What is Morality?

Here’s the Merriam Webster definition of morality:

2a doctrine or system of moral conduct the basic law which an adequate morality ought to state— Marjorie Grene
moralities plural: particular moral principles or rules of conduct we were all brought up on one of these moralities— Psychiatry
3conformity to ideals of right human conduct admitted the expediency of the law but questioned its morality
4moral conduct: VIRTUE morality today involves a responsible relationship toward the laws of the natural world— P. B. Sears
Here’s another definition from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“morality” can be used either
  1. descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior, or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

So we might settle on the idea that morality is the set of standards for behavior that considers good or right in a society.

It’s important to recognize that there are several ways to determine whether something is moral.

  • It may be best for the individual.
  • It may be best for society.
  • It could be an absolute – if an action is wrong, it is always wrong regardless of circumstance.

This is why morality and morality debates are so critical to society.  Determining the moral thing to do isn’t always clear and it’s rarely easy.  When people see things strictly in a black and white way, they will often trip of the reality of life, which is never clean, easy, or black and white.

Jesus even gave us a clear understanding of the complexity of morality.

Luke 10:25-37 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

25 And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion,34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 36 Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

Did you know that if a priest touches a dead body, he had to undergo a cleansing ritual that stopped him from serving in the altar?  Did you know that a Levite (a member of the priestly family of the Jewish tradition) had the same restrictions?  If these men were traveling, then stopping and touching a dead body may have prevented them from serving God and the Jewish community.

In that case, were their actions moral?  We don’t know what these men were going to do when they arrived at their destinations.  Caring for a dead body may have had serious repercussions that harmed their service to others.  In their view, it may be seen as moral to not attend to the man on the side of the road.

Morality’s complex.  It’s not always obvious.  Some people think it’s always wrong to lie.  But would it have been wrong to lie if it saved someone’s life?  People faced that decision during the time of the Nazis when they hid Jews in their homes.

Morality Debate

Morality debate always starts with competing values.  What’s most important to this debate?

Because we live in a Western Civilization-based society, we have certain standards that we expect.  Those standards won’t necessarily apply in other cultures, or in every situation.  You will sometimes find that even if the values are the same, we have different perspectives on how they apply.

In morality debates, we start with the philosophy.  What do we base our ideas on?

Our philosophy will influence how we think, how we act, and what our expectations for other people are.  It colors how we think society should work, what we believe a government can and cannot do, and how we function within our culture.

Our topic for LD debate is:

In a democratic society, voting ought to be compulsory.

What’s the moral issue in this topic?

How do you frame a moral debate about voting?

You start with the first premise:  a democratic society.

Morality in Democracy

What is a citizen’s obligation in society?  There’s a question that Socrates faced when given the death penalty *for corrupting the youth of Athens.

What’s the basis of democracy?  How does that work in a republic like the United States?

Lots of questions.  Your job is to answer them.

My job is to suggest some reading for you.  A lot of reading for you.

Social Contract Theory

How do we live together?

Social Contract Theory defines the nature of government.


Often thought to be started by Socrates (but this is in dispute) the next biggest move in the theory of government is thought to be Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He’s notably remembered for  (paraphrase) life in the state of nature is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”   If there is no government to control the people, then they live in a state of nature where anyone can do anything to anyone else without fear of punishment.  Because there is no motivation to produce goods or services, there would be no development of industry or trade.  All the things that make life better aren’t in place because there’s no control over other people stealing it from you.

Hobbes’ social contract was laid out in a publication called Leviathan.  Named for a giant beast (found in the Bible, btw), in Leviathan Hobbes says that there needs to be a strong, powerful ruler – a sovereign – who is in charge of making sure that the laws of the land are enforced – creating a society.  The contract is based on the idea that we all agree to live under that government to create peace and protect ourselves from attacks.  The state of nature is a horrible place because human beings are fallen creatures of sin, but there’s hope.  Humans can think and can reason their way to create a civil society that protects the people.  The citizens have to agree to surrender their rights that come in the state of nature – essentially, the right to take whatever they want when they want it, regardless of the impact on those they take from.  Second, the citizens have to agree to one over-arching government with laws and a way to enforce the law.

Hobbes lived during a particularly violent time in English history.  Not only did they overthrow the Charles I of England, the revolutionaries cut off his head and established the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland – a time with no king but a Parliament and a Lord Protector.


Notice that he didn’t mention democracy.  We’re getting there.

A few years later, we have John Locke (1632-1704) come on the scene.  Locke agrees with Hobbes that we need a government, but he’s big on the concept of self-government and not so big on the concept of a sovereign leader.  He thinks that humans recognize what’s commonly called the Law of Nature.  It’s a moral construct that we will not harm each other’s  “life, health, liberty or possessions.”  

This is a big difference from Hobbes, who thinks that under the state of nature, there are no constraints on behavior.  Hobbes’ state of nature is brutal and war-like.  Locke’s state of nature is more peaceful; but it still requires a government to administer between the citizens when one decides to take from another, or perhaps enslave the other.  The role of government is to break the cycle of violence between the citizens.  It administers the law, but if it becomes a tyranny – a government that no longer protects its citizens – the citizens can revolt against it.  They could return to the state of nature, or they could form another society and government.

Locke probably remembers from his youth the execution of Charles I, and certainly saw the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 along with the overthrow of James II in 1688.  The political upheaval of England during his life probably had some impact on his political philosophies.  He’d witnessed the revolutions of the people changing the government three times in his lifetime.

Locke’s biggest ideas were about life, liberty, and property.  As he saw it, people’s property wasn’t just the land, but also the product of the land.  If someone lives on a piece of land but doesn’t use it to produce goods, then they truly don’t own the property.  This mindset was extended to include each person’s body.  You use your body to produce goods or services, therefore it is your own and no one should own another.

If you know American history, you know that Locke had a tremendous influence on Thomas Jefferson and the other American founding fathers.


The next big name in Social Contract Theory is Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  While Hobbes and Locke were British, Rousseau was French and lived until the start of the French Revolution.

Rousseau’s perception of the state of nature was significantly different from Hobbes and Locke.  He believed that in the state of nature, the population was so low that there was no need to steal from one another because there were sufficient supplies for everyone.  People were moral and pure, and in general unlikely to harm each other.  However, as the population grew and the need for goods grew, individuals began to live together and started to divide the tasks within the community.  This led to problems – some people had more free time or more goods.  Some envied or coveted other’s belongings as the concept of private property developed. That’s when a social contract between people needed to be established – as the inequality of private property split the people apart.  However, in Rousseau’s world, the government simply reinforced the inequity.  It didn’t try to resolve it.  That’s the problem with government in Rousseau’s theory.  Ideally, the government would manage resources, goods, and services to the better of everyone in the community.  Rousseau lives in the tension between the reality of how society developed with some having more resources and others having less – and how a government tries to work to allow humans freedom but still live in harmony.


Whereas Hobbes and Locke were comfortable with a sovereign, Rousseau had a different picture of the world.  He saw not a sovereign but a congress of people to come together and create a common good.  There are a number of restrictions in this theory – the area and type of people needed to be in unity and run with a strong democratic mindset – everyone has a vote.

These three are considered to be the basis of Social Contract theory.  There are a few more modern voices, but we’ll stop here for now.