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What is Morality?

A lot of the more mainstream political discourse on YouTube includes a heavy dose of debate about morality. I haven’t fleshed out my own thoughts on it in a while, so here are some…

In the simplest sense, morality is merely the judgement of right and wrong. But upon examination, it isn’t so simple. There is a lot of debate about what is right and what is wrong, which suggests that morality isn’t reducible to the capacities we are born with. Moral philosophers have used a number of different approaches in attempts to figure this out and they are only thinkers in one discipline that attempts this. All of the human sciences and all of the religions touch upon questions of morality. In today’s world where we are exposed to many of those attempts, we have become responsible for choosing whose guidance we accept, or if we accept any guidance at all.

For most of my life, I thought morality was bullshit; but the more that I studied existentialism, the more that attitude changed. I realized that despite my rejection of the moral systems I was familiar with, morality was still something that I did in practice. Once I came to terms with that fact, I sought to understand what my morality was.

I am still very suspicious of the idea that human behavior is ultimately guided by moral reasoning. Moral reasoning seems to be something people do when they question their behavior after the fact, especially if their behavior is questioned by others. Moral reasoning seems to be the most at play in people’s worldview, or the thoughts they have about the way the world should be. This of course impacts their behavior. But how direct is that impact… especially when one’s worldview is more-or-less inherited from family or social life beyond the family?

Another aspect of morality that informs this perspective is that so much moral discourse concerns behaviors that one isn’t engaging in themselves, but is instead a judgement about the behaviors of other people. For something so personal as the differences between right and wrong, it’s amazing how impersonally morality can be applied! It would be easy to take this fact and conclude that morality is mostly a relationship of domination, but I think that conclusion is too simplistic.

Even though I said that I don’t think morality is reducible to the capacities we are born with, there are capacities we are born with that contribute to morality. Beyond empathy, there is definitely something like a moral experience. Things feel right or wrong. And it isn’t only other people’s behaviors that feel that way, but one’s own. I think that even though there is a huge diversity in what specifically feels which way to whomever, the experience itself is basically universal. What is interesting about that is that those specifics can change for various reasons and I think those reasons provide a lot of insight into what morality is…

There is a decent amount of intimate conversation – including professional therapy – that attempts to coach someone in changing their morality. When we have problems and turn to a friend, lover, or therapist, these people often work with us to examine our moral sense about something and then alter it in some way. This attests to the way that morality lives in our worldviews and the moral judgements we make of ourselves. Another domain of moral coaching can be seen in music, TV, movies, etc. There is an aspect of our entertainment that is concerned with the relationship between our worldview and our moral sense. This is also a fact that troubles religious figures who worry about the way that sources outside of the religion can shape our morality.

This brings us back to the beginning of this writing: the discourse on YouTube…

What this moral coaching indicates to me is that it isn’t so much “the Good” that people are interested in. What they’re interested in seems to be that they’re right. They don’t really care if they are liked by others, have done something good, or that they are a good person as long as they are right about their beliefs, judgements, and actions. If they must be alone in being right, then at least they are right! 

Being right may be psychologically deeper than being good. Being right is about power, but not necessarily power over others – domination – as had been rejected above. It’s about the power to act without internal conflict, even if it causes external conflict. Being right is about having a clear conscience. Whereas being good comes with a lot of social baggage, being right can even be anti-social. It may even be the case that goodness is downstream from rightness, that only if someone is right can they truly be good. In other words, being right is about the truth.

So what is it that people want to be right about? What are the truths that concern them the most? 

One common thing people want to be right about are the choices they make. We may say that something is a good choice or a bad choice, but that notion of good and bad is based on something we think is true. What is that something? Often, it is the truth about one’s existence. If they are right about existence, they are halfway to figuring out if they made the right choice. But since it is so difficult to know the truth about one’s existence, there is a lot of ambiguity about choices one makes. That ambiguity is a goldmine for those who make a living from telling people what is right or wrong for them. 

So we can see how there are a ton of epistemological questions underlying one’s notions of right and wrong…

This is where morality becomes more than a matter of worldview. Now we can see that morality is a matter of what one believes their purpose is for being. When something is right, it affirms that purpose. When something is wrong, it contradicts it.

This existential dimension of morality also explains why moral questions can be so deeply troubling. To be wrong about existence – about one’s purpose for living or the purpose of life generally – that is an almost intolerable situation!

Once the onion has been peeled back to expose the epistemological foundations of morality, it becomes necessary to debate the merits of different epistemological theories. It is here that existential phenomenology shows it’s strengths because the knowledge of existence – the truth of Being – is one of the central questions that define the existentialist approach. 

This is also the point at which the demands of the topic exceed the limits of this writing. It is enough for now to have drilled down into the heart of morality. Some other time can be used for these further questions.