Saturday, July 30, 2011

Society and morality

Having said in my last post that I think our personal "moral code" is learned over time, rather than being something we are born with, I want to use this post to quickly add that the society in which we live ALSO has established a moral code which we must live by, even if that code is different than our personal code.

By "society" I am speaking of the other people who live in this world, country, state, county, city, as an aggregate entity. You can't do EVERYTHING you feel like doing, just because it may fall within the limits of your own personal moral code. You might feel it is morally right to murder someone you don't like or who had done you wrong, but "society" has decreed that murder is one of the "no" items on their master list of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. You just have to live with being overruled by higher authority, and submit to that authority. No murdering, even if he takes your parking place right in front of you. Case closed.

Of course, doing murder is a rather extreme example. Most people's morals are not in conflict with a society which decrees there will be no murder done. But what if the society you lived in had other things on their "no" list, such as no abortions allowed, or no gay marriage? Society has "yes" lists, too. What if the majority in your society said you must pray a certain way to a certain alleged deity in a certain church on a certain day? It could happen. It HAS happened.

It is up to each of us to make sure things like that don't happen. We are "society," after all. We must take care not to impose our personal morality code on everyone who lives in our society, even though we believe our code to be right and just and best. True? Not true? Conversely, we must insure we don't go down the path of absolute permissiveness where "anything goes." Exactly what is our responsibility here, with respect to living by our own moral code while at the same time allowing the larger society a little slack to live by their code, too?

John Stuart Mill referred to democracy as the "tyranny of the majority," and so it can be. In a democracy, the majority -- no matter how slim that majority -- can force their will and their morals on ALL of their fellow citizens. That's just the way it works. But is your moral code really superior to mine, just because your beliefs happen to be shared by a majority?

The power of the majority in a democracy, I believe, should be tempered by a degree of tolerance and compassion for those who believe differently than we believe. In the system we have in the United States, whenever we cannot find that tolerance and compassion within ourselves voluntarily, our courts step in and enforce that pesky and often inconvenient "equal protection under the law" provision of our constitution.

That little clause says that a small band of haters can attend military funerals and verbally and obscenely abuse grieving families, because to restrict speech too much, ESPECIALLY IF WE DON'T LIKE WHAT IS BEING SAID, would lead us down a slippery path we don't want to travel down; it would lead to other kinds of speech being more easily restricted. This, even if the majority wanted them silenced.

That little clause overruled an election in which the tyranny of the majority decreed people may not be married in part of a certain state if they were different than other married couples, since they were of the same sex. Equal Protection means you can't treat one group of people differently under the law than you treat another group of people. Checks and balances. Yet many injustices are suffered every day at the hands of people who think their moral codes are superior, and they are in a democratic majority.

People need to develop a set of morals they can live by and not hurt other people in the process. At the same time, no one can argue that society as a whole needs to have rules and needs to be able to enforce those rules. When those rules have to do with "right and wrong" or "good or bad" or "acceptable and not acceptable" then those "rules" are a code of morality, pure and simple.

But how far do we go? How tolerant should we be before "moral decay" sets in and our society begins to disintegrate? How, at the same time, do we guard against being too rigid where all meaningful personal liberty is lost to that society?

What are your thoughts on the reality of democracy being, or capable of becoming, the "tyranny of the majority?" What is the solution to that? How do you make people be tolerant of the beliefs and values and morals of other people when they are in the voting booth? Or should they even think about anything except what they think is best for their society, based on their own morals?

So many questions still, and so few answers yet. Sadly, I'm not even half done here. I know I have raised more questions than I have answered.

Next: "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Really? Is it that easy?


  1. I think "not hurt other people in the process" is one of the key issues to remember, but even then you may find the law of the land may see differently. The hurting other people can be very indirect in some instances.

  2. Heinlein said "Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other "sins" are invented nonsense.(Hurting yourself is not sinful —just stupid.)"

    When it comes to society, that's what I think.

    That about sums up for me what society's responsibilities are in this: take steps and make laws/penalties to keep from hurting people (which can include property laws, by the way, not just direct violence).

    People can impose other morality on themselves far in excess of this, but I don't believe society has the right to.

    Though they've certainly done so all during history and today, as you have rightly pointed out.



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