Is morality a social construct or is it universal, transcending time and culture? Or is it a little bit of both? Read on to find out more about what we call “morality.”
Religions often act as “morality delivery systems.” According to Jonathan Haidt in an NYT article titled “The Moral Instinct,” morality has 3 traits:
- Morality must invoke “universal” rules. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. One can easily say, “I don’t like brussels sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them,” but no one would say, “I don’t like killing, but I don’t care if you murder someone.”
- Immorality should be “punished.” Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral.
- Morality differs from other psychological mind-sets. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).
We know from history that some behaviors that were once considered immoral (e.g. divorce) are now considered morally neutral and some behaviors that were considered morally neutral (e.g. smoking) are now considered immoral (due to harm caused to others). Additionally, people have different morality “thresholds” (e.g. the continuum between sport hunters and vegans). In short, some of what passes for morality is preference alignment (meaning people who make the same choices I do are “moral” while those who don’t are “immoral”). We have a gut reaction that something is wrong, but we don’t really know why, so we try to explain or rationalize our response. This would be fine if those gut reactions didn’t differ so much from culture to culture and from era to era, and even from person to person within culture and era. Even things that are major morality taboos for us have been “norms” in some other societies:
- Sex with minors. Older men initiating younger men into sexuality was a norm in ancient Greece. Marriage in previous eras has been allowable pretty much as soon as the participants had reached puberty, much younger in the case of political alliances between dynastic families. Large age discrepancies were far more acceptable in previous eras, especially to create financial security through the union.
- Incest. In our society, we have a very strict prohibition on sex with someone too closely related, but in Hawaiian royalty, sibling marriage was considered an obligation to keep the royal blood pure. Likewise, even in our own society, marriage to cousins was quite common as recently as the 1800s.
- Murder. While we find intentional killing repugnant, it is often “allowed” or even encouraged when outside of one’s own ‘tribe.’ We currently call this war, but killing of outsiders has also been done throughout history as a method of purifying one’s race (killing neighboring infidels so that there will be no intermarriage) or appeasing deities (through human sacrifice of outsiders).
- Cannibalism. Again, this is about the worst thing imaginable in our current society, but some cultures had cannibalistic rituals such as eating the dead to inherit their spiritual properties or eating their victims slain in battle to honor them. Whatever floats yer boat, I guess.
According to Haidt, there are 5 morality “instincts” that are universal:
- Harm. The difference between sticking a pin in your own hand (ouch!) and sticking a pin in the hand of a child (!!). We might wince at the first, but we recoil in horror from the second.
- Fairness. Accepting something for free that was due to a random error (lucky me) vs. something for free that was stolen from someone else (!!).
- Community. Saying something bad about Mormonism to another active Mormon vs. saying something bad about Mormonism to an evangelical.
- Authority. Slapping a colleague as part of a comedy skit vs. slapping your bishop or your boss as part of a comedy skit.
- Purity. Actors in a play behaving in a silly manner on stage vs. actors in a play behaving like animals on stage (e.g. crawling around naked and urinating on stage).
So, while these might be the 5 morality “instincts,” they are still not truly universal for several reasons:
- Different thresholds for each. Even within a community, there are often different thresholds for all of these five instincts. One person may consider something as “harm” (or abuse) that another person thinks is “tough love.” One person might consider something a purity issue (e.g. washing hands in the restroom) that another person considers a matter of preference (I hope I’m not shaking hands with this person).
- Different specifics for each. While everyone may view someone as an authority, those authorities differ from person to person based on affiliation. For example, depending on political affiliation, someone may deem Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh worthy of special respect as an authority, but may not afford the same respect to Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama. Likewise, I may view my parents as authority figures, but their parents didn’t necessarily view them the same way.
- Conflicting morals. At times, these 5 instincts are in conflict with one another. Is it immoral to harm another person if it helps the community (i.e. “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one”) or if an authority commands it (e.g. Nephi killing Laban)? Is it immoral to harm another person as a means to achieve fairness (e.g. death penalty or even corporal punishment)?
- Morality vs. Preference. Is it moral instinct or merely preference if the choice is inherently distasteful? Once disgust enters, we cease to be rational. What is the line between morality and squeamishness? What makes one person feel squeamish doesn’t faze another. For a person who is homophobic, their irrational fear of homosexuality may mean it is more of a question of (strong) preference than morality.
- Self-Serving Morality. And aren’t “moral” choices that are based on “community” and “authority” mixed up with what is “imprudent”? IOW, is it morality or fear of retaliation from authority or fear of being ostracized by the community? And is purity always tied up in our fear of “impurity,” therefore, more a matter of preference than morality?
Some do not believe that morality is more than a social construct. Do you agree or do you feel there is a universal form of morality that transcends time and culture? How do you distinguish cultural norms and niceties from actual morality? Can you readily identify a universal morality and cite examples? If not, does this mean that there is no such thing as a universal morality or do differences in threshold and specifics mean that people have suppressed their understanding of the universal truth? Discuss.