Moral Decision Making -- An Analysis
Chris MacDonald, Ph.D.
Revised June 6, 2002
1.0 What is Morality?
Generally, morality is a system of rules that modifies our behaviour in social situations. It's about
the doing of good instead of harm, and it sets some standard of virtuous conduct.
1.1 Where Does Morality Come From?
When asked about morality, many people respond like this: "Oh, that's all just a matter of
personal opinion anyway, right?" But if you look at the way in which moral values actually work in
our everyday lives, you'll see that this is not the case. Personal intuitions are important, of course.
But morality generally comes into play when people interact with each other. This suggests that
morality is a system of "shared" values which "justify" actions. As such, morality is about deciding
on best courses of action in all situations. As you'll see, there are quotation marks around the
words "shared" and "justify" for a reason.
1.1.1 "Shared" Values
Moral values are generally shared values. If we did not have an values in common, it would be
exceedingly difficult to agree on any one course of action. But since there is often disagreement
as to what is the right thing to do in any situation, we can see that in fact, various values are
shared to a greater or lesser extent. On some values there will be nearly unanimous agreement.
On others, there may be considerable disagreement.
1.1.2 Points of Agreement
There are a number of moral values on which there is extremely wide agreement. For example,
all cultures that I know of place value on truth-telling, and place strong restrictions on lying. As
another example, all cultures of which I am aware have rules against doing unnecessary harm to
other people (although they vary regarding what constitutes "unnecessary harm"). Other such
shared values include (among many others) loyalty, justice, and promise- keeping.
1.1.3 Room for Disagreement
Of course, if everyone agreed on the importance of these values, there would be no problem.
However, even if we all agree on which values are important, we may still disagree over the
relative importance of the various values. For example, you and I may both agree that telling the
truth and avoiding harming others are important. But which is more important, when these
conflict? For example, if faced with lying to protect someone's feelings, which value should take
priority? It is on questions like this that we are most likely to differ. Why not just agree to differ,