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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Moral Fluidity

What happened? In the not-too-distant past there were moral standards. There was a shared set of ethics by which we lived. Oh, sure, not everyone adhered to them. (Indeed, the mark of a human is "to err" and the history of humanity is a continuing failure to adhere to its own standards.) But we all knew what they were. Everyone knew, for instance, that it was a bad thing to become an unwed mother. The situation would need to be avoided if possible and the girl aided if necessary. That is, in no case was it celebrated. In the same way, a young man who got a girl pregnant knew he had to "do the right thing". That phrase, in fact, was all that was needed. We all knew what that meant. He would have to marry her and support her and their child. End of story. If you didn't abide by these types of standards, you were ... wrong. Divorce was frowned upon. Adultery was bad. Stealing was wrong. Sex outside of marriage was a no-no. You were supposed to respect your elders and those in authority. And on and on.

An advantage of this shared structure of standards was that we could work together to encourage and enforce adherence. Kids in school could be fairly confident, for instance, that if they spoke back to the teacher, there would be negative consequences ... at school and at home. A teenager in town was aware that anyone in that town might call them on an infraction of the shared rules and would likely inform their parents as a minimum. Thus, society was more orderly, more coherent, more moral.

Someplace along the line this shifted. I'm not clear where. From this set of external standards by which we must all abide or be "outside" in some sense we have gone to a new standard. Sexual behavior is governed primarily by consent and morality is selected primarily by harm. Both of these, viewed somehow as "quite clear", are actually quite foggy. For instance, the argument will be made, "Two people who give consent should be allowed to have sex." However, "give consent" instantly becomes vague. Did she say "No" but mean "Yes"? Now we're at a "Yes means Yes" campaign because it was too unclear. Worse, you'll actually hear it argued "Juveniles cannot give consent." On what would that be based? Apparently there is a magical birthday upon which they suddenly gain the capacity to consent. But to best illustrate the power of consent, I actually have heard it argued that "It's immoral to have sex with animals because they cannot give consent." Not, "It's immoral to have sex with animals period." No, it is solely immoral on the basis of consent.

And that's just the shadiness of "consent". What do we know of "harm"? We're pretty sure that this isn't harmful ... until 30 years down the road when we find out that it was and we've just condemned 30 years of people to damage that we didn't recognize. Science is the current god, but Science is a variable that keeps changing as biology and medicine and physics and psychology and all the rest squeeze things together and shift them back and forth until we can't at all be sure what is or isn't going to hurt us because, frankly, we just don't know how things work. Throw in the variability of language, and we're pretty much adrift at sea. What was "harm" today becomes "beneficial" tomorrow and what couldn't "consent" yesterday is fully able today. For instance, is it helpful to teach our young boys to be young boys or is it harmful because they may decide they're not young boys at all? We don't know. The terms are changing, like everything else.

But "harm" is the standard for much of morality and "consent" is the standard for sexual morality. They are shifting tides, unclear and uneven, but they are regarded as sacrosanct and anyone who disagrees is a hater. "Hate" is determined by "disagreeing with us". "Moral", including sexual morality, is determined by "what we want to do". And it is impossible to have some sort of societal cohesion where we support each other in our morality because it's all fluid ... like gender. It's whatever you think it is. And if you disagree, you're just sick. Because the only shared moral value today seems to be the value that having an objective moral standard is wrong and "what I want to do" is right.


David said...

I imagine there are those that would accuse is Christians of allowing this decay to happen. If we had just been brighter lights, louder voices, more consistent voters, we could have slowed the moral decline of this world. I don't remember where, but I'm pretty sure the Bible says that things are only going to get worse. Bad if going to be acceptable and then applauded and good will be called bad. None of that is our fault.

Stan said...

I would guess that, if we are honest, Christians have not been the example they ought to be. "None of that is our fault" is only partly true. Nonetheless, it is true that the Bible says things will get worse. I'm already at the point of "Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!"

Pankaj Joshi said...

Morality is generally always very relative. As you point out, there are differences in which we evaluate eating meat, or cows, or our attitudes to premarital sex, and 'what the right thing to do is'. But a society that is evolving will usher in new paradigms of behaviour, which were previously unacceptable. For eg., if the teacher is incorrect, should the student humbly oppose that or keep quiet?
Dissenters were burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages; to day we recognise their rights to think differently.
Defining right and wrong will always be in a flux, and common consensus will be difficult to arrive at, unless we drop our shrouds of religious affiliations and accept traditional differences - with respect.

Stan said...

It is true that "moral" is in flux. However, today's "flux" is to declare that which is evil good and that which is good evil. At what point do we say, as a society, "It is perfectly moral to kill your neighbor"? More importantly, does declaring it so make it so?

The other questions in the post are 1) what changed to make societal morality change so rapidly? and 2) on what do we base morality? If it is "consent" or "group-think", there are no grounds at all for moral codes at all. Is it our claim (as a society) that there is no objective right-or-wrong, or is there objective morality that we need to find rather than to define? In earlier times (in my lifetime) our society shared a common source of morality and, within my lifetime, that entire common source has been jettisoned with its attendant moral code. The result will be anarchy, not enlightenment.

Pankaj Joshi said...

We have certainly seen rapid changes in morality. This has to do with a 'sudden' exposure to other cultures, as happens in an evolving society with cross-cultural interactions. And enlightenment is usually at a personal level, and much more slowly at group levels. We have to change ourselves first (which is the most difficult thing to do), and then, very slowly, in a new common domain will emerge. Very much like the geographical evolution of earth?
But we have to try to transform to higher selves...

Stan said...

You would hold, then, that there really is no objective morality. Morality is what we make it. You don't find what is truly right and wrong and embrace it; you simply evolve. Morality is merely the commonly held beliefs, neither right nor wrong themselves. All progression is progress and positive. I'm afraid I'd have to disagree on these ideas.