Human Morality

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Morality is the one public system that no rational person can quit. This is the point that Kant, without completely realizing it, captured by saying that morality is categorical. The rules of a club are inescapable in this way, even though one can escape them by quitting the club.

Rather, the fact that one cannot quit morality means that one can do nothing to escape being legitimately liable to sanction for violating its norms, except by ceasing to be a moral agent. Morality applies to people simply by virtue of their being rational persons who know what morality prohibits, requires, etc. For example, some Levy might say that psychopaths cannot do so, while others might make the opposite claim Haji Public systems can be formal or informal.

To say a public system is informal is to say that it has no authoritative judges and no decision procedure that provides a unique guide to action in all situations, or that resolves all disagreements. To say that a public system is formal is to say that it has one or both of these things Gert Professional basketball is a formal public system; all the players know that what the referees call a foul determines what is a foul.

Pickup basketball is an informal public system. The existence of persistent moral disagreements shows that morality is most plausibly regarded as an informal public system. When persistent moral disagreement is recognized, those who understand that morality is an informal public system admit that how one should act is morally unresolvable, and if some resolution is required, the political or legal system can be used to resolve it.

These formal systems have the means to provide unique guides, but they do not provide the uniquely correct moral guide to the action that should be performed. An important example of a moral problem left unsettled by the informal public system of morality is whether fetuses are impartially protected by morality and so whether or under what conditions abortions are allowed.

There is continuing disagreement among fully informed moral agents about this moral question, even though the legal and political system in the United States has provided fairly clear guidelines about the conditions under which abortion is legally allowed. Despite this important and controversial issue, morality, like all informal public systems, presupposes agreement on how to act in most moral situations, e.

No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill a moral agent simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation. Many violations of moral rules are such that no rational person would be willing for all moral agents to know that violating the moral rule in these circumstances is morally allowed. However, moral matters are often thought to be controversial because these everyday decisions, about which there is no controversy, are rarely discussed. The amount of agreement concerning what rules are moral rules, and on when it is justified to violate one of these rules, explains why morality can be a public system even though it is an informal system.

The old schema was that morality is the code that all rational persons, under certain specified conditions, would endorse. The improved schema is that morality is the informal public system that all rational persons, under certain specified conditions, would endorse. Some theorists might not regard the informal nature of the moral system as definitional, holding that morality might give precise answers to every question.

This would have the result that conscientious moral agents often cannot know what morality permits, requires, or allows. Some philosophers deny that this is a genuine possibility. However, on ethical- or group-relativist accounts or on individualistic accounts—all of which are best regarded as accounts of morality in the descriptive sense—morality often has no special content that distinguishes it from nonmoral codes of conduct, such as law or religion. Just as a legal code of conduct can have almost any content, as long as it is capable of guiding behavior, and a religious code of conduct has no limits on content, most relativist and individualist accounts of morality place few limits on the content of a moral code an exception is Wong Of course, actual codes do have certain minimal limits—otherwise the societies they characterize would lack the minimum required degree of social cooperation required to sustain their existence over time.

On the other hand, for moral realists who explicitly hold that morality is an informal public system that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents, it has a fairly definite content. Hobbes , Mill , and most other non-religiously influenced philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition limit morality to behavior that, directly or indirectly, affects others. The claim that morality only governs behavior that affects others is somewhat controversial, and so probably should not be counted as definitional, even if it turns out to be entailed by the correct moral theory.

Kant may provide an account of this wide concept of morality. However, pace Kant, it is doubtful that all moral agents would put forward a universal guide to behavior that governs behavior that does not affect them at all. Indeed, when the concept of morality is completely distinguished from religion, moral rules do seem to limit their content to behavior that directly or indirectly causes or risks harm to others. Some behavior that seems to affect only oneself, e. Confusion about the content of morality sometimes arises because morality is not distinguished sufficiently from religion.

This religious holdover might also affect the claim that some sexual practices such as homosexuality are immoral. Those who clearly distinguish morality from religion typically do not regard sexual orientation as a moral matter. Many secular American colleges and universities prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and it is quite common for these college and university officials, as well as other public officials, to condemn homophobic behavior as immoral just as they condemn racist behavior as immoral.

It is possible to hold that having a certain sort of social goal is definitional of morality Frankena Stephen Toumlin took it to be the harmony of society. Utilitarians sometimes claim it is the production of the greatest good. Gert took it to be the lessening of evil or harm.

This latter goal may seem to be a significant narrowing of the utilitarian claim, but utilitarians always include the lessening of harm as essential to producing the greatest good and almost all of their examples involve the avoiding or preventing of harm. In favor of the focus on lessening harm, it is notable that the paradigm cases of moral rules are those that prohibit causing harm directly or indirectly, such as rules prohibiting killing, causing pain, deceiving, and breaking promises. Even those precepts that require or encourage positive action, such as helping the needy, are almost always related to preventing or relieving harms, rather than promoting goods such as pleasure.

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It should be clear that all rational persons would include these paradigm moral precepts in the moral code that they would put forward to guide the behavior of all moral agents. The question is whether they would also include precepts that require or encourage the promotion of positive benefits when such benefits do not count as the relieving of deprivation.

For example, if they would include a moral precept encouraging people to be more entertaining or to cook tastier meals, then Gert would be wrong. Among the views of moral realists, differences in content are less significant than similarities. For all such philosophers, morality prohibits actions such as killing, causing pain, deceiving, and breaking promises. For some, morality also requires charitable actions, but failure to act charitably on every possible occasion does not require justification in the same way that any act of killing, causing pain, deceiving, and breaking promises requires justification.

Both Kant and Mill distinguish between duties of perfect obligation and duties of imperfect obligation and regard not harming as the former kind of duty and helping as the latter kind of duty. For Gert , morality encourages charitable action, but does not require it; it is always morally good to be charitable, but it is not immoral not to be charitable.

As has already been mentioned, morality, in the normative sense, is sometimes taken to prohibit certain forms of consensual sexual activity, or the use of recreational drugs. However, such prohibitions need not be included in an account of morality as a universal guide that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents. One need not regard it as irrational to favor harmless consensual sexual activities, or to favor the use of certain drugs for purely recreational purposes.

One concept of rationality that supports the exclusion of sexual matters, at least at the basic level, from the norms of morality, is that for an action to count as irrational it must be an act that harms oneself without producing a compensating benefit for someone—perhaps oneself, perhaps someone else.

An account of morality based on the hybrid concept of rationality could agree with Hobbes that morality is concerned with promoting people living together in peace and harmony, which includes obeying the rules prohibiting causing harm to others. Although moral prohibitions against actions that cause harm or significantly increase the risk of harm are not absolute, in order to avoid acting immorally, justification is always needed when violating these prohibitions. Kant seems to hold that it is never justified to violate some of these prohibitions, e.

Most moral realists who offer moral theories do not bother to offer anything like a definition of morality. Instead, what these philosophers offer is a theory of the nature and justification of a set of norms with which they take their audience already to be acquainted. In effect, they tacitly pick morality out by reference to certain salient and relative uncontroversial bits of its content: In fact, this would not be a bad way of defining morality, if the point of such a definition were only to be relatively theory-neutral, and to allow theorizing to begin.

Some, including Hare , , have been tempted to argue against the possibility of a substantive definition of morality, on the basis of the claim that moral disapproval is an attitude that can be directed at anything whatsoever. Foot a, b , argued against this idea, but the substantive definition still has the drawback is that it does not, somehow, seem to get at the essence of morality. One might suggest that the substantive definition has the advantage of including Divine Command theories of morality, while such theories might seem to make trouble for definitions based on the plausible schema given above.

But it is plausible to hold that Divine Command theories rest on Natural Law theories, which do in fact fit the schema. Divine Command theory that do not rest on Natural Law might make trouble for the schema, but one might also think that such theories rest instead on a confusion, since they seem to entail that God might have made it immoral to act beneficently.

As one gives more substance and detail to the general notions of endorsement, rationality, and the relevant conditions under which rational people would endorse morality, one moves further from providing a definition of morality in the normative sense, and closer to providing an actual moral theory. And a similar claim is true for definitions of morality in the descriptive sense, as one specifies in more detail what one means in claiming that a person or group endorses a system or code. In the following four sections, four broad ways of making the definitions of morality more precise are presented.

They are all sufficiently schematic to be regarded as varieties of definition, rather than as theories. Rather, they explicitly recognize the existence of significant variation in what rules and ideals different people put forward as morality in the normative sense. And they doubt that this variation is compatible with moral realism. Consequently, they need to offer some unifying features of these different sets of rules and ideals, despite variation in their content.

As a result of this pressure, some expressivists end up offering explicit accounts of a distinctively moral attitude one might hold towards an act token or type. These accounts can of course be taken to underwrite various forms of morality in the descriptive sense. But they can also be taken to provide the basis of one form of moral realism.

Gibbard holds that moral judgments are expressions of the acceptance of norms for feeling the emotions of guilt and anger. To endorse a code in the relevant way, on this definition, is to think that violations of its norms make guilt and anger appropriate. In fact, reference to praise and blame may be more adequate than reference to guilt and anger, since the latter seem only to pick out moral prohibitions, and not to make room for the idea that morality also recommends or encourages certain behaviors even if it does not require them. For example, it is plausible that there is such a thing as supererogatory action, and that the specification of what counts as supererogatory is part of morality—whether in the descriptive or normative sense.

But it does not seem likely that we can account for this part of morality by appeal to norms for guilt and anger, and it is not at all clear that there are emotions that are as closely linked to supererogation as guilt and anger are to moral transgression. On the other hand, it seems plausible that norms for praising action might help to pick out what counts as supererogatory.

Another version of the present strategy would replace talk of praise and blame with talk of reward and punishment. This view would take morality to be a system that explained what kinds of actions are appropriately rewarded and—more centrally—punished. On this view, the notion of endorsing a code is unpacked in terms of the acceptance of norms for reward and punishment. It is certainly plausible that it is appropriate to feel guilt when one acts immorally, and to feel anger at those who act immorally towards those one cares about. So norms for guilt and anger may well uniquely pick out certain moral norms.

And similar claims might be made about norms for praise and blame. However, it is not equally clear that morality is properly defined in terms of emotions or other reactions to behavior. For it may be, as Skorupski emphasizes, that we need to understand guilt and anger, and praise and blame, in terms of moral concepts. This worry about direction of explanation seems less pressing for the notions of reward and punishment.

These responses to behavior, at least in themselves , might simply be understood in terms of the meting out of benefits and harms. One way of understanding the notion of endorsement is as advocacy. Advocating a code is a second- or third-personal matter, since one advocates a code to others. Moreover, it is consistent with advocating a code, that one does not plan on following that code oneself.

Just as asserting something one believes to be false still counts as asserting it, hypocritical advocacy of a code still counts as advocacy of that code. When endorsement is understood as advocacy, it can be used in definitions of morality, in the descriptive sense, as long as it is the morality of a group or society. And advocacy can also be used as an interpretation of endorsement when providing a definition of morality in the normative sense.

Of course those who accept a definition of morality in any of these senses—as the code that a group or society endorses, or as the code that would be universally advocated by all rational agents under certain conditions—do not hold that the advocacy would necessarily, or even probably, be hypocritical. But they do hold that the important thing about a moral code—what picks it out as a moral code—is that it would be put forward by all the relevant agents, not that it would be followed by all of them.

How Humans Became Moral Beings

Mill , in addition to offering a moral theory, takes pains to explain how morality differs from other normative systems. Ethics also known as moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy which addresses questions of morality. The word "ethics" is "commonly used interchangeably with 'morality,' and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual.

In its descriptive sense, "morality" refers to personal or cultural values , codes of conduct or social mores from a society that provides these codes of conduct in which it applies and is accepted by an individual. It does not connote objective claims of right or wrong, but only refers to that which is considered right or wrong. Descriptive ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense. In its normative sense, "morality" refers to whatever if anything is actually right or wrong, which may be independent of the values or mores held by any particular peoples or cultures.

Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense. Philosophical theories on the nature and origins of morality that is, theories of meta-ethics are broadly divided into two classes:. Some forms of non-cognitivism and ethical subjectivism, while considered anti-realist in the robust sense used here, are considered realist in the sense synonymous with moral universalism.

For example, universal prescriptivism is a universalist form of non-cognitivism which claims that morality is derived from reasoning about implied imperatives, and divine command theory and ideal observer theory are universalist forms of ethical subjectivism which claim that morality is derived from the edicts of a god or the hypothetical decrees of a perfectly rational being, respectively.

Celia Green made a distinction between tribal and territorial morality. Apart from these proscriptions, territorial morality is permissive, allowing the individual whatever behaviour does not interfere with the territory of another. By contrast, tribal morality is prescriptive, imposing the norms of the collective on the individual.

These norms will be arbitrary, culturally dependent and 'flexible', whereas territorial morality aims at rules which are universal and absolute, such as Kant 's ' categorical imperative ' and Geisler 's graded absolutism. Green relates the development of territorial morality to the rise of the concept of private property, and the ascendancy of contract over status.

Some observers hold that individuals apply distinct sets of moral rules to people depending on their membership of an " in-group " the individual and those they believe to be of the same group or an "out-group" people not entitled to be treated according to the same rules. This belief has been confirmed by simple computational models of evolution. Jonathan Haidt has noted [14] that experimental observation indicating an in-group criterion provides one moral foundation substantially used by conservatives , but far less so by liberals.

Peterson and Seligman [15] approach the anthropological view looking across cultures, geo-cultural areas and across millennia. They conclude that certain virtues have prevailed in all cultures they examined. Each of these includes several divisions. For instance humanity includes love , kindness , and social intelligence. Fons Trompenaars , author of Did the Pedestrian Die? One of these was whether the driver of a car would have his friend, a passenger riding in the car, lie in order to protect the driver from the consequences of driving too fast and hitting a pedestrian.

Trompenaars found that different cultures had quite different expectations, from none to definite. John Newton, author of Complete Conduct Principles for the 21st Century [17] compared the Eastern and the Western cultures about morality. As stated in Complete Conduct Principles for the 21st Century , "One of the important objectives of this book is to blend harmoniously the fine souls regarding conduct in the Eastern and the Western cultures, to take the result as the source and then to create newer and better conduct principles to suit the human society of the new century, and to introduce a lot of Chinese fine conduct spirits to the Western world.

It is hoped that this helps solve lots of problems the human society of the 21st century faces, including but not limited to the Eastern and the Western cultures what a single culture cannot. The development of modern morality is a process closely tied to sociocultural evolution. Some evolutionary biologists , particularly sociobiologists , believe that morality is a product of evolutionary forces acting at an individual level and also at the group level through group selection although to what degree this actually occurs is a controversial topic in evolutionary theory.

Some sociobiologists contend that the set of behaviors that constitute morality evolved largely because they provided possible survival or reproductive benefits i. Humans consequently evolved "pro-social" emotions, such as feelings of empathy or guilt, in response to these moral behaviors. On this understanding, moralities are sets of self-perpetuating and biologically-driven behaviors which encourage human cooperation. Biologists contend that all social animals, from ants to elephants, have modified their behaviors, by restraining immediate selfishness in order to improve their evolutionary fitness.

Human morality, although sophisticated and complex relative to the moralities of other animals, is essentially a natural phenomenon that evolved to restrict excessive individualism that could undermine a group's cohesion and thereby reducing the individuals' fitness. On this view, moral codes are ultimately founded on emotional instincts and intuitions that were selected for in the past because they aided survival and reproduction inclusive fitness. The phenomenon of reciprocity in nature is seen by evolutionary biologists as one way to begin to understand human morality.

Its function is typically to ensure a reliable supply of essential resources, especially for animals living in a habitat where food quantity or quality fluctuates unpredictably. For example, some vampire bats fail to feed on prey some nights while others manage to consume a surplus. Bats that did eat will then regurgitate part of their blood meal to save a conspecific from starvation. Since these animals live in close-knit groups over many years, an individual can count on other group members to return the favor on nights when it goes hungry Wilkinson, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce have argued that morality is a suite of behavioral capacities likely shared by all mammals living in complex social groups e.

They define morality as "a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups. Christopher Boehm [22] has hypothesized that the incremental development of moral complexity throughout hominid evolution was due to the increasing need to avoid disputes and injuries in moving to open savanna and developing stone weapons. Other theories are that increasing complexity was simply a correlate of increasing group size and brain size, and in particular the development of theory of mind abilities. Moral cognition refers to cognitive processes that allow a person to act or decide in morally permissible ways.

It consists of several domain-general cognitive processes, ranging from perception of a morally-salient stimuli to reasoning when faced with a moral dilemma. Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists investigate the inputs to these cognitive processes and their interactions, as well as how these contribute to moral behavior by running controlled experiments. Often, the differential neural response to specifically moral statements or scenes, are examined using functional neuroimaging experiments.

Critically, the specific cognitive processes that are involved depend on the prototypical situation that a person encounters. Nonetheless certain cognitive skills such as being able to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions to oneself, and to others is a common feature of a broad range of prototypical situations. In line with this, a meta-analysis found overlapping activity between moral emotion and moral reasoning tasks, suggesting a shared neural network for both tasks.

The brain areas that are consistently involved when humans reason about moral issues have been investigated by a quantitative large-scale meta-analysis of the brain activity changes reported in the moral neuroscience literature.

The Definition of Morality (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This supports the notion that moral reasoning is related to both seeing things from other persons' points of view and to grasping others' feelings. These results provide evidence that the neural network underlying moral decisions is probably domain-global i. An essential, shared component of moral judgment involves the capacity to detect morally salient content within a given social context. Recent research implicated the salience network in this initial detection of moral content.

The explicit making of moral right and wrong judgments coincides with activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex VMPC while intuitive reactions to situations containing implicit moral issues activates the temporoparietal junction area. Stimulation of the VMPC by transcranial magnetic stimulation , has been shown to inhibit the ability of human subjects to take into account intent when forming a moral judgment.

According to this investigation, TMS did not disrupt participants' ability to make any moral judgment. On the contrary, moral judgments of intentional harms and non-harms were unaffected by TMS to either the RTPJ or the control site; presumably, however, people typically make moral judgments of intentional harms by considering not only the action's harmful outcome but the agent's intentions and beliefs.

One possibility is that moral judgments typically reflect a weighted function of any morally relevant information that is available at the time. On the basis of this view, when information concerning the agent's belief is unavailable or degraded, the resulting moral judgment simply reflects a higher weighting of other morally relevant factors e. Alternatively, following TMS to the RTPJ, moral judgments might be made via an abnormal processing route that does not take belief into account. On either account, when belief information is degraded or unavailable, moral judgments are shifted toward other morally relevant factors e.


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For intentional harms and non-harms, however, the outcome suggests the same moral judgment as the intention. Thus, the researchers suggest that TMS to the RTPJ disrupted the processing of negative beliefs for both intentional harms and attempted harms, but the current design allowed the investigators to detect this effect only in the case of attempted harms, in which the neutral outcomes did not afford harsh moral judgments on their own.

Similarly VMPC-impaired persons will judge an action purely on its outcome and are unable to take into account the intent of that action. Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain that fire when another person is observed doing a certain action. The neurons fire in imitation of the action being observed, causing the same muscles to act minutely in the observer as are acting grossly in the person actually performing the action.

Research on mirror neurons, since their discovery in , [33] suggests that they may have a role to play not only in action understanding, but also in emotion sharing empathy. Cognitive neuro-scientist Jean Decety thinks that the ability to recognize and vicariously experience what another individual is undergoing was a key step forward in the evolution of social behavior, and ultimately, morality. In modern moral psychology , morality is considered to change through personal development. A number of psychologists have produced theories on the development of morals, usually going through stages of different morals.

Lawrence Kohlberg , Jean Piaget , and Elliot Turiel have cognitive-developmental approaches to moral development ; to these theorists morality forms in a series of constructive stages or domains. In the Ethics of care approach established by Carol Gilligan , moral development occurs in the context of caring, mutually responsive relationships which are based on interdependence , particularly in parenting but also in social relationships generally.

To coordinate these collaborative activities, humans evolved cognitive skills of joint intentionality, ensuring that both partners knew together the normative standards governing each role. The second step occurred as human populations grew and the division of labor became more complex.

Distinct cultural groups emerged that demanded from members loyalty, conformity, and cultural identity. The digital Loeb Classical Library loebclassics. Our recent titles are available via Edelweiss.