Dear Donagh,

… I hope you won’t think my question(s) is pedantic. I am engaged in a bit of a struggle at the moment to understand morality. What is it? where does it come from? Is it something that has evolved in the human animal like opposing thumbs? etc. I thought I was getting somewhere by narrowing the definitions and looking at morality, ethics and virtues/vices as related but distinct subsets of the same science ie. A virtue/vice is that characteristic of the human (inherited, bestowed or both) that compels him or her to react in a certain manner which is judged to be moral/immoral within a given ethical framework. I’ll admit that in the literature I have accessed so far whether it is of a Darwinian evolutionist or moral theologian bent, no one seems particularly concerned about adhering to my convention but I was soldiering on. Then I happened to read the January “Jacob’s Well” article on feelings. In it you referred to a number of “things” as feelings which are also referred to as virtues or vices. Such as: love, courage, hope and anger, hatred, despair and fear. This either opens up a whole new can of worms or helps me come to an understanding I am comfortable with. I am not sure which. Do we “feel” virtues/vices? Or have we already applied our own judgement to the affected virtue or vice and “feel” joy or sadness that our reaction is either conforming or not conforming to the relevant ethics system. I guess I am trying to reconcile for myself whether humankinds’ moral behaviour is the result of a chemically induced compulsion triggered by an inherited chemical switch in the brain or of the infused wisdom graciously bestowed by a benevolent creator. So, what do you think?  Thank you and God Bless,
Bill S


Dear Bill,

This needs a lot of simplifying.  As I mulled over your question an image came to me: two plants, one with its roots firmly in the ground, the other lying on the grass, roots and all, not planted.  The first one will grow into a beautiful plant or an ugly one; the second will just wither if left there. 

The first plant is ‘is’, the second is ‘ought’.  I heard a saying attributed to the Spaniards: that an ounce of ‘is’ is better than a ton of ‘ought’. 

Approaching it more simply than you did, we could just ask “Where is ‘ought’ to be planted?”  There has been a lot of discussion in English moral philosophy about “the is/ought problem.”  A majority of writers on the subject considered it a mistake to try to derive any ‘ought’ from any ‘is’.  In other words, they denied that from any consideration of what human beings are you could conclude how they ought to live or what they ought to do.  This leaves morality high and dry – like the plant lying on the grass.  Of course there were many attempts to say what it was doing there, lying on the grass, rooted nowhere: so you had was a succession of moral theories with names such as ‘Emotivism’ and ‘Prescriptivism’.  All of these theories left some loose ends, for the very good reason that they derived from a loose end: the cutting off of ‘is’ – in other words, the cutting off of ethics from every philosophical and theological statement we can make about human beings.  

I would be inclined to dig a hole in the ground and put the plant into it and let it grow.  By the ‘ground’ I mean one’s vision of human life: a philosophy, or a theology or spirituality.    

You asked “Where does morality come from?”  It comes from what we are – from our nature, if you wish.  Of course it’s easy to say that, but not easy to say what our nature is.  Julian of Norwich said it would be easier to understand God than to understand ourselves.  She meant that to understand ourselves we would have to understand God first, so deeply is our being immersed in God.  In that view you could say that morality comes from ourselves, and equally from God.   

The traditional attempt to derive ethics from natural law needs supplementing, I think.  Cruder versions of it attempted to derive ethics from our animal nature.  But surely it must come from our true nature, which is body-soul-spirit. 

Forget about subsets.  Ethics, morality, and moral philosophy all mean the same thing (except that ethics is usually theory, and morality is practice).  It would be an advantage to forget about systems too, and triggers, and switches, and chemically induced compulsions…. Morality is specifically human.  The mediaevals made a useful distinction here between ‘actus hominis’ (all the unconscious and reflex things we do) and ‘actus humanus’ (what we do with awareness and deliberation).  Morality is about actus humanus. 

You mentioned Darwin.  There was a theory called ‘Evolutionary ethics’.  In its cruder application it seemed to justify big business practices.  The business world is about survival of the fittest, and Darwin appeared to be giving it his blessing.  But this was an illusion.  Darwin’s theory is about biology, not business.  It may have been this and similar things that gave legs to the ‘is/ought’ debate.

A virtue is a habit or disposition to act in a way that is consistent with our true nature.  We are biological forms, yes, but we are also more than biological forms; in the Christian vision we are God’s children.  Our nature is complex: we are body, soul, and spirit acting together (not as three separate compartments).  Virtues are expressions of our true nature: so we can expect to see body, soul, and spirit in them.  I hope you will forgive me for quoting myself.  This is from a recent article in Spirituality, on the subject of hope.  “Thomas Aquinas considered the aggressive instinct to be the substratum, at the instinctual level, of the twin virtues of hope and courage.  Hope is ... the aggressive instinct raised to another level and flowering there as virtue.  This is how the aggressive instinct is redeemed: by being transformed into hope and courage – as compost and manure are transformed into roses.” 

At the biological level, love (for example) is an instinct or passion.  But that is not all there is to it.  That same instinct is transformed – or sublimated, if you wish – into the human virtue of love.  In the Christian vision, the infused virtue of charity is a further transformation, by God’s grace, of this ‘material’.  Metaphors from gardening could be more helpful than all the tortuous attempts to ‘reduce’ morality to something else. 

Where do feelings belong?  At every level.  We are not machines, so feelings attend everything we do, unless we have numbed ourselves.  The feeling is a positive one of pleasure, the mediaevals said, when we are doing something that is consistent with our true nature.  This is a very positive view of morality.  It is rooted in our nature, and so, like any plant, it is able to grow. 

Good luck with your researches, Bill. 


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