Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Vanishing Moral Code

I have for some time been of the opinion that the concept of a person having a moral code is an endangered notion. I don't blame the people that lack such a code. I believe it's a natural consequence of the large scale failure of institutional religions to remain relevant in the west. That doesn't change that such a code is a necessary part of a fully human life, however.

I suppose (though years ago I would never have dreamed this would be the case) that it's first necessary to explain what I mean by "moral code." At its most fundamental, a moral code is a list of things that I wound never do, or would always do, simply because of what I believe is right and wrong. Such a list by its very nature isn't going to be pages and pages long, because much of morality lives in the vast grey area where the majority of life is conducted. Also, it isn't possible to cover every extremely remote possibility that could, given just the right combination of extremely unlikely circumstances, arise. In other words, the seeming absolutes of a moral code might not apply on the fifth Thursday in February of a leap year during a simultaneous solar eclipse, tsunami, and winning lottery ticket purchase. Such situations, often raised by skeptics, are absurd and contribute nothing to the discussion, because for a moral code to be relevant is has to be functional and easily remembered. None of us is going to carry around the equivalent of an Encyclopedia Britannica that contains the text of our moral code.

Here are some questions we might ask ourselves in developing the short list of things we will always, or never, do:

1. Would I ever kill someone other than in self defense or to protect innocent life? At this point many nay-sayers often counter that "we never know what we will do in any given situation." I reject that notion as absurd. In most situations we absolutely do know what we would do. If we were walking into a department store and saw an elderly person slip and fall on ice in a traffic lane, most of us would stop traffic so they didn't get run over. It's not that hard, and reducing the establishment of a moral code into an exercise in absurdity isn't productive.

2. Under what conditions is it acceptable to steal? To feed a starving child? To provide medicine for someone who needs it to stay alive? To get stuff I want and just can't afford right now, but feel I deserve? Never?

3. With whom is it appropriate to have sexual intimacy? What lines, if any, will I simply not cross? Are German Shepherds (the dog, not the sheep herder) out of the question? What about married people? What if I am married? What about patronizing prostitutes? How many partners am I comfortable being sexually active with over a certain period of time, or at the same time - if not in the same encounter? At what point will I determine that a person is too incapacitated, for whatever reason, to consent to sexual contact and so I will refuse to be intimate with them?

4. What are the circumstances under which I would be compelled to break the law? You may notice that some of these overlap. Would I steal to get food for a starving child or medicine for a critically ill person? Does my answer change if they are related to me? Am I willing to go to jail for protesting unjust or immoral situations? What situations would cause me to be willing to get arrested and face the possibility of jail time?

5. What is my comfort level around the use of intoxicants? How drunk, high, or otherwise impaired is it acceptable for me to be, and how often?

There are more issues that may be a part of our moral code depending upon our life history and cultural heritage, but these are a decent start. Knowing what I am going to kill, steal, consume, sleep with, or put my freedom on the line for is a pretty basic list! The advantage of having a basic moral code is that when we encounter certain situations we already know what our response will be. If, for example, I have decided that I will not sleep with an intoxicated person then when I encounter one it will not matter how attractive they are or how horny I am because I have committed to my moral code. Over time, as we mature and have different life experiences, I would expect our moral code to evolve. What may have been acceptable for us in our twenties may not be acceptable for us in our forties, and that's perfectly fine because our moral code will be informed by our life experience.

When we don't have a moral code in place all situations become relative simply because there are no hard and fast rules. I may or may not stop traffic for the fallen elderly person in the Target parking lot, depending on how busy I perceive myself to be. The problem is that if I don't stop the traffic it says one thing about who I as a morally responsible human being am, and if I do stop traffic it says another. Who do I want to become? Having a moral code helps me evolve into the person I want to be. I am afraid, from my observations, that many people today have no idea who they want to become. The result is poor decisions, people unhappy with who they are, and a lot of elderly people fallen on the ice in parking lots without anyone to help them. Ultimately, it reflects poorly on all of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment