Morality in the 21st Century (Notes from the Diary of a Literary Rebel, Part 3)

The issue raised in this post is something I still haven’t figured out yet, which is: how do we find a morality that respects all cultures, while not saying that all cultures are correct? In other words, is there such a thing as universal morality?

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The issue raised in this post is something I still haven’t figured out yet, which is: how do we find a morality that respects all cultures, while not saying that all cultures are correct?  In other words, is there such a thing as universal morality?

April 17, 2008 – Thursday


Current mood:  happy
Category:Religion and Philosophy

With the Pope in America this week, I thought it would be a good time to explore a theme I have been wondering about, especially as the the Holy Father (not sure if I can call him that, since I’m not Catholic ) warns against moral relativism.  It is this: if right and wrong are permanent, how does one discover what constitutes right and wrong on a global scale?  Indeed, if everything is a matter of perspective, then it gives a valid argument for chaos, which is why moral relativism cannot exist as an absolute.  Then again, how does one find a basic right and wrong that permeates through the most different of cultures?

First, though, I must differentiate between morality and ethics.  The Compact Oxford English Dictionary Online defines ethics as “1 the moral principles governing or influencing conduct 2 the branch of knowledge concerned with moral principles” (www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/ethics?view=uk).  Morality, on the other hand, is “1 principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour 2 moral behaviour 3 the extent to which an action is right or wrong 4 a system of values and moral principles” (www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/morality?view=uk).

This leads to the next question: what are moral principles?  Well, they are the principles talked about in definition 1 of morality.  My question is, what makes behavior UNIVERSALLY good or bad?

I don’t claim to be the first person to tackle this issue.  In fact, I would be shocked if it were true.  I am probably also not the most capable person of tackling this issue.  Living in Japan for three years, however, has made me wonder how much of a different culture can we accept as being different but not incompatible with universal morality, and how much should we find morally repugnant.  After all, culturally, views are going to clash, and if they clash on a moral issue, what decides which culture gains the high ground morally?  This is different from personal morality, for those CAN clash between cultures or even within cultures (and should be decided by individuals), and yet if we were to find a universal morality that allows variants of opinion on different issues, but makes certain areas definitely right and definitely wrong, then might it be easier to fight out these differences of opinion as differences of opinion, without wondering whether one side has the might of morality on its side, having been decided beforehand where people’s morals should lie?

I think working toward a universal groundwork of morality would help to fix the worst human rights abuses, since people would not be able to hide behind the parts of their culture that are immoral, simply because they are part of their cultural heritage.  After all, if everything that has come down to us through different cultures is to be honored and to be respected as morally correct for the people living in that society, then slavery should never have been abolished in America.  Culture is neither right nor wrong; it always evolves out of the necessity of the times and places out of which it is born, and out of the powerful as well as the powerless.

Also, this should not discourage different interpretations of what is right and what is wrong.  I do not agree that something that was thought right many years ago should still be considered right today, nor that something that was considered wrong many years ago should still be considered wrong today, merely because they were considered such at one time.  That is as poor an argument as saying that traditions and cultures are always morally right and should be respected and continued.  Morality can remain unchanged, while our continual evolution of understanding about morality can and should change.  Just look at slavery, or the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, or eugenics.  At one time, they were thought to be morally correct, or at least, not wrong, but today, in light of our information about the consequences of all three, they have been proven to have been morally wrong.  And yes, there were those far-seeing persons who saw them as morally reprehensible at the time, but how do we know who’s correct AT THE TIME?  And, of course, when shaping our view of universal morality, once we’ve established any overlap in right and wrong behavior throughout cultures, we still have to decide why they are considered right and wrong.  Otherwise, we could still fall into the trap of those who considered slavery okay.  Years and consensus alone do not make something moral, though such agreement usually points to some common agreement as to what makes something moral and immoral.

But, when dealing with morality, we must not deal just with cultures and traditions, but with religions and interpretations of religions as well.  All three pose a huge problem to coming up with a morality-in-all-circumstances scenario, as there is no logic to fight against, only belief and identity.  The only way to do this, then, is to put forth a view of morality that underlies all religions, belief systems, cultures, and traditions, while making the source of that morality something beyond what is written in Bibles and Korans and Sutras and anthropology magazines.  Still, there will be those whom I will never convince, as they are certain that their morals are correct, while all those principles which go against their values are immoral.  For them, there is no hope, I’m afraid, but for those of us willing to keep an open mind, perhaps we can find at least one thing that, morally, we can agree on.

Until part two, then, which will occur as soon as I’m bored enough to do some research, instead of just writing what I already know.

Author: Greg Salvatore

Writer. Voice Actor. Humanist. Feminist.

2 thoughts on “Morality in the 21st Century (Notes from the Diary of a Literary Rebel, Part 3)”

  1. I have pondered upon the thought of universal standards of morality as well. I still wonder if there is such a thing, if we humans as a race will ever get there. I think realistically, it all boils down to common sense, common courtesy. Our interpretations of common courtesy could be vastly different though, as defined by many factors.

    I wonder if I could call someone immoral when he, within his circumstances, fails to act in accordance to a set of common sense that most of us could agree to. Can we really use majority rule when it comes to morality?

    1. To answer your question: no, majority rule doesn’t work with morality. As I wrote above, “Years and consensus alone do not make something moral, though such agreement usually points to some common agreement as to what makes something moral and immoral.”

      But, even then, we are never sure what is moral NOW. The best we can do is decide what was immoral BACK THEN, and that is relative to how moral our opinions are now.

      Anyway, I don’t know that there is an answer to this question of universal morality, or if all cultures shall ever share in a universal morality. Philosophy, after all, is concerned with the search for truth, not the finding of truth.

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