What is morality?

June 22, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Tips

The concept of morality is for many people a complex topic.

I like to simplify complex things, as long as the simplification works. If the simplification doesn’t work I drop it, but sometimes the simplification works well.

Longtime readers of this blog know I avoid using terms like right, wrong, good, bad, and evil and have an exercise to avoid them that taught me a lot, decreased how many arguments I got into, and benefited me in other ways.

So the less I communicated judgment, the more I questioned the value of anyone communicating judgment and the more I started paying attention to how people used the word and concept of morality. I came to substitute the model that morality just meant someone telling someone else what to do or imposing their values on them.

My model for morality: Morality is people telling you what to do, trying to impose their values on you, and trying to make you feel shame if you don’t.

Nobody says out loud that it’s immoral to punch random people in the nose. Everyone knows the consequences so nobody feels they need to impose their values on others. People say it’s immoral to have sex before marriage because people’s justification depends on a belief not everyone agrees on. They claim their justification is universal precisely because it isn’t. The term morality signals someone is claiming a value is universal that isn’t and they know it. It’s a smokescreen distracting you that they know you disagree with them, won’t accept your justification, and want you to accept theirs.

Strategy: If someone talks about morality, expect them to tell you their opinion. They may claim their opinion is universal, but that’s just a claim.

Since as far as I know everybody does what they consider right when they do it, I don’t see the value in others telling them what to do. Talking about morality is just asking people to judge each other. I find using the term morality makes what could be a simpler conversation more complex by making people claiming to be moral seem high and mighty instead of a person with an opinion just like you. I don’t see any person having greater knowledge of anyone else’s rightness or wrongness over anyone else.

When someone says something is immoral, they could more simply say they think that behavior is bad, which just states their opinion. Sure, they can justify their opinion, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to accept their justification. If you disagree, you have your justification too. Why should you accept theirs any more than they should accept yours?

Personally, I try not to use a priori rules to judge others’ behavior in favor of looking at the consequences and how they affect others, but I recognize other people have other ways to evaluate behavior.

Try this: next time you see someone using the term moral or morality, ask yourself if someone is trying to get you to do something based on what they consider right and wrong. Since I started doing that, I’ve found every use of the term signaled someone trying to tell me what to do by imposing their values on mine. I don’t remember finding counter-examples.

My simplification — that morality means people trying to tell others what to do — points me to look at their justification — inevitably their opinion. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes not, but their use of the term moral doesn’t change that they just want me to agree with them. Usually it signals their reason isn’t that persuasive — otherwise they would have used their reasons to persuade me.

I think they want me to feel shame if I don’t agree with them or do what they say. I see that method of persuasion can be effective, but this awareness of the technique dissipates its effectiveness.

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