Move over Andy, there’s a new sherriff in town. Right and wrong have been turned upside down in modern culture, and people are using it in different ways than before. When we look at morality in culture, we can first agree that those waters are plenty muddy, whether we’re talking about the definitions of right, wrong, and morality, or their applications in our lives. I may circle back around to it, but I do want to acknowledge at the outset that most people have flexible morals that shift and change, especially when they feel cornered or challenged. Although it’s always been done, lately, it seems more common for people to use morality to back up what they’re doing, or what they’re espousing, rather than guide those things along.
Of the major modern changes in moral trends, there is an overarching theme I believe I’ve found. It’s pervasive in media and is being strongly reinforced there, as well as online. The basic concept is that there is a style of morality that is thought to be “evolved” or “advanced”, and the major feature it sports is deviation from consistency. It has been called “postconventional morality”, although few people are achieving that, so I’ll continue to use my “new morality” term to describe what I believe people are actually doing. The new morality is using personal judgment to override existing moral constraints – largely in the name of eschewing outdated cultural norms that are restrictive or oppressive.
What’s important to realize is that this scenario is full of assumptions. The main ones being that the initial moral code we’re describing is religious in nature, or otherwise equally rooted in cultural practices that were established generations ago. As much as I’d like to separate morality from culture, it’s pretty ingrained. So many folks assume that morality supports social constructs like misogyny and discrimination. The assumptions are too many to number here… but suffice it to say morality is currently seen as a sort social extortion mechanism.
When we realize those connections, it’s easier to understand why folks want to step outside of morality – it’s a concept seen as the backbone of social control. People do use morality to back up what they’re saying or doing, and as such we shouldn’t blame morality for the failings of culture. That said, the moral code we abide by should be altered or reimagined, rather than just avoided or circumvented. That’s because morality has always been the basis for those judgment calls we make so often, and if we don’t have a moral compass, people fall back on physiological desires and fears to guide them instead. More importantly, the concept of having a moral code is to help us collectively drive a conceptual image of how we can improve ourselves and the world around us, it’s our ability to behave beyond instinct.
Much of the stress around morality could be resolved if more people could realize that their problem is not with morality as a concept. Their problem is with it being used as a tool – be it by religions, organizations or individuals. What folks need to realize is that there are various sets of moral and ethical codes worth considering and using in our daily lives to help direct our intentions and actions toward greater good. No one has to reinvent this wheel, they just have to discover that their upbringing had limited their understanding that wheels come in all shapes and sizes, and that there are vehicles we could choose that better suit our needs.
That better vehicle is ethics. Morals and ethics may seem to be overlapping, but the difference lies in the basis or reasoning.
From Kant to Kohlberg, the idea of extending our actions to a universal model is not new. This vision helps us determine if something is appropriate based on whether or not the behavior would be sustainable if all people behaved that way, or if we each behaved that way all the time. It’s a great way to determine if something should be done or not. I see it in opposition to what has been called territorial ethics, which focuses on consequences, and whether or not a consequence impedes on the territory of another. That’s basically the “no harm no foul” idea, which may be great in a pick-up b-ball game… but if no one is in the forest to hear it, the falling tree still does make a sound, and that sound is loud.
To say that consequences should be the only determining factor in morality is a misunderstanding of the foundations of morality as a concept. Focusing on whether or not negative consequences have arisen due to an action at that time is nothing but subjectivity to power games and robs the individual of genuine free will to choose right actions based on their merit. It replaces that genuine morality with a system of external punishment and reward rather than cultivating an internal capability to determine appropriate courses of action. The fact that an action didn’t spur negative consequences at this time does not mean that it could not, or that it will not, or that it makes it right anyway. That mentality is just a defense mechanism to support irresponsible behavior and is used by people who want to do inappropriate things and rely on external forces to moderate their behavior rather than control their own decisions in a respectful way.
Without a strong sense of morality, people are having a harder time achieving compassion and respect for others too, and part of that is because their new moral code is based on the individual experience (dubbed territorial ethics by Celia Green), rather than being based on what’s good for the group (dubbed tribal ethics by the same). And when the new morality so severely deviates away from the greater good, it gets farther from right and wrong and closer to a tool for manipulation – which was the complaint that drove people away from morality, so it shouldn’t be the result of the new morality, or the goal has not been achieved.
The foundations of ethical systems lie in consistent and logical application of decision making skills that reinforce a framework of morals that have been examined and determined to be beneficial. There are many schools of thought, but most ethical systems focus on benefit and detriment in a way that sidesteps the cultural habit of inequity, as ethics are typically applied to all people equally. No one is obligated to take any of the established systems wholesale, but they are a great way to form a solid foundation based on reasoning rooted in observation and evaluation.
Learning about ethics can be very complicated and is well learned in conjunction with logic to maximize critical thinking and minimize regurgitation of indoctrination language.
If we don’t want to rely on external perspectives to control what we do, then it is up to us to develop an internal system that is not based on our feelings alone, but a broader perspective that seeks to reconcile our actions with their inherent merits in an effort to guide action toward benefit and away from detriment. Ethics are the answer!