One Man’s Right is Another Man’s Left – The Basis of Our Morality

Most people seem to possess some conception of right and wrong. Granted, the conception differs from person to person, and some people seem to have one that is drastically removed from that found in the rest of society, but each person nevertheless exhibits their own sense of morality. The important question is where this morality comes from. Philosophers have argued for several causes which generally fall into two categories: internal and external. Either a person’s sense of morality comes from within them as a natural occurrence or is developed by some external influence.

I don’t want to talk about what is actually right or wrong. I intend only to examine the possible bases of a person’s morality. There are differences between moral codes all across the world. I also have to mention that I distinguish morality from all its manifestations. Law, religion, etiquette, and all such codes are manifestations of morality, not potential bases for it. Rather, morality is a partial basis for all these things i.e. these codes are societal applications of moral principles.

Your Moral Innards

With that, let’s get started. The traditional internal cause of morality is regarded to be reason, deriving from idealist theories of epistemology. Idealists place morality in the category of knowledge. Because humans possess innate knowledge of all things, or at least the ability to recall or arrive at that knowledge by the use of the innate capacity of reason, they must innately have morality. In his dialogue, Meno, Plato answers the question of how humans attain knowledge by proposing that humans have an immortal soul. The soul has died and has been born again many times. Therefore, it has seen all things that exist “whether in this world or in the world below”[1] and possesses knowledge of all these things. In Crito, Plato furthers this concept of epistemology to include moral judgments, rejecting the idea that society’s collective morality ought to be valued, and embracing the idea that there is a universal sense of right and wrong. In the dialogue, Socrates explains to Crito, “I only wish it were so, Crito; and that the many could do the greatest evil; for then they would also be able to do the greatest goo-and what a fine thing this would be! But in reality they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.”[2] Socrates rejects the concept that society can influence the knowledge of man, and in so doing, rejects that society can determine morality. Rather, Socrates argues that we “must not regard what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say.”[3] The one man Socrates refers to, and the concept of truth he refers to, are both equitable to reason, both as an element of the Platonic and Socratic epistemologies and as per Socrates’ confirmation in the dialogue, “I am and always have been one of those natures who must be guided by reason, whatever the reason may be which upon reflection appears to me to be the best.”[4] As such Socrates poses the conclusion that morality is innate, and this conclusion is based upon the premise that absolute knowledge and reason are innate.

Several arguments appear to mitigate this idealist view of morality. First, the premise of the argument is flawed. If in fact Plato’s argument of absolute knowledge resulting from an immortal soul is true, then humans must possess absolute knowledge of metaphysical principles and absolute knowledge of religious truths. This doesn’t realistically seem to be the case. People still wage wars in the name of what they perceive to be the correct religion, and philosophers to this day argue about the most basic questions of the metaphysical world. It would seem, if Plato’s reasoning were correct, that society would be able to arrive at a consensus regarding moral questions, rather than only a few select individuals being able to arrive at the truth.

As another flaw in the premise of Plato’s moral reasoning, he establishes, in his Theory of Recollection, sense perception as the starting point for the attainment of all knowledge.[5] But, morality cannot be sensibly experienced. We can gather empirical evidence regarding the value of certain moral or ethical theories such as utilitarianism, but that doesn’t support experiential learning as the basis for moral conclusion.The moral theory or principle preempts the evidence regarding it i.e. we arrive at moral conclusions through reasoning and then test their validity empirically afterwards.

Aside from the epistemological premise, Plato’s conclusion about morality being innate is further subject to its own problems. If morality was innate, then it would be universal. Logically following from idealism, there is only one set of knowledge, or one set of truths, and that would include moral truths. However, different people exhibit different conceptions of right and wrong, meaning that morality cannot be innate, or at least, that it cannot be impervious to external influence. In fact, by acknowledging that there is a collective societal morality and that certain individuals possess moral conceptions separate from that of society, Plato acknowledges that one’s moral cognition is subject to external influence. Further, because morality is subject to external influence, certain individuals would possess moralities resulting from society’s collective influence, as Socrates himself admits by admitting that the many posses a collective opinion about just and unjust[6], regardless of whether or not we should regard that opinion as valuable.

The next possible internal cause of morality is God. God is classified here is an internal cause because, as per deist theory, He exists a priori, before any human experience. The question central to God being the basis of morality is whether or not God actually determines if something is right or wrong. Does God makes something good by approving of it, or does God approve of something because it is already good?[7]

Plato supports the latter of these two arguments, arguing that what is good is good because it is good, meaning that God isn’t a cause or basis of morality. Plato bases his argument on the logic that, “A thing is not seen because it is in a state of being seen; it is in a state of being seen because it is seen.”[8] As such, according to Plato, holiness must be in a state of holiness because it is holy, not for any other reason, meaning that God does not determine holiness by loving it but rather loves it because it is holy. Further, Plato argues that God loves that which is pleasing to Him because it is pleasing to Him, and it is not pleasing to Him because He loves it. Consequently, holiness and that which is pleasing to God are two separate things.[9]

Plato’s argument appears weak in several respects. It isa semantic argument, and in terms of semantics, it isn’t logically sound. All the verbal logic Plato uses refers to states of being which require active participation from an external entity. For example, in order for something to be seen, something has to see it. This is not necessarily the case with holiness, as holiness is an attribute when it refers to moral principles rather than a state of being. So, the verbal logic doesn’t work because Plato is considering different parts of speech. Let’s take the analogy of a canvas that was painted blue by a painter. The question can be asked, is that canvas blue because it is blue i.e. it reflects blue wavelengths and absorbs all others, or is it blue because the painter painted it blue i.e. assigned the attribute of “blueness” to the canvas? The answer is both. Of course the canvas is blue because it reflects particular wavelengths, but it would not be reflecting those wavelengths had the painter not painted it as such. This logic can then be applied to holiness or good. Good is good because it is intrinsically good i.e. it naturally exhibits all the properties of “goodness.” However, if that is true, it does not preclude that God did not assign these attributes to that thing which is good. Plato’s argument does not logically work when applied to particular attributes or adjectives, only to states of being or verbs.

Therefore, Plato’s implication of separating holiness from that which is pleasing to God is flawed as well. Granted, God loves something which is pleasing to him because it is pleasing to him, but that does not mean that God did not make it pleasing to himself. For example, people decorate rooms in their homes so they are pleasing to look at. As such, the rooms are pleasing to those people because they are pleasing to them, but they are pleasing to those people because they made them pleasing. The same situation could occur with God defining what is good. Plato does not eliminate this possibility and does not sufficiently prove his own argument either.

But what if, in fact, good is good because it is loved by God? If God can attribute good and evil, then could he not make good that which is now evil? Could murder and rape not be deemed just by Him? The response is yes, of course they could. In God’s omnipotence, he could very well attribute these distinctions. So what if God assigned these attributions? Logistically, humans would have no knowledge of it. Just as now, they would accept those moral principles. We accept certain actions such as charity to be morally good. However, if God has made it that way, then we would be in the same state of acceptance no matter what God deemed to be good. Take for example the analogy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Most people fear such an existence arguing that it is a complete subversion of one’s autonomy, and there would be no fulfillment in such an existence. What most people ignore is that one would be completely unaware of this lack of fulfillment. There would be no point of relativity form which to judge one’s existence because knowledge of all other forms of existence would not be available, resulting in blissful acceptance. The same applies to God defining morality; people would not be aware of any prior definitions. Second, God would not logically designate an evil act as one that is good despite his ability to do so; it would be ungodly to do so. In defining God, deist theory uses certain attributes: all powerful, all merciful, all just, all knowing, etc…If God made good that which is evil, he would be contradicting his very own properties of godliness, no longer being all just. For example, God would not make himself human, despite his ability to do so, because it would be ungodly. Humanity precludes mortality, imperfection, and dependence, all of which are characteristics unbecoming of a deity. Hence, God would not do something ungodly, meaning he would not assign good to that which is evil.

George Mavrodes poses his own arguments about why God is a basis for morality. He argues 1) God or religion is in fact needed because He gives us reason to act morally and 2) A religious basis for morality gives morality the deep significance or value that it needs.[10]

Mavrodes’ argument, however, does very little in the way of providing a convincing argument as to why God or religion is a basis for morality. The chief issues with his arguments are that they are non unique and carry little to no impact. I will explain what this means. Mavrodes’ first argument exhibits both of these problems. It doesn’t leave God as the only viable option. People can have self-interest, reason, emotion, or a variety of other options as their motivation to fulfill their moral duties. It further carries no impact because Mavrodes never argues that motivation to fulfill moral duty is a necessity. Why do we even need a reason to be moral?

The second argument is just as bad. For the sake of argument, we can agree that there are few, if any other, options which carry the same deepness or significance of a religious basis for morality. But, Mavrodes fails to explain why morality has to be deep or significant. Why can’t morality be superficial, trivial, or perhaps even arbitrary? Mavrodes’ arguments rely on unexamined assumptions and unverified premises. In this way, his arguments offer little in the way of a convincing argument for religious basis for morality.

Finally, there are the other internal causes of morality separate from those already mentioned. These include Hobbes’s explanation that all human conventions of morality stem from innate self-interest[11] and David Hume’s argument that human morality stems from emotions, because even reason is flawed in that it is subject to the emotions,[12] among other similar theories.

While all such theories are tempting to adopt, they are flawed in their simplicity, and they all acknowledge exceptions. Hobbes, for example, addresses the role of human conscience in determining morality. He argues that, while conscience may exist innately, it is easily manipulated society or events that may occur in a person’s life.[13] In this way, Hobbes acknowledges an external influence on human morality, rejecting his own argument for the universal determinant of self interest. Furthermore, Hobbes even admits the exceptional ability of some individuals to be altruistic[14], again denying his theory of self interest. The same problems exist with Hume. While Hume argues that human emotions make reason flawed, that is all they do, make it flawed. Emotions may be a flaw with human beings and their ability to reason, but they do not eliminate the existence of reason, and they do not eliminate reason as a partial basis for morality. Singular internal cause theories such as those of Hobbes and Hume attempt to oversimplify and, in so doing, sufficiently mitigate their potential validity.

It’s Raining Morality?

The main possible external cause of morality identified by philosophers is society, including all its elements such as family, culture, educational institutions, etc…The argument for an external basis for morality is demonstrated perfectly by Herodotus when he echoes Pindar’s sentiment, “Custom is the king o’er all.”[15] Benedict and Mackie both pose similar arguments, and both site similar empirical analysis, relying on the observations that different societies exhibit varying sets of moral principles.

The problem with all these theories, and why they cannot be legitimately considered as definitions for the basis of morality, is that they are all arguments in support of moral relativism. They do not legitimately prove societal influence to be the cause or basis of morality. Rather, they argue by inference that, because all societies exhibit differing senses of morality, that societal influence must be the cause of these moral codes. Mackie, for example, simply poses an argument of logic. He argues that the default position is that of moral relativism, because that is what empirical evidence demonstrates. Mackie then questions why we ought not to accept the reality for what we see it to be? Why must we try to identify other causes, namely universal ones? In this way, Mackie attempts to argue by placing the burden of proof on the opposing side.[16] Mackie’s argument is rather like the Occam’s razor of morality, arguing that there is no reason to unnecessarily complicate moral theory; the simplest explanation is the best.

The issues with this argument are that 1) it does not establish societal influence as the basis of morality by any active legitimate reasoning but rather by default, and such argument holds little or no value in the face of competing theories and 2) it does not sufficiently mitigate the possibility of the existence of an objective moral reality. Mackie attempts to disprove the existence of a universal morality, and therefore a universal cause for it, by arguing that relativism is the default position because it is observable. Although he does effectively place the burden of proof on the opposing side, he does little more to prove his actual argument. Hobbes’ theory of self interest arguably possesses an incredible amount of empirical proof because human self interest is directly observable in the everyday actions of most every person. Further, with Mackie’s logic, it can also be noted that societal moralities exhibit several similarities. For example, the vast majority of societies agree that it is wrong to kill innocent children. These similarities would indicate empirical evidence contrary to the conclusion formed by relativist theorists. It would rather indicate there is some common basis for morality other than societal influence.

The second flaw with Mackie’s analysis, and relativist analysis in general, is far greater. Relativist theory does not prove that there is no objective moral reality, only that humans cannot arrive at one. Granted, people exhibit differing moralities, but that does not mean that moral truths do not exist. Arguably, every moral question has a right answer. The death penalty is either just or unjust. Abortion is either wrong or not wrong. All Mackie proves, if his arguments are accepted to be valid, is that people cannot arrive at an objective moral truth; it does not comment whatsoever on whether or not that objective moral truth actually exists.

Rather than the moral relativists, interestingly enough, those philosophers who argue for singular causes, such as those mentioned in the internal bases section of this paper, seem to provide far more reasonable and convincing arguments to demonstrate how society can be a basis for morality.

So Where Does it Come From?

Upon examination of the possible bases for morality, no singular cause can be conclusively identified. Every theory has its merits and demerits, some perhaps with more of the latter. Rather than a single cause, whether it be external or internal, a person’s moral sensibilities probably result from a combination of causes. Humans possess the innate capacity to reason, and that capacity leads us to arrive at certain conclusions that form components of our moral code such as determinations of justice and human rights. This reason, however, is definitely flawed. Self interest and emotions, also innate within human beings, play a significant role in influencing our judgment. We preclude many of our moral principles, often despite our better reasoning, upon what will grant us the most benefit, or even upon some instinctual emotion that does not exhibit any purpose at all. God, assuming he exists, must also inevitably determine his own set of moral principles for people, revealing the desired moral code in His Holy Scriptures. Nevertheless, despite these internal causes, society is also a determinate factor for morality. How a person is raised, the people they encounter throughout their life, the government they live under, and the education they acquire all influence their sense of right and wrong. Every person’s morality is constantly growing and changing.


[1] Plato, “Meno,” Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1896).

[2] Plato, “Crito,” Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1896): 2

[3] Ibid: 3

[4] Ibid: 2

[5] Pojman, Louis. “The Theory of the Forms and Doctrine of Recollection.”Introduction to Philosophy Classical and Contemporary Readings. 4th ed. 2008.

[6] Ibid. 2:4

[7] As a matter of logic, it is important to note that these questions and the applicable arguments all presume that God exists. While it is a debatable point, the assumption exists here for the sake of argument. Further, I refer to the deity as God, again for the sake of argument, while that point is also debatable.

[8] Plato, “Euthyphro,” Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1889)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pojman, Louis. “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.”Introduction to Philosophy Classical and Contemporary Readings. 4th ed. 2008.

[11] Hobbes, Thomas, (1651). Leviathan.  15 December 2008: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hobbes/thomas/h68l/

[12] Hume, David, “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,” 1751

[13] Ibid. 14

[14] Ibid.

[15] Herodotus, “History of Herodotus,” trans. Geroge Rawlinson New York: Appleton 1859

[16] Pojman, Louis. “The Subjectivity of Values,” Introduction to Philosophy Classical and Contemporary Readings. 4th ed. 2008.

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