Some thoughts on morality

Moral (adj): a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ETHICAL b : expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior, as, a moral poem c : conforming to a standard of right behavior
ety from Latin mos, moralis “custom”

Ethical (adj): a: of or relating to ethics b: involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval
ety from Greek ethikos “tradition”

It seems I’ve never had a very clear grasp on the concept of “morality.”

For many years, I’ve had a working, internal definition of “morality” that says something is “moral” if it recognizes the inherent worth in human beings and seeks, as far as is possible, to further the basic values of dignity and compassion for all people. Because of this, I’ve often been more than a little puzzled by public discourse on morality.

Morality, as it’s understood by a great many people, confuses the hell out of me. It seems obvious and straightforward that issues such as gay marriage and equal opportunity are moral issues; what’s always tended to puzzle me is the fact that those who speak the loudest about “morality” condemn these things. Homosexuality, we’re told, is immoral. Gay marriage is immoral. Non-traditional relationships are immoral. Yet affording all people everywhere equal opportunity in a society seems to be a very basic means of expressing the values of worth and dignity for all human beings; how, then, can any reasonable person call these things “immoral?”

Shelly was the one who pointed out that my definition was flawed, and when she did, a great deal of public discourse about ethics and morality suddenly snapped into focus.

Ambrose Bierce, a man famous for his cynicism, defined “moral” as “having the quality of general expediency,” and there’s more than a little truth to that.

The origins of the English words for “moral” and “ethical” are telling. Both words derive from words expressing, not concepts of human worth and dignity, but concepts of tradition and custom. In its most basic form, the public discourse on “morality” focuses not on what is right by the standards of human dignity, but on what is traditional. And this understanding changes everything.

It has long been an axiom of any society that that society is falling into decay and moral ruin. Socrates was reported to complain “Today’s youth love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for elders and they chatter in place of exercise.” And of course this must always be so, because traditions change over time. If one understands “moral” to mean “traditional,” then of course all societies always decay morally and always will, for the process of life is a dynamic one, and old traditions are constantly giving way to new.

Traditions form because people find a way of doing things that generally seems to work fairly well for most people. Over time, these convenient ways to do things gradually become entrenched, until what started out as an expedient way to get things done becomes Right and Moral and Just, and any other way to do things becomes Wrong and Immoral.

In this context, it’s quite simple to understand the current public discourse on morality. To determine whether or not something is moral, one need only apply a simple one-part test: is it the way things have been done in the past?

Gay marriage? Untraditional; therefore, immoral. Open tolerance of diversity? Untraditional; ergo, immoral. Non-traditional relationships? Immoral by definition.

Even things which seem at first blush to be blatant moral hypocricies are perfectly moral, with the proer understanding of “moral.” It is and has for centuries been traditional for men of wealth and power to cheat on their spouses; by this light, the actions of peope like Bob Barr, the Georgia representative who launched the crusade against Bill Clinton for his extramarital affair, and campaigned aainst legal abortion, but who paid for his ex-wife to have an abortion and then cheated on her with his current partner, has a long history in the tradition of American politics and is therefore completely moral.

Replace the word “moral” with the word “customary” or “traditional” and the official stances, and behavior, of many conservative religious groups begins to make more sense. For example, one of the peopl who worked on the Bush campaign was a First Assemblies of God pastor named Mike Hintz, who spoke on behalf of Bush, praising Bush’s values. Pastor Hintz was recently in the news again, this time after being arrested and charged with the sexual exploitation of a child.

Child abuse and child molestation have a long tradition in Western society, which was elevated almost to an art form during the Victorian era. Hintz wasn’t immoral; he was merely acting in accordance with an older tradition, and that by definition made his actions perfectly ethical.

Churches are in a peculiar position when it comes to teaching morality, because churches, like any other organization, rely on their members to exist. A church with no members no longer exists. A church must, therefore, always follow the moral values of its flock, and never lead them; should a church tell its flock that behaviors they support are immoral, its members will leave and go to a church willing to say that they are all good, just, morally decent people. So churches, the very institutions beople believe are charged with moral leadership, are, by the nature of their position, always going to be the last organizations to respond to moral change.

(This sometimes creates some delicious ironies. The Sothern Baptist Convention, one of the largest and most influential of conservative American protestant churches, was originally formed by pro-slavery members of the Baptist church who refused to accept the anti-slavery stance of the mainstream Baptist doctrine of the time. Today, the Southern Baptist congregation is largely black; one has to assume that a significant portion of its membership is quite unaware of the sect’s history.)

So. My confusion all this time has come from my own badly skewed understanding of what it means to be “moral.” With a better grasp of the meaning of morality, the public discourse is more comprehensible to me, and I can see that my initial confusion arose from my own error.

I still prefer my definition of “moral,” however.