Investment in the Status Quo vs. Morality

By: hawkgrrrl
January 3, 2012

Is morality subjective or objective?  Is there a universal morality?  Are all “current” moralities subject to later correction?  Morality is often confused with the “norm” or unquestioned cultural assumptions or personal beliefs and preferences.  This is apparent to us when someone else’s view of “morality” clashes with our own or when we view opinions from past eras that were considered moral for their time but are now considered “immoral.”

How do we know if behavior is moral or just conformist?  How do we know if our definition of morality is driven by our comfort with and investment in the status quo?  Defining morality is a tricky business.  I thought I’d start with the dictionary.

  • mo·ral·i·ty 1. conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.  2. moral quality or character. 3. virtue in sexual matters; chastity. 4. a doctrine or system of morals. 5. moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.
  • vir·tu·ous conforming to moral and ethical principles; morally excellent; uprightOops, circular definition.  Dead end.  Let’s try ethical instead.
  • eth·i·cal 1. pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct. 2. being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice, especially the standards of a profession. Fine, let’s see what we get for “moral.”
  • mor·al 1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical. 2. expressing or conveying truths or counsel as to right conduct, as a speaker or a literary work; moralizing. 3. founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom. 4. capable of conforming to the rules of right conduct. 5. conforming to the rules of right conduct (opposed to immoral). OK, so moral depends on “right.”
  • right 1. in accordance with what is good, proper, or just. 2. in conformity with fact, reason, truth, or some standard or principle; correct. 3. correct in judgment, opinion, or action. 4. fitting or appropriate; suitable. And “right” depends on “correct.”
  • cor·rect in accordance with an acknowledged or accepted standard; proper.  So it’s whatever people agree it is; majority rules.

If morality is subject to majority agreement (an acknowledged and accepted standard), then essentially might equals right.  This is obviously a problematic conclusion. We should be cautious if we define morality in order to:

  • Support our decisions (rather than challenging our baser instincts).
  • Benefit ourselves and gratify our preferences.
  • Marginalize or punish those we fear or find threatening (usually outsiders or the unknown).
  • Emphasize our personal “rightness.”

Not many people will create a moral code that personally indicts them.  What was “right” in Nazi Germany (what conformed to the agreed upon ethical code) is morally reprehensible to us, but it justified their behavior and confirmed to them the rightness of their actions.  Their moral code made all of the mistakes listed above.  This is one reason that it’s only possible to see morality objectively when it defies or contrasts with societal norms, such as the Hazare protest in India to force anti-corruption legislation.  We recognize morality when it acts at great personal cost and points out the immorality or injustice of the majority or a system.

For this reason, conflating morality with the status quo or preserving the past is inherently problematic.  The status quo may be moral, or it may just be an unquestioned assumption.  The greater the investment we make in a system or way of thinking, the more difficult it is to walk away.  In the church, where we have very exacting commandments, it is harder to let go of our assumptions the longer we live; hence, change comes slowly.  If the church changed standards tomorrow and said it was now acceptable to forego garment wearing, pay only 2% tithing, and have premarital sex, members who have observed these requirements their entire lives would be the most upset.  Those with less investment and who have made less personal sacrifice would find it easier to accept the changes.  So, the oldest members, and those who’ve made the greatest personal sacrifices to observe these things would find it the most off-putting for these changes to take place.  It’s similar to how many older siblings feel (who grew up with stricter parents and less money) toward those younger siblings (who get more parental attention and generally more money):  resentful and envious.

Jesus pointed this out in the parable found in Matthew 20:1-16.  A man is looking for laborers to work in his vineyard.  He hires some early in the day, and others as late as the eleventh hour of the day; despite the great difference between the sacrifice of those hires early vs. those hired late, each laborer has agreed to be paid one penny.  When the pay is doled out, those hired early in the day are upset that the ones hired later are paid the same, even though they all agreed to their pay up front.

Is morality timeless?  Possibly, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got the standards correct, just because we’re mostly in agreement.  That’s probably the right time to start asking ourselves if our code of ethics is self-serving and self-justifying.  What are some examples of things you think are really just clinging to the status quo vs. morality?

Discuss.

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19 Responses to Investment in the Status Quo vs. Morality

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 3, 2012 at 6:24 AM

    I think, though, that ignoring the status quo is a mistake as well.

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  2. Jake on January 3, 2012 at 7:30 AM

    The major problem with making the argument that what is morally right is what the status quo deems as being right is that it undermines Gods role in defining what is right, and I think this is a powerful factor in why people would be resistant to a change in the leaderships conceptualisation of what is right.

    I personally think that any moral system that is not dependant on God is better then one that does. As scripture paints a very morally ambiguous system, and in many ways contradictory. Joseph Smith himself seems to paint a whimsical God who can change his mind whenever he likes as “that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” Morality is what God requires and to know what God requires is always subjective. So even if we use God then we have no objective place for morality.

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  3. Justin on January 3, 2012 at 7:31 AM

    God is about love — real love — charity — that open-faced, fully-naked, no-stinginess at all, complete sharing of all things kinda love.

    God is love — which is why God is uncontrollable [or all-powerful], even anti-control.

    But there’s a fear of relative truth or subjective ethics because they’re uncomfortable, because they aren’t well-defined edges and lines that we can check-off and box-in. But love requires the situational, the voluntary, and the accepting.

    I find it funny that it’s among the religious where one finds the most hostility towards the subjective/situational — given the situational ethics of the scriptures: e.g., it’s wrong to kill [unless it’s not], it’s acceptable to take plural wives and concubines [unless it’s not], it’s required to circumcise the flesh [unless it’s not].

    The reason all of the law and the prophets hang on the single concept of love is that without the context of love — being “true” or “right” is meaningless.

    I don’t even really think religion should have much to do with “morality” in the first place. Prescribing an acceptable moral-code is not really its primary area of jurisdiction.

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  4. Bob on January 3, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    I have to start by believing Man is born (The Natural Man), with a sence that things can be right or wrong, good or bad. Then, from day one, his Culture will begin to tell him WHAT is right or wrong. This can be done in a formal or an informal ways.
    I am not sure love is the answer__a lot of evil things are done in the act of love. (bombing a town because you love your country).
    I don’t think one must believe in a God to be moral.

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  5. Cowboy on January 3, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    As far as I understand the issue, the reason we fear a subjective morality is because that means from certain perspectives some could “morally” justify the holocaust, as an example. It opens the door, some fear, to future possibilities of similar types of immorality being labled the new morality. Philosophically I see the point and agree to the possibilities, but not the inevitability. To the religious mind, God represents an absolute morality that is as you say, timeless. When it is argued from this general and conceptual standpoint, I think the religious philosophers have an interesting point. Where it breaks down for me is when we delve into the details. Once we have tangible examples of God’s alleged decrees and morality, it begs the question of what morality really is. If by definition, morality is anything that God says, then what do we mean when we talk about morality generally in the context of concern for others. What if God shows a lack of concern? Can we conceive of a God who may not care for our well being? If so, what then is morality in such a state, other than another subjective and meaningless code?

    Where does God get his morality? That is the even bigger question in my mind. To make a logical argument that God represents objective morality to us, because it comes from outside our immediate passions, is still quite meaningless if God does not hold to some principles beyond himself. In other words, if he is free to be immoral, then all we have really done is kicked the subjective to him. If that is the case, I’m not so certain that I want God deciding morality for me. Given a complete awareness of God and his ability to control me, I would only follow his ethics on account of either self-preservation, or on principles in which his ethics randomly align with my own.

    If on the other hand we argue that God get’s his morality from a source outside himself, have now just stepped into an infinite regression? How do we get past that? I think this is where “faith” in my mind could have it’s greatest value. Conditioning salvation on a persons willingness to have faith in a particularly deity or religion, has always seemed an arbitrary and subjective requirement to satisfy what could only be an arbitrary and subjective God. However, taking belief as given, but not necessary for salvation, faith that God is good and pure, in that he holds perfect love for all people, is necessary if I am willing to follow him. How can he prove infinite love to a finite mind like mine? I could only operate on faith, much like I do with my wife or any close friend. I trust that they are and will be true to their words.

    Conversely, if God does not exist we should not be afraid of subjective morality. In fact, I agree with Richard Dawkins on this point that it is quite liberating to think that we can decide what morality is by promoting those things which we commonly value. Of course, finding a sense of common values creates a sense of ambiguity, and yet, most people seem to recognize the evils of the holocaust if not for a sense of absolute morality, than at least out of social understanding and respect for the Golden Rule. In my mind, that ought to be good enough because while it may leave room for a degenerating morality, on the basis of the Golden Rule (a bit simplistic, I know) I think it tends towards a progressive and more humanly comprehensive morality.

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  6. jmb275 on January 3, 2012 at 9:15 AM

    Re Bob-

    I have to start by believing Man is born (The Natural Man), with a sence that things can be right or wrong, good or bad.

    Yeah it sort of seems reasonable, but if you buy into evolution then you’ve got to admit that we come out of the box prepped with that “sense” due to our evolutionary conditioning.

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  7. jmb275 on January 3, 2012 at 9:34 AM

    The whole topic, as fascinating as it is for me, is really a can of worms with no clear answer. However, my biggest conjecture is that we’re so fixated on morality being something that can be counted on. It’s like we want a physics equation for morality – a guarantee if you will. We seek a reliable measure against which we can judge our fellows and ourselves. We don’t want to deal with the uncertainty that comes by admitting that morality might be relative.

    I understand it on the level that Cowboy mentions above – that we fear things like degenerating morality being used to justify the holocaust. But I agree that it isn’t an inevitability. In “Brave New World” everyone has sex with whoever they want. The word “mother” is equivalent to the f-bomb in offensiveness, and the idea of having a child or having a mother triggers a repulsive response similar to our response to a psychopathic sadist. And it’s all due to their conditioning (and probably some genetic engineering).

    For me, most things in the world are relative: motion, measures of quantity, or quality, etc. Our descriptions of these things can only come when we compare them to something else taking our own perspective into account. I don’t see morality as any different, even if we ascribe morality to God, which, as Cowboy mentions, just kicks the subjectivity to Him.

    I’m not against the idea of an absolute morality but it’s like trying to define a large number or find an inertial frame in physics. And perhaps to the contrary, I’m actually quite okay with moral relativity, with the idea that our morality is the set of things we do to survive and succeed in a complex social structure. I still have guiding principles I think are important, but I admit they are important to me and complex scenarios may require violation of what I think is important. An appreciation for paradoxical ideals is a necessity in my opinion.

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  8. Bob on January 3, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    #6:jmb275,
    Ever try to feed a bady a jar of green peas? I don’t care how ‘nice’ you try to sell them, they are coming right out.
    Yes, I believe some of this ‘hard wired’ stuff goes back into the Animal kingdom
    I have had pets that knew when they were being good or bad. I have had pets that were caring.

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  9. Bob on January 3, 2012 at 10:13 AM

    #7:jmb275,
    You used the abilities to ‘compare’, and hold ‘perspectives’. These are the kind of ‘hard wires’ I am saying we are born with.

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  10. Jenkins on January 3, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    Perhaps God’s intention is ambiguity surrounding morality. If it were a simple cut and dry list of rules obvious to everyone why would we need to seek God’s will? Perhaps the ambiguity is what creates a need to seek out what is best and what is right in the specific circumstances we find ourselves in. The hardest trials of faith that I have personally had have been when I felt God asked me to do something ‘immoral’ or contrary to what I had been taught was moral. Isn’t this what faith is about? Willingness to do the will of God despite what we humans think is right.

    I also believe it forces us to ask these very questions and try to resolve the contradictions and ambiguities. Like I said, if it were all cut and dry, where would the growth come from? It also forces us to walk in another’s shoes when we try to figure out why that person would think it was okay to do something we may see as morally reprehensible. Isn’t that how you learn to love and appreciate your neighbor?

    So for me morality is ambiguous. It is sometimes self-serving and sometimes self-justifying. However, I also believe that as I try to figure out what God wants me to do I am constantly challenged. From an outsider it may appear extremely self-serving at times and it may appear completely ludicrous at others but I always know whether I am living my morality. Perhaps that is why morality is so hard to define. Ultimately it is what I believe it is and it is also what you believe it is.

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  11. jmb275 on January 3, 2012 at 1:51 PM

    Re Bob-
    Oops, I reread your #4 and found that I misread it the first time. I see what you’re getting at now.

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  12. Bob on January 3, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    #12: Jenkins,
    Your Morality is on a very small scale. 30 Million people died in WWII 60-70 years ago. Have you “resolved the contradictions and ambiguities” on that yet?
    There are world size moral issues that small men get caught up in. I do not think God causes these “ambiguities” to test just one man.

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  13. hawkgrrrl on January 3, 2012 at 6:25 PM

    “we fear things like degenerating morality being used to justify the holocaust.” But I think we are more at risk when we try to hold on to morality than when we acknowledge its ambiguous nature. We have to give both viewpoints a fair airing to really understand what is optimally moral. Essentially, until you can see both sides of the argument as partly right and partly wrong, you can’t find a moral course that isn’t wrapped up in your own wishes and interests.

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  14. Aaron L on January 4, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    I find the arguments of Sam Harris (and others) convincing that morality comes down to the well being of conscious creatures, most especially humans as they seem to be the most self aware and ability to remember and reason, but to some degree including all life. Granted this largely removes god from the process, but I see it as the only way to have any sort of quasi-objective morality that is t all consistent.

    #10 – I see your point about faith being all about doing what god wants vs. what humans think is right, but you have to remember that many atrocities have been committed by people of faith using this exact reasoning. For me, often the higher, nobler, more moral path is going against what you think god wants and deciding on your own how to increase well being while minimizing harm and suffering.

    If I am going to hurt somebody, I’d better be damn sure that it is god’s will, and that god is moral. If I’m really honest with myself, I don’t really know any of those things. I could be misinterpreting god’s signals. Maybe my conception of god is wrong and he is a jerk. Maybe he isn’t there at all.

    If the lack of surety in my mind for anything pertaining to god, I’m perfectly happy being a secular humanist and accepting the consequences.

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  15. Cowboy on January 4, 2012 at 10:20 AM

    #14 – Aaron:

    I tend to agree with you, and by virtue Sam Harris, as well. The only tick tacky point that I would make is that Sam needs to be a little more forthright and authorial by phrasing his paradigm as an “ought” statement, rather than a subtle “is” statement. While “avoiding the greatest possible misery for everyone” is a value that I probably hold emotionally and selfishly out of a concern for myself, I also see it as a common interest that most everybody holds. The religious philosophers (I’m largely thinking of Harri’s debate with William Lane Craig) can debate the ontological relevance of why and how that matters, and perhaps even they should. However, we should not be handicapped into accepting their ultimatum that morals are either God-given absolutes, or relative conventions that might as well be discarded. For the time being, a common interest in charting a course that directs society away from “the greatest possible misery for everyone”, even if only to satisfy an emotional desire, is good enough reason for me. At least until we have a more comprehensive understanding of purpose, provided of course there is more to understand.

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  16. Cowboy on January 4, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    As a side note, and addendum to my comment above, I would even argue for the superiority of Harris’s position over absolute morality. The reasoning is quite simple. As far as I can see, the philosophical train on “absolute morality” stops at an overgeneralized conclusion that if God, who we suppose is a moral law-giver, exists, then objective morality exists. As a philosophical excercise to stimulate reason and logic, this is an interesting point. As a practical tool for guiding social morality it is completely useless because the logic and rigor stops there. It does not speak to the probability of a moral-law-giver, rather it simply appeals to emotion by essentially framing a world-view where it is impossible to objectively love your children, as an example and whatever that means exactly, if God doesn’t exist. While most of us shutter at the thought, it doesn’t offer anything rigorous to answer the higher question of whether God exists, from a standpoint of logic and reason. Furthermore, it fails to put us any closer to charting a course for social behavior and development. The religious philosophers assume a loving and pure God on the basis of faith, but that conclusion is not satisfied on the basis of logic. The plethora of contemporary and historical religious ethics ought to point to the arbitrary nature of this argument.

    Conversely, understanding that most, if not all, sentient creatures have a desire to mitigate pain and increase happiness, “avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone” is definable starting point everyone can agree on. After all, what is Hell if not the religious effort of fictionalizing a worst possible misery? And what is Salvation if not the distancing of one from that condition? The religious problem however is that the solutions for orienting one away from those conditions is undefined. Harris suggests that neuro-science provides the key to avoiding those conditions, as all experience can ultimately be relegated to consciousness. In terms of a social morality, used to foster social policy and behavior, this gives us each a common point to work from for practical purposes. It doesn’t negate religious world-views, but it can at least create common ground in a pluralistic society.

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  17. [...] was a whole sub-theme on the connection between religion and morality (leading people to ask if holy cloth is OK as a [...]

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  18. FireTag on January 8, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    Cowboy:

    But doesn’t this just move the source of “subjective” morality from cultural to biological evolution? Everything becomes about pain versus pleasure.

    I can live with that, since I have a pantheistic bent, and natural reality clearly contains both impersonal and personal entities (like us).

    I would suggest that “objective” morality can only emerge in the limit of something that can consider the total of ALL subjective moralities. That can encompass actions a lot more brutal than genocide, whether we believe in a God external to nature or not; my gravitar depicts thousands of solar systems being swept clear of all life at once.

    Jenkins:

    This is where I would agree that faith comes in. It’s faith that whatever God/evolution is optimizing to, it’s selected with full knowledge of all the consequences and guaranteed (through the sacrifice of Christ) to us that it’s what God/evolution “chooses” to experience for itself.

    Aaron:

    I want to be sure that our conceptions of morality do not build in a bias for inaction over actions that cause pain, even if inaction causes different persons to receive pain. In an evolutionary context, it’s easier to build emotional inhibitions against harm that can be directly perceived than against harm hidden through complicated interactions. Doesn’t mean that the latter can’t be more immoral (and harmful) than the former. That’s why it’s useful to develop intellect to override emotion at times. :D

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  19. Michael Gordon on June 24, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    Without a God there can be no absolute or universal morality; it *is* what the majority wants it to be.

    One can certainly make a case that evolution provides for some behaviors being better than others in particular situations, and I tend to consider those behaviors “moral”. But since situations differ, so will morals differ that are anchored only on situations.

    Socialism or group consciousness works well and is necessary in temperate and subarctice climates; it is actually detrimental in equatorial climates where personal and clan strength dominates race and nation. In other words, Norway has socialism because the fishermen must feed the farmers for many months; after which the farmers can feed the fishermen. This fact mandates commerce, storage, regulation and so on. But in the Congo, if you are a hunter, you can hunt every day of the year and everyone else on the planet is rival with you; it would be better for you if they did not exist. Hence, constant warfare in central Africa, but the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.

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