MORALITY: Why Bother?

By Lloyd H. Whitling

Morality represents humanity’s attempts to answer two common questions: “How should I behave?” “Why should I care?” The historical procedure has been to scare people into following a predetermined set of rules.

Of one fact we can safely assure ourselves: humanity will never agree what morality is, until we first agree on what purpose it’s intended to serve. For most people, morality means to live according to rules attributed to the god that most influenced their upbringing, many of which seem to have been glued onto a basic set applicable to all people for all time (depending on whom you ask, if you ask me).

As secular people, we may be interested to know what that basic, instinctive set might be, so let me suggest a way to learn. Any astute middle school child should be aware enough of what constitutes good and bad behavior to be able to produce a fairly complete list. American children, trained in ‘don’ts’, will likely produce a list of ‘nots’—  not hurting people; not stealing; not lying. As a teacher or a parent, you should be able to test that to your own satisfaction. Any group of young teens or adults may produce very similar lists. Differences inherent to culture and religion, if culled from the total items from all the lists, should leave a fairly complete universal list of good behavioral traits. Lists of traits universally recognized as bad and good could be generated in separate tests in multiple cultures to assure the most complete results. Cultural and religious insertions to be eliminated are made recognizable by their potential to incite arguments, and by their prevalence on some lists and absence on others.

What should (royal) we look for? Basic morality ought to be concerned with what we need for survival as a social species aware of evolution’s need for diversity, and, accordingly, concerned with justice derived from rules of fair play. Good behavior, therefore, arises from a sense of personal and social balance.

A secular moral philosophy can justify an answer for the question posed in today’s title. On the heels of a realization that diversity increases assurance of species’ survival, comes a realization that our individual and group actions and choices may play a large part that reaches beyond only affecting our diversity, out into the world at large to increase or diminish the presence of all life upon this planet. We have seen that our species can interfere with the balance of nature and most of us have not been schooled on the importance of maintaining that balance. That inter- and intra-species diversity must pose a threat if not maintained, if accepted as factual, makes evident that those factions, past and present, who seek dominance through political manipulation, genocide and murder work toward the demise of our species and so pose a threat against us all. That may seem like a stretch because we are so numerous, which raises a question: at what level of population does its application become appropriate? It also poses a conundrum: How can you eradicate the causes of genocide and murder without violating your own moral edict? More important, perhaps, is another question: What else, by extension, would acceptance of this moral edict affect? Ponder that while I offer some suggestions. First, see if you can find the attachments (or detachments) between all the foregoing and these two untested lists:

An untested starter list of potentially moral (good) behaviors and attributes:

  1. Honest/ethical/not lying
  2. Dependable/responsible/trustworthy
  3. Fairness/just/evenhanded
  4. Tolerant/liberal/unbigoted
  5. Laisses Faire/live and let live/sane or wise
  6. Reputable/honorable/respectable
  7. Acceptive/supportive/affirmative

An untested starter list of potentially immoral (bad) behaviors and attributes:

  1. Dishonest/liar/scammer (Cheater)
  2. Corrupt/sneaky/decadent
  3. Mean/unfair/unjust
  4. Prejudiced/bigoted/partiality
  5. Snoopy/nosey/paranoid
  6. Disreputable/unsavory
  7. Jealous/resistive/covetous

Hint: even in a culture most would declare as evil, good and bad would be assessed as the world at large saw them. What would set the evil culture apart will be the differences that get them declared “evil”.

How do you want to be known? Word gets around, and your good or bad reputation will cost you or support you, no matter your beliefs. To build trust has to be an ongoing endeavor and concern for every enterprise and individual. Only a fool would openly brag about being the world’s most successful scammer, thief, bigot, cheater—or the world’s greatest liar. Who would believe it?

Courteous, courtesy, murder, Initiating force against someone else (coercion, assault, rape, kidnapping, intimidation etc.) duress, bullying, empathy, generosity, truth-seeking, cannibalism, loyalty—such words stimulate feelings and mental images that disturb or please you at various levels, but none have been tested for their potential cultural or religious origins. The word ‘cannibalism’, for example, may upset you but only make a cannibal think about food. The word ‘god’ may inspire churchly thoughts but make a polytheist wonder, “Which one?”

Copyright ©2014 by Lloyd H. Whitling. Permission to excerpt is granted if accompanied with credit to the author. Permission to reuse whole and unchanged is granted only if accompanied with this notice and proper credit. All other rights reserved.