Ethical Realism

May 20, 2011

What is Morality?

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 3:18 am
Tags: , , , , ,

People discuss morality quite often and many of our actions are based on assumptions about morality. I will discuss the meaning of “morality” within ordinary language and illustrate the difference between morality and everything else by comparing moral and nonmoral standards.

What does “morality” mean?

Morality involves what we ought to do, right and wrong, good and bad, values, justice, and virtues. Morality is taken to be important, moral actions are often taken to merit praise and rewards, and immoral actions are often taken to merit blame and punishment.

What we ought to do

What we morally ought to do is what’s morally preferable. It’s morally preferable to give to certain charities and to refrain from hurting people who make us angry; so we morally ought to do these things.

Sometimes what we ought to do isn’t seen as optional. Instead, we often think we have moral duties (obligations). It might not be a moral duty to give to any charities, but it seems likely that we often have a duty not to hurt people.

Nonetheless, what we ought to do doesn’t just cover our obligations. It’s possible to do something morally preferable that’s not wrong. For example, we can act “above the call of duty.” Some actions are heroic, such as when we risk our life to run into a burning building to save a child. Some philosophers call actions that are above the call of duty “supererogatory” rather than “obligatory.”

Right and wrong

Something is morally right if it’s morally permissible, and morally wrong if it’s morally impermissible. For example, it’s morally right to help people and give to certain charities, but morally wrong to kill people indiscriminately.

Good and bad

“Good” and “bad” refer to positive and negative value. Something is morally good if it helps people attain something of positive value, avoid something of negative vale, or has a positive value that merits being a goal. For example, food is good because it is necessary to attain something of positive value because it helps us survive; and our survival could have positive value that merits being a goal. Something is morally bad if it makes it difficult to attain something of positive value, could lead to something of negative value, or has a negative value that merits avoidance. For example, starvation is bad because it could lead to suffering; and suffering could have negative value that warrants its avoidance.

Something has “instrumental moral value” if it is relevant to achieving moral goals. Food is instrumentally good because it helps us achieve our goal to survive; and starvation is instrumentally bad when we have a goal to avoid suffering, and starvation makes it more difficult for us to achieve this goal.

We take some of our goals to be worthy as “moral goals” for their own sake rather than being instrumental for the sake of something else. These goals could be taken to be worthy for having positive value (or help us avoid something of negative value)—what Aristotle calls “final ends” or what other philosophers call “intrinsic values.”

Imagine that someone asks you why you have a job and you say it’s to make money. We can then ask why you want to make money and you can reply that it’s to buy food. We can then ask why you want to buy food, and you can reply that it’s to survive. At this point you might not have a reason to want to survive other than valuing your existence for its own sake. If not, then we will wonder if you are wasting your time with a job. All of our goals must be justified at some point by something taken to be worthy as a goal for its own sake, or its not clear that any of our goals are really justified.

Final ends – Final ends are goals that we think are worthy. Pleasure, survival, and knowledge are possible examples of goods that should be taken to be promoted as final ends. Some final ends are also meant to help us avoid something of negative value, such as our goals to avoid pain and death. The goals of attaining these goods are “final ends.” It is possible that final ends are merely things we desire “for their own sake” but some final ends could be better and of greater importance than others. Aristotle thought that our “most final end” or “ultimate end” is happiness and no other good could override the importance of happiness.

Final ends seem relevant to right and wrong. It seems morally right to try to achieve our final ends because they are worthy. All things equal, it seems morally right to try to attain happiness and survive.

Intrinsic values – Intrinsic values are things of positive or negative value that have that value just for existing, and some philosophers think Aristotle’s truly worthy final ends have intrinsic value. The main difference here is that final ends could merely be psychological—what we take to be worthy goals, but a goal has intrinsic value only if it really is worthy. Some people might have “final ends” but actually be wrong about what goals are worthy of being final ends.

We can desire intrinsic values “for their own sake,” many think it’s rational to often try to attain things that are intrinsically good, and whatever is intrinsically good is good no matter who attains it. For example, if human life is intrinsically good, then survival is good for every person.

Intrinsic value plays the same role as final ends—we think it’s often morally right to try to achieve goals that help people attain intrinsic goods and we morally ought to do so. However, intrinsic values can conflict. If pain is intrinsically bad, that doesn’t mean we should never allow ourselves or others to experience pain because there might be intrinsic goods that can be attained as a result of our pain. For example, homework and learning is often painful, but the knowledge attained can help us live better lives and could even be intrinsically good.


Justice refers to our interest in certain ethical issues such as equality, fairness, and merit. It is unjust to have slavery or to have different laws for different racial groups because people should be equal before the law, it’s unfair, and racial groups don’t merit unequal treatment before the law. It is just to punish all people who break the law equally rather than let certain people—such as the wealthy—break certain laws that other people aren’t allowed to break. Additionally, it’s unjust to punish the innocent and to find the innocent guilty in a court of law.


Some people are better at being moral than others. It’s important that we know the difference between right and wrong, attain the skills necessary to reach demanding moral goals, and find the motivation to do what is morally preferable. For example, courage is a virtue that involves knowledge of right and wrong, skills, and motivation. Courage requires us to endanger our personal well being when doing so is morally preferable, to have skills that make it possible to endanger our personal well being in many situations, and the motivation to be willing to endanger our well being when we ought to do so.

Praise and blame

We often think that moral behavior merits praise and immoral behavior merits blame. It often seems appropriate to tell people who have done good, such as saving lives, that we appreciate it and that what they are doing is good; and it often seems appropriate to tell people who have done something immoral that we don’t appreciate it and that they did something morally wrong. Additionally, it generally seems appropriate to hold people responsible for their actions and let them know that their actions could have been different.

Reward and punishment

One way to hold people responsible for their actions is to reward and punish them for their behavior, and this often seems appropriate. We could give gifts or return favors to people who help us, and break our friendship or ignore those who do something immoral. For example, a company that scams people should be held responsible and punished by consumers who decide to no longer do business with that company.

Sometimes punishments could be severe and could seem immoral in any other context. For example, it might be morally justified to throw murderers in prison even though it would be an immoral example of kidnapping and imprisonment in many other contexts. We can’t just throw anyone in prison that we want.

Moral and nonmoral standards

Not everything is morally right or wrong. Sometimes something is entirely nonmoral and irrelevant to morality—such as standing on your head or counting blades of grass. One way to clarify what “morality” refers to is to compare and contrast it to nonmoral things that are sometimes confused with it.

What we morally or nonmorally ought to do

We don’t just talk about right and wrong, good or bad, or what we ought to do in moral contexts. This is because there is both moral and nonmoral instrumental value.

Moral instrumental value – We ought to do what is necessary to attain moral goals. For example, we morally ought to get a job and buy food to stay alive. It’s morally right to get a job and buy food, and food has moral instrumental value insofar as it helps us attain our moral goal of survival.

Nonmoral instrumental value – Not all instrumental value helps us achieve moral goals. We can also have personal goals that have (almost) nothing to do with morality. For example, I might have a goal of standing on my head and taking gymnastics classes could be what I ought to do to achieve this goal. The right thing to do to be able to stand on your head is to take gymnastics classes, even though it has nothing to do with morality. Additionally, some instrumental values could even be immoral. For example, I might have a goal to murder someone and I could say I ought to use a gun if that’s the best way to murder someone. That’s not to say that I morally ought to murder anyone.


Etiquette tells us how to be polite and show respect within a culture. Etiquette tells us not to chew our food with our mouths open, to open doors for people, and not to interrupt people who are talking. Sometimes being rude and impolite can be morally wrong, but the fact that etiquette and morality sometimes overlap doesn’t mean they are identical or that etiquette is always relevant to morality. First, etiquette tends not to be serious enough to be morally relevant. Burping in the US is considered rude, but it would be strange to say it’s ever morally wrong. Second, it’s often morally right to be rude. Many people think that questioning someone’s moral qualifications and moral opinions is rude, but it’s often the morally preferable thing to do because it’s essential that we have the best moral opinions possible and sometimes it’s a good idea to help people improve their moral opinions. The importance of helping people be moral can override the importance of showing the superficial signs of respect assigned within a culture. Such signs of respect are often arbitrary and can conflict with more important ways of showing respect—such as the respect we show people when we assume that people have a concern to morally improve themselves.


The law tells us what we are or are not allowed to do, and breaking the law often leads to punishment. What’s legal is often based on what’s moral, but not always. For example, it’s illegal and immoral to murder people. However, the fact that legality and morality can overlap doesn’t mean they are identical. It was once illegal to free slaves, but that doesn’t mean it was morally wrong; and it can be legal for a company to pollute or dump toxic waste, but that doesn’t mean it’s morally right to do so.


It’s hard to pinpoint what morality is about, but we often discuss morality with ease anyway. There are many related ideas concerning morality, such as what we ought to do, right and wrong, and justice; but these ideas often have a nonmoral counterpart. This seems clear when we compare moral and nonmoral instrumental value. Moreover, etiquette and law are often confused with morality, but they are not identical to morality. What’s polite or legal is often moral, but not always. What’s bad etiquette or illegal can be moral as well.

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  1. so, acting morally seems to be an action which leads to a goal, when the goal is deemed as good. such as working for food, or standing on your head for health reasons. but then, is it more moral to act for a friends sake than to act for your own sake, or should you act for your own sake first?
    do we not automatically deem something moral on some sort of scale. An equation really;
    the more similar the thing or person is to you, plus the amount of good done to the thing or person. saving a life being the ultimate good.

    so killing your son for food is more reprehensible than killing a stranger for food.
    or killing a man to save a dog is deemed immoral simply because the human is more similar to you than the dog.

    likewise, stealing from your cousin is worse than cheating on your taxes.

    by this formula that we seem to follow, acting for yourself must be the most moral, because who is more similar to you than yourself… and yet its not so. somehow that’s called being selfish and is deemed imoral.
    anyway, just some thoughts

    Comment by jake — November 11, 2011 @ 12:50 am | Reply

    • Jake,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      I did not technically explain when actions are right or wrong in this piece and that is a contentious issue in moral philosophy. The answers to this issue are known as “normative theories of ethics” or “moral theories.”

      Most philosophers would not say that being similar to others is relevant. Instead, what is relevant involves our relationships, expectations, desires and/or intrinsic values.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 11, 2011 @ 1:39 am | Reply

  2. Reblogged this on Hadi Najam.

    Comment by Hadi Najam — January 30, 2012 @ 5:28 am | Reply

  3. I thought VALUES were simply beliefs and MORALS were actions. For example, I believe or my value states NO SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE – this is a part of my value system. But I am not married and I had sex last night. I still cherish the VALUE (no sex before marriage) but morally I was wrong last night, and my actions were immoral. So I have high and strong VALUES, but low morals.

    Comment by Art Kane — July 14, 2012 @ 4:35 am | Reply

    • That might be one way of speaking, but it’s not very philosophically relevant. In fact, it seems like an incomplete thought. “No sex before marriage” describes some situations, but is it right or wrong? I think you want to say something like, “I believe it’s wrong to have sex before marriage.” That’s a belief about something being morally wrong.

      A philosopher might say that you can value people not having sex before marriage insofar as you desire it or think it’s worthwhile. In that case it wouldn’t be a belief. However, you could believe something has value. You might say that “having sex before marriage is bad.” It’s not clear how this differs from it being wrong.

      We want to know what we should value or what really has value. We want to know what opinions are true or false. To say that you believe that sex before marriage is wrong could be an attempt to say something true or false. Being true or false would not necessarily mean anything has value. That’s another issue. Utilitarians think actions are right or wrong depending on the consequences being good or bad.

      I didn’t actually use the word “morals” above. It’s not clear that morals are actions. However, many moral theorists agree that actions can be right or wrong.

      Comment by JW Gray — July 14, 2012 @ 6:31 am | Reply

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