Essay: Defining morality

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  • Subject area(s): Philosophy essays
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  • Published on: November 14, 2017
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Philosophers have tried to define morality for a very long time now. Some are still trying today. There are three most well-known ethics that deal with morality. The first type is Nicomachean/Virtue ethics and is associated with Aristotle. That type of ethics is about the highest good that is happiness. Another ethics is Deontological, linked with Immanuel Kant. In that type, the moral principle is based on a categorical imperative, which is a supreme principle by which an action can be determined good or bad. Its’ essence is to act as you want others to act towards you. In that type of ethics, the human being is an end in himself not a mean for an action. The last ethics is Consequentialism, in which the aim is the best consequence, no matter the means to reach that. Therefore, the end justifies the means. Nowadays, science has evolved to such an extent nowadays, that questions that used to be a concern of the philosophers and their ethics only, are now scientifically possible to research and answer. The question of this paper can be broken down to four major aspects. Numerous comprehensions can be found on the aspects of morality, cooperation, homeostasis, and society. How do we connect all of them together and put them under one umbrella of human characteristics? This paper will examine why humans are as social beings and what follows from that. Also, how their morality is intertwined with neurosciences. What is more, it will answer the question of whether the notorious David Hume was in the right track of understanding human relationships, and more particularly human morality. First Hume’s philosophy will be presented. The focus will be on his ethics, which includes Hume’s understanding of morality. After that, general concepts will be defined, such as what is: society, morality and cooperation. Then an explanation of homeostasis will be provided. Concluding with how all the mentioned terms are intertwined and the way morality is explained by the neuro-ethics of Patricia Churchland.
David Hume was Scottish Philosopher that lived in the period of the Enlightenment, from 1711 to 1776. During his quest of knowledge, David Hume realized that ‘human knowledge is only very limited ‘. Nonetheless, he came to establish a very intriguing philosophy that is being referred to even today. Interesting fact about him is that unlike most of his contemporaries he had a rather negative view towards Religion. His philosophy of Religion argued that ‘it is unreasonable to believe in testimonies of alleged miraculous events. ‘ Moreover, he rejected the idea of proving the existence of God through a design or causal argument. Hume disagreed with the notion that God is connected to the creation and reinforcement of our moral values. Furthermore, he coined the term ‘utility’, which was later on expanded by the theory of Jeremy Bentham. Important from his philosophy for the paper is that he believed moral judgements were a consequence of our feelings. What this paper is trying to see is whether Hume’s belief that in the hypothetical situation where there is no society, people would not be at war with one another, however, they would only cooperate with a small group of friends and family. This can be explained by his philosophy.

Hume was a firm believer that the most powerful capacity in human nature was not his reason. It is passions that rule humans’ reason . Furthermore, he thought that human reason would fail in almost every case and what is guiding us through life are nothing more than our habits. Our reason is not only ruled by passion, but it is also ‘subordinate to our habits and customs, the result of a learning process instigated by the interaction between us and the world, which makes us anticipate the future and believe that one thing is the cause of something else .’ Habit formation is why people have certain beliefs about things. For instance, the idea of God, as mentioned above, is a result of a habit formation. This chain of thought is important and will be connected to the neuro-ethics of Patricia Churchland later on. Hume followed Naturalism, which is a philosophical belief that natural properties and causes is the reason for everything happening in our lives. In this belief he bases his understanding of morality, or in other words the question of what is and ought in moral views. He established the idea that we simply cannot deduce the truth from empirical thinking, thus we cannot presume an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ . Meaning that, an action whatever it is, is simply an action. It is not necessarily a moral or immoral action. In Hume’s philosophy, ‘morality is a natural phenomenon arising from human psychology ‘. Therefore, it is not something visible as an action would be. It is something humans understand, in order to meet the needs and interests of the society . Morality is based on what benefits us or pleases us. Therefore, he might have concluded that if there was no society, people would communicate with their closest people, such as friends and family, because this would benefit them the most. Strangers and people who are further apart from us would be of less utility to us, however this would not mean a war between them would occur. Simply, that cooperation would be limited. What is more, morality is ‘entirely relative to the sentiment or mental taste of each particular being. ‘ Therefore, morality as whole is something that is different from person to person, but we perceive it as something universal. Essential is that morality is driven by emotions. More recent scientific research however has an insight on this statement and explains how morality is closely related to sociality.

Society, according to Oxford English Dictionaries, is ‘senses relating to connection, participation, or partnership ‘. Therefore, society consists of people who are connected and work together in some way. They are united. Utility is in the core of society. Members of a society, depend on each other for help, and are therefore vulnerable when harm occurs . What this implies, is whatever happens within the members of the society affects the society as a whole. Moreover, society ‘can stay alive among different men, as it can among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any love or affection .’ Therefore, close relations are not needed in order for a society to function; it can function, for example, only because of trade. Trade is based on trust, and trust is a concept that will be discussed later. In a society trade is inevitable to occur, therefore it is accepted for people to build relationships outside of their closest kin and family. However, what Hume says that, if there is no society, people would not communicate outside of their own circles. However, it is widely agreed upon that, humans are social animals. Arnhart, L. (1998) understands this as ‘human beings are by nature social and political animals, because the species-specific behavioural repertoire of Homo Sapiens includes inborn desires and cognitive capacities that are fulfilled in social and political life .’ Thus, for the purpose of this paper, we need to distinguish between being part of a society and being social. The reason for that is, that the statement given by Hume, is supposing a situation where there is no society, however people are still cooperating with each other, and therefore the social aspect of them is present nonetheless. From there, we need to define what cooperation is and how is it possible. First, however, more about morality will be explained.

This paper began with a quote by the infamous Albert Einstein, who firmly stood behind the idea of morality as a crucial part of our lives. What then is so special about morality? How do we even gain access to it? Morality in the most general sense is the sum of values and norms of an individual or a group. Values are things regarded as important and worth aiming for. Norms are the things that make morality possible, because it is the rules that constitute our behaviour. Without the combination of norms and values we cannot have morality. Morality in its essence is what we ought to do in certain situations. And what we ought to do is derived by the norms and values one has. Research on the subject of morality has been done by Turiel, E. (1998), in which it has been concluded that morality is ’embedded in cultural contexts and in social relationships; it is neither biologically predetermined nor entirely socialized. ‘ The connection between morality and social life is that, morality is part of social life. Based on one’s morality he/she interacts with others in the social group. According to David Hume, our morals influence our actions and affections, from which he concludes that morals are not derivative of reason. Hume saw morals as something that excite passions, and then either produce or prevent actions . This idea of Hume was later proven to be somewhat correct. Overall, morality is all about asking what is right and what is wrong. In order to answer from where do we derive this sense of right or wrong we need to go from philosophy into neuro-ethics.

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