Morality: moral pathways
This concept is used in the determination of what is good or right and what is bad or wrong. It is a concept that has been the subject of much debate with various individuals having different viewpoints on the matter. One such viewpoint is the concept of “moral nihilism”. This construct is a philosophical concept that suggests that morality is not inherent in human beings and that it is developed out of necessity to suit circumstances. The concept of natural law suggests that human beings, even in their state of nature, abide by pre-existent laws that govern their interactions.
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Some of the proponents of this theory are 17th Century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. These two agree that law is the result of a social contract between people and individuals that they choose to govern them and give power to for the control of resources. This aspect underscores the social contract theory. However, even in this theory, there are different explanations given on issues regarding the nature of morality and the purpose of these laws.
Thomas Hobbes, for instance, is of the view that in the state of nature, man is not a social animal and that forming a society is not instinctive. According to him, man has no perception of good and evil or right and wrong. Therefore, individuals form a social contract in which they live by the rules set by the master in exchange for protection and peace. Consequently, the subjects relinquish their right to do as they please and are not in a position to question what the master does in terms of maintaining order, as it is for their own good, regardless of the methods used.
In essence, the social contract is used as a means of survival and self-preservation. In my opinion, this assertion is true as evidenced by historical events such as colonization and the various wars, both civil and international, which have occurred in our history. It also explains the vices of corruption and uneven distribution of wealth that still plague most world governments. Human beings are hard-wired to survive and most of us would do that by any means necessary. However, I would criticize this theory as favoring political absolutism as a solution, a concept that is contradictory, considering the fact that as the basis of the theory, all human beings lack an innate inclination towards morality including the chosen leader. In this theory, morality is enforced.
Theories of moral development
Some psychologists argue that morality is not inherent and neither is it enforced by society as suggested by proponents of moral absolutism and universalism and those of nihilism, respectively. I think this aspect is an interestingly refreshing view of looking at morality, as it is easy to relate to on top of being more practical. Some proponents argue that moral reasoning is an ability that develops in stages throughout a human being’s life.
Lawrence Kohlberg is of the view that moral reasoning is subject to a person’s cognitive ability, which changes as the person transitions from childhood to adulthood, thus altering or modifying the person’s view when putting in situations of a moral dilemma. In his theory, there are six stages of development, all divided into three levels. Kohlberg states that a person cannot skip any of these stages and that each stage becomes more comprehensive and advanced than the previous.
The first level, the pre-conventional level, occurs during a person’s early childhood and has two stages; the first is centered on the avoidance of punishment and the second stage is of moral reasoning based on self-interest and the maximization of reward. The second level, the conventional level, also has two stages; the first is conformity with social norms where a person tends to seek approval from society and the second stage is the attainment of a sense of duty and complying with authority.
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The post-conventional level is the last level, which occurs during a person’s adulthood. It also has two stages. In the first stage, a person recognizes that each individual in society is a separate entity in society, while in the second stage the individual is in a position to make moral decisions based on universal principals of morality. This theory thus suggests that in the second level, a person adopts the moral views of parents and other individuals in society that they admire and it is only in adulthood that an individual can make independent moral decisions based on own deductive. This aspect is easier to relate to and has universal acceptability, as its deductions are not dependent on culture, religion or other discriminatory criteria.
However, what the theory overlooks is that the level of intelligence plays a big role in a person’s cognitive ability and just like the levels of intelligence vary in every individual, the cognitive level is also variable and thus some individuals might skip or go through the stages much faster or slower than others go. In the former case, the stages may end up overlapping as they occur concurrently. Some psychiatrists have criticized the theory for equating morality to justice especially in the second level.
It also overlooks other aspects of a person that mold the way we respond to moral dilemmas such as caring. One such psychiatrist is Carol Gilligan. Her model is based on her presumption that men and women are different for women base their moral reasoning on their level of care for those around them and not based on authority and the transition of every woman cannot be generalized as it is inspired by a sense of self, and thus every woman’s transition is different. As such, she does not categorize the stages by age.
Learning moral lessons from stories
Different cultures have different ways of teaching with some ways being more universally acceptable than others are. These methods are dependent on what mode of communications suits the situation best. For instance, in some cases, classroom teaching is considerably more effective than music. However, one learning tool that exists in every culture in the world and has remained fundamental in the transmission of culture without changing its core aspects is storytelling. Stories are told through music, films, and narratives to impart a sense of morality into people’s lifestyles from an early age until the individuals become adults.
For instance, bedtime stories told to children by their parents or guardians carry morals that they gradually instill in the young ones to ensure that they grow with a sense of morality on which to anchor their decisions of right and wrong. Stories are a form of moral relativism that supports Lawrence Kohlberg’s model of moral development especially with regard to the second level, the conventional level, which suggests that as children grow into young adults, they adopt the moral views of their parents as well as those individuals in the society they admire. Therefore, the morals that these children are attached to vary from one child to another as they have different parents.
This dynamic creates relativism from a mode of moral transmission that I consider to be of universal application. However, this mode of moral transmission is fast evolving with significant changes in the way people interact and the media that is used to tell stories. As the demands of modern living change most people’s lifestyles, parents have become more permissive with regard to the types of stories that their children are learning. This aspect is often not voluntary and is intended to be a form of coping mechanism that makes up for the absentia of the parents. With the current technological trends, television, video games, and the Internet are now filling the gap that parents initially occupied.
The problem with this media is that it presents a nihilistic viewpoint, thus creating a grey area concerning what is wrong and right. For instance, some movies that highlight violence depict people who shoot guns, kill others, and have the ability to destroy property as being “cool”. This lack of objectivity creates a societal situation in which such children grow into young adults that always get into trouble with authority as they operate by their twisted sense of what is moral.
Ethical relativism, initial consideration
Various people argue that certain aspects of morality are dependent on initial consideration. This idea is a form of ethical relativism that has its basis on the concepts of altruism and egoism. Altruism is the virtue of acting for the benefit of others or putting the consideration of another person before your own, also simply known as selflessness. This element is a moral embedded in most cultures and religions. The main aim of altruism is bringing people together and cementing bonds that build a strong society. In contrast, egoism is the principle of putting self-need before considering another person’s needs or acting for the exclusive benefit of oneself. There are various viewpoints regarding these two values mainly originating from ethical and psychological opinions aired by different people.
In my opinion, complete selflessness is not inherent in human beings as even those who allege to do selfless acts subconsciously hope for the reciprocation. The lack of reciprocation breeds frustration, resentment, and most of the time avoidance of relationships. Proponents of psychological egoism support this view. The principal of psychological egoism suggests that all acts of sharing or self-sacrifice occur with the expectation of some form of reward.
This principle categorizes gratitude as a reward with intrinsic value. Reciprocal altruism also supports this view. The principle suggests that people tend to help others more when there are chances of future interaction and reciprocation of good deeds. People who give help and yet receive little of the same tend to give less in the future. For instance, a person who helps blind people to cross a road every time he or she comes across them is likely to keep doing it if he or she does not receive gratitude for it. This is different from psychological egoism in that it does not base its consequence on exclusive personal gain.
The idea of ideal altruism or complete altruism, suggesting that it is possible for a person to do a deed that benefits another without expecting anything in return, is only possible theoretically but not practically. Human beings crave for care, acceptance, and a sense of belonging and acts that deny them these elements reduce the chances of a person being selfless. Therefore, regardless of the fact that altruism is a virtue fostered in most communities and has universal acceptance, it is a subjective value, and thus it is dependent on concepts such as self-satisfaction or rewards. It is a moral whose intention in most cases is wrong, but the outcome is right.
Greatest happiness principle
Another principle related to moral relativism is the principle of greatest happiness, also referred to as utilitarianism. According to this principle, things that generate the greatest happiness are good, and thus right and consequently moral, while things that cause the least happiness are bad and thus wrong and immoral. This principle is a form of consequentialism, as it focuses on the outcome of an act in the determination of whether or not the act is moral. In essence, acts that maximize happiness and reduce pain are moral, while acts that maximize pain and reduce happiness are bad and thus immoral. Simply put, the principle supports the concept of the lesser evil.
For instance, if you looked at the story of Jesus of Nazareth from this point of view, then the releasing of Barnabas, a criminal, was the right thing to do as opposed to releasing Jesus, a man who was innocent, but whose release would have caused a public uproar. Therefore, in a choice between releasing a criminal who had public appeal and imprisoning an innocent man whom most people in the community loathed, the authorities had to choose the lesser evil.
Jeremy Bentham, one of the proponents of this theory explains the will of the majority underscores what is right or wrong. Francis Hutcheson, also a scholar with a similar opinion states that in selecting actions that are excellent in moral value, society must look at the measure of happiness that those actions as well as the number of people who stand to gain from such happiness. John Stuart Mill, the 18th Century British philosopher, was however of a different view although basing Bentham’s concept of happiness and harm as his point of departure.
Mill suggests that it is tolerable to cause damage to his or herself provided the person is not affecting others in the process. However, he expounds on the issue of causing harm to one’s property by saying that it is not permissible as others feel its effects. He also adds that as human beings, we are inclined to protect ourselves from harm so the likelihood of causing harm to others is higher. In his theory, the notion of ‘damage’ comprises deeds of order as well as oversight. Therefore, burning a neighbor’s farm and failing to help a person out of a burning house are both harmful acts, regardless of whether another individual caused the latter act. These sentiments seem to suggest that although people are predisposed to be good in issues that do not cause harm to them; the same does not apply when it comes to responsibility for others.
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This principle derives its basis from the concept of utility, which society interprets as the greatest happiness occurring for most people. One of its earliest proponents was Jeremy Bentham. According to Bentham, in the determination of what is right, there are two tests that action must pass. First, the action’s effect must cause the greatest happiness and the least pain. Secondly, the happiness that the action generates must be the happiness of most people. Therefore, in order for actions to be right, they must cause the greatest happiness to the majority of the people in the society, which amounts to “net utility”.
This principle shares the lack of objectivity, which is evident in nihilism and it suggests that right and wrong are subjective concepts that depend on circumstances and that no action is ever truly wrong or truly right. The determinant of wrong and right in utilitarianism is the outcome of a situation rather than the process leading to the consequence. Critics suggest that this theory advocates for the concept of the lesser evil, which purports that there can be an acceptable evil if its intention is to avoid a greater evil.
This assertion contradicts the concept of absolute morality that is evident in most religions of the world. Absolute morality is a concept that operates on the belief that actions are either completely moral or not moral at all and that there cannot be a grey area in that. Actions such as stealing are some of the examples of immoral behavior that is not permissible, regardless of its intention or outcome. John Stuart Mill is also a proponent of utilitarianism.
He supports Bentham’s idea of greatest happiness but takes a different direction from that of Bentham. According to Mill, a person should have the freedom to cause self-harm as long as the person does not harm anyone else in the process. He also specifically removes a person’s property from the definition of self, by stating that the destruction of such property causes harm to the community and thus does not deserve inclusion in such liberty. Mill’s version of the Utilitarian principle is dependent liberty and the amount of it that society can accord to an individual. He also adds that morality is driven by duty by stating that what society considers wrong should include acts of commission as well as omission. This assertion implies that a society’s structure of authority also plays a part in the determination of right and wrong.
This principle establishes morality by looking at actions with regard to their conformity with rules set by society. Morality is thus more of a duty than an innate value, as suggested by Thomas Hobbes. This assertion is different from the principle, which looks at morality as the net maximization of happiness regardless that both of these principles belong to the natural law concept. It focuses on the intention of actions rather than the outcome. Immanuel Kant, a philosopher, and supporter of deontology is of the opinion that for a person to act in a way that is morally acceptable, the person must do so from a sense of duty.
From my deductions, duty is born of authority and the essence of it is to ensure that actions please the authority. Therefore, basing morality on such a concept is restrictive. This concept would work for a political system that applies political absolutism but would be defeatist in a democratic system. Utilitarianism is better suited for democratic governance. It also means that actions that are virtuous and essentially do not cause any harm, such as altruism, are not moral if the intention behind them is not connected to a sense of duty as established by the relevant authority. It would also mean that people or structures put in place by the society in charge of governance are inherently moral as their actions resultant of a sense of duty.
This case does not always hold because if, for instance, such a person in governance takes another person’s piece of land without permission or payment of adequate consideration, gives the land to a homeless family, and justifies his or her actions based on duty, it would not negate the result of his or her action. However, Kant goes further to state that in order for something to qualify as being good, it should pass two tests, viz. the thing should be good in itself and be good without qualification. The first test means that the thing must be intrinsically good while the second test means that the thing does not make a situation ethically worse than it is. He gives examples of intelligence and pleasure. He says that although these two are intrinsically good, they have to pass certain qualifications.
For instance, a person who enjoys causing pain to others makes an ethical situation worse. The only thing that he considers good without qualification is a good will. He gives this as the only thing that passes both tests making it truly good
Rights and justice
Rights are those things that are permissible in a society based on the existing legal, social, and ethical rules and framework. Rights are the essential elements around which the concepts of justice and the law exist. While the issue of whether rights are pre-existent and occasion the construction of laws to ensure their protection or laws actually create rights is controversial, it is universally accepted that every human being has rights created by laws as well as ethical rules that govern our interaction with each other. The International Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms is an instrument of universal application that documents the various rights and freedoms that are universal regardless of race, cultural background, gender, religion, or other discriminatory criteria. Therefore, it is used by governments as a guide in the determination of rights and freedoms to be included in various constitutions.
The concept of justice operates on various considerations including, but not limited to, the relevant laws applicable to a situation, the rights accorded to an individual, and the moral code of society. The concepts of rights and justice are thus more subjective than objective, with their determination having a basis on the circumstances of an action. For instance, the Declaration of Human Rights considers the right to life a universal right. However, based on the circumstances surrounding an incident, this right is revocable as punishment for the infringement of the right of someone else to live. The death penalty, for instance, is prescribed in most countries as an acceptable punishment for murder or robbery with violence. Some people argue that this move infringes another person’s right to life, and thus remedying one wrong using another.
Others would base their arguments on the method used to conduct the punishment as opposed to the result. Moral absolutists consider the punishment of hanging as inhuman and immoral. Nihilists, on the other hand, would be of the view that it is neither wrong nor right and that it all depends on the point of view of each individual. Utilitarian thinkers would argue that it is wrong considering the outcome, which is death. Justice is a concept that suggests the negation the effects caused by an act that is wrong and therefore unjust. The model used is usually punishment meant to cause a sense of penance to the wrongdoer and gratification through indemnity, to the one affected by the wrong. This concept is relative to the concept of rights in that justice is meant to cause an aspect of redemption to the one whose right is interfered with or curtailed. It serves as a deterrent to acts that interfere with the right of other people.
What causes happiness?: The virtue theory
Looking at the discussion on the utilitarian principle of maximum happiness, it is worth looking at what causes happiness. However, considering happiness based on what is acceptable by a majority, it leaves out other aspects that are important in the determinations of happiness. The virtue theory bases morality on the habits actions that bring individuals happiness based on their personalities and character. For instance, different people with different personalities would have different versions of what brings them happiness. Some people prefer to be with their loved ones as this aspect creates an optimal environment for the establishment of happiness. In contrast, other people prefer being alone in a quiet environment where they can internalize information as this move causes them happiness.
Happiness is also dependent on the environment. While some people derive joy from peaceful surroundings, other people prefer noisy and chaotic environments. Things, people, and situations that generate pleasure also serve as sources of happiness. Another aspect that can contribute to the perception of happiness is freedom. The freedom to do as one pleases means that a person can choose to do only those things that cause personal happiness and choose to omit things that cause pain or discomfort.
For instance, given the choice of either going to the office every day or watching a blockbuster movie at home every day for the same number of hours with similar reward, most people would choose to watch the movie. However, due to the various obligations that people have, they do not have the luxury of such freedom. John Stuart Mill uses this concept to justify his deduction that a person should have the freedom to do something that inflicts self-harm as long as the act does not harm any other person in the process of its commission.
Therefore, the concept of happiness is subjective and dependent on various considerations and it does not make much sense to expect it to be similar to a majority of the people in a given population in order to determine the viability of a moral, as suggested in the utilitarian theory. In illustrating the difference between the virtue theory, the deontological theory, and utilitarianism, I will give a hypothetical situation. Supposing a boy is caught in a compromising situation and lies in order to escape punishment, a utilitarian thinker would look at the result of the lie, a deontological thinker would consider whether his actions conform to the rules of the society and a virtue theorist would focus on what lying suggests about the character of the boy.
In recent years, new philosophers are emerging with new perspectives and some base their arguments on the existent ones and using them as departure points while others come up with new contemporary concepts that depict the modern society. Roger Scruton is one such philosopher. He developed the theory of conservatism, using deontology as his departure point. He argues that society is held together by its legal structures. He refers to obedience as a legal right and describes societal rights as owing their basis from individual imagination. He is of the opinion that collective thinking within a group of individuals is only possible when they unite for a common goal or interest, usually in times of crisis. He adds that such collective thinking has no reference to past events or morality.
Therefore, he agrees with Thomas Hobbes in his perspective that human beings derive their drive for doing everything from the principle of self-preservation. This theory also seems to support psychological egoism as well as the utilitarian element of greatest happiness. A situation that best illustrates this concept is the way people behave during protests. According to Scruton, people unite for a common goal that is based on their imagination of what is right, thus justifying the cause of the protests. Another philosopher with a fresh perspective on societal issues regarding morality is Thomas Nagel. He is a professor of philosophy at New York University.
Nagel argues that all human beings seek a universal view of the world. However, he adds that this element is dependent on each individual’s reasoning capacity. In his theory, if the process of seeking a unified view of the world causes a person to think that there only exists one avenue to appreciate our intelligence regarding issues inclusive of morality, then it poses a problem. The theory is dependent on the differences between objectivism and subjectivism. The aim of seeking a unified view of the world falls under the category of objectivism while understanding our intellectual commitment is supposed to be subjective according to his suggestion. This assertion makes sense as our ways of reasoning vary from one person to another and thus creates room for decisions and opinions in moralities that vary for different individuals. Although the assumption of an objective view for intelligent commitments made by every person would be easier in establishing what is morally correct, it would not necessarily be the best approach.
What brings happiness? Detachment from life, isolation, family
Happiness is an essential component of every human being’s life, as it creates a sense of self-worth and enhances a person’s appreciation for life. Happiness is a factor that is dependent on numerous other aspects throughout the life of an individual. A person’s sociability is one such aspect that determines both the existence and the quantity of happiness experienced. Scientists suggest that people who socialize more and create bonds and relationships with other people are happier than those who have the tendency to stay in isolation. This observation negates Thomas Hobbes’ suggestion that human beings are not a social creature by nature and supports John Locke’s opinion that human beings are social creatures. However, the definition of what constitutes happiness varies from one person to another.
Happiness, which I consider a consequence rather than a state of being or a process, can be subject to alteration by personal conditions such as personality or wellness as well as environmental conditions such as being surrounded by family. For instance, introverts derive happiness from isolation by basing it on different reasons such as the absence of conflict, noise, and distractions. While scientists suggest that isolation causes detachment from life and reduces happiness, some people seek this detachment by inducing it through various means in order to derive happiness from it. Drug users indulge in the use of various drugs to create a detachment from life and derive pleasure, and they assume such action causes happiness. While some people voluntarily seek detachment from life, others are forcibly detached from life by elements such as illnesses and psychological trauma.
People with Schizophrenia, for instance, experience forceful detachment from life due to the delusions they suffer. This mental disorder leads to the stigma that makes isolation seem like a welcome option of countering such predicament. People who involuntarily experience detachment from life and isolation from society seek remedy by getting closer to family, the one social unit that is devoid of discrimination regardless of differences such as moral opinions and personal choices. The family is the basis of every society and its dynamics create tolerance of the differences between individuals regardless of their opinions on life and consequent choices. Without such tolerance, society would crumble and result in a state of constant conflict, thus leading to ultimate destruction. We would revert to the state of nature where the only instinct of every person would be self-preservation.