Monday, July 9, 2007

An Evolving Morality

One of the first ideas taught in the study of human culture is the idea of social norms. Sociologists define these norms as an agreement between the individuals of a particular culture as to what sort of behavior is accepted and what sort of behavior is not. The members of the society must conform to these agreed standards or risk being excluded or marginalized.
It is possible to point to two levels at which social norms are articulated: the first level is the most obvious one, the level of formal law. A society’s laws display the prescribed modes of behavior that are legally acceptable. Deviation from legal behavior is dealt with in a severe manner, with consequences commensurate to the deviation committed. The second level is the moral level, where the rules aren’t as concretely stated as in the formal law, but rather in the insubstantial conventions of culture. Although the language of morality isn’t as clearly imposed as the language of law, it remains—to a certain extent—just as condign and severe. The peculiar thing about morality is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be reasonable. For example, a moral standard that opposes the presence of an alternative-gender organization will deny its recognition as an official student organization simply because of its being against the “moral sensibilities” of the community, which has nothing to do with the actual formal rules that exist to define the requirements for recognition that any other student organization would have to complete. In other words, even if the particular organization complied in full with the formal requirements, the community as a whole would still attempt to keep it from existing because of its violation of “moral sensibilities”.
This moral law, like its legal counterpart, is changeable. The evidence of this is found in how moral law varies between different cultures and different historical periods. Of course, one can argue that there are certain actions that have always been considered to be “bad” like murder, or “good” like being honest, but these probably stem from the deeper, more fundamental roots of human altruism. But one can recognize the difference between these basic laws governing human behavior, and the derivative moral laws that deal with the grey areas of human relationships, such as certain lifestyles, art, or ideas, which have no direct harm on the human condition, but are seen as harmful by some because of how they “erode social fabric”.
But one has to understand also that the anatomy of social fabric is also constantly changing. At the end of the day, the point is this: there is no such thing as a fixed moral code; once cannot fortify oneself in the illusion of unchanging moral values.
There are two ways that moral codes can be viewed. The first is that they must be constantly upheld and maintained in favor of a consistent cultural identity; or that they can evolve and change according to the changes in society. The reason why this column favors the latter view is because of the idea that development occurs through change; improvement is found in constant development, rather than rigid adherence to a singular mode of morality. For example, if social morality hadn’t evolved from generation to generation, there would still see clear demarcation between the mestizo and the indio. People would still be measured and valued according to the color of their skin. Of course, vestiges of this sort of absurd morality are part of the undercurrent sentiments of contemporary culture, but its fading indicates an evolution of culture.
If it is assumed that morality is evolving, then the question of “To what end?” could be asked. That is, what then would be the end goal of this evolution? In nature, evolution’s goal is survival of the species. This parallels moral evolution: the society must survive. Culture has to power to make or break a society. Some moral conventions can bring harm to a society, rather than edify it. Harm in the sense of real physical harm and violence on the human condition. This measure of violence could include psychological and emotional trauma as well. Moral development, in moving away from the “nasty, brutish, and short” existence, must seek to lessen and eventually remove from human society the sources of harm, such as exclusivity and imbalanced power-relations.
However, not all the results of moral evolution can be seen as beneficial. “Mutations” as a result of unchecked moral development could be just as harmful to society as an unchanging moral code.
It is then necessary to use a critical framework to examine current morality and guide it towards a more beneficial result. An understanding of social commentary such as those found in the social philosophies of feminism, socialism, religion, atheism, post-modernism etc. provide perspectives on what sort of moral code would be best for the society. Understanding the differences and identities of the various views enables the student to determine a more beneficial course for the evolution of morality. But before any growth in understanding can be achieved, it must first be recognized that morality is a dynamic and changing facet of human society, not the absolute code that some would have us believe.

No comments: