Given that behaving morally is recognized as an important part of being human, it amazes me how little people actually consider what morality is or how it is grounded in reality. Christians ground moral truths in the character of God. Atheists cannot do so, yet atheists like Phil Zuckerman claim to find their morality in "empathetic reciprocity." Others, like philosopher Marc D. Hauser, hold that morality is the outcome of evolutionary forces and thus a physical and chemical outworking of biology and history.2
Can morality be rooted in a physical cause? What gives moral principles their authoritative power? This is where most people falter in that they haven't considered just what is required to consider an action moral or immoral. Why is my choice to cheat on my taxes immoral while cheating on my diet isn't?
When speaking of what makes an act fall into the sphere of actions that may be considered morally significant, we must have some basic ideas of morality itself. This means that any moral system or moral framework must include at least three components. These are the recognition of moral obligations and duties as real, the moral freedom of the agent to choose to obey those moral duties and obligations, and the genuine responsibility of the agent as that duty presents itself. Let's look at the first of the three today and we'll take the other two in subsequent posts.
Understanding Moral ObligationsThe first piece in understanding morality is the easiest to understand. There are real obligations, laws, duties that we are required to obey. As a comparison, we can look to the legal system. People are required by law in the United States to drive on the right side of the road if the street allows for two-way traffic. Usually, there is also a maximum speed limit that people must obey. However, there are some areas like portions of the German Autobahn that have no speed limit. In those areas it is not illegal to drive at even 200 miles per hour.
Turning back to morality, moral laws must exist of a person is to be held accountable to them. Just as the Autobahn above, one cannot be said to be morally culpable if there is no moral law that a one is violating. Because human beings recognize that honesty is a moral virtue to which we should all adhere, it becomes binding on the individual who seeks to cheat at a test. While cheating on one's diet may not be good sense, it is not in itself dishonest and doesn't violate a moral law. If you were to lie about your diet-cheating, you could then be morally culpable, but the cheating itself is morally neutral.
Moral obligations exist apart from their acceptanceMoral laws and obligations are things we are required to do and any system that claims to account for moral values must also account for real, binding laws and obligations. This isn't as easy as it may appear. If these values and duties are truly obligatory, it means that their existence is independent of their acceptance. Just because no one obeys the speed limit on California freeways doesn't mean the speed limit doesn't exist nor does it mean that you cannot get a ticket because you were "going as fast as everyone else." They are all wrong and you are, too! Moral obligations may be held by some people, all of the people, or no one, but that doesn't change the fact that they exist.
Moral obligations may conflict with our desiresOne unique aspect of moral duties and obligations is that of they are real, it may be the case that they are distasteful to us. In other words, it is sometimes necessary to relinquish personal pleasure for the sake of doing the good. ;As an example, let's use the concept of not cheating on one's taxes. No one likes to pay taxes and being honest may cost people discomfort, especially those who are struggling to get by in the first place. However, because there is a real moral duty to be honest, one should not cheat on one's taxes. To be moral doesn't mean we only accept the moral laws that we like or that don't cause us discomfort. In fact, we applaud those like Mother Teresa who make great sacrifices to their own comfort in order to obey a higher moral principle. Real moral obligations may mean being honest even when it costs you something.
Moral obligations focus on our motivationsOne additional aspect of looking at moral obligations is the fact seeking to be moral is a focus on the will as much as it is a focus on specific actions. David Baggett and Jerry Walls make this point in their book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. They write, "Morality confers obligations and constraints not only on our behaviors but even on our motivations."3 For example, imagine you were t see a man such into a burning building and pull out a trapped child. The local press captures the act and the man is lauded as a hero. However, if it is later found out that the man knew the child would be trapped and he rushed in to gain the accolades of the press, his selfish motivation basically nullifies his actions, even though in both cases the child is saved.
In all, what anchors morality must be able to account for real moral obligations. If one grounds his or her morality in naturalism, then he must come up with a convincing account of what moral obligations are, why they are objective (that is they sit apart from both our acceptance of them or our desires), and ;how they bear upon our motives as well as our actions. That's much easier to do on theism than naturalism, but that isn't the only factor involved. See my next post on why people must be morally free agents and genuinely responsible for their actions are also required.
Read part two here!
2. Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. 22.
3. Baggett, 2011. 16.