Moral Theories, Principles and Actions

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy at 10:04 am by Haider

Debates over moral matters tend to focus on what we should do and not do, what’s right and wrong in terms of actions. However, there’s more to morality than categorizing actions into Do’s and Don’ts. In this article, I would like to give some deserved attention to principles and moral theories, and to show how these influence and guide the actions that we take in life.

Before we can begin to categorize actions into “right” and “wrong” we must define the criteria by which we assess actions. By what standard and for what purpose are actions deemed right or wrong? What is morality meant to serve so that we can consider some actions good and others evil? Such questions are deeply rooted in our understanding of the concept of morality. How we define morality is our moral theory. Why we categorize actions the way we do is based on the moral principles that we uphold.

The way these three factors (theory – principles – actions) should be seen is as follows: The moral theory you uphold is the foundation of your moral code. The principles you live by are your moral pillars. The actions you undertake is what you build on top of these pillars. Needless to say, you can never have pillars without a foundation, or build without establishing your pillars. Many people tend to overlook their moral theory and their principles, but that’s only because their moral code is a heap of rubble which they imagine to be a great monument to mankind. Had they invested some effort in understanding what morality actually is, they would not have fallen into the pit that they created and continue to dig for themselves and the rest of mankind.

To help explain the connection between the three factors, we should look at a real life example of moral actions and their possible roots. Lying is almost unanimously condemned by all moral codes. Lying is the action. But why is it condemned? Some would say because it corrupts social relationships. Therefore, the principle here is that social relationships are important, and they should not be broken. This principle will hold that any action that breaks social relations or causes people to lose trust in each other is wrong and should not be done. A single moral principle can define the standard by which many actions can be judged. With our example, lying, living in isolation, backbiting, etc can all be condemned based on the single principle that one must strengthen social relations and not perform any action which undermines such relations. This principle is based on the theory (or the moral outlook) that it is important in life to uphold what is beneficial to society. That man is a social animal and his survival is dependent on co-existing with others in society.

But we can also have two different theories that condemn lying for two completely different reasons. Many Muslims, for example, believe that lying is wrong. Why is wrong? The only “principle” that they base their judgement on is: Because God says it’s wrong. And what is their understanding of morality? What is the foundation of their moral principles? The answer is: Whatever God says we must do, we must do, and whatever God prohibits us from doing we should not do. The reason for why God Himself has categorized actions into the permitted and the forbidden arrives only at the fact that He has categorized them this way. His reasons are irrelevant to many Muslims. Their only duty is to obey what God has dictated. Some may offer the reason that God knows what is beneficial to us while we lack this knowledge, while others see morality as obedience to divine commandments, without the need to have any reason beyond this. Morality for the sake of obedience, and obedience for the sake of obedience. End of story. This is the foundation on which they have based all their principles and actions.

Another understanding of morality is not based on divine commandment or social cohesion. Some people refuse to lie because they do not wish to act or speak against what reality dictates. A lie is a statement that contradicts reality, and because their well being is in understanding reality for what it is and acting according to the laws of nature, they see lying as a betrayal of their commitment to the truth. And when the truth is abandoned, our actions will not conform to reality and would, ultimately, lead us to distruction. A lie, from this point of view, is not simply seen as tricking others, but as damaging to the one who lies, because reality will work against his statement and would reveal the conflict between reality and the ideas he’s propagating. His principle is that one must not speak or act in conflict with reality. He may also refuse to justify for others the acts that he commits. If he lies, then he will justify lying to others. Therefore, based on these principles, he will not allow himself to lie. His moral theory is that our actions bring us benefit and harm on earth, and we must act according to the dictates of nature, the nature of the world and the nature of mankind. We must use truth as our judge, and never try to evade reality or hope that we can overcome its restrictions.

We can, therefore, see that a single action can be promoted or avoided for different reasons based on different outlooks. It is not enough to simply label actions without stating one’s reasons or presenting a comprehensive moral theory that explains these principles. There are benefits and harms to moral theories, even if the labels used are correct. I will not delve too deeply in these matters, but will leave them for future posts. For now, I only wanted to state the fundamental idea behind the foundations of morality, and to expand our understanding of reality to encompass the theories on which moral decisions are made.

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