My Moral Compass
Recently, a fellow blogger asked some tough philosophical questions regarding Natural Law. It’s my basic contention that morality isn’t universal. It’s hers that it is. We come from very different perspectives, and one of the things she had trouble with was finding an atheist willing or able to discuss his moral underpinnings. In other words, if morality isn’t universal and isn’t derived from God, where does it come from?
Excellent questions from a highly intelligent and insightful person. I hope I’m up to the task of even attempting to answer.
First, I think it’s self-evident morality isn’t universal. She contended rape, genocide, murder, theft and molestation were examples of things that were universally wrong. The problem with that logic is that those are words. And those words tend to only be applied when a societal sens of morality is already present.
For example, take rape. There was a time when women were considered little more than the property of men. A woman had no right to refuse her husband sexual intercourse. There are still plenty of people who believe that is true. And yet, two people of opposing views on this subject can sit down at a table and, without context, agree that rape is universally wrong. The problem is, their definitions of what constitute rape differ.
Another example: child molestation. Everyone will agree that child molestation is not only abhorrent, but evil. Except they don’t. We point to Islam and talk about how ugly the prophet Mohammed was that his wife was 9 when he married her. But what’s an appropriate age? It wasn’t until fairly recently, historically speaking, that young women of 12 or so were married off to much older men.
From a modern perspective, this seems like a clear case of child molestation. But I doubt it did to the people involved at the time. At least, not universally.
But making these arguments presents us with the problem of “moral relativism.” In other words, the idea we must view all social practices from within the cultural lens in which they occur. In that light, female genital mutilation is moral, because certain cultures believe it to be so. Stoning a woman to death is moral, because certain religious teachings believe it to be so. I do not believe in moral relativism.
Neither do I believe in moral absolutism.
So what do I believe? This is the problem.
While I don’t believe I should have to condone practices such as FGM due to another person’s cultural lens, I would be lying if I said my opinion on the inherent wrongness of the practice wasn’t informed by my own. So how is that not moral relativism?
At some point in time, one has to take a stand. One has to decide that, not only are certain beliefs and practices socially relevant, but they are actually better than others. If one is not only moral, but ethical, one might find oneself prompted to define “better” in terms of society at large, rather than just personal interest.
In my case, my sense of morality comes from several places.
- A Christian upbringing – while I’m an atheist now, I wasn’t always. As a young scholar of the Bible, I was always drawn most powerfully to the words of Christ. To me, Paul seemed like a mostly hateful fanatic, full of judgment and scorn.
- My environment – There’s a reason people who live in metropolitan areas tend to be more socially liberal than others. When you live with a multitude of different kinds of people, you come to understand – not simply intellectualize – that most people have the same basic wants and needs. Also, you see the ugly side of humanity; what happens when people don’t respect each others’ personal liberty and the social contract (laws) by which society functions best.
- My own personal experiences – Face it. If I weren’t gay, I might have a completely different view of gay people than I do. But I am gay. And not by choice. Consequently, I do have more sympathy for traditionally victimized groups than others might. On the other hand, I also see how self-serving sexual orientation politics can be. By way of example, I have a serious distaste for people who denigrate their male opponents by implying they might be “friends of Dorothy.” I also understand this distaste is based on my own experiences and, if they knew what I knew, they wouldn’t do it.
- Reality – What works and what doesn’t? For example, for me to consider gay marriage as the end of civilization, I would have to believe that flocks of people would turn gay just for the chance at marrying their best friends. I would have to believe they would forgo their own biological and social impulses to act against their own wills, thus damaging the social model and the future of humans as a species. But I don’t believe that. I think the idea is absurd.
I believe in American Exceptionalism. I think we’re the greatest country that has ever existed. Consequently, my views of what is right and wrong are strongly supported by a belief that the American values on which this country is founded are morally superior to others because they’ve been not only instrumental in advancing the individual, but because they have so obviously worked.
I believe in the Constitution as the most important legal document ever created because it provides a framework by which a government can function, and still retain the majority of rights for the individual.
Though I use words like good and evil as if they are universal truths, I don’t believe they are. I simply use them as valuable social constructs by which to categorize that which is acceptable and viable for a well ordered society and that which is antithetical to that society.
While my heart and emotions definitely come into play when considering such issues as FGM, stoning or oppression by a religious group, my head tells me these things are counterproductive because they deny the rights of the individual and subjugate people to a central authority. A process through which any society must eventually fall.
And this, rather than a belief in God, is what leads me to political conservatism, whereas some others may have arrived there by a different process. I know I function best when fettered only by those rules which prevent others from functioning. I know society must have laws and social values, and I respect them. I know society must have a dominant culture (and that need not indicate an ethnic preference, but a core value system) in order to function.
In other words, my morality is based on a sense of what is best for me coupled with what is best for society. My sense of “universal” truth is based on the notion that some systems are preferred over others. And my sense of ethics is based on the idea that history has proven my values to be correct.