THE NOTION OF MORALITY
1.1 The Exact Definition of Morality
In making moral choices, the morality of one’s actions does not depend
entirely on the sincerity of the intention or the evaluation of the motives,
but it must be determined according to objective criteria drawn from the nature
of the person and his acts. – Pope John Paul II to a medical-Moral Workshop,
January 20, 1990.
Morality in the strictest sense of the word, deals with that which is
innately regarded as right or wrong. This notion of morality is a known system
of principles and judgements shared by cultural, religious, and philosophical
concepts and beliefs, by which humans’ subjectivity determines whether a given
actions are right or wrong. Through these concepts and beliefs, the society or
group guides its members and regulate their behaviours. It can be descriptively
refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society, or some other group, such
as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behaviour. Normatively,
it refers to a code of conduct that would be put forward by all rational
persons under specified conditions.
There are certain actions which all of us would condemn as morally wrong
and ought not to be done by anybody. For example, armed robbery, embezzlement
of public funds, bribery and corruption, neglect of one’s duties, dishonesty,
and so on. In the other way, there are also certain actions, which are fidelity
to one’s duties, respect for human life, hospitality, kindness, helping those
in need, honesty and so on.
Though according to Frederich Nietzsche, it is not good to refer some of
the above listed virtues as right or good rather they are evil and could be
seen among the inferior people. He said so in his explanation of master
morality and slave morality. Equally, there are other kinds of actions above
which opinions differ. Some say it is wrong while others consider it as right. For
instance, such actions like abortion, contraception, euthanasia, masturbation
and so on. The question of abortion is being morally permissible is a current
issue in United States. There are many questions for all of us, why do we
consider certain actions as right, and others as wrong? How do we decide which
actions are right and which actions are wrong? What is the criterion or
standard for making such judgements? What do we even mean when we say that a
certain action is morally wrong? Is it for the individual to decide for himself
which actions he is to consider as wrong or right? Is it true that “there is
nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, or is certain things good or bad
irrespective of our thinking? What are the fundamental principles of morality
and how do we come to know them? These and similar questions are what we shall
discuss here and equally ask ourselves.
The definition of morality plays a crucial, although often
unacknowledged role in formulating ethical theories. According to R. M. Hare:
“The function of moral principles is to guide conduct”1.
But to take “morality” to refer to an actually existing code of conduct is
quite to lead to some form of relativism.
That is, to claim that there is no code of conduct that, under any
plausible specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.
An Overview of Morality
Morality applies to different fields of studies and in which the choices
made by individuals express an interior relative to other individuals (even
non-members of the society). It varied greatly from society to society, culture
to culture. There is this academic debate, which states whether morality can
exist only in the society or in a hypothetical individual without any relationships
with others. Also, does morality based only on religion, such that no person
without religion can practice morality? The efficacy of a morality depends on
the social position and political representatives of the group that espouse it
and the way it touches the norms of the related society. Also, a person without
religion can still practice morality. Though “some theologians claimed that
morality is inseparable from religion”.2
But a lot of moral values came from religion.
1.3 WHAT MAKES A PERSON TO BE
MORAL OR IMMORAL
1.3.1 A choice for Life:
The decision to be selfish or unselfish is not just a choice of the
moment but is a fundamental part of character, as it is one of the first, if
not the first, value that is formed by the developing mind of a baby. This is
so, because nature delivers the infant with an incomplete set of values along
with the ability to request succour. Existence precedes essence, says Sartre.
By this he means that man was not created with any fixed essence or nature
according to which he must live. On the contrary, human mind is not tabla rasa
that is why a child begins to succour when no one teaches him. Therefore, the
above infantile demands could be developed towards good or evil depending on
his relationship with others. This is because Man is not a finished product,
but a self-creating, a being that is continually making himself and giving
himself an essence. Example: A mother who makes every other thing secondary to
feed her infant is helping to create a selfish monster in the child who will
latter assume himself of more paramount importance than any other person, while
the mother who enforces a program of feeding that is convenient to the
household, is achieving the opposite effect.
1.3.2 Baby’s Demand Hard To
Nevertheless, it is not easy to resist the demands of babies, because
nature has made adults sensitive to the appearance and sound of infants. Many
women have a strong desire to pamper babies, and children enjoy the ready
affections; but it is the unrestrained application of such feelings that create
immoral humans or selfish people. For unless a baby discovers the need for
patience and endurance, the subsequent adult will never accept the need for
self-sacrifice, or moral restraint.
1.3.3 Inevitable Results of Undisciplined Upbringing.
These come as a result of parents’ total concern or basic desire to
pamper children more than required.
My feelings are all important: The
youthful students can only learn that his feeling is very necessary and the
parents will always respond creditably. As a result, they cry and adult’s leap
into action to relieve the distress, regardless of the reason for the tears.
When they smile, adult smile.
How to fool parents: When a child get this trick,
a controlling force, then he fakes tears and smiles in order to get the adults
reactions to their demands.
Disrespect for Authority: When this
goes on throughout childhood, the resultant effect is that the child overlooks
the authority with its restrictions and laws, as nothing but hot air that can
be safely flouted by emotional appeal.
Truth is Unimportant: When we
allow children to prevent laws and do whatever they like, because we feel so
much concern for them. The lesson must be that truth (what actually happened)
is unimportant compared to the subsequent emotional reaction of others.
Having seen all these, the decision to be moral or immoral is resolved
starting from early childhood even before awareness has properly developed. So,
unless unselfishness is removed during infancy by enforcing a code of
discipline, the subsequent adults must become selfish, and thus immoral.
Also, fathers exercise better control than mothers, they invoke fear and
enforce discipline in the child and are more difficult to be manipulated
through emotional appeal.
1.4 kinds of Morality
1.4.1 Rational Morality:
This is the idea of morality as innate or self-evident, based on reason.
Thus, morality is necessarily one of self-interest and looks at man’s nature
and the reason; he needs values known as a moral code that must be practiced to
reach those values. Rational morality asserts that all other “views” of
morality are subjective and require some sort of sacrifice, either to the
supernatural (i.e. God) or collective motive, where as proper morality is
self-evident and in the interest of the individual’s happiness and
However, this has been criticized; Churian objectivists are one group
that opposes the idea of rational morality. They believed in the fact that
without objective standard morality, rationality is simply personal opinion.
The human choice to do “right” is guided by values, but the determination of value,
an objectivist would argue that it cannot come from reason alone.
1.4.2 Morality in Judicial
The government of South Africa is attempting to create a moral
Regeneration movement. Part of this is a proposed Bill of morals that will
bring biblical based ‘moral code’ into the realm of law. Though this move by
nominally secular democracy has attracted relatively little criticism. In
judicial systems, the word morality concretely means a requirement for the assessment
of certain charges or careers, or for the obtaining of certain licenses or
concessions, and generally consists of the absence of previous records, for
instance, crimes, political or commercial irregularities.
1.4.3 Morality and Darwinism
Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that human morality
originated from evolutionary processes. As this could be experienced in their
innate tendency to develop a sense of right and wrong in a species with complex
social interactions, and doctrines. Selected behaviours, seen in abstraction as
moral codes are seen to be common to all human cultures, and it reflects in
their development and similarities to natural selection. These aspects of
morality can be seen as the basis of some religious doctrine. From this, some
also argue that there may be a simple Darwinian explanation for the existence
of religion. Such that regardless of the validity of religious beliefs,
religion tends to encourage behaviour beneficial to the species, as a code of
morality tends to encourage communality, and communality tends to assist
1.4.4 Nietzsche’s Morality:
He derived the notion that there is a universal and absolute system of
morality that everybody must obey. To say this is to disregard the uniqueness
of individuals. There are, says Nietzsche a “Twofold early history of good and
evil”3, which shows the development of two
primary types of morality, namely master morality and slave morality. Nietzsche
totally rejects the negative values or virtues of the “slave morality”, as
virtues that turn men into weaklings. In other ways, they are evil or morally
bad for Nietzsche rather pride, violence, ruthless struggle, ambition, display
of power, strength, vitality, egoism, and so on, are the virtues and what is
morally good for “master morality”.
Nietzsche rejects such Christian virtues, which he calls slave morality
like humility, meekness, self-denial, prudence, patience, and so on. and this
is the point of similarity between him and Machiavellians. He was influenced by
Darwin’s evolution theory according to which all living beings have to struggle
Finally, morality can be defined in two fold manner; descriptive and
Normative. In the descriptive sense; it refers to that code of conduct that is
put forward by a society. Though for anthropologists, it does not simply mean
that always. In a normative sense, “It is a science that gives rules for
acting, especially if these norms have to do with a person’s inner goodness and
perfection rather than with making of external objects”4.
The only feature that the descriptive and normative senses of “morality” have
in common is that they guide our behaviours.
5. C. Ewutosi, Ethics, A
Normative, Practical and Speculative
Science, (Unpublished handout, 2003). P.4
1.5 Conditions Affecting
Here, we are only responsible before God only for truly human act that
is those where knowledge and free will play part. In a situation where freedom
and free will are not involved, we do not have a human act but only an act of
man or woman. It is easy enough to agree that the act of murder is bad, but
just how guilty the murderer is before God is difficult to answer. The
objective goodness or badness of an act is one thing; the subjective
accountability of the actor is another.
There are seven particular conditions which may lessen or remove moral
responsibility entirely: ignorance, fear, concupiscence, violence, habit,
temperament, and nervous mental disorders. Let us examine some of them:
Ignorance: This is lack of knowledge in a person capable
of knowing. We are responsible in some cases for knowledge; in other cases, we
are not. There are different types of ignorance;
Vincible Ignorance: is that which can and should be dispelled. It implies culpable
negligence, meaning that the person could know and ought to know. There are
three main types of vincible ignorance: simple vincible ignorance, affected or
studied vincible ignorance and crass vincible ignorance.
Simple Vincible Ignorance: is present when one makes some effort, but not a sufficient effort, to
dispel the ignorance. A nurse who is unsure of what dosage of medicine to give
to a patient refers to the doctor’s order sheet, but is unable to read his
writing. Though the doctor is in the office, she does not bother to call him.
In guessing at the dosage to give to the patient, the nurse is guilty of simple
Affected Vincible Ignorance: is that which is deliberately fostered in order to avoid any obligation
that knowledge might bring to light. For example, a person suspects that it is
seriously wrong to absent from Mass deliberately on Sunday, but he makes no
effort to find out the truth.
Crass Vincible Ignorance: is that which results from total lack of effort to acquire the lacking
knowledge due to laziness. A clerk in a convenience store does not know the
price of an article brought to the checkout counter. The owner is in the back
of the store, but the clerk does not want to bother the owner to find out the
price of the product. So he makes up a price and charges the customer that
Invincible Ignorance: is that which cannot be dispelled either because the individual is
unable to secure adequate information, even after a reasonable effort, or
because he simply does not know that there is any problem. In other word, he is
ignorant of this ignorance. The person cannot be expected to take steps to
enlighten himself because he is unaware that he is in need of enlightenment.
For example, an employee customarily tells lies by way of making excuses for
minor faults and feels that, since they harm no one, they are in no way sinful.
He is not aware that he needs enlightenment on this matter. Another individual
may be confused in mind about a project, but after having made a reasonable
effort to dispel his ignorance, and having failed to do so, he may proceed to
act since once a reasonable effort to dispel his ignorance, and having failed
to do so, he may proceed to act since once a reasonable effort has been made,
the ignorance is invincible.
We may sum up the moral principles concerning ignorance by stating that
invincible ignorance eliminates responsibility while vincible ignorance lessens
responsibility without actually eliminating it.
Concupiscence: is a tendency of human nature towards evil. Is equally the rebellion of
the passions against reason. There are times when we feel strongly drawn to do
something that we know would cause nothing but sorrow and regret to all
concerned, even to ourselves, and yet we are strongly tempted to do it. Just
like St. Paul said, “I cannot understand even my own actions. I do not do what
I want to do but what I hate” (Romans 7:15).under here, we may have love, fear,
hatred, joy, grief, desire, aversion, hop, despair, and anger.
Habit: The voluntary nature of human actions is also affected by habit, which
is an inclination to perform some particular action. It is usually acquired by
repetition and characterized by a decreased power of resistance and an
increased facility of performance. A habit is sometimes called “second nature”,
meaning it is deeply ingrained in an individual as a result of constant
for Judging Morality
In judging the morality of a specific action, some fundamental
principles must be applied. They include;
An act is morally good if the
act itself, the purpose of the act, and the circumstances of the act are
substantially good. We say “substantially” good because an act may have minor
shortcomings or defects and still be a truly good act. A person who declined to
steal from an employer out of fear of being caught than because stealing is
wrong performs a good act, but not for the best of motives.
If an act is intrinsically
evil, the act is not morally allowable regardless of purpose or circumstances.
Murder, abortion, rape, adultery, racism are always evil. They are never
allowed as a solution to a problem, no matter how serious the problem.
If an act is itself morally
good or at least indifferent, its’ morality will be judged by the purpose or
the circumstances. For instance, going to the bank is in itself indifferent. If
a person is going to the bank to withdraw his money through legal means, he is
doing something good. But, if he is going to the bank to steal money, then he
is doing something morally evil.
The circumstances may create,
mitigate or aggravate sin like studying your book in preparation for
examination is good thing, but becoming so engrossed in the book that one
neglects to take care of a sick person is morally wrong.
There are three moral elements
(the act itself, the purpose, and the circumstances) that make an act morally
good. If any one element is evil, the act is evil. A child who never does
anything wrong except disobeying the teacher, is not a good person.
1 R. M. Hare, The language of morals (Oxford: O.U.P.,
1952) , P.1
2 B. Haring, The Law of Christ,
Vol II (USA: Newman Press, 1964), P.123
3 S. Stumpf, Philosophy, History and Problems, fifth edition (New York:
McGraw-Hill), P. 420.
4 C. Ekwutosi, Ethics, A Normative,
Practical And Speculative Science, Unpub. Lecture note, 2003, P.4