What Is the Purpose of Morality?

June 19, 2010

In asking what purpose morality serves, I am not asking the question that is familiar to anyone who has ever taken a philosophy course, namely, “Why should I be moral?”  That question raises an entirely different set of issues than the ones I want to discuss.  Among other things, the question “Why should I be moral?” is posed against the background of accepted moral institutions and practices.  Instead, I am asking: Why have moral institutions and practices? What is their point?

I am motivated to ask this question in part because of some dissatisfaction with humanist ethics as I often see it practiced.  There have been innumerable articles, manifestos, and pamphlets that set forth some set of humanist values and principles that we are supposed to embrace.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with the content of these lists of values and principles, but I am concerned that usually there is no explanation why a humanist or anyone else should adopt these values and principles.  In other words, there’s little attempt to provide a method for approaching ethical issues.  Sure, there is often a reference to using our reason, but although use of our reasoning powers is a good thing, by itself it doesn’t get you very far. If we are to be serious about developing a humanist morality, it seems to me that it is incumbent upon us to explain why we believe people should adhere to the values and principles that we advocate. 

I am not proposing that we aim to develop a decision procedure that will generate the one right answer to all our ethical issues.  Such a dreamy goal cannot be achieved, in part because there are a considerable number of ethical disputes to which there may not be one right answer.  But we can develop a process of analysis and reflection that will provide some moral guidance by limiting the range of ethically acceptable answers — which by itself would be a significant achievement. 

One important element of our methodology should be a specification of the objectives of morality.  If we can reach consensus on what morality is for , then it becomes a bit easier to resolve ethical dilemmas.  One can critically examine a proposed course of action by considering whether it would further the objectives of morality.

But how do we determine the objectives of morality?  Well, a start would be to consider how morality has functioned in human societies.  Note, I am not making an unwarranted leap from “is” to “ought.”  I am merely recommending that a beginning point in determining what we should aim to do with our moral institutions is an understanding of what we have done with them in the past.

Naturally, no one was holding a philosophy seminar in the Neolithic Era, inviting members of the tribe to consider what moral rules the tribe should adopt. Human dispositions to behave in certain ways developed and evolved without any explicit consideration of the desirability or purpose of having certain dispositions.  But the fact that our moral norms were not consciously designed does not prevent us from considering their function. 

Simplifying greatly, it seems to me that morality helps to provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complementary goals.  In short, it enables us to live together and, while doing so, improve the conditions under which we live. 

Of course, moral institutions do not always achieve these objectives.  Also, moral institutions can be used and have been used to oppress certain groups — usually by excluding them from the scope of the moral community.  (As Peter Singer and others have observed, the most momentous changes in moral practice have not come in the content of our moral norms – lying was condemned in ancient Mesopotamia just as it is condemned today – but in the scope of the groups to which our moral norms have been applied.)  Nonetheless, I believe my rough description of the objectives of morality as it has been practiced historically is more or less correct.

But even if these have been the objectives of morality, should these be the objectives of morality?  Should we try to develop dispositions that would enable us to use moral institutions and practices for other purposes? Well — what other purposes could morality have?  To serve God? To maximize happiness?  To increase the production of cheese?    (Remember the injunction from The Life of Brian   — Blessed are the cheesemakers.)  These are all theoretical possibilities, but there are serious problems with all these proposed objectives which will be both familiar and obvious to many of you. It doesn’t seem to me that we can improve much on the objectives of morality as I have described them, at least given the circumstances in which we live. (As Hume noted, if humans were invulnerable and entirely self-sufficient, our notions of justice would be radically different.)

Furthermore, it seems to me that the objectives of morality as I have described them provide goals that are achievable for groups of humans with a wide range of emotional and cognitive capacities.  This is not an unimportant consideration. Moral norms achieve their ends in part by their ability to be inculcated in almost all humans. We can grasp the importance of fostering trust and cooperation and we can drill into our children’s heads rules such as “don’t lie” that bear obvious connections to these objectives. An objective as ill-defined and vague as “happiness” does not readily lend itself to translation into specific moral norms.

I have done nothing more than scratch the surface on just one of several problems we have to tackle if we are to develop a method for addressing ethical issues. (This is a blog post after all, not a dissertation.) But my intent was not to provide in 1000 words a comprehensive model of ethical justification. My primary intent was to remind humanists that it is not sufficient to “affirm” certain principles and values. We need to be able to explain why we affirm these principles and values. And, as part of that explanation, we should be prepared to say something about our understanding of the purpose of morality.