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Author Topic: What is this morality thing anyway?  (Read 4914 times)

Sage

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What is this morality thing anyway?
« on: January 03, 2014, 01:09:27 pm »
A discussion on MUX got me thinking... What /is/ this thing we call morality? What do we mean when we talk about living a moral life? Where do morals come from? I realized that I don't really have a good working definition for words like "morality" and "ethics." Many of my personal reactions upon hearing such words come both from a bad religious upbringing and bad experiences in philosophy class in college, so I'd like to start changing how I think about these words.
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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #1 on: January 03, 2014, 01:49:59 pm »
Quote from: Sage;134939
A discussion on MUX got me thinking... What /is/ this thing we call morality? What do we mean when we talk about living a moral life? Where do morals come from? I realized that I don't really have a good working definition for words like "morality" and "ethics." Many of my personal reactions upon hearing such words come both from a bad religious upbringing and bad experiences in philosophy class in college, so I'd like to start changing how I think about these words.

 
Interesting.  Look at the textbook defs and the two are synonymous.  

Personally I think of 'morality' as stemming from a religious source, especially within a strict good/evil paradigm, whereas 'ethics' take a more secular, philosophical approach.  I think they overlap because they both attempt to address concepts of right and wrong.

So I'd say living a moral life and an ethical life are pretty much the same, the most common denominator being: do no injury to others.  I think that idea is the common root in our moral, ethical, and legal systems.

As to where it comes from, it depends on why you think we concocted the Golden Rule.  Do you believe we possess an inherent 'better angel' in our nature that enjoins us to not harm others?  Or do you believe that we say "do unto others" because we really really don't want it done unto us?
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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #2 on: January 03, 2014, 07:26:12 pm »
Quote from: Sage;134939
What do we mean when we talk about living a moral life? Where do morals come from?

 
Been thinking about this myself recently. All I've got so far is there seem to be about 3 general systems for deciding whether actions are positive or negative:

1. Virtue ethics, which seem to focus on the motivations behind actiions (eg. courageous actions are good; cowardly actions are bad)
2. Utilitarian ethics, which focus on the consequences of actions (eg. actions which cause harm to human beings are bad)
3. Deontological ethics, which focus on actions themselves (eg. stealing is bad)

Each of these is its own can of worms, not to mention the broad range of actual rule sets that could be constructed in each system or combinations of them. As for what I use to guide my own behavior ... I'm not sure how to describe it right now. I lean toward virtue ethics as a system, but figuring out which virtues I value is less simple.

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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #3 on: January 03, 2014, 07:52:36 pm »
Quote from: Sefiru;134989
Been thinking about this myself recently. All I've got so far is there seem to be about 3 general systems for deciding whether actions are positive or negative:

1. Virtue ethics, which seem to focus on the motivations behind actiions (eg. courageous actions are good; cowardly actions are bad)
2. Utilitarian ethics, which focus on the consequences of actions (eg. actions which cause harm to human beings are bad)
3. Deontological ethics, which focus on actions themselves (eg. stealing is bad)

Each of these is its own can of worms, not to mention the broad range of actual rule sets that could be constructed in each system or combinations of them. As for what I use to guide my own behavior ... I'm not sure how to describe it right now. I lean toward virtue ethics as a system, but figuring out which virtues I value is less simple.

 
For me morality is about what I believe is right or wrong (the only question is am I going to do the right, or the wrong thing), there are times I have chosen to do the right thing, and times I have chosen to do the wrong thing knowing it was the wrong thing to do.
 
For me ethics is choosing between two or more helpful actions or two or more harmful actions (none of the ethical issues I have dealt with concerned with what was right or wrong).

Example: There is Group A, Group B and Group C, if you can only save one, which one do you save? Why?   You can save two groups, which two do you save? Why?
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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #4 on: January 03, 2014, 08:36:11 pm »
Quote from: Sage;134939
A discussion on MUX got me thinking... What /is/ this thing we call morality? What do we mean when we talk about living a moral life? Where do morals come from? I realized that I don't really have a good working definition for words like "morality" and "ethics." Many of my personal reactions upon hearing such words come both from a bad religious upbringing and bad experiences in philosophy class in college, so I'd like to start changing how I think about these words.

 
The distinction I make between morals and ethics (and IME this is a fairly common way in which people differentiate, though not universal) is: morals are algorithmic (that is, they're a system that specifies what acts are inherently right/moral and what acts are inherently wrong/immoral); ethics are heuristic (they're a system for determining what acts are right or wrong).

Personally, I'm all about situational ethics, which (as I approach it anyway) is fairly similar to what Sefiru identifies as utilitarian ethics (and this is far from the first time that the proximity of my position to utilitarianism has come up!) - but very definitely not a moral relativist. The basic distinction there is that moral relativism would posit that algorithms - sets of rules - are the appropriate means by which to determine right/wrong, but that, of various possible sets of rules, none is absolute, but that all such sets exist relative to each other, so that anything is right or wrong only in context of that rule-set; whereas situational ethics posits that rightness/wrongness can in fact exist independently of sets of rules, and must be determined by considering the circumstances and conditions in which an act takes place.

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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #5 on: January 03, 2014, 09:00:05 pm »
Quote from: SunflowerP;134998
Personally, I'm all about situational ethics, which (as I approach it anyway) is fairly similar to what Sefiru identifies as utilitarian ethics (and this is far from the first time that the proximity of my position to utilitarianism has come up!) - but very definitely not a moral relativist. The basic distinction there is that moral relativism would posit that algorithms - sets of rules - are the appropriate means by which to determine right/wrong, but that, of various possible sets of rules, none is absolute, but that all such sets exist relative to each other, so that anything is right or wrong only in context of that rule-set; whereas situational ethics posits that rightness/wrongness can in fact exist independently of sets of rules, and must be determined by considering the circumstances and conditions in which an act takes place.


So, in other words:

Morality: X is wrong.
Ethics: X might be right, depending on circumstances.

At the same time, you're not a moral relativist, so there will be circumstances that, given the 'value' of X, it might never be right/acceptable?
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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #6 on: January 03, 2014, 09:29:48 pm »
Quote from: Sefiru;134989
Been thinking about this myself recently. All I've got so far is there seem to be about 3 general systems for deciding whether actions are positive or negative:

1. Virtue ethics, which seem to focus on the motivations behind actiions (eg. courageous actions are good; cowardly actions are bad)
2. Utilitarian ethics, which focus on the consequences of actions (eg. actions which cause harm to human beings are bad)
3. Deontological ethics, which focus on actions themselves (eg. stealing is bad)

There's also "divine command" ethics where that which (your) deity says is good is good and that which your deity says in bad is bad. However, all this really does is push the ethical questions back one level to "how does (your) deity decide what is bad and what is good.
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Breeze

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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #7 on: January 03, 2014, 10:13:09 pm »
Quote from: Sage;134939
A discussion on MUX got me thinking... What /is/ this thing we call morality? What do we mean when we talk about living a moral life? Where do morals come from? I realized that I don't really have a good working definition for words like "morality" and "ethics." Many of my personal reactions upon hearing such words come both from a bad religious upbringing and bad experiences in philosophy class in college, so I'd like to start changing how I think about these words.

 
I agree with various bits and bobs that everybody has shared so far.  I've had three different ethics courses in school so far and reviewed my notes so that I was positive that I kept everything straight in my response.

Sefiru has the right basis here with the three schools of ethical thought: virtue ethics, deontological, and utilitarian.  In addition to morality, there are two more concepts to consider: values and virtues. Each one informs or weighs more heavily on each school of ethical thought, and collectively they form a group or society's sense of ethics.  

Virtue ethics (Aristotle belonged to this group) focuses more on the moral integrity of the actor than on the morality of a specific act itself.  This school deals with virtues which are the qualities and standards which are exalted, espoused, and encouraged by the majority of the group or society.

Deontological ethics is a duty-based theory that concerns itself with moral and ethical obligations based upon the situation.  Deontologists focus on doing what is “right”.  Kant was a deontological thinker.

Utilitarian ethical theory is a consequential theory which states that an ethical decision should maximize benefits to society and minimize harms.  Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian thinker.  This school of thought focuses on what is valued and aims to optimize it.

The long and short of it is that our morals (and the often left out values and virtues) inform our ethics.  Without the foundational three, ethics do not exist because there are no values, virtues, or morals to frame and measure them against.  Ethics have parameters and are more concrete and have definable repercussions.  Morals (and values and virtues) may be generally agreed upon, but have more variance and ambiguity than ethics do

veggiewolf

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What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #8 on: January 04, 2014, 11:45:22 am »
Quote from: Sage;134939
A discussion on MUX got me thinking... What /is/ this thing we call morality? What do we mean when we talk about living a moral life? Where do morals come from? I realized that I don't really have a good working definition for words like "morality" and "ethics." Many of my personal reactions upon hearing such words come both from a bad religious upbringing and bad experiences in philosophy class in college, so I'd like to start changing how I think about these words.

I am a believer in moral fluidity and situational ethics.  While there are many things I choose not to engage in at this point in my life, I cannot rule out the possibility of running into situations in the future where I may have to.

For me, the idea of static lines that will never be crossed does not make sense.
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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #9 on: January 04, 2014, 04:47:36 pm »
Quote from: MadZealot;135001
So, in other words:

Morality: X is wrong.
Ethics: X might be right, depending on circumstances.

At the same time, you're not a moral relativist, so there will be circumstances that, given the 'value' of X, it might never be right/acceptable?

 
No, the paragraph you quoted wasn't about the distinction between morals and ethics - that was the first paragraph. The one you quoted was about the distinction between situational ethics and moral relativism (which I included because IME the two are often, mistakenly, conflated).

'X is wrong, in all times, places, and circumstances' is an instance of moral relativism's opposite, moral absolutism.  'X might be right, depending on circumstances' could describe either the situational ethicist's or the moral relativist's position - though it might be better expressed as 'X might not be wrong, depending on circumstances.' (At which point it occurs to me that my dislike of moral relativism could be because, IME, its conclusions are so often Not Even Wrong.)

Your conclusion - as a statement applying to me - is not too far off, though.

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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #10 on: January 04, 2014, 05:14:58 pm »
Quote from: Breeze;135007
The long and short of it is that our morals (and the often left out values and virtues) inform our ethics.  Without the foundational three, ethics do not exist because there are no values, virtues, or morals to frame and measure them against.  Ethics have parameters and are more concrete and have definable repercussions.  Morals (and values and virtues) may be generally agreed upon, but have more variance and ambiguity than ethics do

 
This seems to reverse what I said about the distinction between morals and ethics. As I said, the way I distinguish is not universal (as this thread itself illustrates!) but I don't think I've ever encountered the direct reversal from anyone at all well-versed in the subject. If that's the case, I'd appreciate a source.

It occurred to me, though, as I was rereading it while in the process of responding, that it's not necessarily the case; you seem to be using each word in a somewhat different sense than I am (it looks like your usage is as terms of art in academic philosophy; mine is a common/lay usage). While what you mean by 'ethics' is clear in context (ditto values and virtues, which I agree are relevant and well-worth bringing up if the convo is to develop depth and nuance), there's no contextual elaboration about 'morals'.

So likely what I'm asking is to have this unpacked more.

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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #11 on: January 04, 2014, 06:10:46 pm »
Quote from: Sefiru;134989
Been thinking about this myself recently. All I've got so far is there seem to be about 3 general systems for deciding whether actions are positive or negative:

1. Virtue ethics, which seem to focus on the motivations behind actions (eg. courageous actions are good; cowardly actions are bad)

I'm a fan of virtue ethics, but I never thought of it in terms of my motives. Maybe you're right and it's just something that never occurred to me. For me it's about cultivating certain habits and practices like a chess player cultivates the habits and practices of being a good chess player. That certainly isn't contrary to what you said, and I like that you said what you said. Thanks for giving me something to think about.
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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #12 on: January 04, 2014, 09:02:51 pm »
Quote from: SunflowerP;135067
This seems to reverse what I said about the distinction between morals and ethics. As I said, the way I distinguish is not universal (as this thread itself illustrates!) but I don't think I've ever encountered the direct reversal from anyone at all well-versed in the subject. If that's the case, I'd appreciate a source.

It occurred to me, though, as I was rereading it while in the process of responding, that it's not necessarily the case; you seem to be using each word in a somewhat different sense than I am (it looks like your usage is as terms of art in academic philosophy; mine is a common/lay usage). While what you mean by 'ethics' is clear in context (ditto values and virtues, which I agree are relevant and well-worth bringing up if the convo is to develop depth and nuance), there's no contextual elaboration about 'morals'.

So likely what I'm asking is to have this unpacked more.

Sunflower

The textbook that I pulled those notes from is Trevino, L., & Nelson, K. (2007). Managing business ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.  In the context I'm using them, morals would be the qualities, actions, and standards which a society would (generally) agree to be "correct" and "just".  For example, in a perfect world if someone found someone's wallet laying on the ground, they would turn it in.  It would be generally agreed that this would be the ideal thing to do and a person who acts in that manner would have a good sense of morality.  There is no enforced consequence to keeping the money, though.  Most would call it immoral, but there is no cut and dried punishment for it.  However, stealing someone's wallet and using their credit card is both immoral and unethical.  A society adopts and frames laws to encourage ethical behavior.  In the wallet and credit card example, it is unethical because it is a direct violation of the values, virtues, and morals that the majority of society has adopted and has direct and finite repercussions (jail, fines, etc.).  To turn that around, for an example of an immoral act that may be ethical, look at war.  Most people would consider killing to be immoral.  But, sometimes war is a necessary means to an end and may be seen as ethical.

Each can be situational, absolutely.  We were taught that ethics are by nature more finite (but not absolute) because they are formed from the varying foundational three views (values, virtues, and morals) but are enforced (laws are the best example) based on the majority view.

I've been a bit sick and foggy-headed the past few days so if that still has holes feel free to poke and I'll see what else I can pull from the book and my notes ;)
« Last Edit: January 04, 2014, 09:05:16 pm by Breeze »

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Re: What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #13 on: January 05, 2014, 01:04:34 pm »
Quote from: Kairos;135077
I'm a fan of virtue ethics, but I never thought of it in terms of my motives. Maybe you're right and it's just something that never occurred to me. For me it's about cultivating certain habits and practices like a chess player cultivates the habits and practices of being a good chess player. That certainly isn't contrary to what you said, and I like that you said what you said. Thanks for giving me something to think about.


I was mostly thinking in terms of how virtues relate to external behaviors, since the same behavior could be motivated by various virtues or vices. For example, hiding something might be a cowardly act or a courageous one, depending on what exactly one is hiding, and from who.

For this reason, I think that virtue ethics are inherently situational.

veggiewolf

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What is this morality thing anyway?
« Reply #14 on: January 05, 2014, 10:28:36 pm »
Quote from: Breeze;135093
...However, stealing someone's wallet and using their credit card is both immoral and unethical...

I don't think this example is inherently immoral or unethical; the reason for the action is a determining factor.
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