I’ve heard people talking about morality in terms of preference and authority seeming to setup a dichotomy that its either all due to a moral leader that frames the conversation and dictates what right and wrong are or its simply down to what “feels good” or “does the most good for the most people” or some variation on that theme.
My feeling is both of these are wrong.
Morality in my mind is an emergent property much like consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. Consciousness is not something that we can pin-point. There is not a segment of the brain that takes care of it nor does it seem that it can exist apart from the brain. (For the religious among the readers I’m making a distinction between consciousness and the soul.) This is also illustrated when looking at the concept of pain. There is no such thing as physical pain. Pain is an emergent property of electrical impulses sending the right signals to the brain and manifesting in pain. Both consciousness and pain are very real to the person experiencing them, but they find their roots as a product of other systems. This is how I look at morality.
Morality in my mind is the emergent property of the self and society. This means that its not down to personal preference, nor is it dictated by society or an outside authority. This accounts for the variation we see in moral codes and what people consider to be morally acceptable even inside a very small segment of society.
We often are quick to dismiss the effect we can have on things as the self. We like to say that its down to influence or indoctrination of the outside society that we develop the way we do. This is why a lot of critics while trot out the trope of “you’re on a Christian because you were raised in a Christian environment”. This dismisses the influence the self can have on the outcomes and honestly is quite short-sighted.
However the same can be said when we look at the self as the only factor in what we do. This results in people saying things like, “so your morality is just what you want to happen” and things that like. This too discounts larger aspects of the situation that are critical to the development of morality.
So when I say morality is an emergent property I blend the two. It is influenced by both but controlled by neither. This means that while certain things can be seen as objectively true within a certain framework there is no such thing as absolute morality to me.
As as experiment if you were to take 10 Christians participating in the devote bible study and asked them, without talking about it, to write down what Christian morality is aside from “what God likes” you would get 10 different responses. You would get some who say abortion is OK either all the time or under certain situations and others that say its never OK no matter what. Some would say killing is always wrong and some that would say justified killing in self-defense or protection of property is right. There will of course be commonalities and I would expect that most of the answers would be similar, but and would also expect they would not be the same.
Its because of this I try to not tokenize morality. I’m not sure you can break it down into an easily digestible phrase or paragraph that will work for all people. Just as we cant really describe consciousness in a simple way, nor can we with morality. Its complex, changing, and unique per person. It deserves to be respected as such.
I finished writing this and decided I had to come back and add one point. Now you can disagree with frankly all of this if you think I’m wrong and I’m open to hearing thoughts, but let me get this on the record. My personal thought on any morality that is solely grounded in an authority is illegitimate. This would include worldly authorities as well as any religious one. If the only reason you are doing the “moral” thing is because someone tells you to do you then you are not moral, the authority is.
The authority is the one that dictates how you act and what you should, should not , ought and ought not do. Frankly I’ve heard religious people say that if they didnt believe in their God they would be immoral and commit heinous acts. Honestly, I dont think they would. I think that hyperbole to emphasis their point, but if it is true then that is not a moral person its a constrained sociopath. Recently I heard someones response to someone saying they would be immoral without God was “then please continue believing with all your heart, mind, and soul” and I completely agree. I do, however, think better of them than they do themselves and would hope they can see that they dont need a watchdog to be a good person.
BTW as a further note the philosophical word-games of you cant ground morality without a God is nonsense. I’m a practical person and we find our own grounding. How solid that grounding is and if its able to shift given new information is different, but everyone has a grounding in their life.
My grounding, given that a chunk of my morals is based in the self, is shiftable, but I see that as a benefit more than a drawback. My morals have changed in my life. I have become more selfless, more accepting, and more open to outside thoughts. Back when my morals were based in biblical thoughts I was much more closed off and resistant to change. I dont want to paint with a broad brush and say this is true about all that ground themselves in biblical morality. That is not the case for all. If that is the case for you. If you have not shiftablilty in your moral stance. Maybe you should take a look at that and see if you are doing yourself or your society a disservice. Just a thought.