What is Morality?

I’ve had a few conversations with friends and family, as well as reading  some interesting things lately that have prompted me to wonder; do moral absolutes exist?

There are very few things which all known cultures and societies, past and present, would consider immoral. Perhaps murder but I’m actually having a hard time coming up with anything else. And even murder is tenuous since different cultures have different ideas about when killing someone constitutes murder. (An exemption for wives, slaves and anyone else considered property, for example, in more than a few not-so-historical societies.) So, if even taking an innocent life can’t be our unshakable foundation for a moral absolute then what can?

The conversations and readings that prompted my musing were about much more innocuous things than killing another person and yet most of the people I spoke to or opinions I read seemed absolutely sure of their moral convictions.

  • One friend was absolutely scandalized at the idea of a teenager getting a tattoo and felt it was absolutely, without question wrong.
  • Another (online) acquaintance asserted that wearing leather was morally reprehensible.
  • An article about allowing little boys to wear dresses prompted the comments section to quickly devolve into name-calling and damning people to hell for all eternity.
  • Pornography, specifically as it relates to feminism, was a really interesting topic of an article I read recently which prompted an equally interesting conversation with some friends.
  • The “right” way to raise children is always a topic of debate. I know the way I choose to raise my kids has made me the target of gossip on more than one occasion.
  • Speaking of gossip…

Really, this list of morally ambiguous topics could go on and on. Even people who share the same basic worldview in the form of religion or philosophy don’t agree a lot of the time. I don’t intend to go into detail about how I feel about any of the above examples because that’s not the point. My goal isn’t to tell anyone what to think or feel about morality but to raise awareness to the idea that what we consider moral might be incomprehensible to another culture, in another time or even just a different social group within our own culture.

We all like to think that those other people are backward and we are the enlightened ones… but this can’t ALWAYS be true. I’d like to think it is true when it comes to the gains (or what I perceive as gains) we’ve made, specifically those pertaining to certain aspects of how we as a society treat each other. However, there are more than a few socially acceptable things that boggle my mind as well as things rejected by society at large that are equally difficult for me to understand. But I must admit that most of the people outside of my core group of friends see things exactly the opposite- they are boggled by things I value and value things that are difficult for me to wrap my brain around.

In the end I’m not sure that there are many absolutes, I do think there are a few and even if something is socially acceptable at a specific time and place in history or culture that doesn’t mean it is moral. But the list of absolutes is short and the rest requires us to choose;  will we fight for what we believe is moral, attempt to understand each other’s morality or search for balance in some combination of the two.

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