A Theory of Morality

Morals are the rules that we follow when there are no rules and no one is watching.

Corollary

When we create laws to prevent immoral behavior, we make society less moral.

Citations

In the old days, you used to have to do tons of research – read books and do studies and stuff – before making claims like this. Now you can just stick it on your blog and someone will come along and say “that sounds just like what that famous philosopher said in his second book”. If only I knew someone who lived next to a philosopher, he could ask him.

Published by

Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

12 thoughts on “A Theory of Morality”

  1. “The truth is I’m a liar…”
    “…rules we follow when there are no rules…”

    You love you some paradox, don’t you? 😉

    I don’t buy the “when there are no rules part”.

  2. If there were no paradoxes, I would love them even more.

    I am slowly building up a grand theory that explains why enabling technologies are better than constraining technologies in video games.

    Why don’t you buy the no rules part?

  3. I think it’s a false constraint 🙂

    A law is a group of people proclaiming “This is a part of our shared morality”. Stating a moral doesn’t take away the fact that it’s a moral. If you and I separately decided that always walking barefoot while inside was a moral obligation because wearing shoes inside spreads disease, we share that unspoken moral. If we discover this shared morality, then find out that Jeff and Julio agree, we might make it a rule that you had to be barefoot while walking around in Chasing Shadows. It’s still a moral for each of us, even though we’ve codified it and stated it as a “truth” of our community.

  4. You and I decided that we had a moral obligation to take off our shoes. We took off our shoes because it was the right thing to do.

    Once you have made a “no shoes” rule, the no shoes moral obligation is diminished by the moral obligation to “follow the rules”. We no longer take off our shoes because it is the right thing to do. We take them off because that’s the rule.

    If we then add a punishment for breaking the “no shoes” rule we would diminish the moral obligation to follow the rules. We would no longer follow the rules because its the right thing to do. We would follow them to avoid punishment.

    There is still a moral obligation to take off your shoes but it is eclipsed by the desire to avoid punishment. The result is a society that is guided less by moral obligation and more by immoral desire.

  5. I don’t think the moral obligation is diminished at all. The sum total of our moral obligations is generalized into “the rules”. Since we were abiding by our moral obligation before the rule existed, bringing the rule into existance doesn’t automatically suplant our original reason for following it. The only people for whom it’s eclipsed by the desire to avoid punishment are the people who identify themselves as part of the group, but don’t really agree with all of the morals. I feel like I’m seguing into the “Cultural Catholic” discussion.

  6. Many of the people who would have taken off their shoes whether the rule existed or not – moral people – are completely unaffected by the existence of the rule. No net change in morality.

    Some of the people who would have habitually broken the rule before it existed – immoral people – might decide to take off their shoes with the threat of punishment. Others might continue to break the rule. No net change in morality.

    Others – the amoral – may have not been aware that taking their shoes off is better for society. We could encourage them to take off their shoes by education (make them more moral) or by the threat of punishment (appeal to their immoral desires). The latter would result in a net loss of morality.

    Over time, the moral reason for taking off shoes would fade from memory. People would teach their children to remove their shoes because “that’s the rule and you will be punished if you do not follow it”. Over time, the opportunities for moral behaviour would diminish.

  7. So, now you’re arguing that if someone comes upon a behavior through rule enforcement, it negates there ever being a moral weight to their decision? How about children who are too young to understand why going barefoot is necessary, but then later in life question it and end up agreeing on moral grounds? It sounds like you’re bemoaning rules as a method of knowledge-delivery, rather than diminishing morality in a community. I agree that asking “why?” every once in a while is good policy. This reminds me of a story I once heard. A man and a woman get married. The woman cooks a roast and serves it, but she’s cut the ends off and those are her new husband’s favorite pieces. She said her mom taught her that way, and she assumed it was so the meat would cook better in the center. The next time the woman talks to her mother, she asks her why she taught her to cut the ends off the roast before cooking it. Her mother says she doesn’t know, that’s how *her* mother taught her to do it and agreed that it probably had to do with cooking it fully. They both ask the grandmother next time they’re all together and the grandmother laughs and says “That darn pan was always too short for the roasts”. I guess you shouldn’t equate rules with morals until you ask why.

  8. > So, now you’re arguing that if someone comes upon a behavior through rule enforcement, it negates there ever being a moral weight to their decision?

    Replace “negates” with “diminishes” and, yes, that’s pretty much what I am arguing.

    If you make a choice without thinking about it you are not making a moral choice – and that’s what rules require us to do.

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