Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 M - Moral norms - features of


Features of moral norms: There are at least 9 features involved in very many moral judgments people make in fact that should be mentioned and should be reckoned with and indeed accounted for, since they make  moral judgments rather different from most non-moral judgments, and also tricky and difficult in quite a number of respects.

Here is a list of these nine features, with some brief comments:

1. Hypocrisy: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be hypocrisy: Many of the supposed adherents of a moral code, which they defend by word of mouth and occasional public action when this is neither dangerous nor onpopular, do not in fact adhere at all or for the most part to the codes they pretend to adhere to. They merely act as if because doing so profits them or because not doing so would hurt them, and lie while falsely pretending to practise moral norms they know that they do not practise.

2. Lies: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be lies, and not only because of hypocrisy but to mislead people. Already Plato discussed seriously the possibility and desirability for the political leaders of the type of society he preferred to lie to and mislead the ordinary people by pleasing myths, deceitful terms etc. Most succesful politicians since have been succesful liars, though it should be added this may, at times, have been motivated honorably.

3. Fraudulence: Very often the moral norms in a society are defended and maintained by people who are fraudulent and know themselves to be frauds. Three well-known examples of the types of men and fraudulence I have in mind are the Borgia-pope Alexander VI and the socialist humanists Stalin and Mao. But indeed there are and have been far more of such men and women, and it would seem that no well-known political party or religion is without its leading frauds, who to a large extent preach what they do not practice nor believe in to acquire power or influence over those they mislead or deceive. (See e.g. Machiavelli, Mandeville and De la Boétie.)

4. Bias: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be bias: In normal cases the vast majority of both the proponents and the opponents of given moral norms or judgments will have a biased view of the evidence, and indeed of what should count as evidence, while the vast majority of those contending about popular moral issues tend to be only informed about such evidence as they believe would strengthen their own point of view or weaken the case of their opponents.

5. Prejudice: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be prejudice: Not only will most proponents and opponents of contentious moral issue be biased, they will also be prejudiced, in that they hold points of view and censure points of view not on the basis of relevant knowledge and objective evidence, but on the basis of whether the supposed knowledge or evidence conforms to or weakens the ethical or other assumptions they already have.

6. Propaganda: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be propaganda: The moral norms will be defended and popularized by means that the popularizers know are slanted, biased, partial, prejudiced, improperly informed, or simply misleading, false or lies.

7. Wishful thinking: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be a lot of wishful thinking about what these moral norms would produce if only all or most men believed or practised them, and also usually a lot of wishful thinking about how bad, inferior, stupid or otherwise reprehensible the opponents (or non-comformers) are. Likewise:

8. Chauvinism: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be chauvinism, for moral norms are meant to serve and express the interests, norms, values, practices and ends of a certain society or group, and this tend to be combined with much that may sound more noble, moral and honorific than "Us is Good, Them is Bad", but which does not amount to much more than this.

9. Conformism
: Wherever there are moral norms in a society, there will be conformism: Many persons, rather than oppose what they disagree with or question what they don't see the rational point of, will conform rather than oppose or publicly disagree, simply because this is easier, more profitable, socially more popular, or indeed because they know that opposition or disagreement with the norms they conform to will be punished by the authorities. (The main difference between a conformer and a hypocrite is that the hypocrite lies in addition to being a conformer, and for the most part knows he lies, and knows he does so for some advantage to himself or his group. And it should be noted that there may be very good reasons in a totalitarian society or religion for people to conform.)

It seems to me these 9 features are quite important in the rational discussion of actual moral discourse, and it also seems to me they are not often taken seriously to the extent they deserve to be taken seriously.

After all, the yield of these 9 features is that very much about moral discourse and moral acting is neither what it seems nor what it is claimed to be nor what people pretend it is:

Much of moral discourse and moral acting is play-acting, role-playing, acting as if, external conformism, hypocrisy, and based on prejudice while furthered with propaganda. And it seems this aspect of morals has not often been seriously dealt with, though there are some examples of texts which do, if not in the context of a philosophical or logical discussion of moral discourse. I refer to E. Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Ordinary Life" and to E. Berne's "Games People Play" and also to Machiavelli's "The Prince", which is quite clear and outspoken about this, and which is on my site with my own extensive notes and comments.

And I say something about a few of the above features and the reason why they exist in my "Fundamental Principles of Invalid Reasoning". Also, there is on my site an interesting moral poem about the role and importance of moral vice in ordinary life to ordinary people: Mandeville's "Fable of the Bees".


See also: Morals


Goffman, Milgram, Thieme


 Original: Aug 17, 2004                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top