I’ve been involved in a series of discussions over at an evangelical blog on morality. The discussions center on morality, specifically what it is, and whether it is an absolute or relative measure. My understanding so far of the evangelical viewpoint (or rather, this evangelical viewpoint, I don’t know enough to know if it’s a uniform community) is that they think morality is an absolute, specifically that it is whatever God says it is. This later point was new to me – I started the discussion thinking of ‘absolute’ as the same as ‘fixed’, but that isn’t how they seem to think of it; if God says that adultery is OK in leap years, or indeed whenever he feels like it, for example, then that’s still a moral absolute.
Anyway, apparently I’m an atheist (in the same way as I’m a light heavyweight in boxing; yes I am, but not actively before these discussions), so unsurprisingly my viewpoint differs. I’ve been defending my ideas for a little while in the comments section, and thought it was about time I put down what I think as a statement rather than a bunch of fragments. Herewith:
Societies are defined in part by the standards they create and impose. Each of these standards has a priority attached to it, which is also decided by the society. This priority has varying degrees of precision (again, depending on the society), but can be broken into three broad categories:
1. Norms. Things that the society expects of people, but without any penalty or significant disapproval if the standard is breached. These are almost always hidden; there is no rule book that will tell you what these norms are. For example, in the US if you are walking straight towards somebody you are both expected to move to your right to avoid bumping into each other; in the UK you are expected to move to the left. Failure to act appropriately will be seen as slightly odd, and perhaps even a little inconsiderate, but nothing more.
2. Values. These are standards that have some kind of emotional weight, or other way of indicating their higher profile within the society, but are still not at the core of how the society defines itself. They are also often implicit, either as unstated expectations or as standards that can be inferred from societal decisions. As an example, teachers in many countries are paid less than architects (which is one form of valuing something) but are generally spoken of more respectfully as a class (another form of valuation). Quite which of these two rankings wins out is, again, a societal value; in the US the financial valuation is more prominent; in the UK the class distinction (though both countries are converging I think).
3. Morals. These make up the most significant set of standards for the society, the ones by which it defines itself. Some of these are near-universal (strictures against murder, for example, or theft), while others can be more specific (e.g. the seriousness of insults varies widely, from almost nothing to severe moral transgression). In most societies a lot of these standads are derived from religion, though the overlap isn’t 100%.
Clearly this ranking is arbitrary on my part, but significantly it’s also arbitrary on the part of each society; just as they decide what they consider to be right or wrong, they decide how important that right or wrong is. In fact it would be more accurate to say that there is no distinct classification; while the members of the society will know that action A is worse than action B, it’s because of their knowledge of overall standards, not because A is a ‘value’ while B is a ‘norm’.
Societies come by these standards in one of two ways. They either invent them directly, or inherit them. Most of the things we now consider moral issues are inherited, for the simple reason that they tend to cover those issues that are most important to humans (life, death, ownership, safety, etc). So the US inherited many of its standards from Western Europe, which in turn took them from Rome (with influences from Eastern Europe and the Middle East), the Romans carried on from the Greeks, and so on. At each stage new influences come in to play, some issues are promoted or relegated, but there is a basic continuity.
The corollary is that the more trivial standards are the most likely to be invented, because they are the most subject to the particular circumstances of a society. Politeness and formality tend to be more important for the British than for Americans not because of some failing on one side or the other, but because the UK is more crowded and hence social interaction requires a little more stage management. Totally new issues will present themselves as technology rolls on, which can lead to new standards being set. As major new issues are rare these again tend to be trivial (e.g. how a society views spam) but can be very serious moral questions such as genetic engineering or environmental issues.
Why is it that the more important an issue, the more likely societies are to agree? I’d say that this is a simple result of being humans. Societies tend to develop to further the well-being of their members, if only because those societies that don’t rarely last long (as an extreme example imagine a society where every child was to be killed at birth; it’s hard to see how its values would be influencing us today). Humans by their nature value their own lives highly, and thus have strict rules around murder and violence. Having developed as jealous creatures (for whatever reason) they have strong views on issues such as adultery. We have progressed to our current state in part through our desire to own more, so we share common opinions on theft. In fact, the importance of morality is self-fulfilling; we (almost) all consider these things to be so important precisely because we all consider them to be so important; if we were able to reincarnate at will, for example, it seems likely that murder would be considered not much more than a harsh insult.
One of the things that I’ve been repeatedly challenged on is the role of individual versus common morality. In the above model I’ve explained how I think societies create morality, but at the same time each individual has a morality that will differ to some extent from the society in which they live. This leads to the obvious question about which is right; how do we decide who is ‘right’, either between two individuals or between an individual and the society?
Morality is a vote. The members of a society decide between them what they believe is right or wrong. As a society gains momentum those individuals born into it tend to get caught up in that momentum, and so will tend to have views that parallel society as a whole, even if those views go against their individual interests. But differences can arise, and in time they can even change the momentum of a society and give rise to a new morality (as was the case with slavery, the role of women, the death penalty, and many other issues). At no point in this process, however, is an absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ involved; there is just what the majority believes, and the degree to which it believes. Consequently there is no way for an individual to choose the ‘right’ course; they can only decide if their belief in something is sufficient to challenge the orthodoxy, or just a difference that they can live with.
The other question I’ve been asked repeatedly is where the right of a society to enforce its morality comes from, if there is no absolute morality and no arbiter. Put simply, I don’t believe societies have a ‘right’ to enforce anything, they just do it anyway. That may sound like a flippant remark, but it’s very serious; there is nobody in a position to decide if something is just or not (we give some people that role within a society, but not across societies), but one of the defining characteristics of the concept of society is that it sets and enforces its standards, not because it was told it could/should, but because that’s what it does. If it didn’t it wouldn’t be a society.
Enough talk, I’m going to hit publish now, though i may be back to tweak things in a day or two. Thanks for reading if you got this far.