Friday, November 11, 2011

The Perfect Moral Code?

Andrea York, whose long-standing interview with me will continue to be published soon (I keep getting distracted by other topics, leaving it as something for me to do when I run out of ideas… which never seems to happen these days… but will undoubtedly occur eventually), made a comment I think is worth a careful look at, because it’s something all people deal with, regardless of their religion.

Andrea asked, “…who decides what is right and wrong? There must be one truth by which morality hinges, correct?”

I’ll address this in two parts, answering each question individually.

The first is simple. The only person who can decide right from wrong is you. You aren’t working from scratch here, and we all use some combination of the law, religion, philosophy, personal experience, and the influence of others to determine our morality. However, it is only the individual who can determine what is right and what is wrong.

Christians may disagree, but none of them are perfectly interpreting the Bible’s morality… and if I may be blunt, I think they’re giving it quite a favorable misinterpretation. It’s actually impressive what modern Christians have been able to do with Christianity; I find it akin to successfully travelling to outer space in a wooden rocket. They have polished a turd to a diamond luster, and I applaud them.

The second question is more interesting to me: is there one truth regarding morality?

It would be rather lazy of me to just point out that we cannot know whether there is one truth regarding morality. Falling back on the truism that we simply cannot know anything does not get us any closer to the truth. I’m not that defeatist, anyway. I will do my best to represent both sides, because I don’t have the answer, but I can see points on each side (and I have a clear opinion on which side is more likely).

If there is one truth, that would certainly be logical. If one were to assume all moral dilemmas have one correct decision, then there must be some perfect morality which is infinitely complex, but ultimately correct for all possible situations and variables. It’s more a question, then, of whether this perfect morality can be simplified into something that can be comprehended by human beings. There is no reason to believe this is impossible… or possible.

The problem here is that morality very situational. Saying “Don’t lie” isn’t technically always correct, as there are times when lying is the right decision. Don’t believe me? Well, the classic example is to imagine someone about telling a woman she looks good, but a better and more significant example would be to consider whether you would hide Jews from German officials during the Holocaust. Would it be wrong to lie to officials if you are saving the lives of innocent people? I would say no, and I question your humanity if you disagree.

There are always exceptions. Any “one truth” regarding morality would need to be a complex web, full of if’s and unless’s, because that is how real-world morality works. If morality were black and white, it wouldn’t be a mystery that has eluded the brightest minds since the beginning of recorded history.

However, it’s perfectly possible that there is no one truth. It may be that morality is completely subjective, or even evolving. It may be that what is “right” now would not have pragmatically worked in the past, and that it will change by necessity in the future. What is “wrong” certainly changes all the time, even within religions. Root beer floats and rock music used to be anathema, and the further back you go, the more embarrassing it gets.

There is certainly no “one truth” in Christianity, since there are as many variants of Christianity as there are Christians. There is also a constant evolution of the law throughout the Bible, with the most extreme edit occurring with the introduction of Jesus and his ideology. Paul further alters this, and almost two thousand years of Christian theology adds an immeasurable amount of new material (aka “interpretations) to consider.

Rather than “one truth,” maybe what is meant is “best,” or “most right.” This helps account for the fact that there are varying degrees of “right,” just as there are varying degrees of “wrong.” To give someone a dollar is not as good as giving them a job, while punching someone is not as bad as stabbing them (usually). Also, should we put precedence on a morality that actually makes someone better, or should we value abstract ideals that we imagine to be best, even if those who adhere to these unrealistic standards do not – or cannot – live up to them?

The sum of these ideas leads me to favor the notion that there is no “one truth” regarding morality. However, while I question the existence of a perfect moral code, I know that each moral dilemma is accompanied by actions that vary from very wrong to very right. I know that it’s wrong to use force unless you are preventing the unfair use of force by another. I also know it’s moral to wash your hands with soap.

What, you don’t think hygiene is a matter of morality? Jews and Muslims are already on board with me here, and I think Christians need to get a clue. How clean you are is a moral decision, because if you are infecting people with disease because of your negligence… how is that not harming other people?

Herein lies a major problem with determining moral truth: people cannot even agree on what is a moral decision. I doubt most people think of what they eat as being a matter of morality, but members of PETA would disagree. Fashion has been linked to morality throughout history, though today most Americans are far less uptight about it (if you doubt me… how many of you are offended by women wearing pants?). There is simply very little consistency regarding what is a moral decision, let alone what actions are considered moral or immoral.

But we as a society do come to quite a bit of consensus. What we can agree on as consistent is largely legislated as law, and the rest is left to personal discretion because… we just don’t know. We don’t codify every single aspect of life because not only do we not know what is best for everyone, there may not even be a universal moral imperative. Even Jesus says that what works for some may not work for everyone, as he points out in Matthew 19:11-12, when he says it may be in the best interest of some to “choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it,” meaning that it may be better for some to not marry, a sentiment echoed by Paul at times.

While I don’t believe in an absolute true morality for all people at all times, I believe every individual moral dilemma has a series of right and wrong reactions, and I am not of the opinion that “morality is relative.” Morality is never relative, it is merely situational, and the situation is rarely as clear cut as we would like. Sometimes there are no good options and you have to choose to merely minimize a bad outcome, and most of the time we are working with incomplete knowledge.

I could wax philosophical about the possibility of a perfect moral code all day, but ultimately… I must assume such a thing is like a god, and I must be presented with some evidence of such a thing before I can comfortably say it exists.


  1. I'm so glad root beer floats are not considered morally wrong - I'm kinda partial toward them.

    What if truth is a person? Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He is perfect theology.

    It's true, interpretations are subjective but we do not follow the gospel of Paul or anyone else for that matter, but of Jesus. Would that make a difference?

  2. Good points. If there was but one true morality, it would never change.

    I, however, am a bit older than you. My hand washing morality reflects a different time and attitude. Carlin sums it up for me.
    (sorry the audio is so shitty).

  3. @mac: I'm a fan of Carlin, but he wasn't a very bright man. He also blamed all wars on religion. I trust the immunology I took in college, and the statistics which demonstrate that proper hand washing saves lives where ever it is practiced, from food preparation to hospitals.

    What if truth is a person? Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He is perfect theology.

    Of course he would say that. TV is full of ads telling me they'll give me happiness... am I to believe them solely because that's what they claim? I don't think Jesus can be truth anymore than Coca-Cola can be happiness.

    It's true, interpretations are subjective but we do not follow the gospel of Paul or anyone else for that matter, but of Jesus. Would that make a difference?

    And yet what Paul writes (or what is at times merely attributed to Paul) is believed just as much as what Jesus is supposed to have said... or am I wrong?


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