The Strange World of Emotion

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What is the Origin of Morality ?

We may speculate about origins, but all that this will reveal will be our hidden view of humanity. The ideas that we end up with will reflect whether we think of humanity as descended from noble savages, or from degenerate outcasts from Eden, or from anything else.

Is there any way of approaching the puzzle that does not depend on imagination?  Yes. We can resort to empiricism. We can analyse ourself and see and feel how morality is generated in ourself. When we analyse ourself, what we are primarily doing is analysing the subconscious mind to find out how it works and how it affects us.

Sub - Headings
Values and Meanings
Need and Morality

Understanding the dynamics of the subconscious mind enables us to learn how our desires, emotions, and beliefs shape our life, thereby enabling the origin of morality to be discovered.


Before proceeding on the analysis of this origin I need to make some distinctions here. There are three ways to cultivate a set of standards that  we use to shape and govern our path through life. To give a name to each of these ways, I use the terms "morality", "virtue", and "ethics".  However, my use of these terms is different from their traditional usage.

I need to make changes in traditional terminology.
I denote morality and virtue to be standards of behaviour that are adopted through learning by example (rather than by adopting standards through a process of intellectual analysis of the choices available). [¹]

I define virtues

Virtues are noble attitudes that spring from the heart.

This view of virtues means that they should be easy to apply. But it is not easy to explain what they are. In effect, virtues are based on feelings and so are non-linguistic. The person may ‘explain’ his approach to life by saying that he prefers to follow the dictates of his heart. This approach can be viewed as being similar to ‘situation ethics’, where the person’s response to any situation depends upon a spontaneous inclination.

I define morality

Morality is a linguistic product made into a social practice.

A morality in any age is the sum of socially-accepted desires and values in that age. These desires and values are a part of language ; they can be articulated and so can be made the object of rational analysis.

Ethics is the stage beyond morality and virtue. I consider ethics to be the way of adopting standards through a process of intellectual analysis of the choices available.
When intellectual and critical thought (within the framework of psychological awareness) is applied to morality and virtue, so that they can be analysed and self-deception removed, then morality transforms into a social ethics and virtue becomes an ethics of individuality.

[ I show in another article ( Sexuality and Ethics ) that ethics has a different origin from morality – ethics is generated as the sublimation of sexual anxiety].

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Values and Meanings

Society creates morality. Society is more than a collection of people ; it is a set of communal values and individual meanings. I consider values to be objective, and meanings to be subjective. I use this opposition of objectivity and subjectivity to denote the process whereby subjective criteria are created first within the imaginative person, and then become objective criteria once they are shared among the community. [²]

The set of communal values represent the contemporary state of morality, whilst the set of individual meanings represent the state of desired virtues. Language contains traditional values – this is what is implied in the ideas of social conditioning and socialisation. Language is the repository of values but not of meanings.

Morality centres on language, virtue on consciousness.

When any value is postulated to reside in language then its final activity is to become absorbed into morality (or possibly aesthetics). When meaning is postulated to lie outside of language then its terminus is virtue.

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As an example, consider the 1960s in America and Britain. This period saw the flowering of the hippie generation. New virtues arose from the attempts to create a new non-materialistic consciousness. The initial inability to articulate the new feelings and attitudes led to a dependency on catch-phrases. Eventually, some virtues became articulated so they passed into the store of social values, whilst other virtues were abandoned. The drug culture of that time has left a residue of fear ; such drugs are feared because their psychological effects still cannot be articulated (this is due to current models of consciousness being inadequate).

The purpose of making this distinction between virtue and morality is to suggest how new standards, which first appear as subjective inclinations, pass into society as objective preferences. As society changes, new standards always arise first in individuals, and then, if needed, become absorbed into society as new social standards. In human evolution, new subjectivities always arise before new objectivities. Subjectivity always precedes objectivity.

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Need and Morality

Now I consider the way that need generates morality.
How does morality arise?   Is it through the up-welling of noble feelings in a person or in society?   No. Morality never arises in this way. Only virtues do. Consider social abreaction. This begins with a social catharsis and ends in social resentment, and sometimes in social bitterness too. What lasting imprint does it leave on society?   

A major result of social abreaction is the desire for ‘The Fuhrer’, the strong leader, both in religion and in politics. [³]

Society convulsing in hatred or bitterness seeks strong right-wing leaders. Social abreaction leads to the need for some form of morality as a method of self-control, or as a method of controlling those people who have no self-control. I presume that all times of major social change involve an major intensity of social abreaction.

The need for right-wing leaders and for morality is the reason why a major religion like Christianity can only be born in a time of intense social change (all new-born religions are conservative). And why a religion can experience a major reformation only in troubled times. And why the Jews expected Jesus to be more of a political messiah than a spiritual one.

Morality is a derivative of social abreaction.

Morality is a right-wing response to social abreaction. Such a morality is a ‘resentment-based’ morality, as analysed by Nietzsche in his books ‘Beyond Good and Evil ’ and ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’.

In ancient times, when societies were small and probably stable, the paramount law might well have been ‘might is right ’, or the mores of the local patriarch. However, when societies start to change and become dis-orientated, morality is born.

I generalise Nietzsche’s views on Christianity. In troubled times when any society is being conquered or ruled by another society (or another segment of the same society), the underclass creates morality whilst the rulers reside in their virtues. And the morality created is always of the ‘resentment ’ variety.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.  For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.

[¹]. For some more details of this change in terminology, see the article Sublimation. [1]

[²]. A detailed description of meanings and values is in the article Meaning and Value on my website A Modern Thinker[2]

[³]. My analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See home page.
In particular, ideas on social abreaction are given in the fourth article : Resentment and Bitterness. [3]

There are more ideas on morality and social change in the article Notes on Social Change. This presents the view that the motivating force of progressive social change is moral reform.


Nietzsche, F.  Beyond Good and Evil.  Vintage Books, USA. 1966. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.

---- On the Genealogy of Morals.  Vintage Books, USA. 1969. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Sublimation - deriving good attitudes from distressful beliefs.

Faith - completes the patterns of bonding ; three forms of faith.

Morality - a look at origins and terminology.

Sexuality and Ethics - how sexuality affects ethics.

Personal Evolution - practising ethics, and negotiating goodness.

Nihilism - static and dynamic structures ; sexuality and authority.

The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
London, UK

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