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What does it mean to be a moral person? June 7, 2007

Posted by Joe in agnosticism, atheism, belief, ethics, freethought, immorality, morality, psychology, skepticism, theism.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is an issue that philosophers have been struggling with for centuries. I don’t pretend to have figured it all out, but I do have my own thoughts on the issue.

First I want to consider the source of morality from a secular perspective. I believe that individual concepts of morality come primarily from two sources.

Call it genetics, call it innate, call it whatever, but it does seem there is a sense of fairness that just comes “built-in” to most people. Children have a highly developed sense of “fairness” which at first is quite selfish, but as they develop they come to apply to others. As a child grows he develops a Theory of Mind, which is a natural human understanding and empathy for the “other”. They grasp the idea that other people are like them. This is when they see that fairness is not about getting their share, but about everyone wanting a “fair share”.

Then there are external influences. How a person makes moral decisions will depend highly upon what they learn to value. If they grow up in a environment which values possessions, their morals will contain strong rules against stealing and abusing property. If they are brought up in an environment that values personal expression, their morals will contain strong rules against suppress of creative and expressive impulses. If the environment contains religious influences then their morals will be highly influenced by the religious instruction that they receive.

All told a persons morals are a part of their personality and a result of genetics, development and environment.

Morality is not as cut and dried as it is sometimes made out to be. Someone may believe that something is wrong, yet still do it. Are they immoral? Which should be considered their morals, that which they believe or that which they do?

I would consider those to be two separate sets of morals. We can call them “practical morality” and “theoretical morality”. Theoretically someone may declare it wrong to steal, but when they have an opportunity to take something of great value to themselves, which they determine someone else will not miss so much their practical morality may steer them to do something that they would theoretically agree is wrong.

When it comes to religion we are discussing theoretical morality. A list from god of things which followers consider right, and a list which followers consider wrong. I don’t believe the practical morality of religious people to be much different from the practical morality of the non-religious.

There is so much more that I want to say on this issue. Coming up next “Absolute Morality?”



1. Richard Wade - June 10, 2007

Joe, I agree that humans have a biological foundation of social behavior, which we might call a natural morality. Much has been written about this, but very little of which I have read. Primates are social animals and their social norms and rules are complex and can be readily observed, as was done famously by Jane Goodall. On top of that foundation our various cultures build more specific moral systems that can be different in their details but have more in common than differences. When we visit different cultures we still recognize themes such as loyalty, honesty, fairness and kindness. Where we may differ is in the specific remedies for breaches of those themes. Sometimes we can accept those differences, and sometimes they are so different that we are perplexed, even horrified.

I go by the maxim you are what you do. People may make all sorts of declarations about their values and their morals, but if they actually practice something else, then that is their real moral stance. The word for the difference between our stated values or morals and our practiced ones is the word “hypocrisy.”

There is more to people’s moral development than how well they adhere to a set of moral rules. WHY they “do the right thing” is what defines their maturity as social beings. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development clarified this a few decades ago, rising in six stages from doing the right thing to avoid punishment or to please an authority figure, on up to finally doing the right thing from individual principles of conscience. It became clear from his work that most people don’t develop past the first two or three stages.

Many years ago I stumbled across a simple system of secular principles that I liked because they seemed so easily applicable to just about any culture. I’m still trying to find who wrote them. It starts with one primary principle under which four secondary, or aspect principles are arranged in equal position of importance. The primary principle is “Respect for persons.” This could also be expanded to “Respect for Living things.”
Underneath this are the four secondaries, all of equal importance, showing how to practice that primary respect for persons. They are:

Commitment to truth. This is expressed as simple honesty, avoiding lying, equivocating, lying by omission, or otherwise failing to tell the truth.

Consideration of interests. This is expressed as simple kindness, courtesy, generosity in the face of need or altruistic risk-taking in the face of danger to another, avoiding cruelty or unkindness.

Equity. Simple fairness, treating people with equal respect, avoiding unfair or irrelevant favoritism, discrimination, bias or bigotry.

Maximization of freedom. Living and letting live. Maximizing one’s own free expression in life while avoiding colliding with the freedom of others. Avoiding the restricting of free thought, word and deed where at all possible.

Of course one can immediately see that these four principles will conflict with each other in real life scenarios all the time. That is where the one thing that often is missing in people’s religious-based moral systems comes in to play: Judgment. One must use good judgment to know which principle to emphasize or favor in a given predicament. It makes for a constantly shifting balance to strike again and again. It takes a lot of thought, introspection and self honesty, which is why people don’t use it much. Immature people, such as those operating on the lower stages of Kohlberg’s scale want things cut and dry, unchanging, obvious and childishly simple. That’s because they are operating at a child’s level of moral development that they may never grow beyond. They don’t like the moral pickles that life gives them every day: “Do you like my new hair-do?” Uh-oh. Do you go for Commitment to truth or Consideration of interests? Honest or kind? Uh-oh. What about later? Honesty might not be very kind right now but it might prevent the awful hair-do from causing worse embarrassment elsewhere. It gets complicated really fast, and one has to constantly use their best judgment. Other scenarios can be very serious and complex but I think you see the idea. To use this method one has to continually try one’s best. There are no perfect outcomes, and you have to take full responsibility. You can’t say, “Well I mechanically followed the prescribed rules so the outcome’s not my problem.”

I have been living this way for a few decades and it is difficult, exciting and satisfying. I can take complete responsibility for my actions and the quality of my relationships.

2. agnes - December 3, 2008

why is morality only for person

3. agnes - December 3, 2008

human to be moral

4. Rocky - March 2, 2010

I love your blog, after spending months studying utilitarian views and other views of morality, I have only become more and more confused. Your blog is the simple and concise and I have learned a great deal. Thanks so much.

5. leziel - March 11, 2010

for me i agree that human person have a moral values

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