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Are we moral beings?

Matej Bel University


This workshop focuses on the problem and issues of morality. More specifically, we will address questions such as: “What is morality and what is its source? How do we become moral beings? Is morality important to society, or to put it another way, what are the functions of morality?” First, we will learn how we can think about the sources of morality and how the development of cognitive science has intervened in this issue. In the second step, we will try to illustrate the importance of morality with concrete examples of moral dilemmas or problems in order to show the social and intersubjective nature of morality. In the third step, we will focus on reflecting on the meaning of morality from a societal perspective. Is morality a key regulator of our social relations? Could we as a society exist is without morality? Fourth, this lesson will include a discussion regarding the possibility of moral development for both the individual and the community. The teachers´s role is to moderate the discussion and provide feedback.

The expected duration of the workshop is 120 minutes.


The learning activities in this lesson are designed to cover basic issues in moral philosophy as a specific philosophical sub-discipline exploring morality. The question “Are we moral beings?”, foreshadowed in the title, is intended to lead students to problematize seemingly obvious matters. The lesson will begin by reviewing different approaches to defining morality and suggesting the implications that different approaches entail (deontological and consequentialist approaches) through concrete examples of moral dilemmas and moral problems. We will then focus on recent research in cognitive science and social psychology (Daniel Kahneman, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, Patricia Churchland, Joshua Green) that suggests that our moral judgments are post hoc rationalizations rather than the product of primary rational reasoning. We will also focus on the relationship and relevance of morality to the legal and social systems as fundamental frameworks for our functioning as a social whole by considering a society without morality. How would this society function, and could it function at all, in the sense of a community as a system based on the cooperation of its members?
Since the workshop is a composite of a number of activities, several materials and tools are needed to complete all of them. If you have a trouble securing all the needed equipment, you can easily improvise (e.g. use a laptop instead of a smartphone etc.)

Materials that should be issued include: several sheets of white paper (A3 or A4), pens, smartphones or computers, resources on selected topics (see section 3.2. below), data projector and projection screen.

Learning outcomes that will be attained through workshop:

  • Students gain better understanding of the concepts of morality and varieties of moral systems;
  • students gain awereness about the relevance and importance of morality in the contemporary world;
  • students gain awereness about the importance of morality for societies and our rights;
  • student gain insight into the changes that cognitive sciences and social psychology bring in the field of moral philosophy;
  • students become aware of the responsibility we have as a moral beings.


The lesson consists of six learning activities that are related to each other. Each of them is described in a separate subsection.


Morality is usually defined as the variable, historical and culturally contingent set of value judgments, customs, ideals, beliefs, rules, institutions and norms that guide people in their practical moral actions. Thus, we can say that morality, as one of the basic integrating forces of society, is also one of the regulators of social action. Morality as a normative system rests on an internal sanction occurring after certain limits have been crossed (feelings of guilt, shame, etc.), and it constitutes the social identity of the individual. Compliance with moral norms is required of all members of the community. Moral norms are tied to ideas of right and wrong. However, the term ‘moral’ alone does not mean ‘morally good’. We use this term to refer to phenomena that are part of the moral sphere.

The creation of this publication has been co-funded by the Erasmus+ grant program of the European Union under project no. 2021-
1-SK01- KA220-SCH-000034395. This publication reflects the views only of the author. Neither the European Commission nor the
project’s national funding agency are responsible for the content or liable for any losses or damage resulting of the use of this
Begin this learning activity by dividing students into groups of three to five. Then ask
students to create a model situation to illustrate a good (right) and a bad (wrong) decision
in an attempt to solve the simulated problem. After students have presented their
solutions to each other’s problem situations, invite them to have a final discussion to
identify commonalities between correct and incorrect decisions.
At the end of this activity, ask students the following discussion questions:

  1. Could we say that morally good actions are those actions that increase the level
    of cooperation in a community?
  2. Can evolutionary theory help us think about morality? Why yes, why not?
  3. Can religion help us when considering morality? Why yes, why not?
  4. In your opinion, is it more important to consider the intention or the consequence
    of an action when reasoning about morality?
  5. Where do we learn morality or how do we become moral beings? What role do
    family and school play in this?

The Morality as a historically and culturally conditioned phenomenon – The
example of Slavery

Today, we generally consider all forms of slavery to be morally unacceptable and unacceptable. However, this was not always the case. Reflecting on moral development through this example can thus help us to better understand what it means that morality is
a historically and culturally contingent phenomenon. At the beginning of this activity, divide students into four groups. The first group will be tasked with tracking down information and creating a mind map on the topic “What is slavery?” The second group will focus on reflecting on attitudes toward slavery and its forms from antiquity to the Abolitionist movement (late 18th century). The third group will focus on an analysis of the Abolitionist movement and their arguments that eventually led to the abolition of slavery. The fourth group will focus on contemporary moral attitudes on the subject of slavery and the arguments we turn to today in rejecting it. Students will then attempt to frame the issue of slavery once as a moral problem and once as a moral dilemma.

For this topic, we can use terms such as human dignity, dignity of the human person, human rights, equality.
After students present their mind maps, ask them the following questions for discussion:

  1. Can you think of other examples that demonstrate a moral shift or change in moral
    evaluation in our history?
  2. What might we consider to be the trigger or instrument of such a shift? Is good
    moral reasoning important in this regard?

The Moral intuition

Contemporary research in the field of cognitive science and social psychology also intervenes in moral research from the perspective of moral philosophy. How do we actually arrive at moral judgments and moral evaluations? And how is it possible that we do not always act morally right despite knowing what is morally right?
For this activity we will use the works of J. Haidt, H. Mercier and S. Sperber. We will be helped by their conceptions of moral intuition, rationalization, intellectualist and interactionist reason, and moral argumentation. According to these authors, in simplified terms, our moral reasoning is the result of moral intuitions (triggered by moral emotions).
Only afterwards does our reason come up with a post-rationalization of the outcome of our moral evaluation. Our reason, however, can come up with various forms of rationalization, from the more cogent to the more obscure. Our interactionist reason comes up with its own arguments and justifications that we evaluate. In addition, however, we also evaluate the arguments and justifications of others. The better arguments tend to convince us sooner. This is how we can explain the moral shift we also discussed in the previous activity.
As an example of reason supplying justification to our moral evaluations, we can ask students: Is eating our pet bad? Is it wrong to have sex with our sibling? Is it right to mislead someone on the internet? Why yes or why not?
After the groups finished discussion ask them following question:
Is it important to discuss moral questions in public, or are the answers to them more likely
to be found in solitary deliberation? Why yes, why not?

Society without morality 1. – Homo homini lupus

Provide the following case for students to read and then discuss the questions with them:

Case 1: The Crying Girl
Imagine you are walking home from school or work. You are quite tired and looking forward to the hot dinner that is waiting for you on the table. You still have a bridge to cross and then a few yards to walk and you are home. You are already on the bridge and you hear a young woman crying clearly. You decide to go on, thinking that it was probably the wind. However, you hear the crying again and much louder.
It is obvious that the person who places like this is going through something difficult. You wonder for a moment whether you should go and hug the crying person or call the police. However, you decide to do nothing about it and quickly rush home. In the morning, you hear on the news that a young woman committed suicide on the bridge you were walking on yesterday.

  1. Would you feel morally complicit in such a case? Why yes, why no?
  2. What would you consider the morally right thing to do?

Society without morality 2. – Homo homini lupus

Provide the following case for students to read and then discuss the questions with them:

Case 2: Who sees me, who hears me, and who is going to help me?

Imagine you are out with friends on New Year’s Eve. You’re having fun, but later you realize that the bar you’re sitting in doesn’t allow you to pay by card and you don’t have enough cash on you. You decide to tell your friends that you’ll go to a nearby ATM. You leave the bar and walk down the lighted street. As you might expect, it’s packed with people. You turn into a side street, also well lit, where there is an ATM. As soon as you have turned you notice an unfamiliar person approaching you. He keeps approaching you and you begin to get an uneasy feeling about him. You don’t stop at the ATM, but walk quickly to get to the main street. The pursuer also adds to your stride and approaches you. You meet people along the way, you try to find help from them, but they all dodge or pretend not to hear you.

  1. Do you consider the actions of passers-by to be morally right? Why yes,
    why not?
  2. What might have motivated them to act in the first place?
  3. What actions would you consider morally acceptable in this situation?

A country without rules

The following activity is aimed at summarizing the knowledge so far. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, describes the natural state of man as that of “homo homini lupus”. Challenge students to work together to create a mind map of a society in which
morality would be completely absent. Based on this description, try to formulate the functions that morality performs in society.


The following questions can be used to expand on the topics explored through the course of workshop:

  • Can we be human beings without a moral dimension?
  • Is there anything that we universally find morally unacceptable? If so, what, for example?
  • Are the categories of right and wrong the result of our evaluation of some action, or do they exist in and of themselves?
  • Can we think about morality in the animal kingdom? In other words, if a lion kills an antelope are these morally evaluable actions?
  • Can artificial intelligence be considered a moral actor? What would it have to possess in order to do so?



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2021 – 1 – SK01 – KA220-SCH-000034395

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