On morality

Friends, this is the beginning of a sketch on morality that I have been developing and I would so much welcome comments and questions in developing it further. I am trying to describe my moral position from a philosophical point of view.

Before we proceed, let us deal with definitions. The Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy defines descriptive and normative morals values thus;

  1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    1. some other group, such as a religion, or
    2. 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.

That said, I will begin by getting gods out of the picture by introducing the Euthyphro dilemma which dispensed with the notion that gods are required for morality.

The theory am developing is that morals do not exist. Yes, you read it correctly. Morality is an illusion one that we have created for practical purposes. It is an illusion that our race has developed over time to propagate its survival in the universe. To enforce this illusion, there is shame and threat of punishment that are used to restrict urges. The realization that if this urges were not restricted, there would be chaos. Moral codes are just practical tools and that is it.

To justify morality, those men and women who went before us had to claim that man was responsible for his actions. Man had to be seen as a moral agent, one capable of making moral judgments concerning any particular action. This notion has been passed down to us that it is accepted by almost everyone as being true. They convinced their follows that there were moral values or norms that had to be adhered to.

In Human, all too human Nietzsche writes

The super animal, the beast in us wants to be lied to; morality is a white lie, to keep it from tearing us apart. Without the errors inherent in the postulates of morality, man would have remained an animal. But as it is he has taken himself to be something higher and has imposed stricter laws upon himself. He therefore has a hatred of those stages of man that remain closer to the animal state, which explains why the slave used to be disdained as a nonhuman, a thing.

In order not to make this a long treatise, I welcome all questions and comments.

Related articles

1. on ethics part i-moral philosophy’s third way 

2. quasi realism

3. William Craig on morality and meaning

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

43 thoughts on “On morality

  1. Mordanicus says:

    Amazingly, I was just taking a shower when I perceived to write a similar article on morality. Especially about the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive (normative) ethics, and why this is relevant.

    However, my article was given by the fact that some theists believe that atheists and agnostics cannot know anything about morality. I think this is due what is called issue ownership in political science (BTW, which is my discipline). Issue ownership means that some (political) issue belongs to a political party. Consequently other parties do not deal with this particular issue.

    Of course, this is pure BS. (not the concept, but the phenomenon).


  2. john zande says:

    Personally i don’t even like the word, morals. I prefer the term code of conduct.

    Now, whereas i would agree that our code of conduct does not exist as an objective thing i’d be slow to say it’s not subjectively real.


  3. themodernidiot says:

    Morals are the decisions we make based on what we believe to be right and wrong. So yes, they do. The opposite of morality is not immorality, it is indifference.

    Does right and wrong exist? Different question. That’s where the subjectivity comes in.

    Great post idea!


  4. hiramcrespo says:


    I encourage you to look into Epicurus’ theory of justice, which postulates that justice is a cultural construct based on mutual agreements, the so-called ‘social contract’ theory of justice and ethics.

    It is, however, a civilized thing to be moral and it goes to what it means to be a civilized animal rather than a crude beast.

    Seneca, in his exploration of moral development of humans (which might also interest you in your research) talks about people who can discern their way into Truth and ethics on their own and without helps (people such as Epicurus), versus people who can discern Truth but only with the help of more advance people at different times (I suspect this is the majority of people) and, finally, people who must be coerced in order to be ethical and find Truth. This last group, I suspect, is found in abundance practicing most organized religions.

    And so, there are differents kinds of people for whom different theories of ethics may apply. Something to think about …


  5. aguywithoutboxers says:

    I agree with Mr. Zande, above. I prefer “code of conduct” or even “ethics” over morals. To me, morals infer a proscribed belief system, in a sense, “good” versus “evil.” Then, that same “good” versus “evil” concept is a basis for judgment, a power structure, or hierarchy.

    “Ethics” and “code of conduct” are, at least in my view, neutral; independent of any belief system.


  6. foolsmusings says:

    I guess the big question is still, do we really have any free will?


  7. Holyfuckyeahgoddamnshit! and communistturtlepigfuckeingbatswithlazers.

    Yes, there is no morality. Morality is an value assessment of near universally accepted behaviors. Life eats life eats life eats life eats life…. Morality is like saying the lighter side of a 128 box set of crayons is morally good and the rest are morally bad. It’s completely arbitrary and subjective. That many people seem to hold similar subjective values does not mean there is a “normal” which is ‘good’ or an abnormal which is not good. It just means humans are mostly sheep-like.

    This does not preclude me from holding the position that I personally think certain behaviors are bad and others good… but that’s just a personal subjective valuation of things. It does not mean I’m morally good or have position to judge morally good values for anyone but myself.

    Nihilism feels good, doesn’t it?


  8. ajrogers2013 says:

    I don’t see how you can deny the existence of morals as you define them. You are using the definition from SEP that you posted correct?
    So you deny the existence of “codes of conduct put forward by a society or,some other group”?
    You can’t actually be denying that societies and religions have put forward codes of conduct. I assume I’m misunderstanding you argument here. What exactly are you denying the existence of?


    • makagutu says:

      I don’t define morals. I said they have been defined in that manner and I went ahead and said it’s an illusion.
      You are responding to a claim I have not made. I acknowledge that different people have come up with codes at different places and times but these are just social constructs. They don’t exist in the real sense of the word.


      • ajrogers2013 says:

        Okay so if you are saying that it is an illusion that morals exist as they are defined by SEP, then you are obviously mistaken since we know that codes of conduct really have been put forward by societies and religions. You might not like the codes, but the codes really do exist.

        The problem with your argument is that the SEP defines “morals” as social constructs. You can’t say that a social construct doesn’t exist because it is really nothing but a social construct. It exists as a social construct. You need to first find a definition of “morals” that claims that they are something other than a social construct before you can wave them away as not existing because they are nothing but a social construct. You can’t say the Mona Lisa doesn’t really exist because it is just a painting and not a real woman unless someone actually claimed that it was a real woman and not just a painting. Because it really does exist as a painting just as morals really do exist as social constructs. The SEP definition doesn’t claim that “morals” are anything more than social constructs.

        “They don’t exist in the real sense of the word.”
        I don’t know what you mean by this. Social constructs exist as social constructs. What else would they exist as?


        • makagutu says:

          Are you insisting they exist because they have been put forward by society or what is your argument here? Do they exist independently?

          The SEP does not define morals. It defines moral values. You need to read the definition once more!

          You can’t say the Mona Lisa doesn’t really exist because it is just a painting and not a real woman unless someone actually claimed that it was a real woman and not just a painting.

          Another false analogy similar to the hammer analogy.

          SEP defines moral values. And these values of right or wrong conduct are nothing but illusions. The question I asked you in my first response to you which you have not responded to, that is,

          is stealing inherently bad? Why?

          is to demonstrate to you the fluidity of whatever you are claiming here exists. There is no place I have said they are not social constructs.


          • ajrogers2013 says:

            “is stealing inherently bad?”
            I don’t know what this means. We need to define “bad” first. If it means “causes harm to someone” then it is probably bad. If it means “against the rules of society x”, then it depends on the society. If it means “against the rules of God”, then it depends on the God. If it means “not in my long term best interest”, then it is probably bad but you could come up with scenarios where stealing might be in my best interest. One can almost always come up with extreme cases that work as counterexamples.

            Both the hammer and the Mona Lisa analogy work. You haven’t explained why they are false analogies.

            “The SEP does not define morals. It defines moral values. You need to read the definition once more!”
            Okay so you weren’t actually providing a definition of “morals”? You were just claiming that morals don’t exist without even explaining what you mean by “morals”? If we define “morals” as social constructs then they do exist, if we define “morals” as objective abstract clouds of rules or some other nonsense then they don’t exist.


            • makagutu says:

              In this case you are in the same place as I am, that bad has to be defined and you also agree there are situations where stealing can be justified. The nest question I would ask you is why is causing harm to others bad? And why should society have rules against stealing?

              You can go to the Louvre Museum and have a look at the Mona Lisa, take photographs of it. You can do the same with a hammer. Moral values on the other hand are subjective constructs. They exist nowhere except in your mind. I have said they are false analogies because you are comparing physical constructs and theoretical concepts and insisting that the two are similar. You surprise me!

              Morals, even if described as social constructs are abstract. I wont go so far as to say abstract clouds, but they are abstract concepts and that is the reason why one they vary from place to place and over time!


              • ajrogers2013 says:

                I actually think you missed the point of the analogies. Morals can exist in many ways as I’ve said before. They can exist as written laws. They can exist as oral traditions. They can exist as divine commands. They can exist in my mind as evolved desires or as rationalized conclusions of some sort. I’m not sure we are disagreeing here. We might just be using different terminology. I wouldn’t say that emotions “don’t really exist” because they are only in our minds- our minds are real! Emotions are real because we are real. Just like morals are real because we are real.


  9. ajrogers2013 says:

    You said “morals do not exist.” and “Moral codes are just practical tools and that is it.” But according to the SEP definition of morality, morals are codes put forward by societies, which means that they are practical tools by definition. What else would they be? So you aren’t really denying their existence; you are affirming it. Once again I’m probably misunderstanding you because it sounds like you are saying that hammers are just an illusion because they are really nothing but practical tools.

    You say “To justify morality, those men and women who went before us had to claim that man was responsible for his actions.” But what else would it meant to “be responsible” other than to make your own decisions, know the codes of conduct in your tribe, and then be punished when you choose to break the codes of conduct? You make a choice, you know the rules, and you are held responsible- what else would “responsibility” be?


    • makagutu says:

      When you compare morals and hammers you commit a logical fallacy of FALSE analogy. The two are not comparable and you must know that! I have said they are illusions, chimeras that we have come to employ to survive in a community. For example is stealing inherently wrong?
      Do you think man is responsible for his actions? Is that what you are suggesting? You think you make choices, that you decide to act one way or other or what is your claim here?


      • ajrogers2013 says:

        If morals are defined as codes of conduct put forward by societies then I don’t see how it is a false analogy. Whether the code is chiseled into stone, written on paper, or passed down orally, it really is a code and it really exists, just like a hammer really exists. And in both cases they are practical tools.

        I am saying we make decisions. I doubt you can deny that.
        I am also saying that when we are aware of the codes of conduct put forward by our societies and yet still decide to break the code, we are then held responsible and punished by the society. I am saying that “responsible for our actions” means
        1.) Know the code of conduct put forward by society.
        2.) Decide to break the code of conduct.
        3.) Punished by society for (1) and (2).
        This is what it means to be responsible. If these three things happen then you are responsible for your actions. If you have a different definition of “responsible” then explain what it is and why you think it is something we don’t have.


        • makagutu says:

          So you are asserting, if I understand you, that people choose to act against the set codes? Is that your thesis. People don’t choose. They just act as they have rules or no rules. I don’t have a different definition of responsible all am saying is people are not responsible for their actions.
          it seems we are talking past each other. I said morality is a chimera. It is an illusion a white lie as the quote in the OP states. The dictates of wrong and right are nothing more beyond societal dictates. That is all they are!
          A hammer does not stop being a hammer because society has advanced in knowledge. Codes of conduct, based primarily on human ideas, change all the time. Some get universal approval but are no more real than the last one!
          In fact the definition describes moral values not morality! The group decides arbitrarily that this are the codes and every sheep is expected to follow.


          • ajrogers2013 says:

            “I don’t have a different definition of responsible all am saying is people are not responsible for their actions.”
            If we use my definition of “responsible”, then your position is empirically false. People (1) make decisions (2) are at least sometimes aware of the codes of conduct in their societies and (3) are punished by their societies. If these three things happen then people are, by definition, responsible for their actions.
            It seems that you are trying to deny (1)? You say, “People don’t choose. They just act as they have rules or no rules.”
            I’m not talking about libertarian free will here, I just talking about the fact that people make decisions. This seems like an absurd thing to attempt to deny. Even a determinist would say that people make decisions; they just make decisions that are determined by antecedent events.

            You keep claiming that these codes of morality are nothing but social constructs and therefore aren’t real. But they are real social constructs. We really socially constructed them. The fact that laws are socially constructed by congress doesn’t mean that they aren’t really laws or that they don’t really exist or that you won’t be held responsible for breaking them. You need to first provide a definition of morality that claims it is something other than a social construct and then you can use your argument against it.


            • makagutu says:

              You are insisting that because codes exist and people are punished when they act contra them they are punished [effect] they are responsible[cause]. Is it not possible that they are punished because society doesn’t know better? That our justice system is based on wrong ideas? Is that not evident to you or what is your argument here?

              If you are not arguing for free will then what are you arguing for. Determinist would say that people act as they would. They don’t decide to act this or that way. Which determinists agree with you?

              Let me simplify it for you. I am saying human beings have developed values to live by for whatever reason. That am not denying. What am saying is these rules of right and wrong behaviour are anything but chimeras, illusions that there is a right way to act or not to act.

              You are obsessed with a desire to make man responsible that it seems you are not allowing yourself to think more deeply of the matter. Now do this read the post again, the whole of it and then tell me where you think am wrong. To tell me a person ought to be punished for breaking laws is still arguing for free will.


              • ajrogers2013 says:

                I defined “being responsible for x” as meeting conditions (1)-(3) in regards to x. You then say that one of the conditions- (3) being punished- is actually an effect and that being responsible is the cause. But that is clearly false according to my definition. According to my definition, the fulfillment of (1)-(3) are just what it means to be responsible for something. So (1)-(3) cause it to be the case that you are responsible. It’s fine if you don’t like my definition; you can reject it and come up with your own. But since you weren’t defining your terms I thought we should start somewhere so I gave a definition.

                “Is it not possible that they are punished because society doesn’t know better?”
                This makes no sense if we use my definition. Society doesn’t know better than what? Society is right by definition. Because the definition of being responsible for x is (1) deciding to do x (2) knowing x is against the rules of your society and (3) being punished by your society for x.

                “That our justice system is based on wrong ideas?”
                This claim is meaningless unless you have some other definition of “responsible” or of “moral”. Our justice system is wrong compared to what? If responsibility and morality are nothing but social constructs (which I’m not disputing) then any society which constructs a morality is right by definition. And any society which holds someone responsible is right by definition. You could only say they were wrong if you had some “higher” standard of morality to compare them to.

                “Determinist would say that people act as they would. They don’t decide to act this or that way.”
                So you must think that all psychologists, philosophers, and cognitive scientists believe in free will because they talk about people “making decisions”? The free will debate isn’t a question of whether people make decisions, it is a questions of whether they “freely” make decisions and whether or not the decisions are predetermined by antecedent events. I happen to think they are predetermined, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are decisions.

                “What am saying is these rules of right and wrong behavior are anything but chimeras, illusions that there is a right way to act or not to act.”
                So you’re saying that morality is nothing but a social construct? Morality doesn’t exist as some objective cloud or “form of the good” or abstract object or law of nature? I agree with you, but you make the mistake of thinking that social constructs aren’t real and that they don’t matter. I care much more about a social construct than I would care about some stupid objective could of moral rules. Social constructs are real things and they are usually enforced through violence, whereas objective clouds and abstract objects don’t enforce their rules on us and usually aren’t even considered to be causally connected to the universe.

                I think the concept of objective morality is incoherent. If that is all you’re saying, then I agree with you. But you’re wrong about social constructs not being real.


                • makagutu says:

                  I know what you defined. All am saying is that definition is based on a misconception of how the human machine works. The fact that you can define it doesn’t make it true. Is that hard to understand? I know countries have made laws against smoking in public. When a person who knows this law smokes in public, am sure some idiot of a cop will arrest him and arraign him/her in court for violating that law. I insist at the time this fellow was smoking, he couldn’t have acted otherwise regardless of the law.

                  The justice system is based on the Christian belief that man is responsible, that god created man with free will and that the said man can chose how to act. I have said this is based on a wrong idea. You say I make no sense. Tell me where I don’t make sense. Nope, you can’t tell me a society that constructs morality is right by definition. Right according to whom? Them or to someone else at a different place and time? Till very recently the Christian Europe owned slaves and justified it using the bible, were they right by definition? Or rather what do you mean by right by definition?

                  The decision leads to an act. And am saying they act as they would. The person feels they have made a decision or choice. What do you mean by saying the free will debate isn’t about making decisions but whether they decide freely. The question is not whether people act, it is if they act freely and am saying they don’t. Tell me where am wrong.

                  I haven’t made the mistake of saying social constructs are not real. I have said they are not objective. Am also saying they are in many cases arbitrary. I will give you an example of an arbitrary social construct. The poverty line is defined as a person living below a dollar day. Why a dollar, why not two dollars, why not ten dollars? It is an arbitrary value.

                  Social constructs, like those moral values are chimeras. The illusion that there is a right way to act. That is what am saying and apart from insisting that social constructs are real you haven’t shown where am wrong.


                  • ajrogers2013 says:

                    True by definition would be if we agreed to define the word “green” as “the color of the sky”. That means that the sky is always green by definition for us. Because we have defined the word “green” that way. That is why it is important to define your terms. If you let me define “green” as “the color of the sky” then you are going to always be wrong by definition when you claim that the sky isn’t “green”, regardless of what color the sky really is.

                    “The illusion that there is a right way to act.”
                    In order to make a substantive claim here you need to define what you mean by “right”.

                    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your original argument. I’m just saying that it isn’t clear what your original argument even is unless you define your terms first.


                    • makagutu says:

                      As I said in the OP, it is a sketch and a few issues need to be resolved. Thank you for taking the time to comment and ask questions for clarification. I do usually insist on getting definitions out of the way, I think it is Hume who said define your terms. You can excuse my failure to do so here and with your critique and further reading I can develop the matter fully.

                      I think this agreeable to you too.


                    • ajrogers2013 says:

                      Sounds good. I was only commenting because I thought your thesis was too unclear for me to even discern whether or not I agreed with it. I hope I didn’t seem too combative. I look forward to further posts on this topic.


                    • makagutu says:

                      As long as no one is calling the other names, am fine with combat or I would not write.


  10. holly says:

    hmm. Interesting thought Noel.
    I come out of a very black and white moral laws given by a moral law giver kind of mindset…
    So this has been terrifically hard work to come out of…
    I do think if we elect to live within a society, and not go live on a mountain/island by our-self that we then choose to participate in the (oh I like John’s wording) “code of conduct” of that society. We may in fact be a part of writing/rewriting it. It doesn’t have to be a physical thing…but it certainly is a tool.
    something that we learn as social creatures that works.
    empathy…understanding…If my back is itchy….and i can’t reach the spot…perhaps you might lend a hand because your back might one day be itchy too….and vice versa
    we learn about the benefits of cooperation, of having rights and responsibilities…?
    I do believe we are responsible for our behavior…
    I don’t understand how we could not be?


    • makagutu says:

      How, dear tell me, could we be responsible for our behaviour?

      I can understand what you say about the background you are coming from. Having been brought up Catholic, I do empathize with your situation. How have I come to where I am. I have thought hard about some of these things and read a bit and asked myself tough questions and lastly we must take the arguments to their logical conclusions without fear what we find at the end. We must ask ourselves, what does the death of god to all those things that were hitherto explained by god? Can they still stand on their own, is their a way to arrive at them without gods and what is this way.


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