On Morality

Illustration by Sam Kalda

In simplest terms, we tend to define morality as the ability to know right from wrong; and to choose to do right when confronted with a choice. Seems simple enough, but then, the social scientists begin to burden us with thought experiments, and terms like Moral Relativity and Moral Ambiguity. Take, for example, the classic 'Trolley Problem'.
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move; the trolley is heading towards them. You are standing next to a lever which has the function of switching the trolley to another set of tracks.

On this other side set is just one person. In this situation, you have just two options:

(1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.

(2) Pull the lever, which diverts the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. What will be the ethical choice?

In this case, will the moral choice be to let 1 die for 5, or sacrifice five for many?  But then, who has even given you the moral authority to decide? Ironically, doing nothing is also a choice. Well, isn’t this a morally ambiguous situation?


As for moral relativity, cases range from the killing of twins to child marriages. In older civilisation, some even make a case for slavery. To the perpetrators of these so-called evils, they were acting the best of what they assumed to be normal and good. It then begs the question, can an action be immoral if the actor is unaware of its wrongness? Babies and toddlers get a pass for biting the nipples that feed them and throwing up on whoever they want because we assume they have no idea what they are doing— Imagine if they did but pretended otherwise because they know we give them a pass...hmmm.

Illustration by Sam Kalda

For as long as we have decided to live as social beings, which is pretty much as long as we have records of our existence, there has always been the need for a moral code to regulate our behaviour. In fact, morality can be seen in other social animals like capuchin monkeys where a sense of fairness is evident in behaviour. Man, of course, being a conscious creature has constantly expanded the scope of what it is to be moral. Today, we can be immoral against not just people, but the environment— which in the long run affects people too. At a glance, one might say the issue of morality is a bit of a no-brainer. After all, we all have something in the semblance of a conscience and it allows us to tell wrong from right. Our sense of sympathy and empathy almost seem natural, and when we are aware of a moral choice, it baffles us that others aren’t just as aware of it. 


Institutionally, religion and philosophy have been our guide mainly highlighting the Golden Rule as early as 479BC when the Chinese philosopher Confucius pointed out that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. Jesus Christ later repeated this in a different form by saying we should love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves. Religiously, there are as many codes of morality as there are religions; even if they sometimes differ or are in direct opposition. To break out of the institutional trap of religious morality, even though most philosophers consider the universe an amoral place, secular ethics has tried to expand on our knowledge of the human condition.

Often drawing from the philosophy of libertarianism— as long as no harm comes to others, and you don’t impede on their freedom, all acts are morally acceptable— to make us better moral beings because morality is a necessity for our life and the society at large. For something supposedly innate, it is rather paradoxical that we need institutions to tell us what is right and how to live well.

As long as no harm comes to others, and you don’t impede on their freedom, all acts are morally acceptable

Today, most people still belong to a religion that asks them to fellowship at least once a week for moral sustenance and consolation for the pain of being. However, when we ask ourselves what moral message can we probably learn from the pulpit that we aren’t already aware of, we struggle to come up with answers. The reason we do this is because as humans, our relationship to morality is as a matter of empathic sensitivity. If we aren’t sensitised to moral acts, chances are high that we will ignore them for our own selfish comfort.

In fact, objectivist philosophers like Ayn Rand believe for an act to be moral, it must serve our self-interest, hence feeding the right self-interest is what makes us moral beings. While there is a case of the occasional altruistic motive in human behaviour, largely, we operate with a selfish gene. When faced with moral choices, the question we often have to answer is ‘which consequence can we live with?’.

Today, we pride ourselves as the moral superior of our ancestors, but just wait till the year 3000 when machines would have replaced sweatshop workers and see what they woul think of a time when humans wore clothes and used phones made under conditions they cannot even begin to imagine. Not very much different from how we think of humans that kept slaves before the industrial revolution.  We just aren’t as empathically sensitised to the lives of sweatshop workers and while we are mildly aware of their existence, without any real social consequence for ignoring it, we have no pressure to make a moral choice. The riders on their moral high-horses in the year 3000 will not be innately more moral than us, they will simply just have an easier moral choice to make with ethically made iPhones in every store.

When all the theories surrounding morality is considered, the Buddhist philosophy of increasing happiness and diminishing suffering for all beings comes to mind. Instead of considering the notion of morality to be a fixed set of principles, we are better of understanding it as an evolving concept rooted in the idea of making our lives and that of others a better place. What defines the degree of how moral we are is rooted not just in our ability to tell right from wrong, but also, in our ability to make the right moral choice, even with it requires a degree of sacrifice.