Sententia Discussion Series 9: Morality’s Source

Traditionally, morality and the question of right and wrong have been the province of religion. More and more people do not identify as religious or follow a particular religious teaching. Useful for consideration: Aristotle's Virtue Ethics, Moral Relativism, Abraham Lincoln's essay on the importance of upholding the law, Martin Luther King's Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Utilitarianism, Deontology, Kant's universal law.

Moral Arguments

These arguments look at the published statistics, showing that the virus is apparently under control in Eastern nations, and isn't in Western nations, and suggest that perhaps the supposedly example-setting Western democracies need to take a lesson from these Eastern countries. I have even seen some essays suggesting that the progress of the pandemic in the East and the West demonstrates that the time for Western-style democracy has passed. What is left unspoken in all of these arguments is that these discussions are assuming the primacy of utilitarian morality.

Relatively Right

In philosophy, there is a concept called moral relativism. It was particularly popular in the mid-twentieth century, but has fallen out of favor in many circles today. Aristotle's famous question - "is conduct right because the gods demand it, or do the gods demand it because it is right" - is answered in moral relativism with a resounding no, to both alternatives. Instead, moral relativism asserts that conduct is right so long as it is in keeping with the conventions of the culture within that conduct takes place, and conduct should only be judged within that context.


One of these days, I intend to write an essay on the origin and nature of morality. It is a topic that has fascinated people throughout history, and arguably one that underpins some of the most remarkable accomplishments of this species. Anything with such a lengthy history that has already been tackled by so many other people is full of risk - what peculiar hubris is it to think that I have anything original to contribute to such a supersaturated field? - so for now I continue to think and ponder, without putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard on the broader topic. Yet that does not stop me from occasionally exploring a subset of that larger framework, as I intend to do here.