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Essay 1 – Defining Morality

Basic unit of discourse

Your assertion

Your assertion

rhetorical part: assertion, support, explanation

analogy: pull out your gun, load, aim and shoot

Your evidence

Your evidence

An assertion is like a gun. Anyone can pull one out and start waving it around. By itself, an assertion is an opinion, all talk, lots of fervent belief, but nothing else. To make it more persuasive, all you can do it raise your voice, wag the gun more wildly.

The support is the bullets. It’s what you load your gun with. A loaded gun is a lot more threatening. It can, potentially, do a lot more damage than the gun by itself.

However, to effectively communicate, you need to pull the trigger. No matter how good your gun and your bullets, you’re never going to hit your target unless you pull the trigger. Your target is your reader, and that’s a singular “reader”, on purpose. You cannot shoot everyone with a gun. It’s pretty much one at a time.

Same with an essay. Don’t try to write to “everyone”. Write to one specific person, one reader. You need to explain what you want your reader to get out of the evidence. Then it’s not just your opinion against someone else’s. It’s your substantiated, explained opinion, which is more persuasive and carries more weight than the opinions of those wagging their guns at each other.


What is morality?

Story 1

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

Dead Chicken

Dead Chicken

Story 2

A man who lives alone goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it. Nobody sees him do this.

Did anyone do anything wrong in either or both of these stories? Use the stories as some of your evidence to explain what morality is.

Is morality a matter of right and wrong? Are all things that are wrong immoral? What about a wrong answer on a test? Is that immoral?

If it’s immoral to do wrong, is it also immoral not to do right?

Write an essay of at least 750 words that uses the unit of discourse above to explain your ideas about morality to a classmate who disagrees with you about the stories. They’re willing to listen to your views about the two stories if you will listen to theirs. This is your opportunity, not to change the mind of the person who disagrees with you. It is your opportunity to explain so that the person who disagrees with you understands your position on the morality of the actions in these stories. Don’t try to convert the person who disagrees. Just make sure that person understands where you’re coming from.

Again, you’re defining what you mean by morality. The dictionary says it is “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior”. Note the key word beliefs. Even within our class, we see differences. Do your classmates disagree with you because that’s the way they were brought up? Or is there some kind of universal truth here, in which case only one of you can have the correct and true belief?

Your essay will answer two questions asked by the person who disagrees with you:

  • What makes something morally wrong?
  • How can you know whether something is morally wrong?

The source of the disagreement might be that you define “moral” differently than the person who disagrees with you. If you’re going to have a civil discourse with someone, it helps a lot if you agree on a definition of the important words, in this case “moral” and “morality.” An action might be disgusting, but does that make it morally wrong? Is everything that is disgusting also immoral?

The action might or might not be legally wrong or socially wrong or economically wrong, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

  • The stories are carefully constructed so that nothing illegal happens.
  • Note that in both stories, no one else sees what happens, so it’s not socially wrong.
  • There’s not enough money or assets involved for anything to be economically wrong. You can assume in both stories that the people had plenty of other healthy options for dinner.

So we’re left with morally wrong.

Is morality situational, that is, does it depend on time and place? Or is morality universal, right and wrong at all times in all places?

If moral is situational and relative, if “it depends”, that implies that your culture taught you your morality and that how you define morality would be different if you had been born somewhere else. If it’s relative, does that mean your personal morality can change as you grow older and perhaps move away from the culture you grew up in?

For this essay, you may expand and develop your diagnostic essay. Or you may start from scratch. You can use the results of the YourMorals survey. You should feel free to use the ideas in your classmates’ diagnostic essays. Make sure you attribute the ideas to the writer. Call them Writer 1, Writer 2, etc.

The introduction, the first paragraph, should:

  • set the context
  • refer to the stories, if relevant (you don’t need to repeat them verbatim)
  • have a clear thesis statement that gives a short answer to the question: what is morality?

The body of your essay will answer two questions. Pretend they were asked by one of the writers on the diagnostic page who disagrees with you:

  • What makes something morally wrong?
  • How can you know whether something is morally wrong?

Your body paragraphs should develop the thesis statement with more assertions. The evidence comes from a) the stories, b) the ideas in your classmates’ diagnostic essays, and c) the results of the moral foundations questionnaire. The explanation is the most important part of every paragraph, and probably the longest part.


Moral Foundations

Our group at Eng 110 Fall 14

group url:

If you already have a yourmorals account, join this group by visiting this URL:

The Your Morals web is operated by Jonathan Haidt, the most prominent psychologist doing research in this topic, the same guy who wrote the dog and chicken stories. He wonders why people think that something that is disgusting is also immoral.

  • Should morality be universal and agreed upon?
  • Or should it be relative to each person and their social group, regardless of how widely it is shared?
  • Is morality a matter of individual opinion based on unspoken assumptions that don’t have to be rational or defensible?
  • Or is morality something more abstract and objective, true regardless of whether we agree with it or not?MoralFoundationsListing-1

The chart below is helpful because it breaks morality into five components. Haidt has recently added a sixth component, Liberty/Oppression.

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions.
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. Ingroup vs outgroup.
  5. Authority/subversion, respect or disrespect for tradition and legitimate authority.
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. Degree of purity.