Any given moral system is, ideally, an attempt to minimize harm to society over the long term by describing acceptable behavior and outcomes. In general, moral systems start out with this ideal in mind, but often evolve into tools for the powerful to maintain control of the masses.
Moral systems seem to fall somewhere on a range from the concrete to the abstract, with most clustering at one end or the other.
A concrete moral system is one which defines morality in terms of specific actions ("thou shalt not...").
These systems have the advantage of simple rules that are unambiguous in their boundaries. This makes them easier to remember, follow, and enforce than more abstract systems.
While it may be possible to debate the relative utility of concrete moral systems – i.e. how well they succeed at minimizing harm – in many situations such discussion may not be possible due to individuals who believe that their particular moral system is axiomatic, based on laws of nature which cannot be revised.
Moral absolutism is the extreme expression of this end of the range.
An abstract moral system is one which defines morality in terms of heuristics (minimizing harm, minimizing inequality) that are somewhat easier to determine than "maximum long-term benefit".
These systems have the advantage of doing a much better job of achieving the general goal of morality, but may be too difficult for many people to follow.
Sources of Guidance
There is disagreement among moral systems about the best sources of moral guidance. The major factions seem to be:
- moral externalism: important truths are discovered by observing reality
- moral internalism: important truths are discovered by internal processes such as thought-experiments, analysis, meditation, reflection, and prayer
- Applying this philosophy to the making of moral decisions is sometimes referred to as using one's "moral compass".
- moral dogmatism: important truths come primarily from the wisdom of the past
- This sets aside the question of how one decides which words from the past are wise and which are not. It is often assumed that any words which have "survived the test of time" must therefore be wise in some way, although they may require considerable reinterpretation; this philosophy therefore often leads to obsessive attempts to reshape ancient nonsense into a form that appears to make sense.
Most moral systems weigh in somewhere between the two extremes for each of these, but the differences in opinion between one system and another are significant. The following principles may or may not be truly basic, but they at least are closer to being principles than they are opinions about specific issues.
- Human nature is essentially: good or evil (not quite the same as Hobbes vs. Rousseau; see below)
- Human nature comes from: genetics and other factors fixed at birth ("nature") vs. training and learning after birth ("nurture")
- Property rights: personal property is sacrosanct (propertarianism) vs. all property should be held in common
- Power: absolutism (Hobbes: "abuses of power by [legitimate] authority are to be accepted as the price of peace") vs. separation of powers and social contracts (Rousseau). This may be a restatement of Brin's question "To what degree should the state or party have to power to coerce cooperation?", or it may be subtly different.
- A moral code is the verbal expression of a moral system.
- moral systems: a list of existing moral systems (mainly concrete)
- Belief in a particular moral system is usually the basis (or a strong component) of an individual's agreement with a particular political ideology.
- A political axis is any moral variable which frequently comes to bear when evaluating political stances.
- Moral relativism is the belief that all moral systems are equally valid.