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The Nature of Morality

Updated on August 29, 2011

God and Morality

In the absence of treating God as the author of morality or as the only secure means of recognizing what it is, philosophers in the early modern period, raised the question of the nature of morality:Is it a feature of the world independently of human beings? And if so how do we know it?Or is it intimately connected to human beings?


The 1600s and the 1700s saw a new interest in the matter of morality. Questions about religious beliefs and morality were raised during this period. Before this time morality was believed to stem directly from religion, and doing God’s wishes and following the life of a good Christian was considered the right, or moral thing to do. With the rise of the modern world and its new philosophical thinking, new ways of thinking about God and morality surfaced.

Grotius and Baruch Spinoza were among two of the earliest philosophers to raise the question of God and Morality. Moral standards for Grotius are independent of God’s will. Grotius saw God as a neutral being with no saying and no power to make any decisions concerning human lives. On a similar vein, Spinoza also held that God is not involved with matters concerning our day to day activities. Thus Grotius and Spinoza raise one of the fundamental questions of human existence in which they established the view that morality is independent of God.

A more materialistic and rational view of morality emerged with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Adam Smith’s philosophy of morality. For Hobbes and Locke and Smith, morality is a construct of society, a product of the social contract. That is, in order to have order in society and to get along with one another in a way in which we respect the property and the rights of others, we become moral. This is the only way to keep the contract. We have to respect others in every sense, in their persons, their belongings, and their right to be part of society as much as we are. The main difference between Hobbes and Locke in their view of morality however, it is in their view of human nature. For Locke human beings are naturally good and do care for one another and for society at large. He held that the social contract creates morality because it tells us what is right and what’s wrong, but nevertheless the goodness in us is already built in. In other words, Locke believed that human beings are already moral and good by nature, since birth. For Hobbes however, human beings are naturally bad and selfish, and are socialized and made to be moral only under the force of the social contract. Hobbes thought that human beings cannot be moral because it goes again our own nature. Human beings need to do anything to gather food and shelter and protect their family and their property, and thus, would constantly be on the defensive. For Hobbes we are simply selfish and have our always our own interests in mind in whatever we do. The only way in which we can be controlled is through the social contract. For Smith, however, the nature of morality takes a completely different turn than that of Locke or Hobbes. For Smith, morality is not out there in the world; there is no right or wrong; instead we judge things and decide, making morality subjective. Come again! Well Smith says that we judge things on a one-to-one basis. There is no such thing as something being right or something being wrong all the time and for the same thing. Instead, we judge every case that comes to us based on its particular circumstances. Thus, killing, for example, sometimes is right and sometimes is wrong, depending on the circumstances. Look to law and you will understand. So, in order to make moral judgments we must engage in the process as if we were “impartial spectators.” Moral judgments in this way are within us and not out there in the world. We do what we consider the best or the right thing to do in a specific situation.

Francis Hutcheson and Earl of Shaftesbury said that we have a moral sense that enable us to discern the good and the bad, like a sixth sense kind of thing. He disagreed with Hobbes and Locke’s rationalistic view of morality, by arguing that if we acted on self-interest, then some actions would be good and others would be bad. So morality cannot depend on self-interest. He also disagrees with the Hedonistic views of Locke and said that the motive is important for judging what is moral and what is not. We can’t just choose to pick what is moral by self- interest. Therefore, if we do then it is not moral, because motive determines the morality of a deed. Thus morality must be tied with caring for others and the reason of why we do it. Hutcheson, like Shaftesbury also held that we have a moral sense which allow us to identify what is good and what is bad. He said that the “moral sense” allow us to identify qualities like beauty and morality in the world. For Hutcheson, “morality is approving of peoples actions even when they are not in our best interest.” To better understand Hutcheson’s philosophy of morality, think about the people and things. Sometimes we want somebody to do something because they WANT to do it, now because they are FORCED to do it. We want our partner to help with the dishes or the laundry out of his or her own will- and not because we nagged them too. In the same way, Hutcheson says that morality is a natural feeling and capable of being understood from something exterior.

In short, the rationalistic and the metaphysical view of morality differ in the way that they explain and understand the issue of morality. While Grotius, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke and Smith saw morality as subjective and detached from any relationship to God (with the exception of Locke), Shaftesbury and Hutchinson saw morality as out there in the world, capable of being understood in an objective way.

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