At what point are we stealing from the future for the sake of the present? And when the ability of our society to maintain this program of “progress” and “plenty” runs out, won’t the suffering, from a utilitarian point of view, be even greater with the increased population?

I think those philosophical traditions which accept man’s limited place in the universe are superior. I would suggest you read some of the following sources. While flawed, they at least transcend childish concepts like utilitarianism:
The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes ~(Which largely says, “All human effort is meaningless.” Man, it’s depressing.)
The philosophy of Buddhism ~(In short, pain is a function of desire. Better to overcome your own desire than to remake the world in an ultimately futile attempt to make yourself happy with external comforts.)
Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael ~(What can I say? It’s pretentious, it’s flawed, it offers no real practical advice–and Ishmael may still be the most important book of the Twentieth Century. Disturbingly enough.)

The problem, as I see it, becomes compound if we begin with the proposition to feed the poor, rather than prevent poverty. I’m not sure we can assume acting on behalf of impoverishment in any obligation scenario, or else we may have an implied obligation to have poor people to be ethical(which is what I think has happened in western culture via eastern religion).

Which takes us directly to Buddhism and the idea that desire leads to suffering, which by justification is a will-to-suffer, or desire to suffer. This will-to-suffer was a common justification approach in feudal societies where poverty was assumed and the horror of life prompted some to turn inward and invent depths to religion, even personal religion, shutting off to the horror. This led to people assuming the horror as inevitable, which led to non-action and renunciation of the world in all forms, none of which follows from desire or explains suffering via willed-prevention. (But, absolutes spawn extreme definitions). Not-so-Cynically, I see a self-tortured path from desire to suffering, which cuts off a desire to end suffering, conveniently so, I’m afraid, for it also justified hierarchy and unseen forces.

Here is something I have been mulling over for years now: I have been longtime in awe of the ancient Greek idea of “Nothing in Excess,” and “Know Thyself.” These lack scriptures, because they are practical, not theoretical, hence too simple and together eliminate the entire theory problem. As I see it, one can’t define excess unless they are self-aware, and one isn’t self-aware until they know what excess is (not a vicious circle). This doesn’t sound deep, I’m sure, but therein lies the deception of moral depth. Thanks.

Must one need the Bible to know that it’s a good idea to do unto others as you would have others do unto you?

Firstly, we probably are interested in the long term survival of the whole ecosystem, as it’s a fairly necessary support structure for the human race (not meant to imply that the purpose of the rest of the world is to support the human species, merely that humans would have a difficult time surviving without it).
Secondly, and more to the point, why is our first obligation to ‘the whole’? No other animals have any sense of obligation to the whole. You say

but I think any claim that we should look out for the long-term survival of the whole ecosystem merely for it’s own sake, rather than to aid our own survival, is actually over emphasising our place in the universe. I’m actually saying quite the opposite. We are not guardians of the planet, put here to look after it and make sure it stays safe. We are tools made to facilitate the reproduction of certain types of molecule, and not even because those molecules ‘want’ to repropuce themselves, but because the ones that didn’t aren’t still around. We are pretty damn insignificant, along with everything else on this planet. I think it’s a bit pretentious to say we have some mysterious obligation to protect the planet’s ecosystem. Every other living thing is selfish, why should we be so special?
On the other hand, I do think there’s a difference between only looking out for ourselves and cruelly exploiting everything, quite apart from consideratios of sustainable use. So maybe I am a bit like that myself. Or maybe it’s just empathy.
Anywho, 'nuff on that rant.

Okay then, let’s disregard quality of life then shall we? Everyone could be miserable and underfed and abused their entire life, but this will not matter because we will be achieving some other goal. Like I said, I think everyone has the right to an enjoyable life. IMHO there is no point to living if you don’t enjoy it (and yes this idea does include people sacrificing their own happiness for other people’s btw), and the same applies to survival of the species.
What exactly do you mean by “something big, important, and extra-human”? If you’re referring to something like the rest of the eco-system again, see above (not meaning to sound like what I’m afraid that sounds like, just that I’ve already spouted enough crap on the subject, and you don’t need to read it twice).

Indeed you are right, from a utilitarian point of view the suffering would be greater with the increased population. Thus, the utilitarian thing to do is NOT to feed the starving masses, but to shoot them all now.
I’m not actually espousing utilitarianism. I just believe everyone has the right to an enjoyable life (as I’ve said ad nauseum now, for which I apologise). I would suggest that a system of morals should try to prevent people making life miserable for others, and also promote conditions in society where most people can reasonably expect a good life. I don’t think poverty and such are necessary facets of human society, they are historical quirks, in the sense that they arose because society wasn’t planned, it evolved. The natural partner of this discussion is: what should our society be like. This discussion isn’t about making a moral system to magically fix all the existing world’s problems, it’s about wiping the slate clean. I’m not asking what should our morals be to allow us to get rid of poverty, I’m asking what our morals should be to prevent it being present in the first place.

A system of morals should try to prevent making life miserable for others…at all costs? To what end?..and should promote societal conditions where most people can reasonably expect a good life. Well, “good” life is damn debatable, and “reasonable” is definitely out the door. Why? Because there’s always people like me who find that society shouldn’t guarantee anyone’s survival in the welfare sense. Why else? Because a good life is a meaningless term.
Are you suggesting that only in the present day middle/lower-middle and above class American families are people happy? That is, not a single slave was ever happy, or that tribal American Indians were never happy with their life?
That is, what the hell is a “good” life, and do you somehow mean good in a sense other than moral? If so, where did it come from? (since what we’re doing is hashing out morals).

My namesake felt that man was a definable, understandable creature, and as such, reasing about man one came to reason about what man should do. There is a logical flaw there, but the point is that morals are almost impossible(if not completely impossible) to codify, much to my personal dismay.[sub]I still try anyway, though, single-minded chap that I am.[/sub]

Anyway, in the OP you state

Well, you’ve answered your own question there. If the assumption is that morals are socially conditioned emotional responses to stimulii, then it seems to me that this is what morals are: whatever we say they are. Thus, slavery is only bad now because “we” find it bad. At the time, it wasn’t wrong.

I think you’re not assuming morals are socially conditioned completely, which I would agree with, but wasn’t what was stated through implication.

You go on to say, “You can’t just say it should be wrong to kill without saying why it should be wrong to kill, in terms of the objectives stated above.” Indeed, and here is the tricky part of morality: three is not end to the why’s. “Killing is bad.” Why? “Because it hurts people.” Why is that bad? “Because people don’t like to be hurt.” So anything people don’t like is bad? “Not necessarily…”

The difficulty comes in when trying to correlate what somehting is to what you think it ought to be. There is no “natural” bridge there, at least not that I’ve ever seen. They are arificially constructed, they are defined only by the context philosophy which they are a part of, and are insanely debateable.

Err. poverty of what? Simple material goods? Food? Shelter? Again, do we fundamentally deserve an apartment, or just some overhead shelter like a cave or bridge? The definition of poverty is pretty arbitrary, and especially more so since the standard of living (goods available) increases all the time.

At any rate, that quote lends itself to Marxism IMO. The abolition of property. Without property, there can be no wealth. Without wealth, there can be no poverty.

Satan said,

Generally speaking, of course… no. I think its pretty intuitive from an interactive view. But I seem to remember that a lot of children need to be “taught” to share. So we clearly need something, or we’re forcing ourselves to do something not inherent in us. I say we turn the problem over to FOX.

Conspiracy Theory: The Development of Christian Morality… er, wait. brian said that already. To which I comment, I don’t think it was intentional. It may have happened that way, though. I disagree that life was a “horror,” even compared with modern living (note: no one was ever happy?), though it was, likely, miserable quite a bit from illness, mortality rates, and lack of work.

What other goals should there be? :confused:


This intention stuff is circular. If hierarchy survives, it survives intentionally, in contest, by definition of being artificial, man-made, or socially arbitrary (assuming royals are not aliens or gods). The greatest way to achieve hierarchy is before the fact, or by prodding your opponent, the general public, to be so impoverished and confused as to be burdened by the weight of its own existence. Old trick. Can you imagine being born into a culture that teaches that both elitism and suffering is natural and normal? (By teaching, it also assumes an intention).

I concede that human nature is expoited here, by the evolutionary mechanism that insures we are usually loyal to tradition. We may be saying the same thing, but will or intention is more than just individual force, it might be super valid as a collective force (with which the individual must will-to-conform to someone else’s intention to survive), which would also allow anti-ethics to survive in a vacuum through low expectations enforced by censorship. I assume that hierarchy has always censored what the public was allowed to be exposed to. If ignorance by default allows them to rule absolutely, then that is their noble intention.

. . .

As for this golden rule business, this is older than language itself, and can even be termed a natural assumption of equality (meaning that if a culture assumed equality, this rule would be unwritten). I also think that Judeo-Christianity deserves no credit for adding to it (by emphasizing love, which is a passion, and a demand to be loved). Most cultures, I believe, understood the golden rule to be neutral or reactive to keep the peace, not pro-active. By making it pro-active, it becomes dangerous, as it implies that love is the highest ideal, when it is not even an idea or ethic, or even an action. As such, by making an ethics falsely based on passion, it opens a weird door to all kinds of misguided passions, notably: hate, revenge, and jealousy. Love thine enemy is so odd, for it implies that one has enemies at the same time one is loving them, a concept which fits neatly in the realm of the royal institution of abuse. It also suggests or implies, “Love (to hate) thine enemies” during any convenient mood, since a real enemy involves real hate. Love-to-hate, whoever heard of that? Exactly, it’s written in the image itself.

CONCLUSION: Religious ethics are mostly fine examples of hypothetical ethics, a contradiction in terms, where the theory is held to be higher than humanity, which implies that humanity is lesser than dogma; that human practice is not worthy of a divine theory. Hence, the common religious defense of dogma is, of course, that if everyone merely “lived” this or that ideal, then we wouldn’t have any actual problems. Well, this is a huge problem, because obviously by trying to live it, or by lack of alternatives, the problems admittedly exist and may be caused by the dogma itself. So, not only is this nonsense, but it means that the dogma is based on failure and not worthy of reality or freedom, take your pick. This is what I mean by deliberately avoiding moral depths, or pits, including hell.

To argue otherwise is to have either no ethics at all, or to argue that there are a set of non-constructed eithics (ethics which are self-evident in nature) that can be discovered.

Forgoing my either/or mentality which people find so distasteful, there is a third option, that ethics are shifty, subjective, and circumstantial. That’s fine for a democracy, but lousy for a theocracy. Where things get really interesting is when people hold that illegal acts are also morally bad by virtue of them being illegal. They substitute, or at least add, legality to morality.

It would be my contention that morality is individualy firm, yet holistically subjective; and, that legality is as close as a society comes to morality. After all, no reason to outlaw good things, right?

No good reason. But people are capable of both stupidity and malice. Thus the good (for the meek, the many, and the weak) may be outlawed by an evil ruler with a destructive agenda.

*Originally posted by Cumber *
If you accept that morals are purely socially conditioned (not sure whether they are or not, but this is not that debate), then they could theoretically be just about anything. So what should they be?


Well, first of all, morals aren’t socially conditioned. Between religeon, your parents, MTV, the Internet, the government your peers, school, and wherever else you get your information from, you have probably been exposed to a number of different moral philosophies. I’m also sure a lot of these contradict each other.

The problem is that social norms, customs, and laws all change over the years. I find it difficult to believe that something that was once considered “right” is now suddenly “wrong” just because tastes change. If that’s the case, then why couldn’t murder, rape, and arson become “right” if enough people accept it as a way of dealing with problems?

Maybe there are moral absolutes. Unfortuneatly, unless God himself hands me some stone tablets, I think it is impossible for us to really know what those absolutes are (the ones he gave Moses were a little broad).

Basically, it comes down to what you believe is right and wrong. I’m not saying that its ok to murder and rape because you decide that’s what you want to do. What I am saying is that we are all responsible for our own actions. We decide which moral code we choose to follow. People respect “I did that because I thought it was the right thing to do” a lot more that “I was just following orders” or “all my friends were doing it”.

Well, a lot of different individual moral valuations, anyway. I don’t see that any of those, or any popular media outlet, promotes any particular system of thought and morality.

I agree completely. What worries me, then, is that this implies that there is some intrinsic morality for man. Well, it doesn’t worry me, because that’s what I believe, but as a practical matter of finding out what this moral set is I think its damn hard.

Much easier to say “Morals are subjective” and be done with the affair. :wink:

I’m glad to see we finally agree on something!

Can’t see why; didn’t Confucious teach something similar around 3000 BC?

I think that’s the point I was trying to make. That we have exposure to so many different systems of thought and morality that we should be able to figure out how our actions will effect other people.

So in other words, there is no excuse to blindly follow some doctrine just because it is part of a certain moral code.

Yeah, I guess that’s close enough. There may be some ideal moral code where the benefit to everyone and everything is maximized, however I’ll be damned if I know how to figure out what it is.

Thats a little scary.

I’m also surprised I didn’t see you in the thread titled “Evil” about the nature of evil (because you always seem to be in the philosophical threads, not because I think you’re evil;) )