The Meaning of ‘Moral’

12 08 2009

One of the things I’ve notice while looking at evolution and morality is the vast and unbridled equivocation that goes on when the word ‘moral’ is evoked. Some, such as Franz de Waal, observe cooperation, punishment and concern amongst non-human primates and thus calls them ‘moral’. Others, such as Jonathan Haidt, speak of surges of feeling concerning permissibility or impermissibility and call these intuitions ‘moral’. Others still stress that it takes a special kind of reasoned deliberation about rightness and wrongness to call a judgement truly ‘moral’.

But are they all talking about the same thing? I think not.

In fact, I think the general lack of clarity over what we mean by ‘moral’ is unnecessarily muddying discussion of evolutionary ethics. It’s for this reason that I propose the following basic taxonomy of moral terms:

1) Moral behaviour

Behaviour of an organism that appears to involve concern for the welfare of others besides the acting agent, including cooperation, sharing, helping, punishment, reciprocal exchange etc is ‘moral behaviour’. This behaviour may or may not  be intentional or the result of conscious deliberation. As such, this covers behaviour of  organisms that engage in altruistic behaviour – such as improving the evolutionary fitness of another organism at a cost to one’s own – as well as directed human behaviour driven by moral principles. It’s all moral behaviour.

2) Moral emotion/sentiment

Any emotion that serves to encourage moral behaviour, including empathy, sympathy, gratitude, guilt, outrage etc. These emotions serve as heuristics – rough and ready shortcuts – that direct behaviour without necessarily requiring reasoned deliberation. Humans and non-human primates – and quite likely many other animals as well – possess emotions of this kind, although it appears as though humans possess a particularly broad range of these moral emotions.

3) Moral intuitions

The immediate feeling of permissibility or impermissibility of an action. Moral intuitions, as described by Jonathan Haidt, spring forth rapidly and without conscious deliberation, fuelled by moral emotions, to yield a ‘preliminary’ moral judgement. Arguably, non-human primates can experience moral intuitions, even if they lack the capacity for moral reasoning.

4) Moral reasoning

The conscious process by which abstract moral principles (below) are deliberated upon and applied to a particular situation. Moral reasoning appears to be unique to humans, and involves abstract reasoning, conscious deliberation, imagination and an ability to predict future outcomes of potential behaviours.

5) Moral principles

The abstract propositions – often couched in categorical or universal terms – that concern permissibility and impermissibility (and obligatoriness etc) of actions.

6) Moral judgement/justification

The last term I reserve for ‘considered’ moral judgements, in contrast to the ‘preliminary’ moral judgements yielded by moral intuitions (above). A moral judgement may direct behaviour, if deliberated upon before acting (although the empirical evidence suggests this is rare, or at least only occurs in cases of moral dilemmas where there’s conflict between a moral intuition and an abstract moral principle), or it can be used post hoc as a means of justifying an action via moral reasoning and the weighing up of moral principles.

Why would such a taxonomy as this be helpful? It allows us to talk more clearly about things such as primate morality – i.e. some primates are capable of moral behaviour, even if they don’t engage in moral reasoning using moral principles – as well as provide a more nuanced account of our moral decision making process – i.e. moral emotions lead to moral intuitions, and these sometimes directly lead to behaviour, but at other times we engage in moral reasoning using moral principles to arrive at a moral judgement. Yes, lots of usage of the “moral”, but they all have slightly different meanings. You get the point.



2 responses

13 08 2009

How about the meaning of equivocation?

You give examples of different people using the word to mean different things, but not examples of one person, in one argument using the word in two different ways, and misleadingly equating those different usages to further his argument. The former is not equivocation, the latter is.

13 08 2009
Tim Dean

I’m talking about moral discourse in general equivocating over the term ‘moral’ and using examples of different usages by different people as examples.

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