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Thinking about how we think about morality

Morality is a funny thing. On the one hand, it stands as a normative boundary – a barrier between us and the evils that threaten our lives and humanity. It protects us from the darkness, both outside and within ourselves. It structures and guides our conception of what it is to be good (decent, honorable, honest, compassionate) and to live well.

On the other hand, morality breeds intolerance. After all, if something is morally wrong to do, then we ought not to tolerate its being done. Living morally requires denying the darkness. It requires cultivating virtue and living in alignment with our moral values and principles. Anything that threatens this – divergent ideas, values, practices, or people – must therefore be ignored or challenged; or worse, sanctioned, punished, destroyed.

This wouldn’t be problematic if we agreed on our moral values/principles, on what the “good life” entailed – but, clearly, we don’t. Indeed, the world stands in stark disagreement about what is decent and honorable vs. vile and repugnant, who deserves compassion, what counts as fair, etc. Conflicts are frequently sparked by the clash of divergent moral perspectives. While it is easy to sit in judgment of those who shove “their morality” down the throats of others, it would nonetheless be irresponsible to pretend that this is not precisely what morality is about – the fight against evil, against corruption, injustice, inhumanity, degradation, and impurity.

We seem inclined to forget that morality is hard. I don’t just mean that it is hard to be a good person, to live up to one’s values/principles (though it is!). I also mean that it is hard to know what being a good person requires or which values/principles are the ones with which we should align ourselves. Indeed, getting morality right may be as daunting a task as understanding the physical nature of the universe itself.

Clouds, by theaucitron. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

This difficulty is largely hidden from us by the forces of socialization and the socio-cultural frameworks to which we belong. We are unable to see how fragile our grasp of morality really is, how little we understand about how we ought to live. We forge ahead thinking that our moral perspective is the right perspective – or, at least, that it is better than other perspectives. Such entrenchment not only makes conflict more likely, but it also makes morally significant change difficult to achieve.

And yet, morally significant change must happen. Interaction and exchange between diverse cultures has increased to the point where we simply must adapt and adjust our moral perspectives; we must be open to new ideas, ways of thinking, values and ideals. This means that if we want to get closer to the truth, we must be flexible, receptive, and willing to consider alternatives. In other words, morality requires a contradiction – to be both inflexible and flexible, willing to stand firm on our principles and fight injustice and immorality, yet also willing to listen to the “foreign” other, to adapt, adjust, and amend our beliefs.

How can we navigate these treacherous waters? Studies being conducted in my lab and elsewhere suggest at least one strategy. Over the last 10 years, my colleagues and I have studied how people think about morality and how this predicts their tolerance for values and practices different from their own. Specifically, we asked people to identify their moral values/practices and then explain what they believe grounds them – i.e., whether they were grounded “objectively” (by mind-independent facts impervious to individual or cultural beliefs, desires, attitudes, customs) or “non-objectively” (by individual/cultural beliefs, desires, attitudes, customs). One of the most interesting things we’ve discovered thus far is that most people are meta-ethical pluralists. That is, they view some moral values/practices as objective, while viewing others as non-objective. Not surprisingly, they are also much less tolerant of divergence when it involves objectively grounded moral values/practices than when it involves those non-objectively grounded. When we examined the difference between people’s objective vs. non-objective moral values/practices more closely, we realized that the non-objectively grounded values/practices involved issues currently being heavily debated, with strong advocates on both sides – i.e., areas of potential moral change.

“Living morally requires denying the darkness”

Why does this matter? Because, this suggests that people’s pluralism is not simply a byproduct of some sort of confusion, but is instead an adaptive pragmatic strategy adopted to accommodate morality’s contradiction.

While people don’t feel less strongly about these values/practices, they are nonetheless unwilling to “close them down” in the way that objectivity requires. This was evident by how they responded to objective vs. non-objective moral divergence. They viewed the former as “transgressions” not to be tolerated, but instead sanctioned/disavowed/punished, while viewing the latter as acceptable, to be if not embraced, then at least tolerated, discussed, and debated.

We see examples of this around us all the time. One that stands out very clearly for me was an on-campus talk given by Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, during which he clearly articulated why our mass production of animals for consumption was a serious moral crisis (indeed, the crisis of the 21st century) while also stating that people must be allowed to decide what to do about it for themselves. Here, once again, we see the contradiction. While we are doing something on a massive scale that we have good reason to believe is unethical, we cannot simply force people to abandon their own values/practices, but must work to create a respectful space for conversation and reflection in order to gradually transform our moral perspectives.

Recent Comments

  1. Greg Gauthier

    I find these sorts of articles consistently disappointing, and somewhat angering.

    When professional philosophers proudly declare a contradiction to be something that 1. exists in reality, 2. is a matter-of-fact necessity for “morality”, and 3. require no further self-criticism (i.e. maybe my thinking is WRONG?), then I can entirely understand why scientists are declaring philosophy “dead”.

    In order to think coherently about something, it would be helpful to the reader to have a coherent explanation (or perhaps even, a definition) of what it is the reader is supposed to be thinking about.

    Yet, at best, all this article can offer as even a description is a confusing mess of assertions implying external phenomena acting upon individuals, aggregations of the strong opinions of test subjects, and the gleeful embrace of contradiction.

    It seems to me that the one subject modern philosophy still might have a genuine contribution to make to humanity is the one subject that modern philosophers are working the hardest at avoiding and obfuscating.

    When the most coherent philosophical accounts of moral sentiment I can find today (albeit, incomplete and at times just wrong) are coming from a neuroscientist, a professional skeptic, and a retired biologist, all I can do is shrug, sigh, and return to my collection of Frans de Waal.

    You people had one job: Offer some clarity and self-understanding. Provide a few tools for clear thinking. Teach people how to make good judgments.

    Instead, you tell people that morality is hopelessly contradictory, and the best they can hope for is to muddle through somehow. Well if muddling is really all we can hope for, then why do we need philosophers? We’re already muddling. And that’s free.

  2. Karl

    Morality is more objective than you think

  3. Sleem Deemerdji

    Greg, you cannot read.

  4. Ron de Weijze

    I believe morality and religion have two sources (Bergson 1932). Internal- and external normativity are dependent within groups between people, extrinsically motivating by power and politics (often presented as truth and ethics), to avoid dependent rejection within/from our political-economical system. Else they are independent within people between groups, intrinsically motivating by truth and ethics (never presented as power and politics), to seek independent confirmation between others and ourselves. Extrinsic motivators are cronyism in politics and prejudice in power, while intrinsic motivators are accountability in ethics and predictability in truth.

    Bergson, H. (1932). “The Two Sources of Morality and Religion”. London: Macmillan and Company Limited.

  5. Muhammad Adnan Memon

    It’s great for everyone’s, I like and I hope to each human being adopts good moral and deliver to good moral, lives along with morality like a Beacon House and lives without morality like a barren valley and it’s stunning, fantastic.

  6. Wally

    In fairness to Greg, I am also puzzled by this article. Especially the reference to “adaptive pragmatic strategy” adoption ?!? Fancy adjectives aside, human beings generally do what they must to thrive or survive. Deriding this basic function seems a little immoral in itself. Consideration for each other’s circumstance – how’s that for a starting point ? Peace

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