What Do We Mean by “Morality”?


  • Our endless satisfaction of preferences in experience places goodness choices at the center of our concerns.
  • Hypothetical utility is the most common goal of preference.
  • Morality may be defined as “a system of principles of conduct to guide preference to desired ends.”
  • Accepting this definition sets up guardrails of reason and finality to morality and distinguishes it definitionally from lesser or more immediate goals of quality or utility.
  • Employing a morality imposes additional limitations involving motivation, practicality, and conflict resolution.
  • Morality implies categorical duty just as truth implies categorical reasoning.
  • Cultures, beliefs, and legal systems are wrongly considered sources of morality, but they do not satisfy the definitional requirements of the term.
  • True moral systems may be universalist or absolutist.
  • The failure of religious authority has eroded absolutist moral systems in Western cultures.
  • Since a definitional requirement of morality is that it arbitrate dispute, utilitarianist and legal positivist systems must be rejected.
  • The erosion of institutional authority and the rise of the virtual circle have complicated the search for a public morality, though they have not diminished its necessity.
  • Empirical science, our most reliable source of truth, cannot provide moral guidance, nor can expertise.
  • Just as individuals must act with moral integrity, so too must nations, so a universalist and public moral system is necessary to resolve conflicts among societies just as communal morality is necessary to resolve conflicts among persons.

We may use the term “goodness” to refer to utility, quality, or morality (for a treatment of the first two meanings, see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?“).

To my mind, the real importance of the truth of our declarations concerns questions of goodness, for all of our knowledge of truth only serves as the means to choose what we consider to be good. In that sense, goodness is the essential truth issue that governs all others (see “Truth and Beauty Do a Dance”).  Now some goodness issues are easily settled, for instance, those of simple hypothetical utility. A hammer is a better tool to drive a nail than a sponge. And some seem endlessly contentious, for instance, opinions on the quality of national cuisines or the artistic genius of Kandinsky. So let us first clarify how issues of utility and quality differ from those of morality, the most generic definition of which is “a system of principles of conduct to guide preference to desired ends.” One may order this system by whatever values she chooses, but the necessity of systematizing choice hints at the need for rational consistency. A casual preference for utility would not qualify as moral, but a consistent utilitarianism would.  Standards of quality in themselves could never be moral, for they are used to judge individual elements according to some standard of value ultimately determined by moral ends for which the standards might be considered an intermediate goal. This can get tricky. For instance, one can examine diverse moral systems themselves according to some meta-standard by which they might be ranked, but since such a standard must itself specify a moral valuation by which to gauge the systems, that standard would form the summum bonum of the system rather than stand outside its norms. This can be done so long as the meta-analysis finds standards implicit to the definition itself as a starting point. That is easy to do, actually. To be systematic, a moral system must be rational. To constitute the ends of preference, it must be terminal, meaning it cannot prompt the moral agent to continue the regression of “why choose this over that” which governs hypothetical choices of utility. The goods of morality cannot be only goods of utility, unless one thinks of those goods at the most distant horizon of preference (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends”). So one standard of judging morality is to investigate it definitionally, focusing on its rationality and its ends of preference.

Once we find candidates that pass the definitional tests, we might evaluate the quality of their practice in satisfying their ends. This moves the examination to experience: does the moral system satisfy its ends as we employ it? It may be internally consistent, may articulate ends of preference, and still it may be too cumbersome to work in experience. Or it may work perfectly well but fail to provide sufficient motivation for its practitioners or may fail to direct disputants in its practice to constructive resolution of conflict, or fail to move adherents of other moralities to adopt its axioms or its warrants (see The Axioms of Moral Systems“). In today’s cultures, that seems a problem.

A final distinction concerns what might be thought a kind of compulsion characteristic of morality lacking in the other aspects of goodness. We think of utility and quality as being hypothetical. They are applied conditionally, concluding sentences that set up the conditions for their application. “If you want to drive a nail, use a hammer.” “If you want a good accountant, hire Stanley.” But we think of morality’s truth to compel preference rather than defer to it. One may prefer the useful or appreciate Kandinsky. But one should prefer the moral.  The great question is this: is moral goodness with its compulsive quality a correspondence or a coherence issue (see “What Counts as Justification?“)?

It is tempting to see this as a coherence problem. Cultures determine values. Or individuals do. We choose what we think good in a moral sense based on our experience, our family, or our culture. We freight it with pragmatic importance. After all, we must agree to rules of traffic or we will have chaos on the highways (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). Or we lay a social contract veneer over our mores and laws to see them as arbitrary choices rooted in cultural history or some dim historical past that produced some social covenant that now binds us to moral principles not of our own choosing (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?“). All of this is coherentist even if it wears the guise of universalism. No one thinks justifying moral rules this way has any fixed basis in reality. All agree these bases are essentially cultural conventions, no different from the agreements businesses invent, identical in essence to the kinds of protocols we all embrace to keep the peace, to get along, to avoid conflict. And these are all ends of utility, implying that the means to achieve them ought to be purely hypothetical, the product of cultural desires. Should other codes of conduct provide more utility or poll more highly, we should abandon our present moral stance and embrace them. Should other practices conduce to greater happiness for greater numbers, we would surely adopt them. I should point out that this expedient view of our moral stance is seldom acknowledged by those who embrace it. Who wishes to lay her moral foundations on the squishy marsh of relativism? On the plus side, such open spaces leave lots of leeway for cultures to choose what they like when the like it. If the ends of such choosing are entirely open to majority will, such spongy ends might conduce to oppression of minorities or totalitarian excess, to racism, sexism, and gross tribalism, all social structures erected on the soft soil of cultural relativism.

Or perhaps on the even softer ground of subjectivism. If relativism privileges culture as the maker of individual moral outlooks, subjectivism reverses the direction of influence, seeing the individual resisting conformist pressures of culture in favor of a thoroughly original and private moral system. Nearly all defenders of this method consider morality a deeply personalized part of identity, some defiantly arguing in favor of a fully emotivist ethos that equates moral imperatives with interjections. That outlook sees “thou shalt” as having all the directive force of an “ouch” or a “wow.” Alternatively, a subjectivist might equate “you should” with “I like.” Such an approach openly equates morality with utility, for it allows our own preferences to be the categorical imperative that reduces all moral choosing to the hypothetical. To say something is good is merely another way of saying that I like or desire it to serve my own ends.

Not exactly Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, or Mohandas Gandhi, is it? Relativism and subjectivism fail both the definitional and the qualitative tests of morality. They cannot be called moral systems at all, for they are not systematic, require no rationality for their employment, specify no ends of choosing, and cannot resolve conflict either between desires or persons. Persons may defend them on other grounds, but they cannot exercise the compulsive quality of morality.

The idea that morality is fixed and available to all persons is a correspondence notion rooted in one of two principles: either absolutist or universalist, meaning its principles are either justified by ceding moral agency to authority or by retaining it subject to one’s reasoning.

Obviously, the appeal to authority has both a prior chronological claim and a clear advantage in terms of definitional appeal. It ordains unequivocal ends based upon divine command and will. It structures doctrines so as to be systematic, and it successfully underwrote all moral claims until the Protestant Reformation, proving itself to be a very strong candidate for public trust. Or at least it was. But the institutional power of religious authority was defeated by historical events that began in 1517, that are still working themselves out even today (see Premodern Authority“).

I consider authority a  false choice in our own era, for all correspondence choices rooted in authority in multivocal cultures must be subject to a prior logical analysis that arbitrates the rational agent’s commitment; therefore, absolutist moral claims must always bow to persons’ sanction (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). To put it plainly, the congregant in today’s culture cannot simply forfeit moral agency in an initial act of trust to authority because that trust is under perpetual assault by other authorities both religious and secular and by modernist and postmodernist axioms that challenge trust itself. These assaults cannot fail to move the adherent to re-appropriate moral agency if only to recommit to trust, to examine her forfeiture by her own lights, and thereby to move from trust to active sanction even if she recommits. Institutional authority today is but a shadow of its former self, a shell of moral absolutism stuffed full of restless moral agents always questioning its dictates and surrounded by actively hostile moral agents utterly rejecting its claims to truth and moral goodness.  Even in the face of a degeneration of trust, it must be admitted that far more support for correspondentist morality derives from religion than from other sources, though the necessity of sanction tends to sour and alienate adherents while demanding their loyalty. Religionists go so far as to insist that without absolutist standards, morality would cease to exist, a position that shows a disturbing level of ignorance of the last five hundred years of slow deflation of authority but perhaps explains their fear a secularized society (see Belief in the Public Square”).

So any attempt to claim a universalist basis for morality faces axiomatic opposition from both flanks: relativists take the postmodern view that all morality is coherentist, meaning sourced in either culture or contract,  and religionists that all morality is absolutist. Both flanks suffer from the same problem: an inability to arbitrate dispute. Religiously-based moral systems suffer from perils of justification by authority that render them helpless in the face of dissent—the greatest proof of which is the Protestant Reformation that produced the first crisis of justification in Western culture—which leaves universalist systems as the default correspondentist moral systems. Religionists might consider this a premature closure, so my effort in this analysis opposes them directly. But it also must struggle against what I consider an overcorrection in the other direction. Why should any correspondentist system hold sway in the face of powerful postmodern arguments that favor coherence or pragmatic moral systems? There is, unfortunately for the postmodernists who make this argument, the uncomfortable problem of disagreement. Simply put, the coherentist or pragmatist must exercise tolerance as a condition of her belief system. Championing personalized or cultural moral systems justified only by non-contradiction or logical entailment or convention provides no means of choosing one public choice over any other in the face of conflict, provided the choices are not self-contradictory. Therefore, the adherents of coherentist moral systems, which include utilitarian and legal positivist systems, must exercise a consistent toleration for disagreement that utterly fails to resolve essential disagreements about the goods that persons and societies should seek (see “Needs and Rights).

At this juncture, it is also wise to remember that the entire purpose of morality is to direct free will in the face of contending choices, so we must assume that arbitrating competing claims is the entire reason to have a workable moral system. One doesn’t have to search hard to find competing claims. Examples permeate the news. To what extent should the general will trump individual choice (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?“)?  By what moral justification can the state tax the wealth produced by its citizens (see “Economic Justice“)? To what degree should justice be tempered by mercy in the law (see “Justice Is Almost Everything“)? When one nation’s interests clash with another’s , whose value system should arbitrate the dispute (see “Natural and Political Rights)? How do governments resolve disagreements among citizens or protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority (see “Two Senses of the Common Good)? The obligation of the state to negotiate these kinds of conflicts inevitably lead to these kinds of questions and conflicts, and since political systems require a hierarchy or monopoly of power, coherentist systems must violate their sole means of determining truth, the principle of non-contradiction, if they are to exercise either a hierarchy or monopoly of power. The violation consists of making a universalist moral argument (“ order should trump tolerance”) to justify the monopoly and exercise of power, thus entailing others to one’s personalized or cultural values. Of course, any support for human rights over cultural values or for any particular cultural value as a universal produces the same contradiction for coherentists.

Slice the exercise of power another way and you have the same issue in microcosm. If morality is based on pragmatism and convention, what privileges one culture’s mores over another? By culture here, I do not mean national borders. My locality has a culture. My family has another. Religion, ethnicity, age, gender: all the influences postmodernism celebrates as determinative of our identity are distinct cultures. On what moral basis are conflicts resolved among these disparate inputs to a larger culture? In the absence of a means of determining moral superiority, what gives any culture the right to impose its values on any other? This is, of course, the root of the existentialist celebration of the antihero, a dissident culture of one so celebrated in film and fiction since World War I (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist). One can embrace a social contract or utilitarian moral argument, but if I as a coherentist refuse to incorporate the appeal to compromise implicit in such pragmatist systems, by what superior moral injunction can you force me to? Force in this case is not only the key word but the only recourse for the postmodernist, which is why power and its effective use are cultural obsessions today. It is curious, though, that its use is so often invested with moral gravity, considering postmodernists must operate in a moral vacuum (see Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). I have argued against the view that the exercise of power itself is proof of the postmodern point of view, for every preference persons exercise in disputes marks the use of power simply the means of settling conflict (see “Correlation, Causation, Motivation“). Subtract any actual justification for that use of power and you are left only with power itself as indicative of preference, something postmodernist theory regards as arbitrary and self-seeking yet also its only means of reconciling moral conflict. Such a view cannot fail to induce the cynicism and suspicion that so characterize the postmodern outlook.

One might also observe that absolutist correspondence moral systems, most clearly exemplified by religious systems, face similar issues in the face of dispute. Authority, the means of correspondence justification for such moral systems, must collapse in the face of dissent, rendering such moral systems impotent. One need only examine European history during the era from 1517 through 1688 to see how this process operates (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). Or one can examine current sectarian violence for confirmation that absolute moral authority and what theorists call positivist legal justifications fail when they are most needed: as arbiters of dispute (see Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer). I find it fascinating that the most rigid and the most flaccid modes of justifying social order suffer from the same failing, one because it hands down infallible but conflicting judgments from above and the other because it bubbles up opinion from innumerable and equal virtual circles from below (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“).

As individuals seek what they consider good and political systems attempt that same effort in regard to the goods that polities seek to secure on behalf of their constituents, and since all pragmatic and coherentist systems fail to offer resolution of conflict within the parameters of their own value systems, it seems at least reasonable to seek resolution in correspondentist moral systems. And since absolutist systems rooted in authority also self-destruct in the face of dissent, the correspondentist moral systems that remain open are entirely universalist. Remember that this term relies on a prior acceptance of universal reasoning for its specification (see “The Tyranny of Rationality“). When we say “this moral principal is good” in this instance, we are appealing to the warrant of our common rationality, essentially saying that if you understand the exigency and the principle applied to it, your reason would compel agreement provided you are applying reasoning correctly. I wish to make two points about that contention. First, I cannot explain the curious compulsory quality of either reason or morality. To understand a true statement is also to be moved to accept its truth. This self-compulsion forces reason’s acceptance of truth just as it forces it to accept the goodness of valid moral imperatives. Secondly, I apologize for teasing out the meaning of “reasoning.” I only do it because postmodern theories see reason as personalized rather than universalized. To a postmodern thinker, reasoning derives from experience and therefore is formed by it. I am using “universal reasoning” in a different sense, arguing for its use in a manner suggested by mathematical reasoning. In this sense a correct logical analysis would acknowledge circumstantial factors but argue that varied experiences, if taken into account, would produce similar conceptions of good choices because we share a common reasoning faculty. This is the same standard that legal systems employ to apportion culpability in criminal and civil cases. Its application is also reflected in efforts to determine truth and goodness open to  expertise and the natural sciences and even to the development of competence in widely varied experiences (see “Expertise“). The conclusions of universal moral reasoning are less certain and more situational than  expertise or empiricism can deal with, though that has hardly kept the human sciences from taking a swing at them, with consequences we still are suffering through (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). No science can draw the good from even the most convincing theory of the true. The same tools that produce its most successful efforts also limit them to the perceptual and the evidential.  The best we can hope for in seeking universal validation for morality is to use our reasoning to judge the preponderance of the evidence, always remaining open to anomalies in our analyses and the conclusions we draw from them.

Though three universalist moral systems—utilitarianism, duty ethics, and natural rights theory –– open in this pursuit, it is not necessary to engage in deep analysis of their differences  until another time (see “Three Moral Systems”). But it is worth noting that the difference in these systems is itself a warning, for two millennia of efforts have failed to demonstrate convincingly that any of them meets the definitional or contextual requirements for a working morality. Skeptics are entitled to object that such a necessary component of our wellbeing ought to have been articulated by now considering all the trouble its absence has produced. That continuing unmet need for moral clarity reminds us that resolution of conflict demands that whatever axioms disputants bring to the disagreement be in rough agreement. In an age in which only empirical science can provide that unanimity, we face a vacuum of consensual justifications. Empiricism cannot guide us, and expertise cannot do much better. The next-most-powerful weapon available is competence, and universalist moral systems must be successfully justified on these grounds if they are to be justified at all.

Ah, there’s the rub. The decline and fall of religious institutions has consumed the last half millennium, and it has laid authority so low that any expression that cultures consider expressive of authority is heaped with irony, disdain, derision, and rejection. Postmodernism has so discredited authority as a warrant for goodness that persons reflexively resist not only its expression but any compulsive power. The true irony is that this means a rejection of their own reasoning and moral sense. They reject their own competence to discern universal truth and goodness because they consider the compulsive force of their own agency to be somehow the evidence of the manipulations of external power. That is a stunning and literally demoralizing realization. The depredations of authority since the Reformation have stimulated not only the modernist elevation of individual agency but also the postmodernist suspicion of any exertion of power, even one stemming from that same rational agency. Modernists saw agency as the greatest gift of reason, but postmodernists now see it as the tattoo of environment, of subterrranean psychological or social forces. This odd historical catastrophe is in itself sufficient to answer the most pressing question we can now ask concerning morality:  if the same reasoning system operates in each of us, why is it not our natural recourse to appeal to it to resolve conflict? And why do we find three universalist systems contending for our approval if all we need to do to confirm truth is to think the matter through to its proper conclusions? After all, that works in mathematics, which is universal, and in science, which is nearly so. And persons seem able to submit to the authority of the law whose purpose is to regulate their conduct and resolve their conflicts. If morality is universal and its precepts available to the reasoning mind, why all the disagreement?

We are sorting through the effects of two great disruptions of warrant whose effects are still playing out in our culture. Until very recently, the dominant justification for morality was absolutist, rooted in religion. In many persons’ minds, indeed in many cultures’ view, that warrant still holds and fights a rearguard action against the other axioms for moral behavior that violate its premises. No moral system can compete with its sense of certainty, though that same sense has produced as its product the intractable resistance of its adherents to challenges they cannot resolve. In essence, its greatest strength has produced in this age of diversity its greatest and most obdurate weakness. Those who uncritically embrace  the postmodern culture that permeates the culture are particularly hostile to any prescription for behavior that is not personal or cultural, a product of a second great thought revolution (see “The Victorian Rift“). The presumptions of the culture are by their nature irreconcilable because they were proposed as antitheses for systems that contemporaries thought had failed.. But these are only the historical half of the issue. The other half involves the inherent difficulty of working through a consistent moral outlook. Experience is unique even if practical reasoning is common. The problem of specification is an all but disqualifying obstacle to unanimity in morality. Empirical science, the uncrowned king of truth-telling, must always concern the perceptual,  the measurable, and the experimental. None of this is available to the moralist. And the human sciences, upon which thinkers have placed their bets since the Enlightenment, have foundered on the rock of human free will. Their failures have produced their own disillusionment and cynicism about the possibilities of universal reason and moral progress. Most of the twentieth century was sacrificed to this misdirection, which produced postmodernism as its  product. That failure has only worsened the inherent difficulty of drawing from differing experience some common moral goods (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). We have failed to develop a science of moral health, and that failure is now evident.

But acknowledging this failure in itself is a good sign. When you reach a dead end, it is wise to turn around. Thanks to neurological science, the mysteries of free will are now the provenance of natural rather than human science. Though it has suffered its own demons, particularly the hubris of scientism over the past two centuries, the professionalization of the hard sciences has pruned the worst of its excesses and given all of us a better understanding of its limits. One is an inability to structure human society or resolve moral disagreements. Since the end of World War II, a consensus has formed in favor of inalienable human rights that transcend cultural values. This emergence has signaled the need for a working moral theory to validate them. Though I realize that the justification should precede the practice, this is not in truth how it has transpired. We are far from agreement about what that justification should look like, but as cultures defend the sanctity or at least the authority to abuse minorities or women or the powerless, we have no choice but to warrant a response in terms that appeal to their rationality. I’ll close out this little ray of sunshine on a sour note. Postmodernism can provide no such warrant because its axioms of value reject such a universality (though inexplicably defending human rights), so we are unlikely to see any systematic academic pursuit of moral philosophy in the current climate, at least not one that is accessible to nonspecialists (see One Postmodern Sentence”).

This has been a fairly painstaking attempt to explain why the only moral system that could function effectively would be a correspondence one, but the need for such system does not magically provide a solution. What would a consistent correspondence moral system look like? That will be the subject of a fuller treatment of the three universalist moral systems that have stood the test of time.

One cannot speak of truth issues without also considering goodness, for as choice-making machines, humans always act to choose the good based on their knowledge of the truth. But at the moment we face the deep chasm dividing the coherence virtual circle and the correspondence proofs of judgment as we face our choices. We owe it to ourselves to derive the most reliable combination of truth and goodness claims and the justifications that support them, proved true by reasoning about a preponderance of the evidence. Rather than committing the very common error of having our coherence and correspondence claims frustrate each other, which seems to be the tenor of our times, I think it is possible to use their strengths to increase the reliability of our warrants (see “Better, Blended Systems of Knowledge). When an individual’s desires conflict, she must arbitrate their demands. Should she act with consistency, we say she acts with integrity. The same may be said for conflicts within and between cultures. Only universalist moral systems can deliver that.

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