1. What is morality?
Roots are important. The term “morality” comes from the Latin root, mos. Most English translation dictionaries suggests that it means “custom, mood, or habit.” Very rarely you will find a dictionary that will suggest that it means, “rule.”
My own [philosophical] preference is to think of the word to mean “rule,” in the sort of way that games usually have “rules.” Understanding the Latin root mos as meaning “rule” is permits a more accurate understanding of what “morality” itself is. It is more confusing to think of mos as meaning “custom or habit” because the words “custom” and “habit” tend to be loaded with irrelevant connotations. Hence, the word “rule” is the most accurate translation of the Latin root mos.
So in short, morality is concerned with rules. The important questions to ask here are: What are the rules about? Who do the rules apply to? Where do the rules get their power? And finally, Are there limits to the power of rules?
2. What is the domain of morality?
What the term “morality” means to each of us depends largely on what we each consider to be the limits of morality. For instance, some philosophers think that morality has to do with the right and wrong ways for persons to treat one another; they would consider morality to be something that is inherently “relational” or “bipolar.” For them, the domain of morality is an open inter-personal territory.
On the other hand, philosophers like me think that morality has to do with the good or bad ways for a person to govern the Self. For me, the domain of morality is absolute, and it is limited to the edges of each individual person. While I do acknowledge the existence of a more open inter-personal territory, I prefer to call this inter-personal area “ethics” with the aim of differentiating the domain of ethics-proper from the domain of morality-proper.
On my view, all matters of morality are concerned with the Self and the things that the Self judges to be “good” or “bad.” Furthermore, my view claims that the term “God” is synonymous with the abstracted understanding of the word “self.” In other words, to know “God” is to know the Self (and vice versa). And the Self is itself the good and also the source of all good (like the way that the Sun is the source of all light).
Such is the relevant domain of morality.
3. What is the distinction between morality and convention?
A great way to get clearer definitions is to compare and contrast two things that are somehow similar, yet different. Luckily, the Latin word mos has such a counterpart in the Greek word, nomos.
Just as with the Latin root mos (mentioned above in part 1), the Greek word nomos is also said to translate into English as “custom, habit,” and sometimes, “convention, tradition, law.” These are a good translations into English for nomos since the root “nem-/nom-” in nomos actually does mean “what is assigned or allotted.” But “custom, habit” are not very good translations for the Latin root mos — and, I’ll explain why.
There is a very fine — yet extremely critical — difference between nomos and mos. The force of nomos is essentially grounded in the power of social consensus (i.e., convention), while mos is essentially grounded in the absolute power of the sovereign Self.
Nomos is a rule that is decided by means of an agreement, promise, or contract between many persons. But there is no guarantee that just because many persons agree on something means that it is correct, true, or that it is even good. While there is something to be said about the phenomenological aspect of the “wisdom of the masses,” there are also countless examples of cases in which large groups of people have been collectively wrong about something (eg, Salem witch trials). So in order for “the wisdom of the masses” to be non-arbitrary and correct, their consensus must be founded upon each individual’s sensitivity to truth.
Mos simply means “rule.” Unlike nomos, it does not require agreement between individuals. All that a rule requires is that it be followed. The brute strength of such a stark definition often prompts us, as warm-blooded humans, to ask questions about why we should follow a rule, and what sorts of rules are good ones. However, the answer to such questions cannot defer to the power of social consensus, since that sort of reasoning would prove to be circular. Therefore, the answer to such questions can only be answered by deferring to what is unchanging and absolute — the Self.
• Last updated 2017, June 18 @ 4pm.
For Further Reading:
♦ Homer, Iliad
♦ Plato, Republic
♦ Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
♦ Plato, Euthyphro
♦ Kendi Kim, The Benefit of Sensitivity
♦ Thomas Scanlon, What We Owe To Each Other
♦ Stephen Darwall, Civil Recourse as Mutual Responsibility
♦ Kendi Kim, The Wild Root of Morality (unpublished work)