Custom represents the experiences of men of earlier times as to what they supposed useful and harmful – but the sense for custom (morality) applies, not to these experiences as such, but to the age, the sanctity, the indiscussability of the custom. And so this feeling is a hindrance to the acquisition of new experiences and the correction of customs: that is to say, morality is a hindrance to the development of new and better customs: it makes stupid.

– Friedrich Nietzsche


Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God? When you think about morality, what comes to mind? Is it a list of sins to avoid in order to make it into heaven and avoid hellfire? Or perhaps a duty to be fulfilled? A list of virtues to practice in order to develop character? Does it consist of a social contract between men in order to preserve peace and society? Is it as simple as listening to your own conscience? Or maybe it could be a bit of one and the other?

For Kierkegaard, a large part of sin is not wanting to be who you, in fact, are. For Kant, reason alone dictates what is moral: always to treat others as an end and never as a means. For Hume, a descriptive statement about ethics can never lead to a normative statement about ethics. The more I read and the more I think about it, morality seems to me to be nothing more than a social construct. It is the agreed upon correct way of living for a given society, handed down from society at large to parents and their children ad nauseam. Nowadays, the media (including social media) also plays a large role in constructing our ideas about morality. But times change, and so also must morality.

Proceeding from reason alone, I see that any normative moral imperative must by definition be a conditional and teleological statement with regard to consequences, be they physical or mental. That is to say, hypothetical imperatives are meaningful, while categorical imperatives must, at best, be idealistic. In other words, one must place a conditional “if…” at the end of any moral proposition. The logical construction would be as follows:

“Thou shalt (or shalt not) X… if one does (or does not) desire the consequence Y.”

For example, “Thou shalt not [murder, rape, steal, etc.]… if one does desire to live in a peaceful society (or if one does not desire to face the potential consequences).” Any duty to be fulfilled, or any virtue to be developed, or any social contract to be followed must be subject to this type of conditional statement.

To take the ethical ideals of one man and apply them to any other, or to humanity as a whole, is an error (unless we are speaking in the most general sense about laws of nature itself, which Kant thought he was). Morality can be both subjective and intersubjective, but by no means universal (my aversion to the idealization of reason should be clear at this point). That is to say, there are as many moral codes as there are men, and it is not the right of one to judge the other, unless we are assuming some type of social contract.

To be sure, this line of thinking is in direct opposition to “absolute morality” and “divine command theory,” in which “Thou shalt (or shalt not) X” because it is morally right- or wrong-in-itself, or because it is commanded by God. Unless, of course, the statement is formulated as something like, “Thou shalt X, if you wish to enter the kingdom of heaven,” or if one attempts to equate the concepts of God and Good. But this type of moral proposition only serves to raise questions about the value of the consequences (e.g. entering the kingdom of heaven or avoiding hellfire) or the value of the Good itself (cf. Plato). Any notion of an objective right- and wrong-in-itself must be dismissed as meaningless, or at most be taken as a statement of some personal viewpoint attempting to apply itself universally. It is worth mentioning that this opposition includes contemporary secular (atheist) as well as religious moralists.

I realize that I may be oversimplifying such a nuanced topic as ethics, but at a bare-bones (meta-ethical) level I think that this formula (i.e. hypothetical imperatives) must apply to any possible ethical proposition. Yet I still feel in my own heart, quite distinct from reason alone, that certain actions are morally reprehensible and others praiseworthy – and I cannot avoid feeling this way.

Furthermore, I find no evidence of the “equality of men” in nature, neither in value nor in physical or mental ability. But this does not mean that we cannot still pursue an ideal of equality, if such an ideal is our goal. The similarity of men in nature would be enough to get us going toward such an ideal – and perhaps living in an idealized world would not be so bad.

The social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality that nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau

See Also

Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response

Beyond Right and Wrong

Irrefutable Ethics

Metaethics (IEP)

Metaethics (SEP)