What makes something moral or amoral?

I feel like we've had this discussion a million times on Think Atheist in some way shape or form. I should know the answer already. Without a holy book to tell me what to do or how to act I do feel pretty.....lost.

Can I admit that out loud? Yes I feel lost. I feel pulled in many directions on a number of issues and I really don't know how to resolve this turmoil. 

So my question is really that simple:

What makes something moral or amoral?

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Maybe you're right. I can't make head nor tail out the diagram.

Oh, well OK.   I certainly will agree that it did not create a code of morality out of whole cloth.

What I'm completely mystified by is why you would even think that's a question?  Language, culture, rules, codes, etc. all obviously had to exist prior to the writing of the early Hebrew scriptures, and even prior to much of the oral history.  Of course there were other writings and oral histories that predated the bible and contributed to it.

That's not an issue for me, and I'm not sure why it should be for you or for anybody.  The value of Einstein's theories is not diminished because they started as riffs on Newton.  Why should the value of elements of the bible be diminished because they started as the Hammurabi Code or earlier? 

Well written. That all makes perfect sense. Until someone claims it came from a divine source.


Ah, OK, we're tripping over fundamentalism again.


I have spoken with trusted friends and even a professional in regards to my dilemma and have sought extensive outside help. The intention of this thread was to really get people’s perspectives without spoon feeding a specific situation in hopes that it would generate a discussion much like the one that has evolved. If I gave all the guidelines to a specific problem or dilemma, it would become up to each individual’s personal “opinion” based on their experiences around ONE specific situation.

I was really looking for insights about what is at the heart of morality. Or maybe it would be better to say, “How does a person come to decide their own moral code?” Yes it’s a very deep and complex issue and every individual has their own answer. But I just recently got done taking a philosophy class on environmental ethics, and it’s caused me to really reflect on “morality” itself in a way I hadn’t ever done before. I’m excited to have Dr. Bob and now David Vogel participate as well. Good times.

While I understand that defining what is moral is like trying to nail jello to the wall, I think the goal of this thread for myself is to challenge myself and others to think deeper on how we’ve come to have the moral code we possess for ourselves, and wonder in a deeper way whether our morals are up to snuff with who we want to be or to identify if our actions match our moral code, and if there’s any conflict of interest there to assess why, and what to do about it. 

I may potentially start a different blog or discussion to the specific situation that was part of the inspiration for this thread...I'm still pondering if that would be wise, and how I would want to discuss it....stay tuned ;)


My comment regarding you seeking counsel or help was motivated by concern, as you are a much loved member of our community. I don't like to see you distressed without at least offering some comfort.

Regarding the posts you make on TA and your thoughtful input, you do a great job in inspiring others to participate in meaningful ways.

I think I'll feature this discussion, as its full of interesting debate. Thank you for starting it.


My comment regarding you seeking counsel or help was motivated by concern, as you are a much loved member of our community. I don't like to see you distressed without at least offering some comfort.

That is so sweet of you....Thank you for the feature, that is always an honor.

Belle, what in my view I see as the problem with discussions on morality is that most often, those who discuss it, treat human beings in isolation. We are social animals and our environment, especially mental environment determines a lot what is considered moral. Where we are now, we have cumulative experience of generations gone before us to draw from. If you want to know what society considers moral or immoral, a good place to start is the mental environment in which they live in.

During the time of the inquisition, those men and women, mostly men, who burned others at the stake did what they all thought was the right thing to do to the heretic, I mean, this fellow was going to burn in hell for all eternity, how would burning them for a day compare?

Scopes of Morality

I think there are several scopes, and each scope defines a boundary of inclusiveness that divides insider from outsider. The band (e.g. caveman) and tribal scopes are what evolved with us during our prehistoric and pre-civilized days. Then came larger communities, and a wider scope of values and behaviors to deal with and evolve, culturally. Today the scopes are most observable at the religious and state level institutions. Different religions and different states define and express morality differently and to different degrees of enforcement.

The sentiment in each culture, religion, state, and so on that morality is an ingroup vs outgroup set of values, often good vs evil still pervades. Humanity's cultures exist now in a globalized context, subject to friction with each other. Conflicting moral certitudes now, more than ever before, polarize prejudices and actions at state levels. We speak of what global, human code of morality could possibly exist.

To push crazy speculations further, imagine Star Trek stories of the differences between intelligent species, and their codes of conduct and morality. It's crazy, but imagine that someday even that "universal" scope of morality is necessary to consider. I can't imagine any universal approach to morality, other than perhaps one that includes the principle that the more separated cultures and worlds are from each other, the less they should be intentionally or forcefully interfering with each other.

I know that pushes this thread into speculation and fantasy, but it's not unreasonable to study or ponder morality in its different, possible "scopes". Most importantly, it should be obvious how arbitrary various moralities are, yet how powerfully they tend to perpetuate themselves through generations via cultural means. My takeaway from this is that moralities may matter most in the global context of insider vs outsider politics and religion.

Here is a video on Deontological Ethics you might like. Each and every act is in itself a unique ethical occasion.


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