On Morality

A philosophical babble of a random person

Bozhidar Bozhanov
7 min readMay 7, 2014


What is moral and how is morality measured?

(Below you will see a mixture of the arguments and theses of many philosophers, although probably lacking their depth; I won’t explicitly refer to them, but you can probably find traces of Kant, Hegel, Descartes, Kierkegaard and others)

In terms of the things we do, there are two extremes — altruism, which means we do not seek anything in return for our actions, and egoism, where we are only motivated by personal gains resulting from the action. However, altruism and egoism can converge if your actions are right, just and of benefit only of others, and you do that in order to satisfy your own need for morality; to not break your moral state of happiness; to not cross your threshold of being at peace with yourself. The morally right things are altruistic, because you don’t do them for your own benefit, but at the same time egoistic, because you do them for your own sake. That does not mean all egoistic actions are altruistic, though. But all altruistic ones can be viewed as psychologically egoistic.

We define the morally right thing to be the one you don’t do for your own benefit. That does not imply that actions motivated by our own benefit are necessarily wrong and should not be done — they are simply a different kind of actions that require special consideration, that we will discuss later.

That is, however, insufficient. You can do the morally wrong thing even without benefits for yourself. For example, murder that will allegedly save other people’s lives. And we don’t want to fall back to a utilitarian or consequentialist framework to account for that, as it will surely lead to the impossibility of calculating consequences, also known as “the butterfly effect”. Instead, we will rely on absolute, categorical reasoning that forbids certain actions (e.g. murder, lying). How are these absolute, categorical limits defined, we will discuss later.

Isn’t this too constraining, or even too conformist; isn’t the “rule” of altruism as immoral as greed, desire or personal gains? Does it make a difference whether you behave altruistically because you know you should, as opposed to feeling better about it? And is feeling better about it egoistic or wrong?

Not only it is not wrong, but it is better. You’ve reached moral equilibrium when doing the morally right things makes you feel good.

Let’s now discuss goals, as the primary instrument for making us inclined to perform actions. Goals aren’t dreams; they are not pursued relentlessly and at all cost — they are there simply to motivate the process to achieve them. Even actions seemingly lacking purpose can be viewed as goals themselves.

Just like actions themselves, goals, in order to be viewed as truly moral, cannot stem from necessity, that is, they should not be something you need or want.

In addition to being fulfilled by the morality of both the goal and the process, you can get fulfillment with the process of achieving the goal. You can get fulfillment with the process regardless of whether it adheres to morality or not, but if it does, that amplifies your overall well-being.

So the morally right thing is the one not stemming from necessity and at the same time not breaching some absolute, categorical rules; and the end result of doing the morally right thing and applying it to the process as well as the goal, allegedly leads to a state of “well-being”, “fulfillment” or “feeling good”, and that, albeit egoistic, cannot be viewed as wrong by itself. We can probably extend the meaning of “fulfillment” to “fulfillment of one’s inherent purpose”, but that’s a separate topic of discussion.

From a practical, real-world perspective, however, morality is changing. It appears to be intrinsic to a person or a society, and in the better scenarios — self-actualizing, that is, changing according to empirical evidence. Something is morally right in one society and completely forbidden in another. If that is the case, and even if we assume that morality is universally considered to be doing things not for one’s own benefit, the other part — the absolute, categorical part — remains questionable and unexplained.

From a personal perspective, societal morality is a baseline, not a norm. And getting back to the self-actualizing morality — you can use your societal morality as a baseline, which you can then change according to evidence, using your reasoning capacity.

Thus we can view morality as a 3D chart. On one axis are different people, on another axis there are various moral categories, and on the third axis is the level at which a person’s current, personal morality is, compared to the absolute, categorical morality for that particular category. Somewhere on the chart there is societal baseline. For example, a person can consider murder absolutely forbidden, regardless of the circumstances, but accepts lying as morally permissible. If we assume that the absolute moral truth constitutes that both are forbidden, this person will have a high value (close to the maximum) for the first category and a medium value for the second one. Other people around him (the second axis) will have different values. In their particular society it may be acceptable to lie, so the baseline lies there — the person just hasn’t used his reasoning capacity to go beyond what is set “by default”.

How are these absolutes determined, and how are we sure they exist. We aren’t, but they best fit into our description of the philosophical world. And they exist in multiple forms — theists may view them as coming from God; agnostics and atheists may view them as coming from the universe itself, and being on par with physical laws; others may see them as intrinsic to a transcendent human soul; Kant views them as ultimately reachable by pure reason, shared by the minds of all humans. There are multiple ways to define the universality of the moral truths, and ideally they should be logically uncontradicted. Unfortunately none of them are provable or falsifiable, at least not in the near future.

To summarize, ultimate morality is logically uncontradicted set of principles for not doing things for your own benefit (excluding morality as self-purpose).

Regardless of whether you are convinced of the existence of absolute moral truth or not, there are still practical questions to answer.

You still do things out of necessity, and that cannot be wrong (if you don’t look for food or water, you will die, and then what’s the point of being purely moral). In fact, these are the dominant actions in everyday life. They cannot be even classified as autonomous, because doing what you want is substantially different from doing what you need, the way you want. So non-autonomous goals done for the sake of one’s own benefit are common in our lives, and we need to morally justify our actions even in these cases.

We can easily classify all people is immoral, but that defeats the purpose of all pondering and mental strain philosophers have put into this issue. As we pointed previously, a person cannot be viewed as completely moral or completely immoral — he lies on a complex scale of morality even for the pure, autonomous, non-benefiting actions. Same holds for the other kind introduced in the previous paragraph — these actions and goals out of some kind of necessity are still morally accountable, albeit in a different manner.

When regarding these actions, you obviously exclude one of the two factors contributing to morality, described above and what remains is the absolute moral truth. It can still be applied even to actions out of necessity, to things you need or want, but they have a lower moral worth. For example, donating to charity for the sake of gaining popularity is not immoral, but is less moral than donating for the good of others.

What if people act only out of necessity, that is, for their own benefit, and also their proximity to the ultimate moral truths is low, so their overall morality appears to be low? And how do you judge that? Well, you don’t. It’s none of your business. You are only concerned by your own morality as the source of your motives, goals and actions. We can probably even add that as one of the absolute moral truths — it is immoral to judge others’ morality.

Overall, we can probably define a “formula” for calculating one’s morality. But the only point of that would be to help us strive for autonomous, moral actions and goals, and to get our norms closer to the ultimate, absolute, categorical moral truths (which we don’t know yet). That way our actions will be both more fulfilling and more altruistic. And unfortunately (or not?), morality is not quantifiable, or at least we are unable to measure it today. So even a mathematical description is abstract and doesn’t give us ways to objectively measure morality.

The result of adhering to morality, just like the moral truths themselves, is universally good, although viewed in a different way — a theist may view it as pleasing God, an atheist may view it as self-fulfillment, a spiritualist may view it as positively contributing to their immortal soul. And as we pointed out before, that is not to be considered egoistic or beneficial for ourselves, or even if it can be, it is not wrong, or in other words, it is not immoral to be moral.



Bozhidar Bozhanov

Software engineering. Linguistics, algorithmic music composition. Founder at LogSentinel.com