What is Morality?

1 (22/6/14). I will distinguish ethics from morality and at the same time introduce some ideas that will be used in other instalments in this series on the nature of morality. The difference between ethics and morality is straightforward: ethics is the theory, the study, the discipline, etc., and morality is the subject matter, the topic, the object of study, etc. So just as science is the study of the natural world and gives rise to all matter of theories, ideas and things that are written down, so ethics is the study of morality. Ethics is also called “moral philosophy” which is the name I prefer, as I will explain. (Aside: here, and elsewhere, I used double inverted commas to refer to things, to give them names, and so on.) I will now go on to say something about morality and so I shall be doing moral philosophy or ethics, though not in any deep or difficult way as what I shall say would be accepted by most philosophers.


Morality is a way of acting or behaving; it is the way moral persons ought to behave towards ‘others’. (Aside: I use single inverted commas to signify that the words or word in question is being used in a slightly unusual or non-standard sense, or to indicate something else out of the ordinary.) It is important to identify these others who are, as is sometimes said, are ‘protected’ by morality. First of all, however, I should point out that “act’ and “behave” just mean here doing things, performing actions, making choices and so on, ordinary everyday stuff. “Acting” doesn’t mean doing things on stage or in a film and “behaving” doesn’t mean being on one’s best behaviour. I will say something about who these ‘others” are and how one ought to behave with respect to them, and that will be enough to be going on with.


The people who ought to behave or act morally I have called moral persons; they are also called “moral agents” – they (have the capacity to) act, they are therefore agents. To say that they are moral agents means that they also have the capacity to act morally, not that they actually do so. Normally, moral agents are taken to be mature members of our species homo sapiens, though there could be aliens with the same capacities. Generally speaking, to be mature is to be rational, to be able to reflect on what one does, and (hence) to use a common phrase, ‘to know the difference between right and wrong’. Just what people are mature in this sense is perhaps a matter of degree. Those who are ‘protected’ by morality are said to be moral subjects. All moral agents are moral subjects, though they might forfeit the presumption to protection if they commit some offence. Is that all?


Small children are not yet mature enough to count as moral agents, and some old infirm people have lost the capacity for rational reflection, but we surely would not deny them the status of moral subjects. They should not be denied this status when we turn to consider what it is to behave morally. At least, morally action should not be such as to involve unnecessary harm to others. As an example – philosophers often use it – of harm that is not unnecessary, take a visit to the dentist. The dentist gives me an injection and drills my tooth, some pain is involved and to cause pain is always to harm. But this was done with my permission, indeed I paid for it, and it was done to prevent far greater pain later on. The dentist caused harm, but it was far from unnecessary and what the dentist did was not morally wrong. To cause harm unnecessarily, gratuitously, is to do moral wrong. A basic criterion for morally right action is not to cause harm in this sense. Now surely small children and old folks deserve this ‘protection’?.


It does not follow that all and only members of our species deserve the protection of morality. To discuss the second part of this claim first, what of sentient animals, especially mammals, like cats and monkeys? Since they can feel pain – they are sentient – surely they too should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering? This is essentially the view of the nineteenth century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham: that those that can feel pain should not have pain inflicted on them without good reason. I agree with him. There is clearly much more that could be said about what is a good reason to inflict pain, or more generally to harm, a moral subject, and I will have more to say about this elsewhere on these pages. Two final thought: does morality consist in more than simply refraining from harming others, or is there more besides, and, in what sense does morality ‘protect’ moral subjects?