Morality is a concept that is very vaguely defined, despite being so emotionally charged. There are two views located on opposite ends of a spectrum on the matter of morality that’s easily observed in mass media. One is that morality is good – they are certain rules you stick to, and you stick to them no matter what. The second view is that morality is bad – the idea itself is restrictive, and to do something out of purely moral reasons is to imply that you are fanatically religious or otherwise backwards (i.e, alt-right or SJW). Both of these views comes from people failing to properly define the concept of morality.
The following essay by Beaver does a great job defining the concept of morality, and explores some of the subsequent implications – Does it benefit the individual to be moral? For what purpose would someone willingly restrict themselves for the sake of other people?
For the sake of argument, let us assume that there is no supreme divine authority. The most common amoralist argument is often atheistic, claiming that without the judgement of a supreme being, morality does not exist. Better yet, some would like to claim that at most, morality is a human invention and therefore is nothing but a figment of the imagination, a limit on the human spirit meant to degrade us.
Yet if there is no deity, who else but man rules this universe? As far as we know, we are the sole thinking beings in the universe. We thus become its masters, all while being at its mercy. We are the thinking part of reality and therefore what we believe is not merely relevant, but of capital importance, objectivity be damned. Hence, we can conclude that morality does not require the existence of a supreme being to be valid; it would exist and be relevant regardless.
At this point however, we could still ask ourselves a few questions: Is there a use for morality? Is morality beneficial or harmful to an individual and its society? Are there certain universal tenets?
Two of these questions are intrinsically related, namely whether morality is useful and whether it’s beneficial or not.
Let us not talk of “conventional” morality. Such a concept is merely pompous drivel from men who believe their morality to be the right one and thus “conventional”. In truth, morality is far more subjective than we often realize, especially on more complex issues. Still, one can easily tell whether morality is good or not, as oxymoronic as such a question may seem. Morality can easily be defined as an individual’s willingness to harm himself, to limit himself, for the sake of society, whether consciously or not. The individual must limit his access to certain resources even if they would be beneficial to him, he must deny himself certain things he desires.
We can thus determine that functionally, morality is harmful to the individual yet beneficial to society. However, in the long run, a proper morality is beneficial to the functional individual too; it protects him from the predation of others. Morality is thus a function of a man’s consciousness of not only his being a member of a society, but of his capacity for abstract thought.
Yet what makes a proper morality? This is where things get interesting.
As morality apparently seeks the maintenance of society, a man of simple thought might believe it is possible to have a form of objective morality: After all, there must be a set of norms which determine whether a society will function or not.
Though the thought is elegant, it unfortunately does not resist contact with reality. Such an objective morality would require the ability to predict the outcome of any action taken at any time, something we do not possess. This comes back to what I explained earlier, that morality depends on the capacity for abstract thought: Without it, one is not capable of examining the possible outcomes of certain actions, especially on a large time scale, and is thus unable to determine whether an action is moral or not.
Though morality is subjective, we can still determine a constant: Survival. The ultimate goal of morality is to increase the chances of survival of the human species, of different human races, of different human societies and of individuals. Strangely, once considered from this angle, all morality is simplified. We consider murder wrong, yet we know killing another human being is sometimes not only justified, yet necessary. We consider theft wrong, yet we know a man is sometimes justified in stealing.
So you could say that the ultimate moralist is the man with the greatest capacity to evaluate the long term impacts of actions on the greatest number of people.
We could then claim that the source of all evil is merely shortsightedness. A man will commit an act we consider evil because he does not consider its impact on a larger scale. Yet people who are capable of thinking far ahead in time on a whim are actually not that common. In fact, humans are limited in their ability to consider the consequences of their actions on other human beings. If you are interested in this, I recommend reading on Dunbar’s number.
This is where religion becomes important. Religion is morality simplified for the masses. As societies grow and interactions become more complex, the common individual becomes less and less able to predict the outcome of his action and thus their morality. Religion aims to provide a common set of morals to the masses which they obey unquestioningly. When a more complex issue arises, judgement of its morality is left to elites who have a greater capacity for abstract thought. Yet in the end, religion is sufficient for the every day life of the masses.
Many variables must be considered to determine the morality of an action and in fact, the simpler minded will believe that even considering them will be immoral. Religion will often teach the equality of all men, yet a moralist must recognize that some individuals are more important than others. Yet in the end, morality is not an attack on abstract thought, as some would like others to believe; it is its ultimate form. It is its end result.
Morality is the final refinement of human thought.