What actually is it?

I have often defined it in the context of its distinction from ethics. Morality is characterized by the beliefs one holds that are no longer (or may never have been) open to interpretation or discussion. Absolute rights and wrongs.

This definition doesn’t function all that well in practice because there are numerous moral beliefs we betray on a regular, conditional basis. We would think it immoral to lie – it is wrong – but can easily devise a circumstance in which most would say it is okay to do so.

Is morality determined by majority?

In a way, yes, especially for society. But here is our first rub. Society is cultural. Subjective. It evolves throughout our lives. Not absolute, which seems to fly in the face of how we believe in morality (that it’s a fixed thing people (should) have). In both individuals and polity experience (the accumulation of information and wisdom) informs our ideas about morality.

The impetus for morality is a universal truth. But what truth? How’s this?

That which increases human dignity is good.  That which depresses it is bad.

Sounds nice. Still subjective. Just can’t run from the fact that we define it through our experiences and perceptions. We perceive humanity through our interpretation of “our kind.” Complications enter the equation when we tighten our circle of “our kind” and cease listening to our empathy due to what we falsely (and sometimes rightly) perceive as threats to “our kind”.  But on the whole, we as a civilization have expanded the ring of morality to include more and more protections for people, rather than reduce it (with notable exceptions).


Our perceptions of what is and isn’t moral have changed on things like gender equality, religious rights, racial equality, human sexuality, child rights, environmental protection, animal rights, etc.  250 years ago, it wasn’t ‘unethical’ for a husband to bend his wife over his knee and spank her. We might — from an absolutist perspective — like to look back and say, “No. That was always wrong.” But you’d have an argument on your hand from many men in the U.S. back then on why God put the man at the head of the household and that disciplining his wife was not just his right, but his obligation. (You may find this hard to believe, but if you research it thoroughly you will find that it was normal. The exception would have been not doing it.)

We’re a mess, but we have evolved in this experiment known as humanity. Like individuals, every time we fall down and get back up, we tuck a new piece of information into our collective ken and move forward in the hopes of not doing that again.  For the most part we do an okay job of that. As Americans, we haven’t engaged in a systematic destruction of native civilizations, again. We have accepted that females are “endowed” with the same natural rights as males.  We understand now that protecting the environment carries value. We (almost everybody) believes that children do have rights that trump parental rights.

Those morals were non-existent 250, 500, 1,000 years ago. Are we saying that we’re just better than those people? Are we going to argue that it was “immoral” to not allow females to vote in elections back 200+ years ago?  It’s not so easy to apply these positions retroactively because our contemporary ideals aren’t just informed by what we feel, but by the very information we have access to (scientific, medical, experiential, etc.), and how that information has replaced other information (superstitions, religions, etc.), thus completely altering how we think about everything.  We have a completely different paradigm than those people did back then.

This has happened collectively, democratically. Some of it has been conscious (we vote: the government enforces an ethical ideal from the top down, those ideals trickle into the main population). Some of that has been unconscious, trickling upward from the population into our institutions. Either way, there’s a collective nature to how we debate, discuss and create morality in society.

It does change, but it’s not flexible, because usually once a “bell is rung” on an ethical issue, we now see (looking back) that it’s incredibly hard to “un-ring”.  So, in the case of female suffrage or even gay marriage, it’s patently obvious that these things — while seeing minor setbacks at times — aren’t being reversed.  So, it’s not so much about “well, whatever people decide is moral” and more about, “whatever polity exists, as it gains information on an issue and expands its moral perspective collectively, so too does it increase its moral code to include that thing.

This does highlight, however, that we (big WE) made it up. Or at least our interpretation of ‘truths’ and writings from the past change. Maybe there is some hope for us after all.

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