”A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” - Thomas Jefferson
Morality is a controversial topic, with opinions varying widely between individuals, as well as cultures. We talk about what’s “right” and what’s “wrong”, assuming everyone knows what those words mean and agrees upon their definition, if not their particular applications. I would argue that in many cases we actually do… but only intuitively. We often know, but do not understand.
The first point of contention that must be resolved is whether morality is objectively or subjectively derived. In modern times, it’s often argued that morality varies with time, place, and culture - what may be considered right in one place, is considered wrong in another. However, this doesn’t definitively prove that morality is subjective; it may simply be a case of varying levels of understanding relative to objective moral precepts. The observation of cultural divergence alone won’t nearly suffice to establish a basis for morality. A closer examination is needed…
Morality is often considered a personal matter – something unique to ourselves. Often, this is thought to be broadly informed by the culture, with some variation existing between individuals. There’s a sense that it’s presumptuous to criticize another’s morality, except where it starkly conflicts with the most widely-accepted notions, or our most precious personal tenets. But what do we really mean when we talk about morality, and how does this apply to a subjective model?
The word “morality” indicates a standard, or a set of rules, for human behavior. A standard, by its very nature, must be hierarchically above (out of reach from) that which it standardizes (in this case, human beings). If we have the power to create or alter the rules, then we are the standard for the rules, they are not the standard for us.
It also can never be the case that standards mutually standardize each other. It must be a one-way relationship. I cannot have the power to define the parameters of a standard, while at the same time the standard has the power to define parameters for me. If man defines moral prescriptions – an act of creation, or fabrication – then morality is powerless to prescribe anything to man; as he is the source of its content, and thus prescribes to himself. In this scenario, there is no thing called “morality” acting upon man; there is only man alone, engaged in a masturbatory intellectual exercise.
In all creative endeavors, there must be a creator and that which is created. The creator acts upon the creation, but the creation does not act upon the creator in like kind. A painting does not paint the painter. There is no mutual power in this relationship - hierarchy is implied. In this case, man is hierarchically above his creation, and thus he is the standard for it, not the other way around.
Consider an established standard of behavior in the workplace. The employee handbook states, ”Employees may not drink beverages while at computer stations.” This rule is established by the employer – it is subjective relative to him. He created the rule and may alter it at any time. Thus, he is not bound by it. To the employees, however, this rule is objective – it is thrust upon them as an external phenomenon - and they are powerless to alter it. Their only choice is to conform to it, or to ignore it and bear the consequences of that decision.
This must be so, for if the employees had the power to alter the rule, they too would no longer be bound by it, and the illusory “standard” would fail to standardize anyone’s behavior.
To assert man as the creator of morality is to say, ”We have made up this standard and are bound by it… unless and until we deem otherwise.” And this ability to alter is necessarily implied, as this is the inherent power of a creator relative to his creation. How can this relationship to morality standardize man’s actions? How can it bind him in any real sense? If you have the power to change the standard, you may do so the moment it would bind you, and thus remain unbound. It has no power to standardize your actions.
Calling this morality is to make morality indistinguishable from any other act of decision-making – an unbounded process of personal evaluation and subsequent conclusion. I may choose to refrain from eating steal because I deem it too expensive, because I don’t like the taste, or because I think I “shouldn’t”, but that’s all just opinion, or personal preference, regardless of what rationale is concocted to support its formation.
Subjective morality obviates the very concept of morality as a standard for human behavior. The notion of a “subjective standard” is oxymoronic. Of course, we can set up rules for ourselves, but we’re really just playing a game of pretend. It’s like a child saying, ”The floor is lava” or ”I can’t step on the cracks”. There’s no real rule there, any more than when we make New Year’s resolutions – we’re free to alter the rules at any time, and often do, so in reality there is no rule at all.
If we acknowledge that it’s been sufficiently demonstrated that subjective morality cannot exist, morality must either be objective or non-existent. If objective, it must be rooted in something unalterable by man, lest it become subject to him, and thus subjective. What source, then, may morality have that is unalterable, out of man’s reach, not subject to his input?
God would presumably be one such source, and this seems a viable option. It may very well be the case that morality is what God says it is - a matter of omnipotent caprice. If this be the case, then all further discussion is moot. But this challenges one to prove not only the existence of God, but definitive knowledge of His will. A tall order, to say the least.
A second option would be nature, reality, that which is extant and immutable - Truth, or that which has undergone the formality of actually existing. This has the potential to include the God option as well; as a case could be made that our cohesive reality suggests intelligent design - a creation that implies a creator. If God’s will may be known by any means, it may reasonably be known by His creation. However, the inclusion of this addition need not be accepted (or even entertained), as we need not know the source of nature for us to know something about nature itself.
The use of the word “nature” here is not meant to imply the physical environment or the behavior of all the various species that abound. Morality is being considered as a standard for man’s behavior, particularly in dealing with other men*; as morality concerns both the actor and that which is acted upon. So the relevant aspect of nature is the inherent nature of the being in question, or human nature.
(It is not my intent to ignore the relevancy of man’s actions toward other species, however it is surely the case that whatever defines appropriate moral action toward other species would apply to action toward other men as well, whereas the opposite may or may not be the case. In light of this, focusing our investigation on human interactions will serve as the broadest basis for understanding morality on the whole)
Human nature is a divisive study, but by seeking the lowest common denominator we find characteristics such as the need for air, food, and water; the formation of thinking patterns in response to perceived phenomena (implying susceptibility to conditioning), and free will. This latter quality, I believe, establishes the most relevant basis for objective morality concerning human interactions.
Man apparently has free will to choose his own behavior. Though this is sometimes challenged by citing the aforementioned aspect of human nature which makes man conditionable, or the fact that man does not even choose which thoughts arise in his own consciousness. However, to found a denial of free will upon these observations is to ignore where free will ultimately resides - in the free will of attention.
We may not choose our next thought, what suggestions are offered by others, or the phenomena we perceive, but we maintain the ability to either dwell upon these, holding them within our conscious awareness, or to let them go in favor of other ideas. ”As a man thinketh, so shall he be”, and it’s the preponderance of our thought that contains the creative power. Thoughts long held become beliefs, which in turn determine our worldview – the foundation of our decision-making process - which in combination with emotion, inspires our actions. In this way, man may choose his conditioning deliberately by this focus, and thus assert his free will.
Free will, then, being a truth of man, must be duly acknowledged in our dealings with him. To fail in this acknowledgement is to operate in denial, or fallacy. To ignore this aspect of man’s nature by asserting our will upon him is no less destructive than ignoring the laws of physics - inertia when driving a car, or gravity when approaching a cliff.
Such acts of ignorance are “wrong” because they are incorrect; if not in assessment (we may know our victim wills to remain unharmed), then in expression (we harm him anyway). Nature shows no mercy and offers no consolation for knowing gravity exists but launching ourselves off a cliff anyway. Nature yields its effects based upon our actions in its realm; with no consideration for our knowledge to the contrary.
This founds the argument for consent as a factor of great moral import, but consent alone is not the basis for morality – the whole of man’s nature is. The rights of man (those actions which do not deny his nature) are immutable, and thus unalienable; such that even his consent to being acted upon without due consideration of his nature offers no hope for circumventing the ill effects that must naturally occur.
So we see that morality is a term that describes the particular subject matter (man’s behavior), but not the relevant overall endeavor (alignment of our actions with Truth). It is merely a branch of science, and need not include any beliefs or assertions than would not be necessary in that arena. We also see that, by this natural definition, the existence of morality cannot be questioned – it is an extant reality, and cannot be altered by any action of man.
Furthermore, I would contend that no other wholly rational definition of morality can be offered; as subjective morality is impossible, the God model alone has no rational support, and no other objective source may be imagined.
In conclusion, morality defines an objective standard of “right” and “wrong” behavior, with “right” actions being those which duly acknowledge the true nature of the being in question, and “wrong” actions being those which do not. Man is powerless to alter this, and it is not dependent upon time or place. No amount of declarations, rationalizations, consensus, social rituals, or perceived “necessity” will have the slightest effect upon it, and man will eternally be bound to its cause-and-effect consequences.
Consider this in all you do, and have no expectation that conformity with culture will equate to conformity with morality. Man-made problems abound, and no system or methodology that denies the laws of nature holds any promise of reprieve. As inconvenient as it may be, resolution of the world’s ills will never come by external means of control; it must be rooted in widespread internal mastery.
Morality is the only solution that actually solves.
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