For example, religious people define morality based on what God wants them to do. Because that's their fundamental purpose: to obey God. Other people select their purpose for life and define right and wrong based on that. A crude example, a psychopath decides murder is his purpose, so he doesn't feel he is doing something wrong. (I know that there is something already wrong with his natural moral calculator.)

Even our natural present moral theory is based on the goal that humans should collectively try to survive even though nobody decided that humanity's purpose should be to survive. It's something that's already present within us and therefore it's just an arbitrary goal like any other. If the naturally present feeling was destruction, rather than self-preservation, then maybe we would treat murder as something 'good'.

So, basically, there is nothing like good or bad in the universe. If it serves our selected purpose, it's good. If it does not, it's bad.

  • I made some edits which you may roll back or further edit. I am confused by the question. Is it what is in the title or whether the last paragraph about there being no good or bad in the universe is reasonable? Jul 29, 2018 at 21:08
  • I meant the same thing by the title and the last paragraph. Jul 29, 2018 at 21:52
  • Morality = guidelines that will help achieve a purpose. Jul 29, 2018 at 21:53
  • Since there is no ultimate purpose to human existence, every purpose we choose is kind of like arbitrary. Like the randomly colliding particles, the purpose we choose doesn't have any special significance to the 'universe'. Whether that purpose is 'survival of humanity', or enlightenment of humanity through science, knowledge and technology, or even creating a paradise like place on earth. All of them have no meaning, we might as well create a hell, it doesn't really mean anything different except that 'we will feed bad'. Since these purposes are arbitrary, therefore morality is arbitrary. Jul 29, 2018 at 21:59
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    morality "can" be defined however you like, be more specific
    – user34105
    Jul 31, 2018 at 17:12

5 Answers 5


Even our natural present moral theory is based on the goal that humans should collectively try to survive even though nobody decided that humanity's purpose should be to survive. It's something that's already present within us and therefore it's just an arbitrary goal like any other. If the naturally present feeling was destruction, rather than self-preservation, then maybe we would treat murder as something 'good'.

Uhm, which "natural present moral theory" are you talking about? Based on utilitarianism, antinatalism would be a counter-example of a moral stance against survival being a moral purpose. Also, deontological theories aren't teleological, meaning that they don't (or don't fully) care about consequences of acts but rather about acts themselves.

I'm also not sure why you think that automatically becomes arbitrary. Take pain, for example. All other things being equal, we avoid pain that doesn't give something in return. Is doing so arbitrary?

  • +1 - All good, relevant points.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 31, 2018 at 20:33

This is something I remember from my philosophy - taekwondo lessons when I was 12. And I strongly agree with this idea.

Morals are a set of informal rules that we apply in order to survive. Ethics are a formalization of moral rules. Both are applied voluntarily. Formal law (justice) is a social agreement, based on ethics and moral, but it's not voluntary: it's coercitive. We can force you to pay your taxes, allow other cars to pass first at the intersection, etc.

All three systems of rules are intended to control our behavior so we can not only destroy us, but grow, be strong, have power and protect us and defeat other tribes or people with different ideas.

So, yes. Morals can lead to a basic human purpose: survival. Well, all this three normative systems.


There are two ways Morals are fostered into society. Firstly as God, or Man, given rules. In which case analysis of the rules reveals that it promotes cohesiveness of the society and strengthens the hegemony of the Authority. Secondly, in a more natural setting, whenever people decide to live together they will tend to have a similar set morals. Normative behavior is intrinsic to community formation, and community expansion is dependent on cohesive moral behavior.

So the simple answer to your question is Yes. But more precisely, Morals and Community are organically intertwined, therefore a description of their moral set entails a description of their purpose. Note that this holds for a community of one, one family, one village, etc.


Morality an essentially contested concept

Some see morality as a personal code, others as the word of God, others as a relic of religion, yet others as not useful for themselves to practise but very useful to themselves for others to practise. Some see actions as having value, others see actions as having value along with consequences, others regard only consequences as having value, others yet again fix morality solely in the motive of action.

The rationale of morality

Because morality - in a minimal sense of a regard for the interests of others beyond the limits of mere self-interest - promoted group and individual survival in our evolutionary past, it does not follow that the rationale of morality now is to promote that purpose or in some cases to promote any purpose at all.

In a society in which there is no natural authority and nobody's interests are intrinsically more important than anyone else's, a morality of respect can emerge which treats others as equals because that is what they are. If I realise that my pleasure is objectively of no greater importance than anyone else's, that my need for heart surgery has no objective normative priority over anyone else's, that my child has no objective right to advantages over other children, then I treat others equally because this is due to them. It is due, not because it promotes any goal or fulfils a purpose but because nothing can justify differential, preferential treatment.

Morality as goal- and purpose-free

This approach to morality finds elaborate expression in Kant's ethical theory but it is not put forward here in any discipular deference to Kant. Let me put my point in terms of a homely example. Think of a children's tea party in which there are five children present, one of them my own. I cut the cake into five equal slices because there is no justifying reason to cut it into unequal portions. I respect all five children equally : equal shares are due to them. There is no goal or purpose in my conduct here. I respect the children's equality because this is the right thing to do, not because it leads to any results. My conduct is not subservient or instrumental to a goal, it is expressive of and embodies respect. As such it would still be the right thing to do even if I knew, and nobody else did, we would all be annihilated the instant the cake were cut. From a goal-directed view of morality my action would be pointless. From my standpoint of 'morality as respect' it would remain unaffectedly right.


To understand morality, what it can do and why, you need to know where it came from. Our sense of morality is an evolved characteristic. Just like our sense of hunger or our sense of heat or cold. For a very long time humans, and also our ancestral species, have lived in groups. Our evolutionary near neighbors the chimps also do.


It suggests we have been doing this tribal thing for at least several million years. A huge part of our survival strategies has been cooperation. Without the group, an individual is unlikely to live very long. And further, even if he does survive, is almost guaranteed not to leave progeny.

So, behavior that gets you shunned is gene death. And over periods of millions of years, it is unsurprising to find, our mental facility has been tuned to this fact. Being shunned is seriously unpleasant, possibly even physically harmful.


Humans have brain structures that literally makes you sick when other humans are injured in your sight. Other structures make you sensitive to the emotional upset of your companions.


Individuals who lack crucial parts of this are often quite detectable by normal people, and seem "creepy." This is also due to brain differences.


Generally, if some behavior causes you to get shunned by your fellow tribe members, and if it has a genetic component, that behavior gets filtered out of the gene pool remarkably efficiently. If some behavior makes you likable, popular, etc., and has a genetic component, that gets reinforced. Over many thousands of generations the result is a fierce alliance to behavior that works. And a keen need to know what the correct pattern of behavior is that will work.

Sometimes this short circuits in situations that evolution finds challenging. For example, when changes in culture happen much faster than evolution can keep up with. Or when cultures meet and neither previous culture can completely successfully please the other. Or when group size grows from a few dozen families to millions of people. Or when ideologues impose their ideas.

This is unsurprising. Our sense of hunger was developed over many thousands of generations in which the next morsel of food might be the last food you got for an uncomfortably long time. So if you had food, you ate it. If you didn't, and the food spoiled or was scarfed by somebody else, maybe you starved to death. Or didn't have the energy to run away from a tiger. But now, our sense of hunger has challenges when as much food as we can deal with is available for an amount of money most people can afford. When we have too much food we have a tendency to eat ourselves sick.


So a sense of morality comes from the same place as a sense of hunger. Or a sense of needing to sleep. Or a desire for a mate. Or any of the many drives humans have. And it can get mis-aligned with reality in many very similar fashions.

These days we have the idea of a "first world problem."


Our sense of morality evolved when it was life-or-death. 100,000 years ago the complaint was "he's got a bigger chunk of the meat we both just killed! It's not fair!" In that era, the guy who took more than his share might well doom other tribe members. These days, our sense of morality is getting mis-fired by things that, when you rationally evaluate them, are quite silly. "He's got a bigger color TV than I do! It's not fair!"

So, how do we evaluate morality? On the basis of human thriving. As I stated, a huge part of our survival strategy is cooperation. That means the things that permit and encourage cooperation are moral. And will fit our evolved sense of morality and make us comfortable with how people behave. We should be asking questions like, will this moral instruction generally help humans thrive or hinder that? And over what time scale?

And cooperation for what? Actions are moral that are positive for the long-term thriving of the individuals that make up the community. Actions that are negative to that are not moral. Actions that don't make any difference are neutral. So, for example, if somebody performs some action that helps people, and so makes money for it, all through voluntary trades, this is moral. That grocery store down the street that operates by providing the highest quality product at the lowest price they can, and does so entirely through voluntary trade, and so gets all the business of the community, helps the community. And is therefore moral.

However, note that I said "cooperation." Actions that, for example, make a slave out of some portion of the tribe are the opposite of cooperation, and so are not moral. Mugging some guy to get money to buy lunch is, according to several million years of evolution, against our sense of morality.

This is just as sure as that food is good to eat, but that non-food is not. Because it is based on the same source and context.

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