What Do We Know About Morality? Part 3

According to ethicist Francis Beckwith there are at least seven aspects of morality that appear to be true, based on mankind’s common moral experience.  In the previous post, we discussed the first four.  In this post, we will discuss the final three.

The fifth aspect of morality is that when we break a clear moral rule, our conscience bothers us.  Francis Beckwith explains that “when we break a significant and clear moral rule, it is usually accompanied by feelings of painful guilt and sometimes shame, for we are cognizant of our moral failure and realize we deserve to be punished.  Only sociopaths succeed in overcoming their conscience completely.”

Sixth, morality is characterized not just by an action or outward behavior, but by motive.   If a young man were to shove an elderly woman to the ground, we could not judge the morality of his action without knowing his motive.  If he were shoving her in order to steal her money, then his act is clearly immoral.  However, if his motive was to save her life because she was about to step in front of a bus, then we would judge his act to be morally righteous.  Motive, then, is a necessary component of any ethical system.

There is a seventh element that must also be part of any moral calculus, and that is intent.  There is a well-known parable within the bioethics community where two men separately intend to kill a young boy to get his inheritance.  One man sneaks into the bathroom and drowns the boy while he is bathing.  In the case of the other man, he sneaks into the bathroom with the intent to kill the boy, but the boy had accidentally hit his head and drowned just before the second man arrived.   It should be apparent that even though the second man did not actually murder the boy, his intention to do so makes his act morally reprehensible.  We would not say that the second man did nothing wrong, because his intent to kill, although not acted upon, is still evil.  Intention, then, is the seventh necessary component of morality.

If you put the two previous posts on morality together with this one, we have made a case for the following: 

  1. moral norms can be objectively known
  2. moral norms are immaterial
  3. moral norms are a form of communication
  4. moral norms are prescriptive
  5. moral norms affect our conscience
  6. moral norms include motive
  7. moral norms include intent

Now, armed with this basic understanding of the nature of morality, we can now evaluate ethical systems by judging whether they adequately account for the seven aspects of morality.  If they do not, then we have good reason to reject those accounts of morality.

In future posts, we will indeed put to the test various ethical systems that derive from naturalism and Darwinian evolution.

[quotation references can be provided on request]

  • I am a published Christian Apologist based in India. It has been good to visit your blog.

    You have written a very thoughtful and analytical piece. Would you allow us to reuse some of this material, with full attribution to you.

    Johnson C. Philip, PhD (Physics)

  • Bill Pratt

    That would be fine. These posts and the following posts that I will produce on evolutionary ethics are excerpted from a research paper I wrote a couple years ago. As long as you attribute the writing to me, I would be honored to have it used.

    Best wishes,
    Bill Pratt

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  • Wes

    Would you say that one’s conscience is dynamic, even for someone who is not a sociopath? If you violate your conscience often enough, does it become dull to these acts (Titus 1:15-16; I Timothy 4:1-2)? Does that mean that violating our conscience is not a clear indicator of morality?

  • Bill Pratt

    I think you can dull your conscience over time, after repeatedly suppressing it; but it takes great effort to overcome your conscience. The fact that we all have a conscience and that it fights against our committing immoral acts ties it strongly to morality. Morality and conscience seem to go together.

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