The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming
The topic of this entry is not—at least directly—moral theory; rather, it is the definition of morality. Moral theories are large and complex things; definitions are not. The question of the definition of morality is the question of identifying the target of moral theorizing. Identifying this target enables us to see different moral theories as attempting to capture the very same thing. In this way, the distinction between a definition of morality and a moral theory parallels the distinction John Rawls (1971: 9) drew between the general concept of justice and various detailed conceptions of it. Rawls’ terminology, however, suggests a psychological distinction, and also suggests that many people have conceptions of justice. But the definition/theory distinction is not psychological, and only moral theorists typically have moral theories.
There does not seem to be much reason to think that a single definition of morality will be applicable to all moral discussions. One reason for this is that “morality” seems to be used in two distinct broad senses: a descriptive sense and a normative sense. More particularly, the term “morality” can be used either
- descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior, or
- normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.
Which of these two senses of “morality” a theorist is using plays a crucial, although sometimes unacknowledged, role in the development of an ethical theory. If one uses “morality” in its descriptive sense, and therefore uses it to refer to codes of conduct actually put forward by distinct groups or societies, one will almost certainly deny that there is a universal morality that applies to all human beings. The descriptive use of “morality” is the one used by anthropologists when they report on the morality of the societies that they study. Recently, some comparative and evolutionary psychologists (Haidt 2006; Hauser 2006; De Waal 1996) have taken morality, or a close anticipation of it, to be present among groups of non-human animals: primarily, but not exclusively, other primates.
The entire entry is here.