What constitutes morality, and why is it important? That is a genuine question I’ve learned quite a few people have. This question may come in many different forms, but ultimately the trillions of ways it can be asked can be narrowed down to the one I opened with. Hopefully, if I play my cards right, I can answer a fraction of that question with a biased opinion.
One of my favorite scenes from Star Trek: The Next Generation involves Captain Picard demonstrating morality to a rather… scientific race of alien humanoids (link in the footnotes). This scene describes and demonstrates a very important part of morality, and I what I believe to be the best description of its function and role in sentient beings. This scene starts with the aliens laughing at Picard’s ‘morals’ and ends with them fleeing in terror once they understand his point. The aliens scoff at the captain’s verbal attempts to plead for respect of other beings until he demonstrates his point (These aliens are known to hold other species in captivity to ‘study them’). Picard performs his demonstration of what he means by ‘morality’ by doing to them what they have done for centuries. Imprisons them. He demonstrates the immorality of their actions.
This clears up part of what constitutes morality. Anything that you would not have done to yourself is something you should never do to another. Therefore, we answer a small portion of the first part of the question. Morality is founded in self-preservation and accepted by the greater whole. As Picard says: “The rights of other races must be respected.” We do not want certain actions to be performed to us, so any neutral or good person could argue that those things should not be done to another for the same reasons.
So… that is one part answered, albeit only in the smallest regard. What of morality’s importance to us as human beings? I would point you to an excerpt from Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather for that to be answered. Death, in this clip, explains that there is not a single ounce of justice or duty or love in the universe. It is something that we invented. If you stop it there, life can suddenly seem a lot more hopeless and cruel (But those don’t exist in the natural universe either, according to Pratchett). But then Death continues to speak. “You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?”
Pratchett continues their point with that quote. It doesn’t matter if justice, duty, honor, or other concepts exist or not. It is a matter of whether we believe them to exist or not that matters. If we never believed in the sun, all we would see is a flaming ball of gas. If we never believed in morality, all we would get from ourselves would be nothing different from the other apes of the world. Perhaps even less.
That answers the question to the limited scope in which I have experienced morality, but there is another concern to address. Morality is not a perfect system so long as we as human beings are flawed. Just like any other school of thought it can be twisted, bent and broken down in ways that could cause harm. A point an acquaintance of mine made is: If a society believes that sacrificing a born human child near after their birth due to religious means, is that moral?
The answer is hard for me to admit. The answer is yes. At least to that society. Morality is founded in the individual and contested or accepted by the larger populace. Therefore, a society that accepts the individual’s belief in such a practice, then it would be moral from that society’s perspective to commit the deed.
Morality is founded in the self-preservation of the individual and accepted or contested by the larger populace. It is the result of not inflicting on others what we would not have done to ourselves. Morality is deeply flawed but necessary for human existence.