Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


A Temptative Definition of Morality

Usually, we recognize moral agents as social beings who tend to engage in behavior whose consequences may benefit others and who comply with rules that promote such consequences. Rescuing a drowning child counts as a morally good act, while firing a female employee because of her pregnancy counts as a morally wrong act. It is right/wrong not just because is has certain consequences, but also because it is coherent/incoherent with certain norms of goodness and wrongness that moral agents are expected to follow. For instance, we consider rape immoral not only because of its harmful consequences, but also because it profoundly violates the autonomy and personal rights of an individual and the “general moral prohibition against using other persons against their wills” (Goldman, 1977, p. 281). This normativity can be produced either by intuitive reactions or deliberate judgments. We may have visceral feelings about the goodness and wrongness of certain acts, even if cannot tell why we find it good or bad (a phenomena known as “moral dumbfounding” (Haidt & Hersh, 2001)). For others, more complex and less consensual questions, (e.g. euthanasia) we may have to rely to principles, doctrines, beliefs, codes or virtues. In every case, morality is a set of dispositions to make normatively assessable decisions and judgments (either intuitively or intellectually) about appropriate social behavior and values. This appropriateness, as Haidt showed, revolves usually around five important moral themes: harm and care, fairness and reciprocity, loyalty, authority and respect, purity and sanctity, each of which determines virtues and vices: kindness/cruelty, honesty/dishonesty, self-sacrifice/treason, obedience/disobedience, temperance/intemperance (Haidt, 2007).

Morality thus encompasses most, if not all, appropriateness standard. All human societies tend to approve of certain behaviors and promote moral codes through cultural, religious or legal means. For instance, most westerners do not see anything wrong with a widow eating fish; in certain places in India, however, this is considered as an immoral act (Shweder et al., 1997). A universal feature of human cognition is thus the moral attitude: “people expect others to act in certain ways and not in others, and they care about whether or not others are following these norms” (Haidt, in press). Thus, although the content of norms and the scope of the moral domains is, to a certain extent, culturally variable, the deontic attitudes of people around the world is a constant. So instead of a crisp definition of morality, maybe we need another kind of conceptual representation.

To represent the moral domain, I suggest that we imagine a two-dimensional space: a deontic dimension and a social dimension. The first one represents the different deontic attitude we can have about conduct: forbidden, permitted, obligatory; the other represent the number of agents that are the objects of the moral judgment, i.e., 1 (personal), 2 or more (interpersonal) or a great number (collective). Any moral judgment is a statement about the deontic status (ordinate) of an action (abscissae). But, you might reply, a statement like “you should not cross if the light is red” is deontic and social, yet it is not really moral? Well, I would say that it is. The whole society is, as Durkheim said, “une oeuvre morale”. We interact with each others from the “moral stance”; whether it is crossing the street or killing someone, each act has a moral (deontic x social) status.

However, it is clear that no definition of morality will be enough. As Nado et al. (to appear) observe, in every attempt to define morality or even to assert what such a definition would be (such as the essays in Wallace & Walker, 1970), no consensus was ever reached. So I don’t expect a consensus here, but hope that it could be a useful approach.

  • Goldman, A. H. (1977). Plain Sex. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6(3), 267-287.
  • Haidt, J. (2007). The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. Science, 316(5827), 998-1002.
  • Haidt, J., & Hersh, M. A. (2001). Sexual Morality: The Cultures and Emotions of Conservatives and Liberals1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(1), 191-221.
  • Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (in press). The Moral Mind: How 5 Sets of Innate Moral Intuitions Guide the Development of Many Culture-Specific Virtues, and Perhaps Even Modules. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence & S. Stich (Eds.), The Innate Mind, Vol. 3.
  • Nado, J., Kelly, D., & Stich, S. (to appear). Moral Judgment. In J. Symons & P. Calvo (Eds.), Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Psychology.
  • Shweder, R. A., Much, N. C., Mahapatra, M., & Park, L. (1997). The" Big Three" Of Morality (Autonomy, Community, Divinity) and The" Big Three" Explanations of Suffering. In A. Brandt & P. Rozin (Eds.), Morality and Health (pp. 119-169). New York: Routledge.
  • Wallace, G., & Walker, A. D. M. (1970). The Definition of Morality. London,: Methuen.