What is morality?

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Everyone has wondered at least once whether they’re a good person. But what does it mean to be good? When can you consider an act as moral or immoral? Who decides whether an act is moral or not and on which criteria does one base that decision? Does having a moral conscience equal always doing the right thing? In other words, what is morality?


The dictionary describes morality as ‘beliefs or ideas about what is right and wrong and about how people should behave; the degree to which something is acceptable’. In other words, the emphasis lies on good and evil, with good deeds being considered to be moral acts and bad deeds to be immoral acts.

Morality and religion

The way people decide what’s moral and what’s immoral varies. That distinction is often based on the religious beliefs people have. Consequently, people of faith base their morals on their holy books or on what’s being preached during religious ceremonies. They usually believe in a universal right and wrong. This means that everything immoral according to their religion should be considered as immoral in general. Many Christians, for instance, consider adultery, theft and murder as immoral acts because the Bible says so. Therefore, everyone should look at those acts the same way.

Atheists don’t have any holy books, because of which religious people often undeservedly think they don’t have morals. After all, there are no ideas about right and wrong written down for them anywhere, nor is there anyone who teaches them those things like a priest does in church or an imam in a mosque. Atheists decide for themselves what’s right and wrong, however. A disadvantageous consequence to a certain action is often decisive for considering that action as immoral. Consequently adultery, theft and murder are immoral according to many atheists, not because it’s written down somewhere, but simply because those actions are disadvantageous for the person who undergoes them. On the other hand, acts that don’t hurt anybody else or are even beneficial for the other person involved are considered to be moral acts.

Sometimes both religious people and atheists deem certain acts as immoral without them being disadvantageous to others. For example, many people regard the ever-increasing sex and nudity in the media as a deterioration of our once decent society. They don’t harm anyone, though. Others even claim that they have a positive impact on younger people: by making sex less of a taboo to talk about through the media, they will become less ignorant.

Typically human

So, what’s moral and what’s not is a subjective concept. What is certain, however, is that us people are the only creatures with a moral sense. People do good deeds to help others, to make themselves feel good about themselves or because they believe in karma and therefore believe that something good will come their way. Animals do not have the capacity to think that way and just act instinctively. Like the Greek philosopher Socrates suggested, only he who knows good, can do good. Therefore you can’t blame a tiger for killing another animal, because he simply followed his instincts to gather food. Humans who kill animals for consumption do break many moral principles according to a lot of people: they end lives, the species could be endangered and they could have just bought meat from the local supermarket. The hypocritical part about that is of course the fact that slaughtered animals aren’t treated in a very moral manner in slaughterhouses, either. The client’s lack of power in the matter allows him to enjoy his meal anyway without struggling with his conscience.

Trolley problem

Source: http://www.bigthink.com

That typically human sense of morality is often challenged with moral dilemmas. Philippa Foot’s famous trolley problem is an example of such a dilemma. A runaway trolley is headed towards a split in the railway tracks with on one side of the split lying a group of people tied up and on the other side only one person who is also tied up. You are standing right next to a lever that can make the vehicle switch to a different set of tracks. Either you decide to do nothing and let fate decide, or you pull the lever to let the trolley continue its route on the desired track.

Most people make the rational decision to make the trolley ride on the railway track with the least amount of people on it. If one adds that that one person is completely innocent and the ones on the other track are all notorious serial killers, people tend to quickly choose to make the vehicle ride in the direction of the serial killers. Whether this is actually a moral choice is open to debate, since multiple lives are being ended by doing that, but on the other hand the life of a moral person is being saved. It gets even more tricky when one tells you that that one person is a close relative, a good friend or a significant other and the people on the other side of the split are all strangers. Most people will selfishly choose to save that one person, even though they know that’s not in line with their moral conscience.

This proves that knowing what’s right doesn’t necessarily mean always doing the right thing. The most moral choice concerning the trolley problem would be to always opt for the trolley to be sent on the track with the least amount of people on it to keep the number of victims to a minimum and subsequently try to free him before the vehicle reaches him. The chance at success is extremely small, but it’s the intention that matters. Most people don’t want to risk the life of a loved one, however, and are therefore tempted to make the immoral choice. Many don’t feel any sympathy for serious criminals either, so they believe it’s an obvious decision to let them die. Some people even respond that they wouldn’t change the trolley’s course if there weren’t anyone else on the track next to the criminals. According to them it’s okay to do immoral things to immoral people.


To conclude, morality is an abstract concept which lies the emphasis on what’s right and wrong. Right things are considered to be moral and wrong things are considered to be immoral. What can be considered as moral and immoral is subjective and personal; in other words, something like an absolute right and wrong doesn’t exist. Humans may be the only creatures that can distinguish morality from immorality but that doesn’t mean they only do the right thing. A moral sense might be typically human, but so are selfishness and hypocrisy. Sometimes those last characteristics take the upper hand when moral decisions need to be made.


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