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