To a layperson, the concept of morality brings to fore two notions — good and bad. To them, morality implies what is accepted as right and acceptable, and alternatively, what is considered wrong and unacceptable. However, while this offers a perspective on morality, the concept remains far wider. Consequently, this essay explores the idea of morality to provide more perspective on it.
Although there are various definitions all in a bid to conceptualize morality, it still has no specific description. However, morality involves the idea of good and bad, guilt, and shame. Also, morality is sometimes used interchangeably with terms like ‘Ethics’ and ‘Moral philosophy.’ Both senses involve an exploration of conduct that is right or wrong, acceptable, or unacceptable.
Similarly, the existence of morality may either be customary or reflective. Customary or traditional morality reflects the idea of morality that exists in various cultures and societies. Based on customs and traditional beliefs, it is the first point of contact with morality for every human being. It is transferred during childhood and received without any form of in-depth analysis.
On the other hand, reflective morality reflects the idea of morality developed from critical analysis and examination of existing beliefs. It is usually acquired during the adult years and comes from personal reflection.
The concept of morality applies strictly to human beings. This is because animals do not possess the requisite level of reasoning to assess their conduct. In the same vein, the supernaturals are deemed above ordinary laws. As such, only human beings are required to be morally responsible for their conduct.
Further, in exploring the concept of morality, attention must be paid to two perspectives — normative and descriptive — through which it can be viewed.
Respect to the descriptive or scientific approach, — often used in the social sciences — describes how people act or behave in response to a specific ethical or moral dilemma. As such, it concerns the identification of codes and rules of conduct established by a group of persons or individuals as necessary to guide their behaviour.
On the other hand, when used normatively, it concerns how individuals should act when faced with a particular ethical or moral dilemma. Simply, morality, in this sense, concerns stipulating or prescribing a set of rules guiding how rational individuals should act under certain circumstances.
These approaches are further distinguished in that descriptive morality is limited to a particular group of persons. This is because it describes merely a group of persons and their moral standards. For instance, in defining the morality of different groups, polygamy may be considered ethical in one and immoral in another. On the other hand, the normative approach applies to all rational persons. In this sense, morality is stipulated for all marital relationships.
While it is easy to offer theoretical definitions of morality, it is harder to determine what is moral or immoral in practice. For instance, it is easy to condemn the act of stealing as unacceptable and, in turn, unethical.
When the same action is done in a bid to save the life of a loved one, complications arise in determining whether the act is immoral or justifiably acceptable. It is in this light that various standards have been developed to assess what is right or wrong.
These standards include law, pleasure, value, perfection, and society, among others. However, the most prominent among these standards is the law, mainly due to the vital relationship between law and morality. Law is a set of rules – usually written – that dictates what is acceptable and unacceptable. It then prescribes penalties for their breach while also designing a system to apprehend and inflict the penalties on offenders.
Hence, as a standard, what is regarded as lawfully acceptable or otherwise is used to determine what is moral or otherwise. In the same vein, no activity is immoral unless adjudged as such by the law. However, it must be noted that in assessing morality through the law, external laws — laws of a community, tribe, state, or God — are of great importance.
Although morality does not lend itself to one single definition, in further exploring the concept of morality, it can be viewed from four different categories — religious, individual, social, and natural.
As regards religious morality, it exists in relation to the relationship between humans and supernaturals. This category of morality is premised on the fact that these supernaturals stipulate unacceptable conduct, usually prescribed in their holy books, and humans must abide by the same. As such, morality is viewed from the lens of what is considered right or wrong by the higher authority.
As regards individual morality, this involves the standards of conduct set by an individual as guiding himself. It is usually not maintained as a member of a society or concerning any religion. Instead, it is maintained by an individual as a result of personal obligations to themselves. Usually, this category of morality is based on stipulations by one’s conscience.
As regards social morality, this involves the standard of conduct maintained as a member of a group of persons or society. This category of morality is usually maintained concerning other members of the community. Noteworthy, social morality is considered the most crucial class as it concerns the existence of humans as a social species.
As regards natural morality, concerns the standards of conduct maintained in relation to nature itself. This category of morality has emerged in recent times to cater to man’s destructive tendencies with its natural environment. As such, this category involves codes and conducts considered appropriate and relevant in humans’ relationship to nature.
Although new issues stretching the concept of morality continues to arise, it must be noted that morality must be universal. That is, it must be comprehensive and consistent. This is because morality transcends personal preferences and involves what is reasonable and objective. As such, morality must be based on reason, and since reasoning is general to all men, morality must be universal.