Dictionary of theories, laws, and concepts in psychology

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  1. Elsevier's Dictionary of Psychological Theories - 1st Edition
  2. See a Problem?
  3. The Definition of Morality

Although all societies include more than just a concern for minimizing harm to some human beings in their moralities, this feature of morality, unlike purity and sanctity, or accepting authority and emphasizing loyalty, is included in everything that is regarded as a morality by any society.

Because minimizing harm can conflict with accepting authority and emphasizing loyalty, there can be fundamental disagreements within a society about the morally right way to behave in particular kinds of situations. Some psychologists, such as Haidt, take morality to include concern with, at least, all three of the triad of 1 harm, 2 purity, and 3 loyalty, and hold that different members of a society can and do take different features of morality to be most important. Most societies have moralities that are concerned with, at least, all three members of this triad.

Concern with harm appears in the form of enforceable rules against killing, causing pain, mutilating, etc. But beyond a concern with avoiding and preventing such harms to members of certain groups, there may be no common content shared by all moralities in the descriptive sense. Nor may there be any common justification that those who accept morality claim for it; some may appeal to religion, others to tradition, and others to rational human nature. Beyond the concern with harm mentioned above, the only other features that all descriptive moralities have in common is that they are put forward by an individual or a group, usually a society, in which case they provide a guide for the behavior of the people in that group or society.

Ethical relativists such as Harman , Westermarck , Prinz , and Wong , deny that there is any universal normative morality and claim that the actual moralities of societies or individuals are the only moralities there are. The harm caused by Christian missionaries who used morality as a basis for trying to change the practices of the societies with which they came in contact may have been one of the reasons why many anthropologists endorsed ethical relativism. As a result, when the guide to conduct put forward by, for example, a religious group conflicts with the guide to conduct put forward by a society, it is not clear whether to say that there are conflicting moralities, conflicting elements within morality, or that the code of the religious group conflicts with morality.

Members of the society who are also members of a religious group may regard both guides as elements of morality and differ with respect to which of the conflicting elements of the moral guide they consider most important. There are likely to be significant moral disputes between those who consider different elements to be more important.

In small homogeneous societies there may be a guide to behavior that is put forward by the society and that is accepted by almost all members of the society. However, in larger societies people often belong to groups that put forward guides to behavior that conflict with the guide put forward by their society, and members of the society do not always accept the guide put forward by their society.

If they accept the conflicting guide of some other group to which they belong often a religious group rather than the guide put forward by their society, in cases of conflict they will regard those who follow the guide put forward by their society as acting immorally.

When relativized to an individual in this way, morality has less limitation on content than when it is taken to refer to the code of conduct put forward by a society or group.


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Still, if the person is rational, this guide will include prohibitions on causing harm. It is not clear whether it refers to 1 a guide to behavior that is put forward by a society, to which that person might or might not belong; 2 a guide that is put forward by a group, to which that person might or might not belong; 3 a guide that someone, perhaps that very person, regards as overriding and wants adopted by everyone else, or 4 a universal guide that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents.

However, if the individual is referring to his own morality, he is usually using it normatively; that is, he would usually accept the claim that all rational persons, at least under certain conditions, would endorse it. However, Sidgwick regarded moral rules as any rational rules of conduct. Because all moralities in the descriptive sense include a prohibition on harming others, ethical egoism is not a morality in the descriptive sense.

Because, as will be explained in the following section, all moralities in the normative sense not only include prohibitions on harming others but also are such that all rational persons would endorse that morality, ethical egoism is not a morality in the normative sense either.

Elsevier's Dictionary of Psychological Theories - 1st Edition

Sidgwick does this, but he is decidedly in the minority in this respect. However, that fact that an individual adopts a moral code of conduct for his own use does not entail that the person requires it to be adopted by anyone else. An individual may adopt for himself a very demanding moral guide that he thinks may be too difficult for most others to follow. He may judge people who do not adopt his code of conduct as not being as morally good as he is, without judging them to be immoral if they do not adopt it.

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For it may be that the individual would not be willing for others to try to follow that code, because of worries about the bad effects of predictable failures due to partiality or lack of sufficient foresight or intelligence. Many moral skeptics would reject the claim that there are any universal ethical claims, where the ethical is a broader category than the moral. But another interesting class of moral skeptics includes those who think that we should only abandon the narrower category of the moral—partly because of the notion of a code that is central to that category.

These moral skeptics hold that we should do our ethical theorizing in terms of the good life, or the virtues. Elizabeth Anscombe gave expression to this kind of view, which also finds echoes in the work of Bernard Williams On the other hand, some virtue theorists might take perfect rationality to entail virtue, and might understand morality to be something like the code that such a person would implicitly endorse by acting in virtuous ways.

In that case, even a virtue theorist might count as a moral realist in the sense above. But this appearance is deceptive. Mill 12 himself explicitly defines morality as. And the act-consequentialist J. Smart is also explicit that he is thinking of ethics as the study of how it is most rational to behave. His embrace of utilitarianism is the result of his belief that maximizing utility is always the rational thing to do. On reflection this is not surprising. What is that to me? Definitions of morality in the normative sense—and, consequently, moral theories—differ in their accounts of rationality, and in their specifications of the conditions under which all rational persons would necessarily endorse the code of conduct that therefore would count as morality.

These definitions and theories also differ in how they understand what it is to endorse a code in the relevant way. Some hold that morality applies only to those rational beings that have certain specific features of human beings: features that make it rational for them to endorse morality. These features might, for example, include fallibility and vulnerability. Other moral theories claim to put forward an account of morality that provides a guide to all rational beings, even if these beings do not have these human characteristics, e.

Among such theorists it is also common to hold that morality should never be overridden. That is, it is common to hold that no one should ever violate a moral prohibition or requirement for non-moral reasons. Though common, this view is by no means always taken as definitional. Sidgwick despaired of showing that rationality required us to choose morality over egoism, though he certainly did not think rationality required egoism either.

More explicitly, Gert held that though moral behavior is always rationally permissible , it is not always rationally required. Foot seems to have held that any reason—and therefore any rational requirement—to act morally would have to stem from a contingent commitment or an objective interest.

And she also seems to have held that sometimes neither of these sorts of reasons might be available.

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Indeed, it is possible that morality, in the normative sense, has never been put forward by any particular society, by any group at all, or even by any individual. That is, one might claim that the guides to behavior of some societies lack so many of the essential features of morality, in the normative sense, that it is incorrect to say that these societies even have a morality in a descriptive sense. This is an extreme view, however. A more moderate position would hold that all societies have something that can be regarded as their morality, but that many of these moralities—perhaps, indeed, all of them—are defective.

That is, a moral realist might hold that although these actual guides to behavior have enough of the features of normative morality to be classified as descriptive moralities, they would not be endorsed in their entirety by all moral agents.


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Moral realists do not claim that any actual society has or has ever had morality as its actual guide to conduct. In the theological version of natural law theories, such as that put forward by Aquinas, this is because God implanted this knowledge in the reason of all persons. In the secular version of natural law theories, such as that put forward by Hobbes , natural reason is sufficient to allow all rational persons to know what morality prohibits, requires, etc. Natural law theorists also claim that morality applies to all rational persons, not only those now living, but also those who lived in the past.

In contrast to natural law theories, other moral theories do not hold quite so strong a view about the universality of knowledge of morality.

The Definition of Morality

Still, many hold that morality is known to all who can legitimately be judged by it. Baier , Rawls and contractarians deny that there can be an esoteric morality: one that judges people even though they cannot know what it prohibits, requires, etc. For all of the above theorists, morality is what we can call a public system : a system of norms 1 that is knowable by all those to whom it applies and 2 that is not irrational for any of those to whom it applies to follow Gert Moral judgments of blame thus differ from legal or religious judgments of blame in that they cannot be made about persons who are legitimately ignorant of what they are required to do.

Act consequentialists seem to hold that everyone should know that they are morally required to act so as to bring about the best consequences, but even they do not seem to think judgments of moral blame are appropriate if a person is legitimately ignorant of what action would bring about the best consequences Singer Parallel views seem to be held by rule consequentialists Hooker The ideal situation for a legal system would be that it be a public system.

But in any large society this is not possible. As a result, sometimes people are held legally responsible for violating rules about which they were legitimately ignorant, and even when it would have been irrational for them to have followed those rules. Games are closer to being public systems and most adults playing a game know its rules, or they know that there are judges whose interpretation determines what behavior the game prohibits, requires, etc.

Although a game is often a public system, its rules apply only to those playing the game.


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