What is Morality?


What is morality? This is a question I have been pondering lately. Not in the sense that I am confused as to what morality is, but in the sense that it seems the word is used differently depending on ones circle. As a philosophy major, I use a philosophical definition of morality. This definition tends to be quite open. But non-philosophers use a far stricter definition. Or rather, far stricter definitions, since there are more than one. The definition used by Conservative Christians, a definition that I have come across many times here, is by far the strictest. It is also the most troubling to me, because it puts a belief in a deity above actions.
So what is morality? The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry defines morality as “Morality is the distinction between right and wrong. It is the determination of what should be done and what should not be done. Morals deal with behaviours as well as motives. There is a great deal of discussion on what is the source of morals and whether or not they are objective. Biblically, morals are derived from God’s character and revealed to us through the Scriptures” http://carm.org/dictionary-morality. This is to say that morality is defined by actions. Certain actions are right and certain actions are wrong. But this definition puts God before those actions. Many Christians will say that God must come before everything. But here is where my issue comes in: if you put belief ahead of actions, then you can create a system of morality where actions don’t matter so long as you believe. I think this has been done in many cases. I think this has been done when atheists are trusted as much as rapists. The atheist needs not do anything but be an atheist to be considered immoral. This means that a person can build orphanages, donate blood, volunteer at their local soup kitchen, and donate half their income to charity, but they will continue to be seen as immoral simply by virtue of being an atheist. This is also seen when Christians tell people that it doesn’t matter what they’ve done, all they need to do is come to Christ and they will be forgiven. Think about that: it doesn’t matter what they’ve done, all they need to do is come to Christ. All they need to do is come to Christ. That Serial Killer who raped and murdered 6 women? He doesn’t need to be punished by the legal system, he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness of the families he tore apart, he doesn’t need to do anything for humanity, he just needs to come to Jesus. But his crimes weren’t against Jesus. His crimes were against those 6 women. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that that Serial Killer deserves to be tortured for eternity for his crimes. I believe that the punishment should fit the crime. I believe he should spend the rest of his life in jail. I believe that it is up to him to reach out to the families of his victims if he wishes to be forgiven, and I believe that it is up to the families to forgive him. I don’t think Jesus gets to forgive him for something he did to someone else. My problem with this definition is that the born-again Serial Killer is viewed as more moral than the atheist who has worked so hard to help others simply based on the fact that the Serial Killer believes in God and the atheist doesn’t.

But, like I said, this isn’t the only definition of morality. A philosophical definition would be “Morality speaks of a system of behaviour in regards to standards of right or wrong behaviour. The word carries the concepts of: (1) moral standards, with regard to behaviour; (2) moral responsibility, referring to our conscience; and (3) a moral identity, or one who is capable of right or wrong action” http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/morality.htm. This definition is not so strict, because it says nothing of needing a deity to be moral. In fact, it says nothing more than morality refers to behaviours that are considered right or wrong. But what are these behaviours? Neither the Christian nor the philosophical definition actually speak to what actions are right or wrong. The Christian can turn to the Bible and say “this is what the Bible says,” however, different Christians get different moral codes from the Bible. But the philosopher cannot simply turn to the Bible and say “this is right and this is wrong.” The philosopher must first discuss whether or not morality is objective. If the philosopher says yes, then they must determine where morals come from. If they say no, then they must determine how we can know what is right and what is wrong. The Objectivist must go on to determine how they know that their moral authority is in fact the moral authority. They must determine what the moral authority has determined to be moral and immoral, and they must justify how they know as much. And then they speak on how we should act. The Subjectivist must show how they know morality is subjective. Then they must justify how we can create laws and social based on morality. Finally, they must justify why it is not acceptable to just do as one pleases. It isn’t until all that is done that the Subjectivist can speak on how we should behave.
Many people don’t like the philosophical definition because it is not black and white. It does not tell people “this list of behaviours is okay, and this list of behaviours is not.” Many people like being told what is right and what is wrong. But I prefer the philosophical definition precisely because it doesn’t try to tell anyone what is right and what is wrong. It makes people think. Morality is not a black and white issue, so why should our moral codes be black and white? Morality is very much shades of grey. If it wasn’t then things like abortion, the death penalty, and the legalization of drugs wouldn’t be so controversial. And we’d never find ourselves confused as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. Morality is something that needs to be thought about critically. And it’s something that needs to be discussed. The philosophical definition makes that critical thought and those discussions necessary. It means that you don’t just get to believe that something is right or wrong based on authority. And it means that it is your actions that matter more than your beliefs (though that isn’t to say that your beliefs don’t matter at all).

22 responses to “What is Morality?

  • wmcohio

    Now I have found the post I was looking for. You seem to like to use Atheism, Philosophy, and Christian Apologetics to justify your thoughts.

    It took me awhile to read that and will have to think further.


  • brianbalke

    Definitions: LOVE is an irrational desire to nurture. When loving, our goal is to see its object manifest itself to the fullest expression. This includes not seeing it/he/she destroyed, but it can also involve protecting it from corruption, and securing it opportunities in which to grow (and, yes, I really did love having children).

    MORALITY is found in any system of values that expands the domain in which love is expressed. This implies that we are best loved by those that are close to us, rather than by remote institutions. One of the purposes of religion is to facilitate the formation of such relationships (you’re not going to find it in the workplace).

    The Christian god is held as be the embodiment of UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. I blogged about the impact of unconditional love on our vices here: http://everdeepening.com/2014/11/22/all-the-vice-of-jesus/

    BTW – most mature Christian philosophers don’t hold that acceptance of Jesus as your savior means that you are equal among all others in heaven (read the parable of the talents in this regard). It means that you obtain the assistance of the Holy Spirit (which an atheist might call a conscience) in improving the character of your actions. If it’s not exercised, the part of you that gets to heaven is going to be pretty small. Of course, from God’s perspective, that’s better than no part at all.

    One of the faults of Richard Dawkins is his use of straw-men arguments targeted against the statements of people of immature faith. I’ve called it “shooting fish in a barrel” in the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  • friendlyskeptic

    The Euthyphro Dilemma highlights an important question – “Is what is morally good commanded by God because he is morally good, or is it morally good because it’s commanded by God?”


  • silenceofmind

    That was a very informative video!


  • gregbshaw

    This was a good post that is sure to stir debate. I personally hesitate to tie morality as a religious issue in general. I believe that morality transcends belief. While I am an atheist, I have a hard time thinking that all Christian people will have the exact same moral stands on all issues.

    I always viewed faith (even atheism) as a starting ground for morals, where personal experience and wisdom begin to fill in blanks. This to me is more embracing of the “grey zone” that most people would admit to (even people of similar beliefs).


  • trueandreasonable

    Your blog points to many great issues that I wish more people would start to address in earnest.

    I am also glad to hear you are a philosophy major. I was a double major in philosophy and political science and treasure what I learned in philosophy more than any other non-human thing. I continued to learn and read philosophy throughout my life but the issues have narrowed a bit.

    Some quick points:

    You seem to draw a very sharp distinction between belief and action. You correctly point out that many Christians do this as well and it can lead to problems. I believe that from both a philosophical and a religious point of view beliefs and actions are more closely related.

    From the philosophical side I by an large accept WV Quines view of belief.
    For the other view you can see Hume who took a very different view and thought that beliefs and actions were completely separate.

    From the religious point of view I think the writers of scripture tended to view belief in Jesus much the same way as Quine. That is belief is a disposition to act a certain way if certain circumstance arise. So if you believe in Christ you will act as he commands.

    “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.” John 12:14

    See also for example, the Sheep and the Goats Matthew 25:31-46

    And of course James just to name a few of many that make it clear the Christian must act on his faith/belief.

    As far as whether God is required for morality I think this was well addressed by plato and the conclusion is that God is not logically required for morality to exist. There are of course other reasons those who reject God might reject morality.

    As for the Videos they go from very good and interesting in the first. Then the second with Peter Singer I am relieved the man who thought it was morally acceptable to kill disabled children admits he may have had some things wrong. But he is just generally muddled. And then the last is just bad.

    How strained to talk about some society that tortures and kills children because they think they are witches. Cant we stick at least with the last century and talk about those moral problems there were after all plenty. Hitler Stalin killed plenty of children. Unfortunately that doesn’t support the persons propaganda because these leaders tended to put science above religion.

    “The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble.”
    — Adolf Hitler

    “If, in the course of a thousand or two thousand years, science arrives at the necessity of renewing its points of view, that will not mean that science is a liar. Science cannot lie, for it’s always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge, to deduce what is true. When it makes a mistake, it does so in good faith. It’s Christianity that’s the liar. It’s in perpetual conflict with itself.”
    — Adolf Hitler


  • equippedcat

    Coming to Jesus pays the debt to GOD for a person’s sins. It does not (or at least is not supposed to) have any impact on their punishment by society or anything which is owed to the victim(s).


    • hessianwithteeth

      It may not be meant to have that effect, but that is the effect that I have noticed. And I’m not saying that you can’t put your god at the top if that’s what you’re so inclined to do. But to say that you cannot be moral without God, or you only need God to be moral, suggests that actions don’t matter. There needs to be more to it than that.


      • jillatjlah

        Discerning Christians from professing non-Christians is difficult. I don’t doubt that you have noticed the effect you describe, but It is not true that “actions don’t matter” to Christians. There are so many examples in the Bible that discuss the importance of our actions, but I will select just one: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17, 26).” We are further instructed that our actions are to glorify God and told that It is our actions that reveal us as Christians. When a person repeatedly commits actions that are opposite to this, it calls into question whether that person is, in fact, a Christian.

        In addition, as equippedcat points out, being forgiven of a sin does not remove us from the consequences of the sin.


        • intuite

          God is not a requirement for moral behavior; good without God is all around us. Sin with God is all around us; otherwise why do believers seek forgiveness. We have religious morality and cultural morality; they differ greatly according to culture or religion…there is no single answer, other than that spoken from where you are standing and your commitment to that stand.​

          A slight shift: Is the Christian God, the God of love…the God who is omnipotent, omnipresent…capable of sins of omission? Over 2000 years and the Prince of Peace has yet to deliver. There are too many examples and too little space and time to list; we all know them. Either he is not the God described, is incapable…or he has committed an endless list of sins of omission…just looking aside. Is the Christian God immoral?


      • equippedcat

        To be clear, I don’t think that believing in God is required to be moral, or for that matter. guarantees that a claimed believer in God is moral. Nor do I think that Man should impose laws to force any element of morality which is only of concern to God. .


    • clubschadenfreude

      as I read the bible, that doesn’t seem to be quite right. Matthew 7, Romans 2, James 4 it seems to say that we should not judged and only this god should judge and punish. This does seem to contradict the whole judge everyone by the laws of the OT and punish them there and then.


      • paidiske

        Do you think that the difference could be that the OT laws were intended to function in a theocracy, while in the NT, believers were working out how to function as a persecuted minority in a Pagan culture?


      • equippedcat

        Mathew 7 does not imply that society cannot judge guilt and punish crimes against the society and its members. It is not about guilt, but an injunction not to evaluate other people’s value or “righteousness”. Romans 2 talks about transgressions against God, not those (in some cases also) against Man. James 4 is specifically about the Law of Moses, which is again transgressions against God.

        In the case of a transgression against God, it is up to God to judge and punish. In the case of a transgression against society, society can judge and punish, and if they could not, the world would dissolve into anarchy.


        • paidiske

          James 4:11 is a really interesting verse. I am not sure that law there should be read as the Law of Moses; for James to be defending that law in the context of the Christian church after the decisions of Acts 15 would be inconsistent, at best. I wonder if we need to look back as far as James 2:8ff and see this as a reference to the “royal law” to love one’s neighbour as oneself?


        • clubschadenfreude

          EC, it is your interpretation that Matthew 7 doesn’t imply that society cannot judge guilt and punish crimes. It says no one can judge, and if no one can judge, then society, which only consists of someones, cannot judge. It does not specify only “righteousness”, as you would claim. It is inconvenient to not judge people, but this is the same story that says not to ever stand against evil, but to “turn the other cheek”, to not worry about clothes but to trust God and to give up all of one’s earthly possessions. Possibly good advice from person who was sure the world was going to end, but bad advice for a world where such things don’t happen.

          Same in Romans 2, it does not say that this only applies to transgressions against God. Indeed, if one reads Romans 1 and 2, we get the list of people who deserve to die, and then it says that that someone has “no excuse” to judge someone else. It doesn’t say “some excuse when you feel it necessary to judge”. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

          And interesting, that you say that James is about the laws given to Moses supposedly by this god. That does pose a problem to all of those Christians who insist that they don’t have to follow those laws. And those laws cover plenty of everyday activities. “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister[d] or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” Should believers be out killing those people who work on the “Sabbath”, whenever it is? That’s a major transgression against God. And in the law, it says for people to kill these people; God didn’t do any of the smiting.

          Again, there is nothing in the bible that says that society can judge and punish. It says that all judgment comes from this god, and that all law come from this god, and that all that enforce this law are put there by this god (Romans 13).

          I do agree that societies must judge and punish or we would have anarchy. There is no god involved as the bible claims.


  • aurorawatcherak

    I admit that I don’t agree with you, but I appreciate your attempting to tackle the topic.


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