The Echoes of the Mind (160) Morality


A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true. ~ Socrates

Morality is a biological process that appraises the rightness or wrongness of a behavior. Ethics is the philosophic codification of morality.

The core concept of morality is fairness, which is innate in all organisms, from microbes on up. Sociality would be impossible without morality. Lacking a sense of equity, an organism would have no means to assess the quality of interactions with others.

Moral judgments are stitched into the fabric of human nature, steering us toward cooperation and away from exploitation. ~ English social psychologist Jim Everett et al

Between 2 parties, fairness may play out as reciprocity, based upon immediate needs. In such case, a rough accounting of equity is made through a series of exchanges.

The degree of altruism’s exhibition depends upon individual constitution and cultural fostering of empathy. Irrespective of species, some individuals are more altruistic than others.

Most men have always wanted as much as they could get; and possession has always blunted the fine edge of their altruism. ~ American writer Katharine Gerould

Altruism and compassion are highly correlated, just as egoism is antithetic to altruism.

In assessing the morality of someone’s acts, we necessarily attempt to discern intention. An accident does not have moral implications.

Mind perception is the essence of moral judgment. ~ Kurt Gray et al

The ideal of justice is grounded in fairness. Restitution has always been an abiding principle of justice systems.

A moral judgment of wrongdoing typically provokes a strong emotional reaction. Conversely, witnessing right action is nonprovocative.

The long history of mammalian evolution has shaped us to be sensitive to signs of suffering of others. And this constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice. ~ Jean Decety

An innate sense of fairness coupled to sympathy forms the foundation for compassion, an emotion humans share with other mammals and birds, among other organisms.

Compassion is the basis of morality. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Honesty is another dimension of morality. Like fairness, there are gray areas. Whereas deception for personal gain is clearly immoral, a “little white lie” to spare ill feelings is often considered compassion rather than an ethical lapse. The morality of honesty is ultimately tied to advantage, and so irrevocably linked to fairness and empathy.

Moral character information determines the impressions people form of individuals. ~ American psychologist Geoffrey Goodwin

People put great stock in their moral assessments. It is how individuals define themselves, and the most important criterion in adjudging others.

Moral traits are a reliable predictor for how individuals will fare as potential partners for cooperation and affiliation. One of the chief reasons we make distinctions among persons in the first place is to monitor suitable social partners, and indeed, a person’s moral character – as compared with, say, their personality or shared interests – is the ultimate dimension by which we judge friends, business associates, and mates. ~ Nina Strohminger & Shaun Nichols

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There are 2 opposing perspectives on ethics: deontology and teleology (also known as consequentialism).  Consequentialism casts morality by its outcomes. The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill exemplify teleological ethics.

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals. ~ Jeremy Bentham

Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. ~ John Stuart Mill

By contrast, under deontology, morality is in the act, not its outcome. Deontology is morality by rule, not result. Duty is a deontological concept.

Nothing can be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will. ~ Immanuel Kant

For Kant, goodness comes from acting “out of respect for the moral law.” The extreme of deontology is moral absolutism: that certain acts are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of intention or consequence. Kant’s position was absolutist, in that the sole determinant of morality was intent.

Intuitive and automatic judgments tend to be characteristically deontological, whereas characteristically consequentialist judgments are often the result of slow, deliberative cognitive processes. ~ American psychologist David Pizarro et al

People prefer empathic, cooperative partners who are trustworthy. We gauge trustworthiness from reliability, which is most apparent in those who have rules of right and wrong, who view morality in terms of duties and rights.

Individuals who make deontological decisions in moral dilemmas are rated as being more empathic and having a superior moral character compared to those who make consequentialist decisions. ~ American psychologist Molly Crockett et al

Practically, morality is a blend of teleological and utilitarian constructs. Deontic principles may be overridden if following them is considered harmful. Focus on fairness and justice embrace contractual moral theory with both deontological and teleological underpinnings.

Societally, morality is a social metric which may be deformed by group mores that are immoral.

Bad company ruins good morals. ~ Roman Christian evangelist Paul of Tarsus

Development of Morality

Taking his cue from Piaget, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a model for the developmental stages of morality, from childhood into adulthood. Kohlberg expanded Piaget’s 2-stage model into one with 6 stages at 3 different levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

Kohlberg considered moral development as occurring throughout life, with individuals at different stages regardless of age. Some adults never progress to the highest level.

Preconventional morality is based upon obedience and punishment in the 1st stage. In the 2nd stage, children begin to account for how actions serve individual needs.

Conventional morality views the morality of a behavior by its effect on relationships. 1st-stage emphasis is on conformity and being “nice.” This stage is often referred to as a “good boy / good girl” orientation.

The next stage emphasizes social order: people consider society as a whole when making moral judgments. The focus is on maintaining order by following the rules, respecting authority, and doing one’s duty.

The 1st stage of postconventional morality involves individual rights and the social contract. There begins consideration of differing values and beliefs. Mores remain important, but there is the thought that they should be consensual.

Kohlberg’s final stage of moral reasoning is based upon abstraction of universal ethical precepts. At this stage people follow internalized principles of justice which may conflict with mores and laws.

Kohlberg’s final stage of human moral development most closely corresponds with the natural morality of other organisms, where morality is aligned with fairness and social conventions play no part. Our sociality imposes the artifice of conformity onto morality.

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Kohlberg’s work has been criticized on several accounts. His theory is about moral thinking. Discrepancies often arise between moral reasoning and behavior.

Whereas Kohlberg identified distinct stages of moral development, individuals commonly mix their moral reasoning, in having rationales found in different Kohlberg stages. Also, moral thinking appears to be both situational and heuristic, not as conceptually context dependent as Kohlberg imagined.

There is almost always a problem with theories that propose the existence of unvarying stages. They don’t seem to bear out in real life. People can be highly sophisticated morally about some issues (human rights, racial equality, etc.), yet completely comfortable committing small moral infractions of rules regarding property (keeping money when a cashier mistakenly gives them too much change, for example.) ~ American psychologist Nancy Melucci

Kohlberg’s theory has been accused of having a narrow worldview: being Western-centric, middle class, and with a gender bias. His research subjects were all male, and most under the age of 16.

Women’s perception of self is so much more tenaciously embedded in relationships with others, and their moral dilemmas hold them in a mode of judgment that is insistently contextual. ~ American psychologist Carol Gilligan

Whereas Western individualist cultures emphasize personal rights, Eastern collectivist cultures stress social harmony. Kohlberg did not account for different moral outlooks.

Finally, Kohlberg’s model relies upon the abstraction of justice, without mention of compassion, which often figures in moral sentiment.

In sum, though contributory, Kohlberg’s theory cannot be considered comprehensive, or even well-informed from a scholarly standpoint.


People overoptimistically predict their own future moral behavior but accurately predict the not-so-moral future behavior of others. ~ American psychologist Jesse Graham

Morality has a strange contagion. People who witness moral acts are more likely to perform a moral deed themselves but are also more likely to allow themselves to act immorally.