What is Morality?

At first glance, the title of this post might seem a little silly. When someone claims to be a moral person, we take her to mean that she’s a decent, law-abiding, good person. When someone calls an act immoral, we take him to mean that the act is wrong in some way. And when someone says they follow their own code of morals . . . well, what should we take them to mean?

Mark Sanford has a moral code, and, according to this Huffington Post blogpost, he had a moral agenda too. But most people aren’t clamoring to defend Mark Sanford as a moral person. Moreover, the parts of Sanford’s moral code that the author Emma Ruby-Sachs has a problem with–opposing gay adoption, for example, is a moral value that a lot of other people espouse. This blogger looks at Sanford’s adultery–something most of us clearly think is immoral–with a “more rational moral code than Christianity” and finds Sanford isn’t all that bad.

Perhaps she is worthy of his love. We do know that she had long been a friend and that this was unlikely to have been a casual love. This may be a very genuine and deserved love and Mark Sanford may love his wife also, for all I know.

People in general like the idea of a “more rational morality” but it still strikes even the most rational person as false that Sanford should get to cheat on his wife simply because some woman is “worthy of his love.”

So maybe this whole business of asking “what is morality” is a more useful inquiry than we thought. Modern moral scholarship has been greatly influenced by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. At the end of the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant remarks that “two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” This conception of morality as consisting in a sacred moral law has been the dominant conception of morality in the modern period. We think of morality as some transcendent realm of obligation into which we wander when we run into dilemmas, a code of rules imposed on us from some mysterious ethereal realm. Bernard Williams called this conception of morality a “peculiar institution” which we are better off without, despite its compelling nature.

We think of morality as that area of study concerned with dilemmas like “is it wrong to have sex with a woman that is not my wife” or
“do I have an obligation to carry my unborn child to term?” But the original use of the word “morality” had a much wider concern than just specific dilemmas or problems. The term “morality” is actually not etymologically related to the word for rules or obligation. It comes from the Latin word mos (plural mores) which is more properly translated “custom” or “practice.” We tend to think of morality as a body of normative precepts or a “code,” as I indicated earlier, that exists as an entity on its own right, but the original use of the word “morality” meant something different. Morality was a way of living life, and particularly, of living life well. Bernard Williams argues that in light of this, we should broaden the scope of morality to answering the question “How should I live?” rather than “which rules should I follow?”

This is how Thomas Aquinas thought of morality. Of course, rules and obligations were part of the picture, but rules and obligations do not give us the full breadth of morality’s essence. Morality for Aquinas is about how to achieve happiness, completion, and well-being.

Some readers will object to this as wishy-washy or bordering on relativism. One might ask, “If Mark Sanford is made happy by cheating on his wife, should he do it?” If morality is about happiness and well-being, by which standards should we hold people accountable?

Aquinas was by no means a relativist, nor did he think that people should get to choose arbitrarily which things make them happy. Morality for Aquinas is about doing what is good. Moreover, Aquinas’ moral theory is grounded in a general metaphysical theory of goodness. This term requires some clarification.

In response to the question “what does it mean to choose the good?” Aquinas asks “what do we even mean by goodness?” This is the metaphysical question, meaning that it is a question about ultimate reality, not just about the physical universe around us. Goodness, according to Aquinas, is a transcendental (this is why his idea of goodness is called a metaphysics of goodness, since transcendentals are by definition not physical). Transcendentals are certain entities which capture the complex ways in which created things exist. Besides goodness, truth, unity, and beauty are transcendentals–they describe some dimension of existence that lots of different things share. What do all “good” things share? According to Aquinas, all good things are in some way desirable. Thus the good, piggy-backing off of Aristotle “is what all things desire.”

This concept requires some explanation. Why do I read? To make myself smarter, because I enjoy reading, because I have to in order to get a doctorate. The good, therefore, is whatever is the object of desire. But we have lots of desires, and some are clearly better than others. Mark Sanford had a desire to have sex with his Argentinian lover, but he also had the desire to fulfill the duties of his gubernatorial office, sans scandal. This morning, I had the desire to exercise, but I also had the desire to sleep in. In so far as all of these various things fulfill mine or Mark Sanford’s desires, they are, in some way, good.

But if goodness is something so general, it loses its meaning. Why bother talking about Mark Sanford choosing to have or resist an affair if both are good in some sense of the word? Aquinas is aware of this objection. He argues that goodness is used most properly to refer to something that is perfected, something that is doing what it is designed to do. A pen is good if it writes well. A table is good if it doesn’t wobble. Goodness for each thing is most properly the perfection of its own proper act of existence.

For human beings, existence is complex. There is not just one thing we need to do to exist well, like a pen just needs to write well in order to achieve the perfection of its existence. Human beings need to have and do lots of different things to fulfill the perfection of their existence. They need health and all the accompanying material goods that go into creating health like food and shelter and clothing; they need a certain amount of intellectual stimulation; they need relationships, and leisure and art. Human beings desire all these things because they are good, they satisfy desire, and they allow human beings to be what it is that they are supposed to be.

But there is a certain ontological and circumstantial hierarchy to these goods. That is, certain goods are better than others. And certain goods are better than others under certain circumstances. Food is a good, but learning is a much better good. Relationships and art are both goods, but if art were to ruin all of a person’s relationships, we might not consider it so good. Love is good, as is serving well in one’s political office, but if love gets in the way of proper service, as it did with Sanford, we no longer consider it so good.

Morality is about figuring out goodness. It is about figuring out what a person needs at any given time to be a full, complete, satisfied person. And this is why morality is not, in Aquinas’ thought, just about rules. Mark Sanford broke a rule, but what is more important for a moral evaluation of his act, at least in the Thomistic sense, is what his actions did to him as a person. Mark Sanford is somehow less of a person. He’s less well-off, less-complete, flourishing less.

So what is morality? Morality is a practical form of knowledge, what Aristotle called a science. It is that complex inquiry into the dynamism of practical action and what it is that human beings need to flourish, to be happy, to succeed in being human. Morality is not its own discipline which has as its specific focus the study of rules and obligation, but is rather the complex study of anthropology and metaphysics and sociology and psychology. Morality is simply what we do as human beings, trying to be good at what we are.

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3 comments so far

  1. John Pittard on

    We can be confident as Christians that, by the grace of God, moral action coincides with that action that promotes our good. In addition to the (imperfect) correlation of moral action and happiness in this world, the prospect of heavenly reward (and punishment) serves to align right actions with happiness-promoting actions. But I find it hard to believe the eudaimonist claim that moral action is *conceptually* identical with the action that promotes the agent’s flourishing. Consider the following example. An angel ushers me into a room with two buttons, one labeled “D” and one labeled “S,” and presents me with the following choice. If I hit button D, a distant planet with millions of happy, moral, sentient beings will be destroyed in a painful conflagration. But, the angel explains, my memory of hitting button D will be immediately erased, and then the angel will proceed to intervene in my circumstances in subtle and invisible ways (by connecting me with the right people, helping me land the right job, etc.) in order to bring it about that I become an extremely virtuous and happy person. Whatever your vision of eudaimonia, that is what the angel will help me achieve. I will become a generous, patient, loving, and prosperous individual. (And probably I will become the kind of person who would never hit button “D” if given another opportunity.) And not only will I have no memory of my destructive act, but the consequences of this act will never come back to haunt me. The planet is so distant that its destruction cannot impact human affairs, and in my case there will be no personal eternal ramifications of my actions. (Let’s suppose that God has decided to destroy my soul immediately upon death, regardless of what I do.) Now, if I hit button “S,” the planet will be saved. But, the angel explains, my memory of this noble act will be immediately erased, and then the angel will proceed to invisibly intervene in my life so as to bring it about that I have a miserable, brutish, selfish and immoral life. Now my misery and immoral life won’t cause others much harm, but it will guarantee that I have the opposite of eudaimonia. I will become hopelessly selfish–the kind of person that, if given the opportunity again, would without question destroy a planet in order to gain my own happiness. Let’s suppose that the angel is telling the truth in all of this, and that by supernatural means he gives me complete confidence that he is telling the truth. (Perhaps I have seen him play this “game” with many other people, and have seen that things always turn out exactly as he had promised.)

    If moral action is that which promotes the agent’s flourishing, then in this example the moral action would be to hit button “D” and destroy the planet. But clearly that is NOT the moral action. Therefore moral action is not conceptually identical with that action promoting the agent’s flourishing. Therefore eudaimonism is false. Or so it seems to me. I’d be interested in knowing where you think the argument goes wrong. Now it may be that God has arranged things so that moral action and happiness-promoting action coincide. As I wrote above, I think that is the case. But that is true in virtue of God’s gracious action, not, it seems to me, in virtue of the essence of morality. God has arranged it so that the pursuit of right action and the pursuit of enlightened self-interest lead to the same place.

  2. everydaythomist on

    John,
    I think that the eudaimonist claim only works as an inductive system of morality. The eudaimonist looks at the world around her and then builds a moral system from that. Conceptually, the eudaimonist’s claim only works if it is truly descriptive of the natural order. That is, you can’t just deductively apply standards of happiness in the same way a neo-Kantian might want to apply standards of rationality. That is why eudaimonistic moral systems vary from culture to culture, because in each culture, what is conducive to happiness will vary to some degree.

    So you are right, that if there were such a natural order whereby a person by making the wrong decision could conceivably live a wretched and immoral life as a result, a eudaimonistic moral system would not be in order. But we do not live in such a world, at least as far as we know. So such a conceptual quandary is not really a quandary to an inductive eudaimonist like myself.

    A much bigger problem for the eudaimonist, and especially a Christian one, is whether virtuous action is really conducive to happiness. If you toe the Augustinian/Calvinist line (as I am wont to do) that this world is very seriously depraved and that human beings are imprisoned by sinful forces that not only make it difficult (if not impossible to do the right thing) but also make it more likely that doing the right thing will lead to suffering, how can the eudaimonist claim hold? The Christian can partially resolve this dilemma by expanding the human telos to encompass the supernatural. Aquinas makes this move in his Literal Commentary on Job. In response to Job’s friends who claim that righteousness is rewarded with blessings in this life, Aquinas argues that righteousness is a spiritual good that is only properly rewarded (and punished) with spiritual consequences. So a life of righteousness would be ill-rewarded with only earthly pleasures and goods. So Aquinas can still hold that virtuous action is conducive to happiness even if the righteous person often suffers in this life. Aquinas’ move is a good move, and a necessary move for Christians to make, but it is still a hard thing to swallow when you see innocent or very virtuous people suffering in this life.

    So in conclusion, I do think that God has arranged the natural order so that the pursuit of right action and the pursuit of what you call “enlightened self-interest” lead to the same place, but I think that the fallen state of the world has corrupted this natural order such that enlightened self-interest is often at odds with the right thing. Thus, the committed Christian eudaimonist must be willing to forgo happiness in this life in order to have happiness in the next.

  3. Bob MacDonald on

    “In response to Job’s friends who claim that righteousness is rewarded with blessings in this life, Aquinas argues that righteousness is a spiritual good… ”

    Job does not argue this way or make this move, nor does Yhwh, nor does Elihu, nor do I, and I am Christian – though the baggage in the label sometimes does not fit. I do not see any resolution of any part of this problem with an adjective ‘spiritual’. In this epic parable, Job is satiated with material good. He is commended for not making such a move. It is no different than Eliphaz’s opening gambit.

    It is not that I am against Spirit – quite the contrary. It is Spirit that deals with Behemoth and Leviathan including the theological evanescence of the abuse of its own name in a non-incarnational adjective. The wind blows where it wills and you see its effect in the real and sensible world of matter. One might even say that it is the Spirit that makes the world through, in, and with our decisions.


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