What exactly the basis of morality? – This is one of the many philosophical questions tackled by Thomas Nagel in his book “What does it all mean?” Nagel puts forth the situation where a friend of a librarian asks to be allowed to smuggle a reference book for his own purpose. The librarian may hesitate because the act is wrong. How do we know it is wrong? Any act cannot be wrong just because it goes against the rules because it is possible to have bad rules. For example, a rule that requires racial segregation in hotels and restaurants cannot be right. Thus, rules cannot be used to judge what is wrong and what is right.
Thesis Statement: Morality is a complex issue and there are no universal rules for right and wrong. But care for others and unselfishness can provide filters to segregate right from wrong and noble human motives can prove the reason to do the right thing.
If the librarian thinks it is wrong to help a friend steal a book from the library, it may also be due to the fact that he realizes that taking the book from the library is unfair to other library users and also is an act of betrayal to the employers. Thus we find that “the thought that something is wrong depends on its impact not just on the person who does it but on other people. They wouldn’t like it, and they’d object if they found out” (Nagel, p. 61).
So, there is an instance when the friend does not really care about others, and insists on having the book, why should he not do it when he wants it? Not caring about others does not excuse a person from doing something wrong. But only when a person cares about others, he will hesitate to do a wrong act. Why should a person care about others?
For some people, morality is based on fear of God, who can punish a person after death. But then, not all people believe in God. To those people, there are no moral boundaries. Morality can also be based on the love of God. God loves us and hence we should love Him and show our love by obeying His commands. In the context of religious motivation to do the right thing, there are three objections. Many people do not believe in God and yet do believe in doing the right thing. Second, an act need not be wrong only because God forbids it. Third, a person should choose not to do wrong things out of the knowledge that such acts can cause hurt to others and not out of fear of punishment, the hope of reward, or love of God. Also, a person should not choose to do something right just in the hope that others would then treat him right. Thus we find “there is no substitute for a direct concern for other people as the basis of morality” (Nagel, p. 63).
There should be a reason why people should care about others, even those they don’t know in order to explain the reason for morality. On a personal level, a person does not like to get hurt by others, and hence he should realize that it is wrong to hurt others. Simple reasoning at this stage can explain why a person should choose not to do a wrong act. When a person has a reason not to hurt another person he also has the reason why not to hurt any other person. The other person now has a reason why not to hurt the first person. This is a matter of simple consistency.
People generally tend to think that whatever makes them suffer is bad not only for them but just bad. The basis of morality is a belief that right things lead to good for other people and bad things lead to harm to other people. This implies that each person must consider others as well before choosing his act. But the degree to which we care about others differs from person to person.
If a person goes to a movie, it is possible to argue that the cost of the ticket could have been used better if donated for a good cause. That kind of attitude needs unselfishness and total impartiality among people. It is difficult to be so very impartial. Here morality seems to depend on the degree of impartiality a person is capable of. This raises another question: Are right and wrong the same for everyone? Nagel holds, “Morality is often thought to be universal. If something is wrong, it’s supposed to be wrong for everybody”.
First, if all acts could be classified as right and wrong, there can be people who do not want to follow morality at all. Second, it can be argued that everyone has a reason to do what’s right and avoid what’s wrong. Third, it can be said that what a person is morally required to do depends on how much he actually cares about other people in general. All of these arguments go against the idea that the same moral rules apply to all of us.
Moreover, it is possible for what is considered right in one society may be wrong in another society. Issues such as slavery, human sacrifice, serfdom, hereditary caste systems have been considered morally right by many societies. Thus it seems more reasonable to believe that right and wrong are relative to a particular time and place and social background. However, society can be morally mistaken. Following society’s standards would mean doing what other people think is right.
Some people might say that a person does the right thing to feel comfortable and abstains from wrong things to avoid feeling guilty. This sounds as if morality is based on selfishness. A person who jumps into the icy cold water to save a drowning person does not do it for the sake of getting a ‘glow’ but because he values the other person’s life just as he values his own.
Morality can be based on many different human motives and not just one. This makes it difficult to justify morality. Right and wrong depend on the care a person has for other persons and the extent to which he is capable of viewing others with impartiality. This makes it difficult to classify right and wrong. Thus it can be concluded that morality is truly a complex issue.
Nagel, Thomas (1987). What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford University Press. New York. 1987.