A Starting Point for Discussing Morality

I previously blogged that the best way to analyze the effectiveness of a policy is if it rewards good choices or bad choices.  Effectiveness is only part of judging if a policy is good, however.  The other side is morality.   For a policy to be good, it must be both effective and it must be moral.

While effectiveness can be objectively measured, morality is much more subjective.  To take morality to its most basic level, I propose that for anything to be immoral, an offense must be committed.  An offense is anything that offends, displeases, or causes harm.   Offenses can be categorized as one or more of the following:

  • An offense against oneself
  • An offense against others
  • An offense against God

The definition of an offense against God is entirely subject to a person’s individual religious beliefs.  I spoke before of common assumptions.  If one is a Christian, one can assume that the New Testament is an authoritative source for what is an offense against God so two Christians can use this as a reference for a debate.  Even if the logic based upon the New Testament is flawless, it will have no impact on a Jew, Muslim, Atheist, or anyone who is not a Christian.  The same can be said for any religion.  My own personal belief is that I don’t believe there is any offense against God that is not also an offense against oneself or others.  This of course is 100% subjective.

In any case, my ongoing discussions of the morality of any issue will not involve any references to God.  I know there are those who believe that morality cannot even be discussed without the concept of God.  As I blogged previously, without shared assumptions, a starting point, there can be no meaningful discussion.   I will understand if this is your view and you totally reject everything I say on this subject.

I will further go on to state my belief that an offense only against oneself is not immoral.  It may be incredibly stupid, but it is not immoral.  If you make a poor choice and you are the only one injured by your choice, you have not made an immoral choice, just an ineffective choice.

Frequently, however, people who think their bad choices affect only themselves are quite mistaken.  They just don’t think things through fully.  For example, a person might say that riding a motorcycle without a helmet is not immoral, because the rider only injures him/herself.  If, however,  the rider suffers a brain injury and doesn’t have the resources to pay all the medical bills and provide care for him/herself, then the cost of this bad decision is born not just by the rider but by everyone else in society who must contribute to this person’s care.  Also, anyone who is dependent upon the rider, such as the rider’s children, are hurt as well.  Finally, the people who care about the rider may be emotionally devastated, in itself a severe injury.

With the caveat therefore that when we say we are only hurting ourselves, we may be mistaken, my analysis going forward will define as being possibly immoral only actions that hurt others.  This does not mean that any action that hurts others is immoral.  When you buy from Target and not Walmart, one can argue that you are hurting the people at Walmart.  This does not make your purchase immoral.  I am just saying that only an offense against others makes an act possibly immoral.  We can then debate if it actually is moral or immoral.

5 thoughts on “A Starting Point for Discussing Morality

  1. I agree so much with your well written comment Ralph. Of course i suppose any offence to ones self has to do with integrity and whether we have a written code in our conscience of morality as scripture seem to imply, for sin to take place in the mind and to be acted upon. In a purely atheistic world where does morality come from and whose morals are right,.Why have humans evolved to such tremendous heights above other animals, if we have? Charles Crook

    • Thank you Charles. This is the first comment on my blog. I will be writing more on this later. If you would like to follow my blog, you will get a notification when I do a new post. I hope to post about three or four times a week.

  2. A few years ago, I was active in 12 Steps groups and decided t develop a concept of Higher Power. I decided that my tribe would be my higher power. This works. I have never been convinced about the existence of God, at least not in the literal God described in the Hebrew Bible nor the one in the Gospels. But even without a personal concept of God, I consider myself a fairly moral person. Dr. Sherwin Nuland who died recently pointed out that pain, disappointment, depression, joy all have a universal, biochemical component. We especially understand pain—a broken bone, the death of a parent at an early age, adult-sized work for a child, loneliness—if we ourselves have experienced it. To a certain degree a common code of legality and morality is learned. But true morality is a function of capacity for empathy.

  3. Pingback: Tolerance and Hypocrisy – The Brendan Eich Story | Ralph Koppel

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