Why do we need morality? What purpose does the concept serve?

closed as not constructive by Michael Dorfman, iphigenie, Dennis, Joseph Weissman Apr 24 '13 at 16:35

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 4
    Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to share a little more about the context and motivations of the concern here? What might you be reading or studying that has made this problem an interesting or urgent one for you? What have you found out so far? (Specifying the problem can help here too: What exactly is the problem you are trying to solve? What precisely would you like someone here to explain to you?) – Joseph Weissman Apr 22 '13 at 2:13
  • The question is very interesting philosophically, considering the deterministic view of the philosophical debate about "Free Will" and "Moral Luck". However, as you do not placed the context of the question, and did not show a preliminary study on the topic, this issue will probably be closed by the community. It is a pity, I very interested in the topic. – Annotations Apr 22 '13 at 14:55
  • I placed new tags, to increase the philosophical vested interest, and give a context. – Annotations Apr 22 '13 at 16:53
  • "Morality doesn't really exist, does it?" I don't consider this to be a good fit for a Q&A site. It is an interesting question though. I suggested an edit to remove the subjective part. – Keelan Apr 22 '13 at 17:00

Why do we need morality?

Well morality at it's core is the way in which we try to answer questions of what should be. Although other fields of study concern themselves with what is, ethical inquiry has to do with what should be.

This has far reaching consequences for humanity. The prevailing morality of a society has great effect on it's citizens. Not just do we need morality in this world, we need a good one to boot.

What purpose does the concept serve?

A very important one it guides our actions. It helps us discern right from wrong. Our chosen moral compass is the basis on which we judge our actions.


The answer that I would like to give is:

[...] [T]he biological function of moral judgment is social coordination[.]

Arguments for and against (and other, related, arguments) can be found here.

My rough take on this: Societies that have a suitable moral code (aimed at coordination, but that also includes a rule that some individuals punish, e.g., ignore, other individuals that do not behave according to the moral code), are likely to do better in evolutionary terms. That doesn't imply that all individuals will or "should" comply with this code at all times (say for the sake of society). That doesn't matter, as for most individuals in most circumstances, it is (individually) rational for them to obey that code.

For further reading, I might also suggest:

  1. Ken Binmore, Natural Justice. (For a more general readership than below.)

  2. Ken Binmore, Game Theory and the Social Contract, Volumes 1 and 2. (Technical.)

  • 2
    While I don't mean to say that this answer isn't helpful, I prefer having the answer in here instead of being forwarded to some place else, even if it's just fragments copied and pasted. – iphigenie Apr 24 '13 at 11:28
  • Your answer was very interesting and valuable because it brought a valuable bibliography. But while it is true that "the biological function of moral judgment is social coordination", a more complete and fundamental answer would have to say as a moral responsibility can survive a deterministic view: "All physical events are Caused and determined by the overall sum of all previous events. " – Annotations Apr 24 '13 at 16:43
  • @RicardoBevilaqua I agree with the first part. I do not agree with the second part. I think there is absolutely no need to drag free will and/or determinism into a biological/game-theoretical explanation of moral behaviour. Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. – user3164 Apr 24 '13 at 16:56
  • I had no need of that hypothesis too. But must be explained why if humans lack the capacity to act otherwise, morality doesn't lose its basis of rationality and its raison d’être, and society would not spontaneously disintegrate into anarchy as individuals justify their unbridled selfishness with “I could not have done otherwise.” If philosophy debate this topic for centuries and there are many books on the subject, there is no obvious answer. – Annotations Apr 24 '13 at 17:25
  • @RicardoBevilaqua Generally, rationality would be a good basis for morality. Humans do sometimes act immorally, and sometimes even get away with it. Justification by appeal to determinism doesn't help in our society. (It has been tried in court. That was a no-no.) Philosophy has dabbled with many questions that ultimately had an obvious answer (in retrospect). That's usually when these questions weren't considered philosophical anymore. Morality is primarily behaviour. It can be explained on the level of the individual as well as on the level of society. – user3164 Apr 24 '13 at 17:35

Some not-very-structured thoughts.

  • We have a very deep-seated sense that there are things which people can be blamed for, and things they can be praised for, that there are right actions and wrong actions, and that some states of affairs are better than others. Philosophy, concerned as ever with clarifying our notions, establishing whether what we think is true is in fact true and trying to provide an analysis of of what makes it so, should certainly aim to figure out what's happening when we're making all these claims, even if its conclusion is that they are meaningless - that's part of the study of ethics

  • It seems to me that the assertion that there are things we ought to do is very tied up with the idea of things mattering; what happens matters, and that generates obligations to act in certain ways. So if you think anything matters, or have any sort of conception of the good, that naturally leads you to try to analyse what sort of relationship actions can have with the good.

  • I don't think we as humans can escape from having a sense that there are right and wrong actions - that is, we cannot not have moral beliefs. We'd have those even without a heading called 'morality' to put them under, and we'd have them even if we didn't make them public and discuss them all the time.


I would say morality can be understood to serve as a standard against which the rest of human endeavors are judged. If we "need" anything, we need morality; what would it even mean to "need" anything, if it's just as well not to have it as to have it? What would it mean for logic to say that some statement is true rather than false, if we don't place any particular value in truth over falsehood? When people argue that morality isn't needed, I think they're referring to a very narrow understanding of morality that has to do with some school or other's own pet philosophies.

Broadly speaking, you might take morality as the source of the basic distinction between opposites which makes it possible for variety to exist in the first place. The is/ought distinction seems like a related, if not the same, notion: without morality, things are; with morality, things ought to be.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.