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Are you more moral than most people you know? How do you know? Should you strive to be more moral? Why or why not?
Although not having a tangible unit of measurement like wealth or knowledge, morality has always been one of the most important criteria for society to judge its citizens. In ancient China, immorality could be directly related to demotion or even legal punishments; for modern businessmen, an immoral scandal could easily destroy fame or wealth accumulated over the years.
It may be a global consensus to despise those who are considered immoral, yet the level of morality or immorality still remains a question. Any definition of morality does not deny its social construction, meaning that standards of morality are strongly based on subjective reasons. Can someone consider him or herself to be more moral than somebody else? Is there a purpose for pursuing a more moral self? This essay will determine a reasonable answer to these questions.
This discussion leads to the following three distinct questions:
What is morality?
Is morality comparable between different people?
Is it meaningful to compare morality within the same person?
The first sub-question serves as the foundation for this discussion, with other two questions relating directly to the original question. Clarification of the meaning of morality in one’s self and in others is necessary to answering the former question, thereby leading to the below answers.
First, morality can commonly be addressed in certain codes of conduct established and accepted by a society, group, or individual for their own behavior. Following codes of morality brings its followers a natural sense of accomplishment. Next, as standards of a specified moral code only applies to the group or individual who established such rules, it is meaningless to compare the level of morality between people who share different moral standards. While thoughts and perspectives widely differ from person to person, the possibility that one’s comparative object due to a completely different moral code is extremely high.
Lastly, using the same set of moral standards, it is practical to compare the level of morality within the same person. As Aristotle’s view supports, a higher level of moral achievement suggests a larger amount of happiness, meaning a step closer to ultimate well-being.
Thus, it’s apparent that people cannot simply consider themselves to be morally superior to someone else, save for the fact that they do have a purpose to pursue a more moral self.
What is morality?
Due to the diversity of contexts under which the concept of morality is discussed, philosophers have not established a unified definition of morality. Nonetheless, under most situations, the use of morality involves the following two senses1:
The descriptive sense, in which codes of conduct are accepted by a specific society, group, or individual;
The normative sense, in which codes of conduct are accepted by every rational person given specific conditions.
The descriptive sense of morality is often observed in the study of sociology, where the word morality only refers to the content of moral judgements from one or more people being studied. If one uses morality in a descriptive sense to refer to the codes of conduct actually proposed by different groups or societies, then one will almost certainly deny that there is a universal morality that applies to all.
In fact, the descriptive sense of morality covers such a broad spectrum that it is even used to describe the social relationships between non-human primates.2 What should be noted is that not every code of conduct posed by a society can be regarded as morality in the descriptive sense, mainly because of the coexistence of law, etiquette, and religion that could distinguish from morality in larger and more complex societies. Therefore, any descriptive use of the word morality should be used to specify the codes proposed by society.
Compared to the former one, the normative sense of morality presents a more unified definition through moral judgment, yet it fails to simplify the concept. A person who is qualified for such judgments, often featuring a normal level of rationality, is counted as a moral agent. Yet with the level of rationality remaining blurred, the definition of moral judgement was once questioned for its metaphysical features. Additionally, not every action taken by the moral agents can be attributed to a normative sense of morality, as moral agents often have to accept other codes (i.e. the code of prudence) that keeps themselves qualified to make judgments, which are not a necessity to be considered moral under the normative sense.
Is morality comparable between different people?
Everything needs a set of common standards before being compared and evaluated. As mentioned in Part II, if morality falls under the descriptive sense, it’s quite obvious that there is no common standard between the two sets of moral views when compared, especially since one’s adapted code of conduct is no doubt affected by numerous objective factors. A common example may be the comparison between policemen and protestors who are fighting over burning the national flag during a protest. For the policemen, the protestor’s action is unacceptable; yet for the protestor, the policeman’s violent interference of their expression of free will is a violation of democratic features in modern moral principles. It should be noted that in this example, the two parties in conflict actually belong to the same society, suggesting that cultural factors that affect moral views are generally similar. Nonetheless, differences in other factors such as social status and political views are enough to twist two moral views against each other. With different cultural backgrounds, the split between different societies’ codes of conduct can be more obvious, and so would individual’s moral views be more significantly affected by objective factors like what is mentioned above.
As a result, it is better for the term morality here to takes its normative meaning to argue whether morality is comparable between people, as the existence of moral agents allows less variables (i.e. differences in political views or social status) to interfere with moral judgments. Nevertheless, to ensure that the level of morality is interpersonally comparable in the normative sense, a presumption is that there exist some unifying features that would be accepted by every moral system that one should be able to understand with common rationality. This presumption may be seemingly self-evident, as one can easily find many codes of conduct that fit this description even in everyday life: almost every educated human being considers murder to be immoral, and honesty has been well-received by all societies, despite none having ever required its citizens to be honest within formal legislation.
Yet, important flaws inside this axiom are still pointed out. For example, Sinnott-Armstrong directly opposes similar assumptions related to moral judgment, and seems to think that this shows that morality itself is not a unified field.3 He points out that moral judgment cannot be unified by appealing to the concept of harming others, and that there are harmless behaviors that many people consider to be morally wrong. Sinnott-Armstrong’s evidences uses the existence of cannibalism and flag-burning as examples, in that accusing such behaviors is morally correct. In any form of judgement, a common level of rationality basically represents the ability to interpret information in accordance with common sense; however, as information involved in the judgement is not only of the action itself, but is also influenced by existing life experiences that shape one’s perspective. Admittedly, people with whom someone has a daily interaction with are not believed to differ too vastly in terms of moral views; however, as no two individuals could share exactly the same life experiences, not every moral principle is sure to apply to anyone else, thereby causing a huge difference when both people are acting as moral agents.
Through the arguments above, it can be concluded that it’s unlikely to find a unified set of moral standards that could apply to two different people, regardless of the meaning attributed to the term and the level of rationality of the subjects. As a result, it’s undoubtedly inappropriate to assert oneself as being more moral than others.
Is it meaningful to compare morality within the same person?
Unlike comparing two completely different people, morality is surely more comparable within the same person; however, as one’s moral views change over time, it’s impossible to use a certain unified set of standards for all moral judgments. Therefore, what should be focused on instead is whether the act of comparing one’s level of morality has some purpose. As this comparison doesn’t happen interpersonally or target one’s self simultaneously, one is able to intuitively reveal one’s personal growth of morality over time, which is necessary for a person who wants to improve their level of morality. Could becoming a more moral self be a reliable purpose for such comparisons? Aristotle gives a positive answer towards this question.
In Aristotle’s ethics, he agrees with the traditional idea of pursuing goodness, which consists of common pleasant concepts, including happiness, friendship, and healthiness. Additionally, Aristotle assumes a “highest goodness4” to be the ultimate goal of human life, which is gained through the accomplishment of using reason or rationality, the trait that distinguish human beings from animals. Virtue, which is defined as “the excellent trait of a person,” is endowed a specific meaning by Aristotle as traits that demonstrate human rationality. It should be noted that this new meaning of virtue coincides with the normative sense of morality in Part II, for which one may directly state that people being counted as normatively moral owns a few traits that count as virtues by Aristotle’s definition. Therefore, the attempt of pursuing a more moral self can be interpreted as the act to acquire more virtues, which Aristotle considered to be an act of goodness. Additionally, since acts of goodness are viewed as approaches that utilize human rationality, a step to a more moral self can be directly equivalent to a step to accomplishing the ultimate goal of human life, which is considered as the divine standard of happiness by Aristotle.
Although modern scientists may refute Aristotle’s view that virtues bring human beings closer to divinity, his opinions on the pursuit of virtue are evident. Virtues today do not have to fit Aristotle’s description of arts and theology, but their description is still closely tied with the concept of morality. Part III supports that everyone owns a unique set of moral standards, suggesting that the understanding of virtues differs from person to person. Nonetheless, different understandings do not interfere with one’s adherence to their own standards and their ability to unravel new possibilities of life in pursuit of morality. One may not be able to find themselves morally superior to anyone else, but can gain pleasure through being a better self. This is the ideal that both answers questions and acts as a person’s ultimate goal.
Gert, Bernard and Gert, Joshua, The Definition of Morality, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020, 1, url: plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/morality-definition/
De Waal, Frans, 1996, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (ed.), 2008, Moral Psychology Volume 1, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kraut, Richard, Aristotle's Ethics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2018, 1, url: plato.stanford.ed