a blog by J.M. Cottle
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The metaphysics of morality (or: I feel sick)

Remember when the dentist asked me about the meaning of life? Here is the sequel to that story.

It’s story time

When I bowed out of the opportunity to explain to the dentist that life is meaningless, he chuckled and said, “Okay, let’s try this: Where does morality come from?”

I was more comfortable now that I wasn’t caught off-guard, so I said, “I think morality comes from human emotions.”

“Well, here’s a hypothetical situation. Let’s just say that the Nazis had won WWII–” And here my heart sank, because whenever the Nazis are brought into the conversation, you know you’re in for a hard slog up a dogmatic slope. “And let’s say that now the Nazis are in control of the world, and it becomes moral and right to kill Jewish people. That idea came from humans, didn’t it?”

The dentist had almost-but-not-quite given up on sticking his fingers in my mouth; I wished he would put them back in so that I’d have a moment to gather my thoughts.

“I think,” I said, “that the individuals who do the actual killing are going to feel guilty and sick about themselves, no matter what becomes culturally normal, and if they don’t, then they probably had some terrible things happen in their lives and I am sad for them.”

“Well, it’s all right,” said the dentist. “These are hard questions. Maybe next time you can come back and give me the answer.”

It’s philosophy time

I have already explained that freedom has to exist for morality to exist, so now that I’ve told you why I think it’s possible for morality to exist, I’d like to talk about where it might come from. Let’s look at a few possibilities.

  1. Morality is an intrinsic part of the world, put there by design or evolved by chance. If humanity ceased to exist, morality would still be there. We discover these principles in the world through logic or emotion.
  2. Morality is an intrinsic part of humans, put there by design or evolved by chance, but it’s not part of the rest of the world. Humans are born with it, and if humanity ceased to exist, morality would cease to exist, too. We discover (or express) these principles in ourselves through logic or emotion.
  3. Morality is built by humans, through logic or emotion. It isn’t part of the non-human world and humans are not born with it.

My views on the matter

As you might have guessed from what I told the dentist, my view is #3: I think that morality is built by humans. I also think that we base it on emotion. We see something that makes us feel upset or sick, and we call it immoral. We use our rationality to make a coherent system out of it that helps us figure out what to do in more murky situations, like when both options make us feel bad, or there is no clear emotional response in the moment.

At first, this might sound like we are born with morality and we express it through emotion — #2 above. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if that really was the case, since morality could have evolved over the ages, but I lean more toward #3 because I think it’s sympathy, not morality, that is inherent in us.

As conscious beings, and as beings that have evolved to be social, it’s easy for us to see ourselves in someone else’s position and to want to cause pleasure, not pain, in others. As children, when our awareness of ourselves and of the world is not yet mature, we often make choices that adults consider immoral, mostly because we haven’t learned how to apply our sense of sympathy. And if we are treated badly by other humans, our sense of sympathy is compromised, and we sometimes make choices that most other adults would consider immoral. (Example: the dentist’s hypothetical situation involving Nazis.)

Right… so… who cares?

Meta-ethicists care. These are people who study the philosophy of ethics, meaning that they try to figure out the nature of ethics itself, while regular ethicists are the people who care more about how we should live — about what we should actually do. Pragmatists say that the study of meta-ethics is kind of silly and a waste of time, because if a system works then we should use it and stop babbling about the nature of the system. I’m not much of a pragmatist. I have a hard time accepting something if I can’t figure out where it comes from and why it works. I’m like a little child, always asking why? why? why? and rarely satisfied by the answers I’m given.

So if you’re not into meta-ethics, don’t worry — I’ll talk about what famous dead people think we should do (and what I think we should do) in my next philosophy post. Stay tuned.


Where do you think morality comes from? Is it part of the world, part of us? Do we make it up? Is it logical, emotional, completely random? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

One Response to The metaphysics of morality (or: I feel sick)

  1. Humans have both empathy and sympathy. That said, I feel we are born with an innate understanding of the differance between right and wrong, and from this we have developed all manner of ethics and morals. To enforce these, with slants appropriate to the culture and age. Humans have couple these to such limiting and inherently flawed systems like religion, rationality, and logic based philosophy. The end result is the confused mess that we have today where, if you take an honest hard look at what happens on a day to day basis it now appears that the man made idea of Darwinian morals have triumphed over the natural well spring of the good within. The uptake is that what is immoral is now called “the good”. And the good is suffocated under an alien way of living that threatens every species including our own.

    A good read on this is “Ascent Of Humanity” by Charles Eisenstein. You can get the pdf for free online.


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