Can Morality Be Defined?

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In the subject of morality, one can know and yet not understand. Despite the perplexities caused by its inherent subjectivity, many, including the religious and the atheists, still try to come up with a characterized definition (or self justification) of morality. Without venturing into religious teachings, it is inevitable that convoluted philosophical arguments need to be explored.

“What is morality” carries much ambiguity to its meaning. Although rephrasing it to “What is the meaning of the word ‘morality’” seems to give the impression that it now has a definite answer, more so with reference to a dictionary, it leaves us with nothing to grasp other than the correct usage of the word. If one ponders deeper, he or she would definitely realize that this is not the only field that creates such anomaly. At least two other fields share this unique feature; religion and law.

Archimedes once said this: “Give me a stand long enough and I shall move the earth.” He was referring to a hypothetical fact that if there is a fulcrum large enough to contain the earth, than it is mathematically possible to define how much strength (hypothetically achievable with mere human force) is needed to move the earth. It was later developed by philosophers to be known as the Archimedean Philosophy; if “A” is fulfilled, then “B” can be defined or resolved, where “B” is a contentious question and “A” is a list of pre-definitions. For instance, if one is faced with a question of whether a particular creature is a cat or a tiger (Stage “B”) then he can refer to the list of definitions in Stage “A”, which may include a conclusive DNA definition of a tiger and a cat. This may sound over simplistic, but even questions which may appear obvious, such as “what is a human?” may lead to conundrums such as “is an unborn baby a human?” No doubt, there are differing laws in many countries, but many have regarded a fetus to be a human being, which can be empirically proven.

So what if Archimedean Philosophy is to be applied to the question of morality? Can it yield the same results as the above? If one were to ask “is abortion against morality?”, then it is clear that one cannot find a Stage “A” list of pre-definitions to provide for an answer. If it is substituted with a question in relation to religion or law, the same anomaly still appears. What is the cause of this anomaly? The answer is that these three fields or subjects are normative, as opposed to descriptive. While descriptive is a statement or a question of “is”, normative is a statement or a question of “ought”. Therefore, using the above example, even if we can resolve a descriptive issue of an unborn baby, i.e. a fetus is formed after 8 weeks from conception, we cannot resolve whether it “ought” to be immoral to have an abortion even if the conception is a result of being a rape victim.

Having acknowledged that morality is normative in nature, does it contribute in identifying what morality is? There are actually things which are also similar to normative things, being that they carry no descriptive value in their original form. “Time” is one good example. Although everyone knows what “time” is, “time” in itself is actually not descriptive. Many have questioned whether “time” exists and whether we can hypothetically travel through time if we move faster than the speed of light. In other words, it is the measurement of time that is descriptive. While there are 24 hours in a day, it is actually an assumption that the earth is divided into 24 parts. If it was decided back then, that the earth was divided into 48 parts, then there will be 48 hours in a day, albeit that the earth still spins at the same rate. Hence, any scientific theory that is based on time will fail to explain if an assumption of a descriptive value is not made. It may be misleading to state this, but the empirical field of science is vastly derived from assumptions.

The word “assumption” may carry a pejorative connotation to many, but literal meaning aside, it is actually just the opposite of a fact which can be proven. If “Socratic Method”, which is a method of persistently inquiring for knowledge, is applied to anything, one will find that an impasse will be reached at one point or another. It is only practical to resolve an issue on a descriptive level by first assuming a descriptive standard to it. By assuming a descriptive value of minutes and seconds, we can then answer the question of “what is the time now”. Similarly, in relation to law, Hans Kelsen, a renowned jurist, pointed out that an assumption, which he calls the Grundnorm, must be made. While individual laws are descriptive, law as a whole is normative. Religion, on the other hand, pointed out that something cannot come from nothing, and therefore there must be something that must have eternally existed to create the earth (there cannot be a Big Bang Theory without something to begin with), and attributed the name God to it. With God in the picture, only then can they develop religion from the root belief that God exist and God created everything. “Who is God” is then a descriptive issue base on religion.

Last but not least, in relation to morality, it can only produce a contextual meaning once a descriptive standard is attached to it. It is perhaps a misnomer to even state that morality is subjective, for what is subjective is the product of morality after an assumption is made. These products, such as sociology and psychology, do not have a unified recognition of descriptive standard because they are derived from knowledge of the epistemological field as opposed to the empirical field of science.

In conclusion, morality cannot be defined. This does not mean that we are left with nothing but a root word with no guidance. At the very least, if we take into account the cause of a particular issue, we will be able to trace it to its respective product of morality for answers. Using back the above example, whether or not abortion should be allowed will have differing answers depending on whether it is an issue of sociology, religion, psychology, politics or even law at a descriptive level.


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