What is Morality?
Introduction to Moral Philosophy Week 1
An ancient legend tells the story of Gyges, a poor shepherd who found a magic ring that would make the wearer invisible. Having realized that ring allowed him to do anything undetected, Gyges used it to gain entry to the royal palace, seduce the queen, murder the king, and finally, seize the throne.
In Book II of Plato’s Republic, this story is at the center of an argument between Socrates and one of his companions, Glaucon. Glaucon asks us to imagine two individuals—an amoral man and a moral one. The amoral man, he argues, would surely use the ring to do anything he pleases without the fear of repercussions, including anything necessary to increase his wealth or power. Curiously, however, Glaucon argues that the moral man would be no different”
“No one, it is commonly believed, would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off other men's goods, when he could go to the market-place and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his pleasure…. Both would take the same course.”
Glaucon then asks, why shouldn’t he? Once someone is freed from reprisal, why should they care about “morality”? Why shouldn’t they do what they think is best for themself and act only in self-interest?
Although the Republic is written over 2,300 years ago, these questions are still asked today. Since then, many philosophers have tried to tackle them with theories that attempt to explain what morality exactly is, why it is important, and why it has such a strong hold on us.
However, there has yet to be a satisfying, consensus-producing answer to the question: What, if anything, justifies us in believing that we “morally ought” to act in one way rather than another? In this course, we will introduce you to some popular theories of moral philosophy, teach you how to dissect the validity of these theoretical arguments, and also provide you with the opportunity to juggle with ethical dilemmas in the real world and also in the form of thought experiments.
Before we dive into the fundamentals, let’s begin with an experiment that exposes you to your own moral biases (click the link below). Remember, there is no objectively “right” answer; this is not a quiz! The purpose of these questions is to make you think, question, and reevaluate your own beliefs. If there are inconsistencies within your moral philosophy—ask yourself, why do these inconsistencies exist? Why do I choose to act this way in this scenario, but in what appears to be a morally contradictory way in another? How has this exercise changed my view of my own morality? How has it not?
You’re encouraged to write a short response to the exercise in your own time. Remember, this is not a class that is graded in any way! The intention is to stir your interest in the field. The philosophical field welcomes great thinkers like you.
The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings into Moral Philosophy (Third Edition), edited by James Rachels (2003)