Where Does Morality Come From?

Sunday, March 29, 2009
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 1, 2007

What is it

School teachers, preachers, parents, and even a few philosophers often claim to be authorities on the dictates of morality. But where does morality really come from? From society’s customs? From God’s commandments? From the cold, impersonal commandments of pure reason? Or from human emotions and sentiments? Join John as Ken as they explore the meaning and origins of morality with Alex Miller from the University of Birmingham

Listening Notes

John begins by asking Ken where morality can possibly originate, and Ken describes one of the most common theories of morality: what God says is right is right, and what God says is wrong is wrong. John relates this to one of Plato's early dialogues, and wonders whether what is right is right because God makes it right, or because God recognizes that there is something about it that makes it right? Ken suggests that social conventions and human psychology could be an alternative origin for morality, but John points out that the same paradox applies: does society cause certain actions to be right or wrong, or does it just recognize the right-ness or wrong-ness of actions? Of course, sometimes societies are wrong, they justify slavery and allow the mistreatment of women, and this creates a whole new set of problems for John and Ken, who ultimately conclude that moral relativism has serious flaws, and these injustices are truly wrong. But this insistence on absolute moral truths brings them back to the original question!

In order to help them along, Ken introduces Alex Miller, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, and author of An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, and excellent introductory text on the subject. John begins by asking Alex what it says about morality that people are constantly arguing about its nature and origins. Alex thinks this might show that there is not really a fact of the matter concerning morality, just like an opinion about the tastiest ice cream is subjective, so too ideas about morality might not be based on any fact of the matter. On the other hand, Alex also suggests all the disagreement might indicate that morality is really a very complex issue that requires the consideration of many different disciplines and factors to resolve--maybe there is a fact of the matter but it just can't be found easily from the armchair! John, Ken, and Alex all agree that the second possibility is more likely, and the great variety of moral disagreements are indicative of the very difficult nature of the subject. John points out that there are some moral questions which are easy to agree on, are these possibly universal, or are they just easy? Alex thinks moral agreement can be even more confusing than disagreement, because the same moral principle can be justified in many ways. Is one justification more apt or correct than another? Does the justification matter, or is only the conclusion important?

Even though Alex proclaims he has no worked out moral theory of his own, Ken asks him if deep down he thinks there are objective moral truths, and if he had to justify them what he might argue. Alex relates his position to the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, who could not argue for objective moral truths, but realized as soon as he thought un-philosophically that there were obviously moral right and wrongs in the real world. Alex thinks that ultimately moral truths are related to the actions and the consequences of these actions that they support. John compares Alex's view to Hume and Kant, and wonders: what is more important, feelings about actions or the effects they really have in the world? Ken tries to describe the difference between morality and ethics, and then tries to cast morality in terms of approval and disapproval, is there really anything more to morality than just social agreement and disagreement on what it is right to do? This leads the discussion towards the connection between moral judgments and moral actions--we all know those who make a lot of moral judgments but do not act on them, or do not live by them themselves.

John, Ken, and Alex continue to take calls and emails concerning the status of moral truths, how to recognize a moral truth if you stumble upon one, and whether or not the origins of moral truths are justified as long as they ultimately lead to positive actions.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 3:43): Zoe Corneli travels to downtown San Francisco to ask the average person what they think morality is, and where it comes from.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:56): Ian Shoales discusses the connection between morality, Flaubert, propriety, and the bourgeoisie at lightning speed.

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Alex Miller, Professor of Philosophy, University of Birmingham


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