Is morality subjective or objective?  Is there a universal morality?  Are all “current” moralities subject to later correction?  Morality is often confused with the “norm” or unquestioned cultural assumptions or personal beliefs and preferences.  This is apparent to us when someone else’s view of “morality” clashes with our own or when we view opinions from past eras that were considered moral for their time but are now considered “immoral.”

How do we know if behavior is moral or just conformist?  How do we know if our definition of morality is driven by our comfort with and investment in the status quo?  Defining morality is a tricky business.  I thought I’d start with the dictionary.

  • mo·ral·i·ty 1. conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.  2. moral quality or character. 3. virtue in sexual matters; chastity. 4. a doctrine or system of morals. 5. moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.
  • vir·tu·ous conforming to moral and ethical principles; morally excellent; uprightOops, circular definition.  Dead end.  Let’s try ethical instead.
  • eth·i·cal 1. pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct. 2. being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice, especially the standards of a profession. Fine, let’s see what we get for “moral.”
  • mor·al 1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical. 2. expressing or conveying truths or counsel as to right conduct, as a speaker or a literary work; moralizing. 3. founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom. 4. capable of conforming to the rules of right conduct. 5. conforming to the rules of right conduct (opposed to immoral). OK, so moral depends on “right.”
  • right 1. in accordance with what is good, proper, or just. 2. in conformity with fact, reason, truth, or some standard or principle; correct. 3. correct in judgment, opinion, or action. 4. fitting or appropriate; suitable. And “right” depends on “correct.”
  • cor·rect in accordance with an acknowledged or accepted standard; proper.  So it’s whatever people agree it is; majority rules.

If morality is subject to majority agreement (an acknowledged and accepted standard), then essentially might equals right.  This is obviously a problematic conclusion. We should be cautious if we define morality in order to:

  • Support our decisions (rather than challenging our baser instincts).
  • Benefit ourselves and gratify our preferences.
  • Marginalize or punish those we fear or find threatening (usually outsiders or the unknown).
  • Emphasize our personal “rightness.”

Not many people will create a moral code that personally indicts them.  What was “right” in Nazi Germany (what conformed to the agreed upon ethical code) is morally reprehensible to us, but it justified their behavior and confirmed to them the rightness of their actions.  Their moral code made all of the mistakes listed above.  This is one reason that it’s only possible to see morality objectively when it defies or contrasts with societal norms, such as the Hazare protest in India to force anti-corruption legislation.  We recognize morality when it acts at great personal cost and points out the immorality or injustice of the majority or a system.

For this reason, conflating morality with the status quo or preserving the past is inherently problematic.  The status quo may be moral, or it may just be an unquestioned assumption.  The greater the investment we make in a system or way of thinking, the more difficult it is to walk away.  In the church, where we have very exacting commandments, it is harder to let go of our assumptions the longer we live; hence, change comes slowly.  If the church changed standards tomorrow and said it was now acceptable to forego garment wearing, pay only 2% tithing, and have premarital sex, members who have observed these requirements their entire lives would be the most upset.  Those with less investment and who have made less personal sacrifice would find it easier to accept the changes.  So, the oldest members, and those who’ve made the greatest personal sacrifices to observe these things would find it the most off-putting for these changes to take place.  It’s similar to how many older siblings feel (who grew up with stricter parents and less money) toward those younger siblings (who get more parental attention and generally more money):  resentful and envious.

Jesus pointed this out in the parable found in Matthew 20:1-16.  A man is looking for laborers to work in his vineyard.  He hires some early in the day, and others as late as the eleventh hour of the day; despite the great difference between the sacrifice of those hires early vs. those hired late, each laborer has agreed to be paid one penny.  When the pay is doled out, those hired early in the day are upset that the ones hired later are paid the same, even though they all agreed to their pay up front.

Is morality timeless?  Possibly, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got the standards correct, just because we’re mostly in agreement.  That’s probably the right time to start asking ourselves if our code of ethics is self-serving and self-justifying.  What are some examples of things you think are really just clinging to the status quo vs. morality?