Tuesday, March 1, 2016

What is a Moral System?

  What is a moral system?    There is actually, very little that’s been said about the concept of moral systems in Philosophy.  And when philosophers do talk about it, what they really mean by a moral system is a system of beliefs and principles, and rules of interpretation. 

A noted exception is the philosopher, Bernard Gert, (1934 - 2011). In his book, Morality, Its Nature and Justification, he specifically talks about the moral system.  According to Gert:

“I use the phrase “moral system” to mean the same as “morality” and regard morality or the moral system as the system people use, often unconsciously, when they are trying to make a morally acceptable choice among several alternative actions or when they make moral judgments about their own actions or those of others…. It is… an essential feature of morality in all of its variations that everyone who is judged by it knows what morality prohibits, requires, encourages and allows.”  

If the reader is at all interested in learning more about the concept of "the moral system" I recommend Gert’s book.  I came to the idea independently of Gert, but see some basic agreement between our two accounts.  The main difference between our two accounts is that mine is more descriptive, and based on biology, whereas Gert’s is more concerned with justification.   A fuller account of Gert’s position compared to my own is not included here but will be forthcoming.
To most other moral  philosophers, the goal of moral philosophy is to generate better moral principles that all people can agree on.  But, why do we need professional philosophers to tell us what is right and what is wrong?  We already know it.  It’s not the principles that are the problem -  we don’t really understand what a moral system is and what it does - that’s the problem.  

In order to understand what a moral system is, we first we need to crack open the idea of “systems”.  By that, I mean just enough of an understanding of the concept to get us started.  The kind of system that philosophers talk about, which are really just collections of principles or strings of hypo-deductive inferences, is not what I  am talking about.  That kind of system doesn’t do anything on it’s own.  

Biological systems do things.  They consume resources and they produce offspring and niches.  They maintain themselves and keep things working.  These systems only have goals, in the sense that they keep themselves going - which is sometimes called, “homeostasis”.  Our bodies are a biological system of approximately thirty-seven trillion cells, that all coordinate together in multiple organ systems to maintain our physical integrity.  

In most biological systems, the parts are not conscious of the whole.  Individual cells of the body are not trying to make the body strong and resilient, they are responding to their immediate environment and all the chemical and hormonal signals that impact them.

In contrast, often times  human participants are conscious of system-wide goals and are trying their best to attain them.  We can consider the Emergency Medical System, or EMS,   and the Criminal Justice System, or CJS, as human systems with overall goals - that of saving lives and serving justice.  

For the purposes of my essay, all we need in order to understand the concept of a system is to focus on the idea that the parts of a system are not as important as the relationship between the parts. Human systems are generally resilient enough to work with missing and interchangeable parts.

In order to see what I mean, we can contrast a system with a machine.  If we take a part out of a machine, the machine  will break down.  If we try and replace the part, a new part must be “machined” to the exact same size and shape in order for it to work.  In contrast, we can call the Toastmasters Organization a system.  Replace the toastmaster in one meeting with a new toastmaster in the next, or an “ah counter” with an new “ah counter”, and the toastmasters meeting goes on, all the same.

To activate a machine, you turn on a switch;  But, how do you activate a system?  It requires both participants and communication between the participants.  How do you activate the toastmasters system?  You show up, and you volunteer to speak.  That’s what activates it,  turning up and choosing to do something.  

There are other systems that we are all familiar with.  The EMS is made up of paramedics, doctors and nurses, ambulances, hospital buildings and emergency departments.  The CJS has its lawyers, judges, juries, courthouses and legislatures.  

Let’s call the moral system, the OMS.  That stands for the “Old Moral System”.   It has been around for a very long time.  What I want to say is that all of us are part of the OMS;  all of us, if we are old enough and of sound mind, know moral principles and can make moral judgements.  And that’s what a moral system is - its all of us. End of story - right?  But, why don’t we see this, why is it not obvious to everyone?

Well, where is the OMS?  Where are the buildings that house the moral system?  Where are the professionals that do moral reasoning or hand down moral judgements?  Does the OMS really exist?  Maybe it does, but it ends up being largely invisible, because of the overlay of all the other social institutions.  

Let’s do what philosophers call a “thought experiment”  Imagine yourself to be a part of the OMS. I want to propose about seven brief scenarios, and what I’m asking  is for you to do two things: First, to note how you inwardly respond to each scenario, and second, to consider which of these scenarios activates the OMS and which does not.    And with each scenario I’m going to put on my philosopher’s hat, and give my own very brief verdict.

The point of this thought experiment is to provide you with some experiential evidence for a what a moral system is, and how it works.

Scenario 1 - I see a body lying on the ground.  “Mister, are you OK?”  I’m not getting a response.   I ask a passer by to  call 911 and tell them that there is an  unconscious person lying on the ground here at the college.  

Did this activate the OMS?  No, it activated the EMS.  

Scenario 2 - My youngest son brought this pie which he intended to share with everyone, and there is no other food to be had.  But  I feel so hungry that I tell everyone gathered that I’ve decided to eat all of the pie myself and I’m not going to share any of it with them.  

 Did this activate the OMS?  Consider that the further back in time  we go, the more likely that starvation was a real and ever-present possibility. In any case, people would be outraged, and it definitely would activate the OMS.  

Scenario 3 -   My eldest son has a nosebleed.   I bring a towel to  put on his lap and a wet compress to put under his nose.  I show him how to pinch the lower part of the bridge of his nose just above the nostrils and tell him that this will stop the bleeding, but he will have to do it for at least five to ten minutes.  

Did this activate the EMS or the OMS?  Neither, but it did activate “The Caring System”. That’s actually an older system than the OMS.  It goes back a two hundred and fifty million years, to the origins of mammals.     

Scenario 4 - OK.  Hold onto your seats, because this room is actually a time machine, and I now am adjusting the controls to take us back four hundred years ago to Elizabethan England.  “I say old chap.  Are you in harm's way?   What’s that you say.  A witch has caused you to bleed through the nose.  Oh-Oh!”  OK now I’m adjusting the controls to take us back to the present...  

Did this activate the OMS? Yes, because four hundred  years ago people believed in witches.  It would have also activated the Criminal Justice System and could have  led to some unfortunate woman being burned at the stake.  This illustrates the dark side of moral systems.  A large part of what they do depends on what everyone believes.  That’s why universal education, and high standards of evidence and scientific knowledge are important.

Scenario 5 -    I see a person lying on the street, unconscious, in a pool of blood.    A witness tells me that a man beat this lady senseless and  ran off with her purse.  Someone has called 911 and the police and ambulance are on their way.    

It appears that we have activated the EMS  and the CJS,  but what was the first system to be activated,  even before those systems?  The OMS  is activated instantly, because this situation is so unambiguously wrong. We will feel it in our bones that it is wrong. My point being, that the OMS is not activated by calling 911, it is activated by our minds - by our feelings and judgements - and it happens much faster than  a phone call.  

Scenario 6 -  I deliver a speech to a mixed audience, unannounced,  in the nude.

I think that there would be quite a few systems that would be activated here, including and especially the OMS.  I would  end up being seen and treated as an outcast in my own community.  

Scenario 7 - I win the international toastmaster’s award for best speech for an inspiring speech about the value of my home community.

 Note that, unlike the previous scenarios, this one is positive. I think that this would activate the OMS because I have done something that puts our community in a good light, and thus, benefits the community and the local toastmasters.

The goal of the EMS is to save lives, the goal of the CJS is to serve justice.  So, what is the goal of the OMS? The goal of any moral system is to protect and maintain the group.  Anything that threatens social peace is dealt with by social sanctions and punishments, and anything that benefits the group is recognized, publically acknowledged, and encouraged. But the emphasis in moral systems is always on preventing or on punishing bads, and less on promoting the good  - for reasons that I will get into.   

The moral system is much older and simpler than any other human  system.  It deals in black and white, with inclusion or exclusion.  It doesn’t do greys.
How does  it work?  Before agriculture was invented people lived as hunter-gatherers.   Let’s say, somebody did something bad. The bad situation or it’s effects were witnessed, the witnesses shared what they saw with the rest of the group.  Then a group discussion ensued, which culminated in a collective judgement.  The wrongdoer was apprehended and temporarily excluded and punished, and then re-admitted to the community.  Or, if the wrong was serious enough or the wrong-doer too recalcitrant, they would be excluded permanently.  

On the other hand, if someone did something commendable, exercising bravery or effort, beyond the call of duty, in a way that benefited the community,  they would be publically acknowledged and rewarded with a higher social status.  

Bads are more important to a moral system than goods, because certain kinds of wrongdoing are greater threats to a group’s survival.  You may or may not have noticed that the majority of scenarios that activated the OMS involved  either violent confrontation or conflicts over food or sex. When conflicts start over any of these three types of  concerns they are much more likely to spread and get worse if they are not checked by collective action. This has a lot to do with our biological origins, this is what morality originally was for - to protect and maintain the group by regulating behaviour in these three areas of concern - sex, violence, and food.   Now, of course, moral systems are much more complex and deal with more areas of concern.

Moral systems work.  They work so well that the vast majority of people would not dare activate them.  And this is largely how they work.  People are powerfully motivated to avoid doing anything that would lead to being excluded and shunned by their group.    How many of you would even think of doing what I did with the pie?

The moral system is so vital that it always forms the background to any viable society.  But, as such it is often taken for granted, so it becomes largely invisible  in our modern society.There are so many different groups in society, all with overlapping jurisdictions and their own systems of rules and values.  It’s hard to separate it all, because everything occurs together. In addition, there are many social institutions that have taken over some of the functions of the moral system.  For instance:  the Criminal Justice System,  and the Mental Health System both have taken over jobs previously, exclusively done by the Moral System.

I find it useful to imagine the Archaeologist’s job of uncovering civilizations.  Say, that on a particular location an ancient city existed for ten thousand years.  When archaeologists dig down, what they uncover is strata - layers of foundations laid on top of each other.  When a house falls down, a new house is built on top of the rubble - over and over again for thousands of years.  And it takes the painstaking job of an  archaeologist to uncover and sift through each and every layer, in order to get to the very bottom, to the original layer.  

The Old Moral System, is that original layer. It is the first human social institution, the one that forms the foundation for all other human institutions. It’s still around, we are all still part of it, and no human society  could  exist without it.  


  1. This brings me to question what rights are, the right to clean air, water, shelter, education. These are needs or values subscribed to in moral societies, are there any immoral societies? What about the rights of trees or indemic animal life to existence? How does that fit into a moral argument?

  2. I am trying to avoid talking about such things at this stage, because I'm deliberately trying to keep to the basics. I'm trying to get at the foundation of morality -what is it, where did it come from, and what does it do. The idea of "rights" is a more sophisticated political concept, that carries a lot of metaphysical baggage with it. That doesn't mean that it isn't an important or necessary concept, but I haven't really reached the stage in my analysis where I can explain or critique it. We can use the term "moral" in a loose way, as a judgement upon an entire society, but I prefer to think of morality as system of regulation of behaviour. All societies work to preserve themselves by adhering to moral rules. We can say that societies are "sick" and "immoral" but that's metaphorical. We are talking as if society were an individual person.