The roots of morality: How reason shapes our moral obligations

The article discusses the deterministic nature of behaviour and the impact of free will. It emphasises that moral responsibility arises from a conscious awareness of obligations under rational moral law, even if our actions are influenced by forces beyond our control


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By Pravin Periasamy

Moral judgements are typically placed upon those who diminish the wellbeing of others by inducing unnecessary suffering or who uplift their wellbeing by always acting to produce the greatest good for the people.

Our conception of morality itself is a function of reason and a component of how we think.

It follows that only rational creatures (who possess a conscious aptitude for reasoning) can be moral or be held morally accountable.

The capacity for reason is the source of morality. Reason thus imposes a moral obligation, substantiating morality as a matter of motives.

Human behaviour may be viewed as the habits that are associated with settings or situations. Such behaviour is constrained by its inability to act independently of internal or external forces.

Internal forces (local stimuli) govern behaviour. Such forces emanate from our biochemistry, hormonal fluctuations, state of mind and condition of the immune system.

Moral duty can be justified by the universal knowledge that rational beings are held morally responsible, even if their behaviour is influenced by external factors and they could not have acted differently.

This establishes an axis of morality that:

  • assures the public that the general sentiment of good and wrongdoing remains as the underpinning of society
  • isolates perpetrators of grievous harm from society to maintain public order and
  • acknowledges and encourages acts of beneficence in others to preserve the nature of positive influence

The free will argument – that questions the true autonomy we have in controlling our actions independent of external forces – can be explored through a metaphorical lens.

If a fisherman is able to manoeuvre his boat through the use of its rudder, how then must he act independently of the wind (representing an external factor) that acts upon the boat’s sail? After all, the wind could alter the boat’s movement altogether, making the fisherman’s efforts futile. Alternatively, if the fisherman experiences seasickness (an internal factor), his navigation ability is distorted.

From a literalist perspective, although we lack the ability to physically alter the laws of nature for our added benefit, we may experience their influence on us, leading us to inevitably bring an action into fruition, however arbitrarily.

Many argue the nature of morality is a by-product of consciousness, implying its association with our mental state. These neurological states are biologically wired. Given that these states are physical, they are ultimately determined by forces invisible to us.

An absence of free will can simply be reduced to a specific notion – that if time were to be unwound, the action committed would remain the same. This implies that the action is determined by nature and not by conscious will.

The idea that nature is deterministic can be supported, as behavior can be influenced by cause-effect chains. Past instances of negligence, enlightenment, or inherited behaviours can shape future behavioural patterns.

As general moral sentiments are subject to public interest, praise or condemnation from the public is likely to be concerned with an individual’s actions.

This is because the action itself, however determined or influenced, may significantly affect the usual occurrences of another sentient individual. Hence, the transfer of potential becomes actualised into change.

We may possess the aptitude to alter the surrounding constituents of our reality by a matter of chance – but not the forces that govern those constituent elements of reality.

Our mode of being is built upon necessary biological mechanisms and environmental forces. Accountability arises from the need to stray away from necessary negative forces. Simply divesting people of responsibility on the basis of these arbitrary forces would destabilise society.

This would justify our legal obligation to society, although our behaviour is constrained absolutely by deterministic forces, and choosing to act upon impulses constitutes some level of control.

This would explain the difference between a person who is mentally ill who is offered rehabilitation if complicit in a homicide (as there are mental inhibitions that prevent the person from acting in accordance to certain impulses) as opposed to a sane person.

The knowledge of morality that we learn in our later years aims to aid us in acting in accordance to impulses that encourage positive actions.

So moral responsibility is the result of acting from a conscious awareness of our obligations under rational, moral law. While we may not be the architects of our own intuition, we are the engineers of its influence.

Pravin Periasamy is the networking and partnership director of the Malaysian Philosophy Society.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Robert Landbeck
Robert Landbeck
2 Jul 2024 6.30pm

Human morality is an illusion of culture. It has no ‘root’ or foundation within human nature. Moral reasoning has shown itself to be of limited potential and self evidently unable to meet the demands the future will impose upon both individuals and planet. So given this failure of reason and spirit, the only question that remains is how new moral progress can be realized and at this point in time, I can see nothing on the table, from any intellectual tradition, with the athority to accomplish such aims.