Friday, March 10, 2006

Down with Morality: Part 1 - Language Issues

Every time I hear people talking of "Morals," I get nervous.

I have heard people use the word "moral" to define actions that I believe are reasonable. I have also heard those on the opposite theirs are the moral actions and ours are immoral. I have heard about immorality of gay marriage, about the morality of George Bush. I have read of the immorality of women in the workplace, whites marrying blacks, Christianity, Non-Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Yoga, Meditation, the lower classes, the upper classes, the middle class, and the list goes on.

"Morality" has become just another buzz word; a tool used by those of those who wish to force their world view on others. Its meaning changes with the time, the speaker and the location.

So let's stop being moral. Instead, let's be ethical.

Now, "moral" and "ethical" are really not that far apart in meaning. If you look in a dictionary (and I did) you discover that moral and ethical are considered synonyms, and that some of their definitions are fairly similar:

Moral: 1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character:" moral scrutiny; a moral quandary." 2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior: "a moral lesson." 3. Conforming to standards of what is right or just in behavior; virtuous: "a moral life." 4. Arising from conscience or the sense of right and wrong: "a moral obligation." 5. Based on strong likelihood or firm conviction, rather than on the actual evidence: "a moral certainty."

Ethical: 1. of or relating to the philosophical study of ethics; ethical codes 2. conforming to accepted standards of social or professional behavior; an ethical lawyer 3. adhering to ethical and moral principles; "it seems ethical and right"; "followed the only honorable course of action"; "had the moral courage to stand alone"

The interesting thing for me is that "goodness," "right," "just," and "conscience" all appear in the definitions of "moral." All these words describe things that are subjective and personal. Further, according to the fifth definition, a person does not need evidence that their actions are right or just or good, they just have to have a firm conviction. If a person thinks an action is right, then taking that action is a moral thing to do. This means that the man who walks a girl through the crowd of anti-choice protesters to an abortion clinic and the man that blows up that clinic are both acting morally, each according to his definition of the word.

The definition of "ethical" on the other hand, contains none of those subjective words (though it does contain the word "moral," which shows how the words have been used interchangeably) Instead it talks of "accepted standards of... behaviour" and "principals." Of course, these words bring up their own difficulties. What are "accepted standards of behaviour?" Each culture is different. Each family is different. What seems acceptable to one group is certainly unacceptable to another. How do we judge?

Well, a friend of mine who knows far more about religion than I do, pointed out that "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not a moral statement, it is an ethical one. This statement, known as "The Golden Rule" appears in almost every major religion in the world. It does not judge the person you are facing, it does not decide whether their behaviour is right or wrong, it does not question the value of that other person's beliefs or code of conduct. It very succinctly says how we should behave towards other people: as we would like them to behave towards us.

So, let us stop worrying about being moral. Let us instead worry about being ethical. We will all get along better.

Part two: "morality laws" and what to replace them with, coming soon.

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