A look at the ins and outs of morality
The idea of right and wrong has changed over time. What some cultures have deemed normal and acceptable behavior, others have seen as abominable. So how do we make sense of morality and the concept of right and wrong? By what standard can we judge ourselves and others?
To answer these questions, we must understand the points of views out there concerning morality. There are three main forms of moral philosophies: traditional, traditional liberal, and relativistic morality. Each philosophy has unique ways of deriving its moral code, evaluating current mores, and applying the constructed code on others. Here they are in an abbreviated fashion.
A collection of mores, folkways, and morals that have been defined by the present generation or culture to have been the standard passed down from a previous generation, religious standard, or culture. Although the defined traditional morality does change over time, there lies within the mindset a resistance to change and will only do so in an attempt to preserve the essence of the traditional culture in the face of external pressures.
Traditional Liberal Morality:
A moral code in which rules of uniform conduct exist, but they are derived from reason and not tradition. It is often seen as a form of moral absolutism, in that there is a fundamental belief that there is a right and a wrong form of conduct that can be objectively measured. While this form of morality can be based on reason that is derived either from philosophy or a religious doctrine, there is no prescribed medium to procure it from – save reason.
Is the idea that morality is relative amongst individual people and different cultures. According to this philosophy, since each person or culture defines individual acts as good or bad differently, each act must then be judged within the context of the specific situation and culture and not by an objective rule system.
OK, now that we have a basic understanding of each moral philosophy, let’s play a quick game to highlight each philosphies way it will confront and adapt to a new challenge. This should give us some insight into how they operate:
The “Let’s Reject Slavery With Moral Reasoning” Game
Let’s conduct a thought experiment in which we are transported back to the 1800’s and we are thrown into the anti-slavery debate. We will look at all three morality structures and decide how each would react to the change in moral tone from a pro-slavery stance to an anti-slavery stance.
Why this topic? While it is true that at one time slavery was almost universally accepted, now-a-days, slavery is almost universally rejected (amongst Western cultures). It would not be possible for this to happen if morality was a static instead of a dynamic force. So it is useful to see how would each philosophy would learn to reject slavery? Would it be all at once? Would it be a gradual change? Could a change be possible at all?
With traditional morality, I believe there would be a gradual transition over time. Since their morality emphasizes tradition, they would be slow to change. They would look for instances in the past where great leaders rejected slavery, at least in principle before they would move forward with a revised view on a specific issue.
And, in the history books, we see this. The Christian abolitionists appealed to the writings of Paul in which he uttered that “in Christ, there is neither slave or free.” They used this and other Scriptures to appeal the legitimacy of slavery by showing that Scripture itself taught the total equality of human kind.
So their trajectory to rejecting slavery would be more like an arch, in which change is slower, but possible.
Traditional liberalists, on the other hand, would have a sharper curve to rejecting slavery. Since they prize the use of logic, their morality would not need the weight of history to prove their point. Yes, they may point to great thinkers in the past, but only as a way to highlight the sharpness of their logical reasoning.
For them it would be proving that the equality of people could not extend to some and not others. In order for one person to be granted liberty and freedom, all men must be granted those liberties. They would point to a moral absolutism in which the logic of individual freedoms must be granted to all.
Moral relativists, by in large, were not around for the slavery debate – their philosophy is a product of a later time. But if we were to transpose their philosophy onto the debate, I would assume that they could only speak from their individual convictions. Since each person has the right to form their own opinions, mores, and morals – they would be bound to have understanding for those that still clung to slavery. That is not to say that they could not change their mind about slavery and hold the personal belief that slavery is wrong, but relativism would prevent them from enforcing their beliefs on a national scale.
So why this thought experiment?
It is meant have a two-fold purpose. First, to show that although we look at morality as an unchanging principle in our society, it actually changes over time. Secondly, I believe that each philosophy has always been present within humanity and elements of each has its place within a well rounded and healthy culture. So that being said, I want to dive into what the implications are for these three philosophies in later posts. Give me your thoughts and tell me, are you traditional, liberal, or a relativist? Take the poll below and let’s talk in the comments.