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Morality. Who decides what it is?

Updated on October 13, 2013

Descartes told us that we cannot know about anything unless we experience it . Therefore some things like perfection cannot be part of mankind’s natural knowledge of the world because we cannot experience it. Hence god must have put these idea into us himself, so we know him.

This is wrong. Every human being can imagine that if something were to change in their particular lives, their lives would be better. We can then think of something else that would make our lives better. We can keep doing this imagining for a long time.

But eventually when all our needs are met, all our desires fulfilled, nothing we can add to it would make our lives better. So that state would for us as individuals be perfection.

We can then imagine that if all things and people were in complete harmony and balance and nothing was in conflict with anything, and nothing had any needs or desires left unfilled, that would be an ultimate perfection.

We went from a subjective perfection for the individual to an ultimate objective perfection without having experienced either and without having this knowledge implanted in us.

This is exactly how morality comes about and for the same reasons. We all subjectively want our lives to be objectively better, and one way to do that is to build a repertory of morals. The best way to do that is to come to agreements. “I will not harm you if you promise not to harm me” is one of the most basic agreements societies form.

Now, naturally we love our children and we love our families. We crave love and warmth from others. We crave friendship. We also want to do business with others because they have goods we need. So we have natural agreements with each other.

We have found that by making agreements, although they can be broken, we have a better chance at being treated fairly, with respect and dignity, if we afford that same treatment to others. This is an objective way to gain our own subjective desires for a perfect life.

The golden rule, while not perfect, reflects this attempt at making our lives better through agreement on principals. I don’t like being attacked for my goods, so I agree not to attack others for theirs in return for the same protection.

There is no need for a god to implant these ideas into us, they are a matter of survival of the species. How can you make a better life for yourself if you are always in conflict with others?

So morality is a natural part of our nature. It has been selected for through countless generations.

Morality is not a question of who decides what it is, it is objectively true that morality is simply doing no intentional harm. Harm is objective. If you kill or beat someone that harm is both subjective and objective. So saying harm is a subjective idea is wrong. It is a subjective idea but it also an objective reality.

Same goes for moral values. They are subjective, but at the same time if followed they get objective results.

Humans can imagine their lives being better and we strive as individuals and as societies to make those visions a reality. No god is required to tell us this, cause and effect tell the story and enforce morality all on their own. Cause calamity and you get calamity in return. If you want your life to be better then you can’t cause conflict with others. You may have to fight those that would do you harm, of course. That doesn’t take away from anything I have said. At times we must fight for the values we hold dear. That is, in fact, the way morality is enforced. If someone commits murder society has the right and the responsibility to see that they don’t do it again. It is cause and effect in action.

We may well come to different ideas on how to enforce morality and some religious ideas of morality are questionable in this day and age, but at the core we are all trying to find a way to do the same thing: live optimum lives.

So finding the right formula for perfection is the basic goal of all people, be it just a subjective perfection or an objective one for all, ensuring in that way the perfection for every individual.

It’s a daunting task that produces as much conflict as it resolves at times. It’s often trial and error. But people keep trying, and keep modifying the agreements we have with each other.

Is morality absolute? Yes and no.

Morality changes as conditions change. But as long as conditions do not change, the morality of the situation remains absolute.

This is the same principal as truth. Truth is relative to specific conditions, are remains absolute until the conditions change.

As long as your light switch is on, the absolute truth of the matter is that the light switch is on. When it is off the absolute truth of the situation is that it is off.

If all the problems associated with act are dealt with, then doing that act is no longer immoral. Morality is a way to deal with problems which make our lives worse. If all the problems around an activity are solved the activity no longer poses a problem. Of course most of our social problems don’t change.

Morality can be broken down to one formula: Do no intentional harm. Intent is big for humans. I am much more inclined to forget about something you did and to forgive you for it if your intent was good but it all went south on you, then if you intended harm. Most people inherently feel that way. And we all know that at times good intent does pave the road to hell.

Doing no intentional harm brings fewer calamities on yourself and less conflict for others, giving us all a better life. And there is no need for a god to tell us that, it’s just objective fact for which we have centuries of evidence.


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    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Greetings again Mr. O'Brain,

      The Ravens and Crows have been very good to me this year ... beyond words really. If You do write an article on your visitor this summer, I am sure I will find my way to it eventually.

      All the very best and may the Crow and Raven Spirit always guide your path.

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 4 years ago from Ottawa

      Joyus Crynoid

      Well we don't seem to disagree at all then. And that is the problem with do unto others. What if I am a sadist or masochist? Should I do unto others what I would they do to me? And there are many more examples we could think of where the golden rule could pose problems, that are not so extreme.

      Even saying I should do unto them what they wish I would do doesn't always work. For one thing, what do they want and how do I know short of asking?

      I just think, as a simple rule, doing ones best to do no harm, and certainly not intending to, is the best one can do in light of the fact that we never have all the facts.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile image

      Joyus Crynoid 4 years ago from Eden

      The best answer I have been able to come up with is the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). That's pretty similar to your definition, if not the same. And I'm not arguing with you, as much as pointing out that limiting morality to that which is intended can be problematic when one lacks sufficient knowledge about the effects of one's intended actions on others.

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 4 years ago from Ottawa

      Joyus Crynoid

      Doing your best is the best you can do. Things will mess up even with the best intent.

      I agree about capitalism being a bit evil. We do have to find a better way. But other ways have been tried and end up being worse or just as bad in different ways.

      An edict like do no harm is impossible to live up to as no one can say how what they did will turn out or what all the consequences down the road will be.

      We only own what we do for a short time. The chains of cause and effect and what others do with what we have done is out of our control.

      So we can only act with what we think is the for the best with the best intent.

      So if you do not like this answer to morality, what is your answer?

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 4 years ago from Ottawa

      Spirit Whisperer.

      Always nice to hear from you.

      Hey, I'm no saint. There is a difference between what we know intellectually and how we live up to that knowledge. But I have tried all my life to keep my life as conflict free as possible, except in intellectual debates, of course.

      Hope you and yours are doing well.

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 4 years ago from Ottawa

      Mr. Happy. Glad to hear from you and glad you enjoyed the article.

      I just wanted to let you know I was visited by a raven this summer. he or she hung around for about three weeks eating and drinking the what we put out. He/she let us get very close up pictures of him/her. It's not the kind of hub I normally do but with you in mind I was thinking doing one on his/her visit.

    • Joyus Crynoid profile image

      Joyus Crynoid 4 years ago from Eden

      All well and good, except that there is much truth in the old saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". IMO that is but one of many reasons industrialized free-market capitalism is inherently bad (and I would say immoral). It allows for (even promotes) all too many unintended yet exceptionally harmful consequences. The basic problem: intention is limited by knowledge, and, owing to reductionist science, technology, industry, and capital, our ability to act extends far beyond our ability to know. Having morality based on "do no intentional harm" is highly problematic in a capitalized, industrialized culture/society that lives in (and to some extent celebrates) the bliss of ignorance.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 4 years ago from Isle of Man

      It was Mr Happy who drew my attention to this hub and I can see why. You see in another what you are due to subconscious projection. Projection however is a double edged sword because though it is what we use to understand ourselves we also use it to attack in another what we do not like in our selves. It is obvious from what you write that you are a man of very high principles and of strong moral fibre. It is no coincidence then that a man of Mr Happy's good character would perceive you as amazing.

      Your writing reflects integrity a goodness that I admire in any human being. You have done something amazing in that you have become your writing and an example of how it is possible for people to agree to the degree that can achieve such unity. You say what you think and you do what you say! In the East what you have done would be described in Sanskrit by the word 'Yoga '. Thank you.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      You are so amazing!

      "Intent is big for humans." - I just wrote an article about Intent (not on Hub-pages).

      I would take this thought a little further and say that All Creation Exists because of Intent. The basis for All is Intent. Without Intent ... what is there?

      Great article. Thank You for writing it.

      Cheers! : )