I often hear people throw around words like “moral” and “immoral”. What does this mean? Does morality change or is morality something that is always true and unshifting through the sands of time?
Words mean something so I have to identify what it is to be “moral”. That means we need to frame the parameters.
- Moral: From the Latin “moralitas” means, “manner, character, proper behavior”.
- Immoral: The opposite of whatever is considered moral
- Amoral: Existing outside or unaware of morality. A spider that eats its mate after copulation is amoral because the concept of human “right” and “wrong” don’t apply or exist in the situation.
Are Morals Absolute or Relative?
Before we can answer whether a course of action is moral, we need to determine whether morals – “proper” or “right” behavior – are always consistent or whether they are relative and situational. That is, do morals change over time?
I tend to have a very strong moral code. That is how I was raised. You don’t lie. You don’t steal. You don’t cheat. That is how I choose to live my life, even when it is incredibly inconvenient.
But in a broader sense, anyone who says that morals are always absolute are the type of people who have the luxury of living a sheltered life, surviving through the protection, grace, and effort of others. These are the types of men who live in secluded seminaries and argue about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Such an opinion is a luxury of the willfully ignorant.
I’m not talking about casual moral relativism where someone lies if it is inconvenient to tell the truth. I’m talking about how fundamental shifts in circumstances can make actions that are considered immoral today not only moral, but a moral imperative. Consider the following examples, which prove that what we consider “moral” and “immoral” are based upon circumstances:
- Ephebophilia: We do not tolerate, nor should we, allowing a grown adult to have sex with a 12 year old. It is abuse and deserves significant jail time for a host of reasons, including differentials in the power structure and the inability to give true consent among other things. However, if mankind were wiped out by a plague and only a few hundred people remained, the “moral” course of action to preserve the species would be to require anyone who had reached reproductive age to propagate as quickly, and in as many combinations, as possible that within 30 to 50 years enough people would exist that we could avoid extinction as a species. That is, an action we consider horrifically immoral today would be a moral imperative due to changes in circumstances.
- Marriage: In the past, it was the moral obligation of a child to honor the wishes of parents who arranged a marriage to cement the family’s political position. A child that rebelled against such an arrangement was wicked, immoral, and a shame to the family. Today, economic prosperity has resulted in wealth levels reaching sufficient heights that the Western world now considers arranged marriages immoral and a human rights abuse. The only thing that changed were the external circumstances.
- Murder: Murdering another human is immoral. Yet, if you were responsible for a military mission that would lead to the discovery of the location of weapons of mass destruction and an innocent civilian wandered into the area and threatened to blow the operation resulting in the deaths of millions of other people, you would shoot and kill them without hesitation. You were intentionally causing their death through no guilt of their own, yet, the murder was moral. Different circumstances changed morality.
- Theft: You are the head of a scientific research team at a major corporation that develops a machine capable of killing people with sound waves. The CEO plans on using the technology to murder his competitors. You steal a key piece of data and destroy it. Even though the property was not yours, your actions were moral.
- Suicide: In the film Independence Day, Randy Quaid’s character willingly commits suicide in order to help defend the Earth against a hostile invasion that threatens humanity by flying a plane into an alien ship. Suicide is considered immoral by a large percentage of people, societies, and religions. In this case, his actions were incredibly moral and saved the entire species and planet. The act, suicide, is the same but different circumstances determine whether his actions were moral or immoral. In contrast, in the past it was considered a moral obligation to commit suicide if you had shamed your family, especially in Eastern cultures. Today, we consider suicide immoral because “only God can end life”. What was once an incontrovertible moral ideal is now considered immoral.
If Morals Are Relative Based Upon Circumstances, What Is the Definition of Morality?
Some argue that morality is anything that “God says it is”. This presents questions about what, specifically, God said. For those who believe in the Jewish and Christian verses, Deuteronomy 22:13, 14, and 20, 21 instruct that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night, she is to be stoned to death at her father’s doorstep by the men of the city.
The evidence of virginity was an intact hymen which, we know now, is not the case because accidents, sports participation, and other events can result in breakage, which would result in innocent girls being murdered by their brothers, cousins, and friends. There is no way that such an action is moral. It cannot be the word of God. (This is especially important because this was a law governing sexual morality, not “ceremonial” or “sacrificial” law, which many Christians believe was taken away by the new covenant.)
Likewise, many of the world religions instruct followers to murder people who don’t share the same religious beliefs; literally, killing people due to their thoughts. This cannot be a moral action.
How, then, do we define morality? What is a moral action? Years ago, when confronted with this unpleasant question, I was forced to develop a definition of morality that encapsulated and encompassed all of the things we have discussed, including the changing nature of human choice when presented with different variables. My conclusion:
A moral action is one that results in the maximization of both individual and collective happiness, freedom, and fulfillment without imposing unreasonable or unjustified costs upon third parties or the broader civilization.
That definition of morality, I believe, addresses the inherent conflict that occurs when individual freedom conflicts with the greater societal good. If I am a doctor in Oklahoma and want to get on a jet to play golf in Pebble Beach, there is nothing immoral about my decision. If I do it shortly after a tornado wipes out downtown Oklahoma City, people are dying, and there aren’t enough physicians, then my actions would be immoral, even if they are legal.
Two thousand years ago, a Jewish carpenter summed it up succinctly: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” That guideline will always lead to the moral choice.