What do we do with Morality?

JONATHAN CARROLL | OPINION COLUMNIST

Let us begin with finding a definition of what morality is. I can give you a few simple answers: “conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct,” per dictionary.com. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “conformity to ideals of right human conduct”. And, of course, Urban Dictionary defines it as the logic used to justify character assassination. Barring this lattermost definition, then, we already know that it is acting within some set of rules or ideals. That’s great! We’re already on our way! But here the forthcoming twists and turns become apparent: what sorts of rules or ideals are the ones for right conduct?

Throughout recorded human history, we’ve had numerous attempts to in some way quantify what this set entails. Religions espouse their certain sets which come from divine objectivity. Governments (in theory) try to capture this set in the laws they create for their citizens, in an effort to impose morality on their people. Independent persons will sometimes even outline their own beliefs which, if from a non-religious or non-governmental source, tend to be a guess at those values which best allow an individual to live and thrive in a society to the benefit of that society.

So we have plenty of guesses at what that set of rules or ideals is, but which is the right one? The answer may be dissatisfying, but it depends on the person’s values, and differences in values account for all of the different propositions. Does a person value the safety of others or the life of the dangerous inmate? The life of the unborn or the rights of the mother? Freedom of speech or protection from bullying? Religious doctrine or enriching one’s diet with a full range of meats? Any one of these items a person could feasibly value, and depending on the weight placed on valuing one compared to the other, will determine in that person’s view about what is moral and what, consequently, is not.

Is there any objectivity to be found, then? Well, in some ways, yes, although it becomes a lot more complex than looking up a dictionary entry. A person’s values will determine his or her set of rules for acting morally, but a person has many, many values, and to varying degrees. A person who values the rights of women over the life of the unborn but also highly values consistency and the pro-life tenants of her faith may still view abortion as rotely immoral, in any scenario.

We may imagine many such scenarios, and so while we may find some objectivity if we are able to determine all of a person’s values and the degree to which each is valued, the feasibility of realizing the intricacies at play within a specific human psyche is remarkably low— if we would even be able to have a person reveal all of his or her values, and accurately comment on how valuable each was to him or her, and maintain those same levels across time. As should be needless to say by now, the task of objectifying a correct moral system across all persons is impossible.

So what do we do with morality? If we cannot settle on the right answer, if we have no universal standard by which to judge them, why try to condemn others for being immoral? We realize that our task as first thought of is too broad; we mustn’t search for the right answer, but the possible answers. We do well to consider others’ positions, and point out and question what seem to be inconsistencies or other illogical positions that they hold, based on what we know of their values. We may not be able to have everyone agree on a single set of rules by which to live.

Rather, we can work with like-minded people to espouse our own values, and hope that this may inspire others to adopt the same values that we hold and, from that, the same morality. But, at the same time, recognize that ours is not the right morality, for there is no such thing. That which we hold instead, that which we live our lives according to, is simply a possible morality, and one of many by which people can choose to live.

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One thought on “What do we do with Morality?

  1. People have failed to understand a great deal; regularly, those failings are assumed to be inalterable – like the failure in finding objective, and thus true, morality. Yet, we know the world to be round; and metal birds fly through the air, carrying people from continent to continent. The puzzle of morality is only difficult if we imagine all people to be equal: with that axiom, morality cannot be found: there are sane and productive people, whom benefit society through their actions, and should thus be given freedom and power; just as there are those whom are insane and destructive, whom corrupt society through their actions, and should thus be subjugated, and even executed. Of course, some of those people need merely shut their mouths, to stop their corrupting effects.

    “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” – Aristotle

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