What is Morality?


If I steal from the rich and feed to the poor, is that good or is that bad? If I drive over the speed limit to get my sick child to the hospital, is that good or is that bad? What is good? And what is bad? What is morality, and do you, as a person, have morals?

Morality is what society treats as right and acceptable. They’re the standards of thoughts, behaviors, and actions that everyone in a group agrees to follow so they can all live peacefully. 

When you define it like that, morality does sound like law. However, while the law is influenced by morals, they’re not the same. 

Stealing is against the law. Whether you’re stealing from the rich or from the poor, stealing is a crime. However, a lot of people would consider stealing a piece of bread to save a homeless person from dying of hunger moral. 

Driving over the speed limit is a crime, but when it could help save the life of the child in the backseat of your car, it becomes the most noble of actions. 

Trespassing is a crime, but when there’s a storm coming and you don’t have anywhere to go, hiding under the shade of someone’s porch will definitely not get you in society’s black book. 

On the flip side, there are also some things that are considered immoral but are not criminal. Cheating on a test is a crime, but cheating on a partner is not. However, both of them would most likely be considered immoral. 

Breaking a promise is one of the most immoral things you can do. But unless it was a written agreement about a business contract, you normally won’t get into trouble with the law for it. 

Although law and morality are different, they’re quite similar in many ways actually. Both morality and law are built on the foundation of respect for all humans as well as autonomy of life, property, and beliefs.

They’re also both there to guide the behaviors of people living in a community so everyone can live together in the most peaceful ways possible. Just that one is written, and the other is usually unspoken. 

I made an entire video about unspoken rules in society, and most of them are simply our moral obligations as members of that society. 

More often than not, the law expresses the morality of that time and place. Just a few years ago, it was illegal to smoke weed almost anywhere in the United States. However, as morality shifted towards tolerance for people who enjoy it, so did the law. Now whether they did that for moral reasons or simply because they can tax it at a pretty high rate is a different discussion entirely, but anyways. 

As humans evolve and learn new things, our morals change. This is why morality isn’t stagnant. It evolves with time as people share their experiences and beliefs about the world. 

Think about issues like pre-marital sex, same-sex relationships, abortion, marijuana use. These are all things that were considered immoral long ago. But today, society is beginning to accept all of these as moral. 

We’ve learned to be tolerant of people regardless of their personal beliefs or preferences. And while not everyone might agree to all of these things or practice it themselves, things seem to have flipped, and it’s now considered immoral to criticize the people who choose to live these lifestyles.

Throughout human history, morality tended to have been tied to religious traditions. However, now more than ever, we’re moving to a place where morality is no longer tied to religion whatsoever. It’s more of what the “social norm” is and how you operate around that norm. We now recognize the need for secular morality that transcends people’s personal beliefs, and is instead seeking the good of the general public. 

However, there is one argument against this type of morality. The idea of subjective morality. You see, there have always been debates about whether morality is subjective or objective, usually in religious or philosophical spheres. 

People who believe that morality is objective often say that if morality becomes subjective, everyone can simply create their own morality, and then we can never say they’re wrong about anything. Because who are we to say their own definition of morality isn’t the right one?

And while there is some truth in that, there still are of course many flaws in that argument. If morality is objective, there needs to be substantial similarities in what every culture considers correct and acceptable, as well as actions that are considered taboo universally. But it is almost impossible to find a moral issue that every culture in the world agrees to, even murder. 

Think about Nazi Germany and how it was thought of as moral to kill in that culture. Think about cultures that practice cannibalism, or still make human sacrifices to their deity, to this day. 

If even the most barbaric of actions aren’t considered barbaric in every culture, how can we possibly say that morality is objective? 

Another problem with the argument of objective morality is that for morality to be objective, it has to be defined by an outside entity, in other words, a God, or at least something that is hard-coded into all of us as humans. But in that case, most religions do not agree on the rules that have been given by their God. 

In fact, even within religions, not everyone agrees to or follows the same set of rules. So how do we then determine which group of people are right about what is wrong?

When people think of objective morality, what they’re actually talking about is cosmopolitan morality. Because the world is now so connected, we are more open to new and diverse experiences, experiences that are helping us shape a new definition of morality. One that we all can agree on. But as we’ve seen in the past, getting everyone to agree on something is relatively impossible.

This type of morality mostly only exists on the internet, the biggest cosmopolitan metropolis. But when you step outside and look into the real world, into the billions of people that are not connected to the internet, you’ll be met with a vast difference in what is considered right and what is considered wrong. 

Delphi, named after the ancient Greek oracle, is a simple Artificial Intelligence system that has been designed to make moral and ethical judgments. 

The Allen Institute built Delphi to answer one question, “can machines learn morality?” On the surface, it might seem like a simple question with a straightforward answer, but research done on Delphi says otherwise. 

Delphi was once accessed by a group of human judges and they determined that her ethical judgments were around 92% correct, correct being decisions that humans are likely to make in the same scenario. 

When Delphi was released into the wild via the internet, a lot more people agreed with what these human judges thought of Delphi. Yes, she wasn’t perfect, but even humans aren’t perfect moral beings. As we gain new experiences and begin to understand the life and struggles of others, we learn more and become wiser in our judgments. 

But you see, there are two main problems with Delphi and other AI systems like her. 

First, because Delphi was created by humans, she can quickly become as flawed and prejudiced as the people who created her. 

The creators of Delphi were the ones who chose the ethical scenarios that would be used in the system. They also chose the people who would judge these scenarios. This means that at least, in part, Delphi is a product of the morality of her creators. 

So, until we can find a way to eradicate the prejudices that currently exist in our world, whatever AI we create will continue to express those thoughts. But this time, we won’t have anyone to hold accountable. 

Secondly, you see, morality is not just critical analysis. Morality is intertwined with emotion. Attachments between friends, partners, parents, and children, these are the foundations on which morality stands. Take away the emotions, and all you’re left with is critical analysis and decision making based on cost and reward. And this is simply not morality. 

This is why when Delphi was asked, “is it right to leave one’s body to science?” She responded with “Yes.” On paper, the benefits outweigh the cost, but it is only when we look at it through a lens of both emotions and logical reasoning that we realize that human life is far greater than any benefit. Especially when there are other explorable options. 

More and more, we’re seeing lawyers defend their cases using MRI scans and the “neurology” side of morality. Because let’s say a certain person was making life decisions while at the same time having a massive brain tumor affecting their thought processes; if the person was not capable of making a moral decision due to medical conditions beyond their knowledge, can we even blame them for their actions? 

Morality is a function of the brain. If the area of the brain just behind the forehead, inches away from the eyes, gets damaged, a person’s moral judgment can completely change. Their moral judgment, especially in life or death situations, becomes warped. They’re willing to take a life, as long as it’s done to save another. 

In a study, people with this type of injury were willing to strangle a baby, as long as it would save someone else’s life. It’s vile and unthinkable to you, because you feel compassion, guilt, and embarrassment. But when the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for creating these emotions, is damaged, so is your moral compass. 

Without the emotional system being in place, we’re just like Delphi, left only with the ability to make utilitarian cost-benefit analyses. So as long as we’re saving one life, taking another seems completely fair. Only when you look at it through the eyes of compassion, through the lens of morality, do you realize it’s immoral and barbaric. 

So if morality can be affected by our biological makeup, what is morality? Biological or Cultural?

In truth, it’s both. Biologically, what distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to make moral judgments. And this ability is down to three things. 

We can anticipate the consequences of our actions, we can make value judgments, and we can choose between alternative courses of action. 

These three things work together to give us the ability to make moral decisions.

However, while the ability to make moral decisions is biological, moral codes of conduct are strictly culture, built out of the need to cohabit successfully. 

That’s why every culture has its own morality. 

Morality is a complex thing. Just like every human is on a different journey of life, we are all guided on that journey by different moral compasses. This is why morality is a difficult subject to talk about. 

Because no matter what you say, there will always be some people that disagree with you. What some people consider moral, others consider immoral, what some people consider justice, others think of as revenge. 

But getting everyone to agree on a set of guidelines to follow should not be the only end goal of talking about morality. Because while we might not get all the answers we want or a clear path we all should follow, discussions on morality, how it’s formed, and how it affects us, can give us a look into the lives of others, and give us insight on how we should live our own.

It helps us learn how others think, why they act the way they do, and why some people fight forcefully against certain ideas and beliefs, and hold on dearly to some others. 

Talking about morality in a sense, makes us all more moral. Because it teaches us why we are the way we are, and how we can improve upon that.

Morality is not measured in absolutes, but fractions of different pieces from different places that make up the whole pie we have come to know as humanity.