Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Defining Morality

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 21, 2009

I am fascinated by morality; I’ve had a few posts about it recently. It’s very fun to debate over. But every single time I debate about morals, I ask myself the fundamental question: “What makes anything right or wrong?” Some would say that an action is morally wrong if it is harmful to another human being or to oneself. But this raises (not begs, never begs) the question: why is it wrong to cause harm to a person? Maybe it’s because people don’t like to be harmed. But why does it matter what people like?

I think that the only real way to define this without using circular logic is to look at the real roots of long-term morality: evolution. Morality evolves, and the animals with morality are the best able to survive. So here is my definition of something that is morally wrong:

An action is morally wrong if it is detrimental to the evolutionary progression of the gene pool.

This definition is vague enough such that it can have multiple meanings, but it still pretty effectively encompasses morality. Figuring out if something is detrimental to the evolutionary progression of the gene pool, though, can be tricky. For example, is it helpful or detrimental to the gene pool to kill babies who are weak? We obviously think that killing the weak is morally wrong, but is it wrong under my definition?

My definition does not cater to the individual. It seems to me that morality should be more individual-oriented, but that doesn’t have any obvious grounding in natural selection. I think it must, but I don’t see it.

Morality is heavily influenced by social evolution, which takes place much faster than natural selection. I know a good deal less about the workings of social evolution, but it should have similar results to natural selection.

Morality is very difficult to define, but we’re getting somewhere.


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