Understanding Morality

Before we set out on any schemes to improve ourselves or our society, we must first define what morality is and what it is not, in order to preclude confusion later on. You would not want to venture into unfamiliar woods without a map or trail guide of some kind. Consider this your guide to the dark, murky, and often confusing forest that is morality.

Some believe that the morality crisis is not in fact all that great; according to them, the issues under debate are merely lifestyle choices, that every human being has the basic right and prerogative to decide such things without interference from anyone else. Such a person is in the thick of the forest, groping blindly, trying to convince himself that he is not in fact lost, that there is indeed no forest at all, nothing to worry about. Some involved with the religious right would have us strictly follow the writings of various scriptures, applying rigid absolutes to everything. These people wish to escape the forest by clear-cutting it: an attractive short-term solution perhaps, but rather an unfortunate one, since the forest is quite beautiful and wandering about in it has charms all its own. Besides, eventually the trees will grow back.

So how will we make it out of the forest? The first step, a clear definition of morality, is our map; later we will gather other gear. Bear in mind that any concrete definition of such a nebulous ideal will be imprecise and will not satisfy everyone. However, squabbling over whether a certain tree is where the map says it is or three inches to the left is a waste of precious time and in any event will be of little consequence once we are actually in the forest. With that in mind, let us define morality as the ability to identify and follow those alternatives which will ultimately produce the greatest common good.

Thus we see that alcoholism, taken in isolation, means little in ultimate terms, since only the individual is harmed (although it is by definition a moral offense, since no common good comes out of drinking in excess). But the effects that arise from alcoholism, such as drunk driving and physical and sexual abuse, exact a much greater societal toll and therefore should be condemned much more strongly. We see that an individual who engages in some form of what is considered “deviant” behavior, as long as no one is harmed by it and he does not attempt to force his behavior on the unwilling, is guilty of no more than a trivial moral crime, and in fact may be doing good if this prevents him from engaging in other more harmful behaviors; while the TV show host who parades deviant behaviors in front of audiences is guilty of a far greater offense.

The beauty of this definition is of a dual nature. First, it can be applied in varying degrees. A moral crusader can broaden the definition to include almost every “sin.” (Please note, however, that homophobes, under this definition, can no longer attack homosexuality as morally wrong. Certain behaviors that may occur in conjunction with it may qualify, but homosexuality itself cannot be considered evil.) On the other hand, those with a libertarian bent can interpret it loosely and claim that most evils produce little common harm and therefore should not be considered wrong. Later, we will see what I consider the best application. The second beauty is that it eliminates all connotations of religion. This is important because religions do not agree on what constitutes a sin, and because religious ideals of morality offer no compelling reason for atheists to follow them, since the atheist does not believe in the concept of an afterlife and hence is unconcerned with the prospect of Judgment Day.

It would be appropriate here to comment on the libertarian versus religious-right debate on appropriate moral regulations that has persevered for many years. In an ideal society which accepted the idea of morality as presented here and followed it, this debate would quickly become irrelevant. The moral absolutist’s position that the response to any form of sin is layers of rules and guidelines would ultimately be wrong because truly moral people do not need rules and laws to compel them to act in a desired way. In general, excess laws tend only to hamper and frustrate the majority who are basically moral. Frequent references in modern society to “red tape” and “stifling of creative individuals” point this up with excruciating clarity. However, the libertarian’s position that all should be free to everyone, while closer to our definition, is also fundamentally flawed. Adults should not need rules to produce moral behavior, and those that do are often beyond help in any case. But even the most moral among us have occasional impulses to commit immoral acts. This is why even a “perfect” society would need some form of laws or conventions. Also, libertarians rarely consider the fact that humans are born neither moral nor immoral. It is only by a combination of gentle, loving parental guidance and firm rules that our young may come to be moral individuals.

Of course, all of this assumes an ideal society, which we will likely never possess in any demonstrable way. In the end, given our society, laws will always be needed, since the immoral will always exist and since the aforementioned animalistic drives and urgings will always exist. The position of freedom will still win out to a certain extent in our society because those rules that need not be bothered with any longer can be safely disposed of.

I suppose all of this is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Let us go back now and examine the role that such emotions as pride and shame play in the development of morality.

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