Many rational minds have come to attribute the foundation of morality to humankind's survival and happiness. I have been discussing with friends about why that 'humankind survival and happiness' must or should be the ground rule of judging a system of ethics or morality. We came to the conclusion that it's only an arbitrary preference of humankind. Are there any other factors to take these ground rules as a basis of morality, including objective factors?

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    – J D
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 16:19
  • @JD I didn’t attack anybody and the question is not subjective. I don’t know for what reason I am getting this warning. Can you please specify? Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 18:38
  • There's a custom here to draw a line between completely open-ended speculative questions with a highly normative basis, and questions that are subjective, but well sourced and qualified. Any question that starts with "What should" generally falls into the former... let's just tweak the ask and I'll withdrawl my vote for closure.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 18:48
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    Many sociobiologists and ethologists believe that morality is a byproduct of our altruistic biology. That is to say, that psychological altruism such as the Golden Rule which is found almost universally among peoples in various forms, is actually a correlation to our eusocial biology.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 19:00
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    Related to that idea is that morality therefore is a product of sorts of our bodies. Check out this SE Philosophy post.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 19:01

4 Answers 4


This is a very, very simple problem: morality is a code of conduct decided by human beings on the basis of our sense of fairness.

Any community of humans needs a code of conduct simply to be able to function efficiently as a community. Without a code of conduct, everything goes and people simply revert to naked physical violence to settle their personal conflicts of interest, which history has shown is not a very effective way to do things. All communities adopt, one way or the other, a code of conduct. Most codes of conduct are somehow unfair and biased in various ways in favour of some members of the community, and this leads to violent conflicts. This in turn leads unsurprisingly some people to argue that the code of conduct that happens to favour them should be preserved, while those who suffer unfairly from a code of conduct will want to change some aspects of it., which overall leads to an evolution in the codes of conduct. In a few thousand years, we moved from tribal codes of conduct that included human sacrifices to democracy and human rights. There is no reason to believe that our current code of conduct is perfectly fair, so it is only natural that it will continue to evolve.

What is fair? The notion of fairness is essentially a natural one. All gregarious animals have a sense of fairness: humans but also wolves, rats, monkeys, elephants etc. Essentially, our sense of fairness is the product of natural selection, broadly over the 60 million years of the evolutions of all mammal species, including humans. Our sense of fairness may be regarded as a proto-code of conduct produced by natural selection. Gregarious species had to have one to survive, reproduce and prosper. Those that didn't evolve a sense of fairness simple didn't become gregarious.

So, as humans we start with our sense of fairness inherited from our ancestor species, and there is nothing we can do about it. Like logic and sex, it is hardwired into our DNA. It is our nature.

Our codes of conduct are in effect merely the rules which are necessary for human communities to function as communities given that humans modify their own environment very quickly. Our codes of conduct are the necessary adaption of human communities to their own way of life and its impact on the environment. You need a specific code to sustain a particular way of life. In a changing environment, and our environment is always changing because we ourselves change it, communities have to adapt their code of conduct if they want to survive.

This is all there is to morality.

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    “communities have to adapt their code of conduct if they want to survive”. My original question was why survival needs to be chosen. If sense of fairness is natural can we say it preference? How do we know sense of fairness will not be subjective like sexual preferences is? Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 10:39
  • One of the shortcomings of our natural sense of fairness is our evolved propensity to discount the future in favour of the demands of the present. The "human hyperbolic discount rate" is described here. Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 12:09
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    @SazzadHissainKhan Many humans choose not to live. Each year perhaps 1 human out of 10,000 kills him/herself. People choose war, where millions die. Our sense of fairness is natural, so we have to take it as fundamental. You cannot justify it. It is just what humans do. We cannot ignore it, we cannot change it and it constantly affects our behaviour in society. We know it works since humans have existed for 500,000 years. As such it is as objective as can be. We all experience morality subjectively. Democratic life is how a community makes morality objective as code of conduct. Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 16:23
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    @JD Our moral sense is not arbitrary but our codes of conduct result both from our moral sense and from the constraints of our evolving environment. Not arbitrary but also not exactly hardwired. Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 19:43
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    @SazzadHissainKhan Morality is the application of reason to psychological impuses. Monogamy has survival benefits. The point is that monogamy isn't so widespread because it is arbitrary, but rather it suits biology. And many people enjoy do enjoy polygamy.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 15:36

The foundation of morality is the knowledge of good and evil, which itself is based on the concepts of pain and pleasure <== and those two, sure, are 100% subjective experiences!

It is having them that's 100% not.

You, me, everyone share the knowledge, the same understanding of what it means to be in pain, what would put us ourselves in pain, and how we can hurt others. Which makes our knowledge of good and evil, and, ultimately, our morals just as universal.

We are not evil because we lack morals. If we commit evil, it's because we don't always know what we are doing. That's why knowledge is the only true virtue.

  • And, what philosophers or philosophies do you draw in? Bentham & Mille tried to construct ethics from pleasure & pain, do you know the problems that generated? Wittgenstein gave pain as his most common example of doubting whether we do in fact 'just know' we are all having the same experience. Does evil exist, as distinct from simply bad? If knowledge was the only virtue why did native Americans share knowledge & turkeys that Thanksgiving celebrates, while settlers gave smallpox infected blankets in return?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 20:03
  • @CriglCragl > "And, what philosophers or philosophies do you draw in?" -- I actually do quote often from Heraclitus, Socrates, John's Gospel, or Upanishads. But, overall, there are precious few written sources reflecting truly rational worldview, and for good reasons too. The modern philosophers you have mentioned, yes, I am familiar with their positions in general, and I know what exactly makes them is fundamentally flawed: rather than assuming the objective reality as their first premise, their efforts were spent on attempts to explain O.R. away. Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 22:54
  • @CriglCragl > "If knowledge was the only virtue, why did native Americans share knowledge & turkeys that Thanksgiving celebrates, while settlers gave smallpox infected blankets in return?" -- Because the knowledge IS the only virtue. Native Americans had it in those days -- they knew themselves, their lives, and the world around, the Great Mystery of the objective reality. They never considered themselves all-knowing, of course. But not in their worst nightmare could they envision their world colliding with an advanced civilization of gun-toting wetikos.Ironically, tho not entirely.... Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 23:21
  • .... unexpected, the Europeans were carrying with them an account of the same catastrophic transformation their own societies went through in their long-forgotten past -- sometimes 3,000 years before they discovered the "New World", the last enclave of Eden on Earth... That deeply personal account is known as The Book of Job. And it is quite remarkable. It's not just the oldest Book -- it is so old, one can argue that the rest of the Bible is mere footnotes to it. Yet it reads modern at times, down to the subtle trolling in its happy ending. In truth, it wasn't -- but there's hope in mascara. Commented Nov 22, 2020 at 0:16

Is the purpose of a fire to require more fuel? Having fuel is a precondition of having a fire, and it continuing to have fuel is a precondition of it remaining, to be a subject for discussion. Similarly for survival - it's a precondition, we had to have that bias to have got here, to have evolved. But we know humans can & do choose not to survive - & sometimes we call that the summit of the moral life, sacrifice for others. In antinatalism & efilism people have suggested creating new life is immoral, because it causes suffering - net-unhappiness would make life unjustifiable, if you make happiness it's purpose.

Happiness is not simple, not just one thing, or a 'natural kind' of experiences. Utilitarianism wrestled with this, trying to quantify it with various types of ranked pleasures, hedonic calculus, and so on. It leads to many problems & paradoxes, like a 'super-maximiser' experiencing sublime states getting to exploit everyone else (we do this in most parts of the world in regard to animal suffering, and have done in regard to enslaved humans, which should make us consider this 'super-maximising' carefully..). Peter Singer has shown a capacities methodology can help us be consistent in approaching ethical dilemmas between species and cultures, but many don't like where that leads in some cases like around disability.

Even purely as an individual, saying our purpose or meaning is happiness just substitutes one word for another. If we say whatever we decide to do or find meaningful, we do so for 'happiness', then we can do no other - even suicide has to be pictured as seeking a kind of happiness in ending suffering. It becomes a tautology, to say we seek happiness if happiness is pictured as just: the necessary result of getting whatever we do in fact decide to seek.

Happiness can instead be pictured as a compass direction, as evaluating a kind of gradient between directions you could go in, not needing to reference a bigger picture that includes why. This is equivalent to Hume's 'is vs ought' distinction: however you reason about why someone else should choose x, for 'happiness', it will be down to them, their inner experiences of choosing. Because we cannot reason into what we feel, only from what we feel.

As long as a person can justify a moral reasoning process, within the law, and among their friends, and to themselves, we call that activity moral. Even, if others think it was crazy, self-destructive, inconsistent, etc.

Aristotle had an explicitly open-ended idea of happiness in eudaimonia, 'human flourishing'. Both fulfilling our natures, and reaching beyond them to develop what that we are. If we explicitly set happiness in a wider understanding of human nature, eg what a wise and virtuous life is, we can say true happiness is our goal, in that it will be fulfilled by living up to x understanding of life. But that will always be open to debate, & question, and a subjective personal journey to defining it.

What is your 'flourishing'? How do you understand wise & virtuous?

However you square it, survival and happiness are not enough, even to really get started on how to be moral. We need a big picture about why. We need to look at actual behaviour. And we need personal engagement with these kinds of considerations, to find personally satisfying answers. Moral reasoning about happiness.

In short, we still need philosophy!


The most basic drive of any life form is for mastery of their environment, which generally translates to survival, individually or genetically. This is the same for a tenacious plant growing through cracks in a pavement, or a determined problem-solving human being.

Having solutions operating well engenders wellbeing and happiness.

Problems of social and ecological fairness are just more problems to be solved - albeit fundamental and often challenging.

The idea of fairness or proper behaviour in society is contained in the very definition of morality, (and the idea that it extends to proper behaviour in the ecosystem is a logical consequence of society's interdependence on the ecosystem).

For more info on 'life drive' see https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/75998/5154

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    @ChrisDegmen- Very well and briefly explained. The link expands on and stands in support of your answer. Thanks, your 'life drive's is Spinoza's 'conatus'. See Ethics Part 3- Definitions and first few propositions.
    – user37981
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 3:02

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