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In this five part series for Critical Mass, Luke Andreski, author of Intelligent Ethics and Ethical Intelligence, explores the nature of morality and what that tells us about how we should act in an amoral world. He begins by looking at the necessary characteristics of morality. What must a code of conduct or behaviour look like in order to be moral?

Good manners


It’s a tricky one.

So many connotations – good and bad.

I reckon morality’s a good thing.

I think it’s useful.

Essential, even.

But what is it, in fact?

Lots of stuff pretends to be morality but isn’t. Stuff like prurience or ‘good manners’ or etiquette. Lists of rules from religions, traditions or miscellaneous ideologies.

Hierarchies of power

But morality is not a religion, a tradition or an ideology. These things are often just ways of reinforcing hierarchies of power:

   “Behave the way I tell you to behave.”

   “Do not steal (because all of this is mine).”

   “That’s not how you should speak to your betters.”

   “Know your place.”

   “Honour thy father.”

Essential characteristics

Morality, as distinct from your run-of-the-mill societal norms, has a range of characteristics without which it’s not morality.

I’ll list a few.

👉 Morality is universal

👉 Morality is rational

👉 Morality presupposes sentience

👉 Morality requires us to be free

👉 Morality needs a compelling source of authority

👉 Morality is singular – there’s only one

👉 Morality defines what’s right or wrong

With any of these characteristics missing, whatever you’re claiming is morality isn’t morality.

I’ll tell you why.


👉  Morality is universal

Morality isn’t just for me, here, in one location. It’s for you, too, wherever you are.

How could it be otherwise?

Morality doesn’t change when you move from one place on the map to another. 100 metres? 1,000? 10,000? Where’s the cut-off point?

Cross a border and what was right and wrong on the side you’ve left behind still applies.

Non-universal judgements are not moral. They’re just the choice of a particular individual or culture or time.

Slavery, for example, is universally wrong – not just here and now but in any culture, at any time. If you said, “Slavery is not ok here, but it was ok there,” then what you’re saying isn’t moral. It’s just an expression of preference or resignation.

Choose any border you like – national, cultural, civilisational or just the border between you and me – and morality transcends that border.

When morality says, “This is what you ought to do” or “This is how you should behave” the you isn’t just you. It’s everyone.


👉 Morality is rational

Like science, morality has to be coherent: consistent, logical, rational.


Because if you’re illogical or inconsistent anyone can say, “You’re inconsistent in what you say and do, so why shouldn’t I be, too?”

They can say, “Why can’t I inconsistently call something moral one day but not the next?”

That’s the problem with inconsistency. It leaves convenient loopholes, out of which hypocrisy and conflict emerge.

Inconsistency allows us to say, “Why shouldn’t something be moral over there but not over here?” If it’s inherent to the concept of morality that it has to be universal, then it has to be consistent and rational, too.


👉 Morality presupposes sentience

You don’t ask a stone to be moral, or an insect, or a tree.

An implication of moral responsibility is that you are able to understand what morality is asking you to do.

You’ve got to have a mind to be moral.

Mindless things just don’t get morality.

You have to be free

👉 Morality requires us to be free

Morality doesn’t apply to unfree stuff.

A hammer can be used to mostly hammer nails but occasionally hammer heads.

No one says, “Wicked hammer! Why did you hammer that head?”

Morality applies to agency: not to the hammer but to the person who holds it.

Morality doesn’t apply to robots, machines, artefacts or tools. It doesn’t apply to amoebae or insects or fish or birds.

It requires the creatures it applies to to be free agents, who can choose to do right or wrong.

A further implication is that anything which reduces our ability to be moral, to make moral choices, must be immoral – so freedom is not just a structural requirement for morality, it’s a fundamental moral right.

It means you can’t force someone to be moral.

It means reducing someone’s freedom limits their ability to make choices, including moral choices.

And that’s immoral.

Moral authority

👉 Morality needs a compelling source of authority

Morality needs a convincing ‘because’ behind the ‘ought’: a reason to be good; a ‘moral imperative’.

“Why ought I?” or “Why must I?” are questions morality has to be able to answer.

If you say, “Universally, across the board, X or Y is wrong,” then you need to have something universal to back you up. And that something has to be more authoritative than one person’s epiphany or another’s cultural norm.

People have tackled this problem by laying claim to intangible powers: ‘Gods A, B or C’, ‘prophets One, Two or Three’, the words of ancient sages or modern cults, a ‘divine purpose’, an ‘intelligent design’, ‘human nature’, ‘the historical imperative’, ‘economic necessity’, ‘the power of love’…

All these suggestions are entirely valid in their intention, since for morality’s ought to have any power we need a because – and it must be a because that is able to convince us, to gain our commitment, our willingness to recognise its authority and to place it above random impulse or selfish whim.

However, these answers aren’t good enough.

I’ll take a look at what a rational and contemporary source of moral authority might be in the third article in this series

There’s only one

👉 Morality is singular

This is an important characteristic of morality.

No one says, “That’s how moralities tell us how to behave.”

No one says, “Do one of the right things.”

They say, “Do the right thing.”

No one offers you a choice of moral compasses. There’s only one: the universal, rational, authoritative and singular compass of morality.

If morality were plural, and you could have your morality and I could have mine, then morality as a concept would become meaningless. I couldn’t say that anyone – even a serial killer – was bad or should stop their killing spree, because they could always answer, “Why should I? It’s not wrong. It’s not immoral. Not according to my morality.”

What morality says

👉 Morality defines what’s good or bad.

Morality is the measure by which we assess all autonomous sentient behaviour.

Traditions, religions, politics, culture – they don’t outrank morality; they’re all open to moral assessment.

Morality sits outside physical borders, cultural borders, even civilisational borders.

It’s allows you to assess the activity of any group or collective, as if you’re on the outside, looking in.

This aspect of your community, tribe or civilisation is moral.

That aspect? Not so much.

Morality tells us what’s good, what’s bad, what anyone should do, what everyone shouldn’t. And what morality says is not random. It’s at least partly determined by the essential characteristics of morality that we’ve identified here.

What morality is for

Morality is shaped by the necessary characteristics I’ve described above.

That’s what morality IS – it’s shape and form. It’s rational, universal, singular and presupposes freedom and sentience.

But what’s its function?

What is morality FOR?


In the next article in this series, published on Critical Mass tomorrow, Luke Andreski will be attempting to answer the question that ends this article: ‘What is the point of morality? What is it for?’


Luke Andreski

Luke Andreski is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal and Ethical Intelligence collectives. His books include Intelligent Ethics (2019), Ethical Intelligence (2019), Short Conversations: During The Plague (2020) and Short Conversations: During the Storm (2021).

Intelligent Ethics is available here.

You can connect with Luke on LinkedIn, https://uk.linkedin.com/in/luke-andreski-ethics, or via @EthicalRenewal on Twitter https://twitter.com/EthicalRenewal

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