In its first, descriptive usage, morality means a code of conduct held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong. Morals are created by and define society, philosophy, religion, or individual conscience.
In its second, normative and universal sense, morality refers to an ideal code of conduct, one which would be espoused in preference to alternatives by all rational people, under specified conditions. To deny 'morality' in this sense is a position known as moral skepticism.
In its third usage, 'morality' is synonymous with ethics, the systematic philosophical study of the moral domain.
Ethics seeks to address questions such as how a moral outcome can be achieved in a specific situation (applied ethics), how moral values should be determined (normative ethics), what morals people actually abide by (descriptive ethics), what the fundamental nature of ethics or morality is, including whether it has any objective justification (meta-ethics), and how moral capacity or moral agency develops and what its nature is (moral psychology). In applied ethics, for example, the prohibition against taking human life is controversial with respect to capital punishment, abortion and wars of invasion. In normative ethics, a typical question might be whether a lie told for the sake of protecting someone from harm is justified. In meta-ethics, a key issue is the meaning of the terms "right" or "wrong". Moral realism would hold that there are true moral statements which report objective moral facts, whereas moral anti-realism would hold that morality is derived from any one of the norms prevalent in society (cultural relativism); the edicts of a god (divine command theory); is merely an expression of the speakers' sentiments (emotivism); an implied imperative (prescriptive); falsely presupposes that there are objective moral facts (error theory). Some thinkers hold that there is no correct definition of right behavior, that morality can only be judged with respect to particular situations, within the standards of particular belief systems and socio-historical contexts. This position, known as moral relativism, often cites empirical evidence from anthropology as evidence to support its claims. The opposite view, that there are universal, eternal moral truths is known as moral absolutism. Moral absolutists might concede that forces of social conformity significantly shape moral decisions, but deny that cultural norms and customs define morally right behavior.
Celia Green has made a distinction between tribal and territorial morality. She characterizes the latter as predominantly negative and proscriptive: it defines a person’s territory, including his or her property and dependents, which is not to be damaged or interfered with. Apart from these proscriptions, territorial morality is permissive, allowing the individual whatever behaviour does not interfere with the territory of another. By contrast, tribal morality is prescriptive, imposing the norms of the collective on the individual. These norms will be arbitrary, culturally dependent and ‘flexible’, whereas territorial morality aims at rules which are universal and absolute, such as Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’. Green relates the development of territorial morality to the rise of the concept of private property, and the ascendancy of contract over status.
Some observers hold that individuals have distinct sets of moral rules that they apply to different groups of people. There is the "ingroup," which includes the individual and those they believe to be of the same culture or race, and there is the "outgroup," whose members are not entitled to be treated according to the same rules. Some biologists, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists believe this ingroup/outgroup difference is an evolutionary mechanism, one which evolved due to its enhanced survival aspects. Gary R. Johnson and V.S. Falger have argued that nationalism and patriotism are forms of this ingroup/outgroup boundary.
Fons Trompenaars, author of Did the Pedestrian Die?, tested members of different cultures with various moral dilemmas. One of these was whether the driver of a car would have his friend, a passenger riding in the car, lie in order to protect the driver from the consequences of driving too fast and hitting a pedestrian. Trompenaars found that different cultures had quite different expectations (from none to almost certain).
Evolutionary biologists, particularly sociobiologists, believe that morality is a product of evolutionary forces acting at an individual level and also at the group level through group selection. Sociobiologists contend that the set of behaviors that constitute morality evolved because they were good for the individual and good for the group. Humans consequently evolved positive emotions, such as feelings of righteousness or pride, in response to these moral behaviors. In this respect, morality is not absolute, but relative and constitute any set of behaviors that encourage human cooperation. Biologists contend that all social animals, from ants to elephants, have modified their behaviors, by restraining selfishness in order to make group living worthwhile. Human morality, though sophisticated and complex relative to other animals, is essentially a natural phenomenon that evolved to restrict excessive individualism and foster human cooperation.
On this view, moral codes are ultimately founded on emotional instincts and intuitions that were selected for in the past because they aided survival and reproduction (inclusive fitness). The strength of the maternal bond is one example. Another is the Westermarck effect, seen as underpinning taboos against incest, which decreases the likelihood of inbreeding depression.
The phenomenon of 'reciprocity' in nature is seen by evolutionary biologists as one way to begin to understand human morality. Its function is typically to ensure a reliable supply of essential resources, especially for animals living in a habitat where food quantity or quality fluctuates unpredictably. For example, on any given night for vampire bats, some individuals fail to feed on prey while others consume a surplus of blood. Bats that have successfully fed then regurgitate part of their blood meal to save a conspecific from starvation. Since these animals live in close-knit groups over many years, an individual can count on other group members to return the favor on nights when it goes hungry (Wilkinson, 1984)
It has been convincingly demonstrated that chimpanzees show empathy for each other in a wide variety of contexts. They also possess the ability to engage in deception, and a level of social 'politics' prototypical of our own tendencies for gossip and reputation management.
Christopher Boehm (1982) has hypothesized that the incremental development of moral complexity throughout hominid evolution was due to the increasing need to avoid disputes and injuries in moving to open savanna and developing stone weapons. Other theories are that increasing complexity was simply a correlate of increasing group size and brain size, and in particular the development of theory of mind abilities. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion suggested that our morality is a result of our biological evolutionary history and that the Moral Zeitgeist helps describe how morality evolves from biological and cultural origins and evolves with time within a culture.
Research on mirror neurons, since their discovery in 1996, suggests that they may have a strong role to play in empathy. Social neuro-scientist Jean Decety thinks that the ability to recognize and vicariously experience what another creature is undergoing was a key step forward in the evolution of social behavior, and ultimately, morality. The inability to feel empathy is one of the defining characteristic of psychopathy, and this would appear to lend support to Decety's view.
In modern psychology, morality is considered to change through personal development. A number of psychologists have produced theories on the development of morals, usually going through stages of different morals. Lawrence Kohlberg, Jean Piaget, and Elliot Turiel have cognitive-developmental approaches to moral development; to these theorists morality forms in a series of constructive stages or domains. Social psychologists such as Martin Hoffman and Jonathan Haidt emphasize social and emotional development based on biology, such as empathy. Moral identity theorists, such as William Damon and Mordechai Nisan, see moral commitment as arising from the development of a self-identity that is defined by moral purposes: this moral self-identity leads to a sense of responsibility to pursue such purposes. Of historical interest in psychology are the theories of psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, who believe that moral development is the product of aspects of the super-ego as guilt-shame avoidance.
In most systems, the lack of morality of the individual can also be a sufficient cause for punishment, or can be an element for the grading of the punishment.
Especially in the systems where modesty (i.e., with reference to sexual crimes) is legally protected or otherwise regulated, the definition of morality as a legal element and in order to determine the cases of infringement, is usually left to the vision and appreciation of the single judge and hardly ever precisely specified. In such cases, it is common to verify an application of the prevalent common morality of the interested community, that consequently becomes enforced by the law for further reference.
The government of South Africa is attempting to create a Moral Regeneration movement. Part of this is a proposed Bill of Morals, which will bring a biblical-based "moral code" into the realm of law. This move by a nominally secular democracy has attracted relatively little criticism.
If morality is the answer to the question 'how ought we to live' at the individual level, politics can be seen as addressing the same question at the social level. It is therefore unsurprising that evidence has been found of a relationship between attitudes in morality and politics. Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham have studied the differences between liberals and conservatives, in this regard. According to their model, political conservatives make their moral choices using five moral variables (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity), whereas liberals use only two (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). Haidt also hypothesizes that the origin of this division in the United States can be traced to geohistorical factors, with conservatism strongest in closely knit, ethnically homogenous communities, in contrast to port-cities, where the cultural mix is greater, thus requiring more liberalism.
Group morality develops from shared concepts and beliefs and is often codified to regulate behavior within a culture or community. Various defined actions come to be called moral or immoral. Individuals who choose moral action are popularly held to possess "moral fiber", whereas those who indulge in immoral behavior may be labeled as socially degenerate. The continued existence of a group may depend on widespread conformity to codes of morality; an inability to adjust moral codes in response to new challenges is sometimes credited with the demise of a community (a positive example would be the function of Cistercian reform in reviving monasticism; a negative example would be the role of the Dowager Empress in the subjugation of China to European interests). Within nationalist movements, there has been some tendency to feel that a nation will not survive or prosper without acknowledging one common morality, regardless of in what it consists. Political Morality is also relevant to the behaviour internationally of national governments, and to the support they receive from their host population. Noam Chomsky states that
... if we adopt the principle of universality : if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others -- more stringent ones, in fact -- plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.
In fact, one of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something's right for me, it's right for you; if it's wrong for you, it's wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow. But that principle is overwhelmingly disregarded all the time. If you want to run through examples we can easily do it. Take, say, George W. Bush, since he happens to be president. If you apply the standards that we applied to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, he'd be hanged. Is it an even conceivable possibility? It's not even discussable. Because we don't apply to ourselves the principles we apply to others. There's a lot of talk about 'terror' and how awful it is. Whose terror? Our terror against them? I mean, is that considered reprehensible? No, it's considered highly moral; it's considered self-defense. Now, their terror against us, that's awful, and terrible. But, to try to rise to the level of becoming a minimal moral agent, and just entering into the domain of moral discourse is very difficult. Because that means accepting the principle of universality. And you can experiment for yourself and see how often that's accepted, either in personal or political life. Very rarely.
Codified morality is generally distinguished from custom, another way for a community to define appropriate activity, by the former's derivation from natural or universal principles. In certain religious communities, the Divine is said to provide these principles through revelation, sometimes in great detail. Such codes may be called laws, as in the Law of Moses, or community morality may be defined through commentary on the texts of revelation, as in Islamic law. Such codes are distinguished from legal or judicial right, including civil rights, which are based on the accumulated traditions, decrees and legislation of a political authority, though these latter often invoke the authority of the moral law.
Morality can also be seen as the collection of beliefs as to what constitutes a good life. Since throughout most of human history, religions have provided both visions and regulations for an ideal life, morality is often confused with religious precepts. In secular communities, lifestyle choices, which represent an individual's conception of the good life, are often discussed in terms of "morality". Individuals sometimes feel that making an appropriate lifestyle choice invokes a true morality, and that accepted codes of conduct within their chosen community are fundamentally moral, even when such codes deviate from more general social principles.
Moral codes are often complex definitions of right and wrong that are based upon well-defined value systems. Although some people might think that a moral code is simple, rarely is there anything simple about one's values, ethics, etc. or, for that matter, the judgment of those of others. The difficulty lies in the fact that morals are often part of a religion and more often than not about culture codes. Sometimes, moral codes give way to legal codes, which couple penalties or corrective actions with particular practices. Note that while many legal codes are merely built on a foundation of religious and/or cultural moral codes, ofttimes they are one and the same.
Examples of moral codes include the Golden Rule; the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism; the ancient Egyptian code of Ma'at ;the ten commandments of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the yamas and niyama of the Hindu scriptures; the ten Indian commandments; and the principle of the Dessek.
Another related concept is the moral core which is assumed to be innate in each individual, to those who accept that differences between individuals are more important than posited Creators or their rules. This, in some religious systems and beliefs (e.g. Taoism, Moralism and Gnosticism), is assumed to be the basis of all aesthetics and thus moral choice. Moral codes as such are therefore seen as coercive — part of human politics.
Religious belief systems usually include the idea of divine will and divine judgment and usually correspond to a moral code of conduct, and many religions claim that religion and morality are intimately connected. For example, the Roman Catholic Church maintains that although morality can be derived from unaided reason as it is simply the "right ordering" of man's actions, ultimately it derives from God because God created man and nature and that the ultimate sanction for immorality is the loss of a relationship with God.
The Bible claims its morality is based on spiritual joy. Jesus says He commands people to love because that is what brings joy. The Apostles Paul and John likewise state their purpose is to help people's joy. The Bible also claims God is good because His divine commands are reasonable; they are meant to fill us with joy. Furthermore it claims God works within us making us want to do what is moral. The Bible's New Testament covenant for eternal life demands following the moral code written into our minds, which is also known as the voice of Jesus, and the human conscience. Because this moral code is based on receiving spiritual joy when doing acts of mercy, the Biblical morality often coincides with the saying, "When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad.