Friday, April 1, 2016

On Morality and the Law

There is a young man I know… we have differing views, but I find our conversations challenging.  They give me reason to think not about the mundane problems of home and retirement, but about ideas and the reasons I believe one way and not another.  I was just watching the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, address a group of young people about how we need to raise our political dialogue to respect the views of others and argue with the understanding that differences of opinion are okay and at the end of the day we must understand each other, not necessary agree with each other. Our founders believed the civil and rational exchange of ideas was critical to our survival, if our young are not taught this simple fact then we have problems far bigger than ISIS.

One of our recent exchanges touched on the idea that some laws resulted in actions that where in his opinion in a “moral gray zone.”  My response was to point out the law and personal morality can be contradictory.  I’ve been thinking about this for a bit now and would like to expand on that idea.  But before I jump into this exercise I must point out I have not devoted my life to the study of Philosophy, Ethics or Morals so I come into this with just a lay insight and my own simple understandings.  The same holds true for my understanding of the Law, a simple thing made complex by the creation of lawyers.  Feel free to dismiss this as the babbling of a man with too much time on his hands.

Law (noun) 1. (often the law) The system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may be enforced by the imposition of penalties. 1.1 An individual rule as part of a system of law. 1.2 Systems of law as a subject of study or as the basis of the legal profession. 1.3 A thing regarded as having the binding force or effect of a formal system of rules. (more definitions available - Oxford Dictionary)

Let’s start with a brief discussion of our laws, for that should be relatively simple and straight forward.  Laws are formed by the government to guide the behavior of the citizens, and perhaps even the law writers and administrators.  We can see that not all laws are just, and not all people choose to obey them.  We can also see that laws are not equally applied across the spectrum of a society.  Sometimes this is through bias, other times arrogance.    While our laws have some basis in morality, since each law is created by politicians, implemented by a law enforcement forces, and evaluated by judges who have moral standards, their real purpose is to define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in the population.  Assuming for a minute we are not talking about laws specifically written to discriminate against one particular group, even then each law the government writes reduces one groups individual freedoms to protect the rights of some other group.  If during the course of its creation the law is passed without thought to the consequences, we as American citizens have right to redress that under our constitution.  This is not a universal right of all people in all nations. We often see the issues of morality brought into play during those proceedings, and the various groups seek support from those with similar moral values, but at the end of the day there is not a single view of right or wrong from a moral standpoint the legitimacy of the law must be evaluated against not a moral code, but the US Constitution as understood by the Justices.  It is not a perfect system, nothing built by man can be, but it is a pretty good model that has stood the test of time.

Morality (noun) 1. Principles concerning the distinction and wrong or good and bad behavior. 1.1. A particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.  1.2 The extent to which an action is right or wrong.  (Oxford Dictionary)

Where do our moral values come from?  Individually the ideas and tenants of our understanding of morality comes as part of our development as human beings, and is part of the natural development into adulthood, much like the realization of mortality and the questions of eternity.  The years of a teenager are tumultuous for a thousand reasons, not the least of which is the struggle to understand society and how he or she fits into it.  When you tie that to the issues associated with the growth of the body it is a miracle that any teenager survives into their young adulthood.  Historically our moral values are imparted from our parents, our church, and the larger society as a part of our growth and development.  I believe they are given to us in the order I listed.  The most important source of our moral code comes from the lessons, values, and guidance of our parents.  When this source is missing, or fails to provide consistent guidance, we seek other sources.

The church is an interesting dynamic. The foundations of the great religions are to help mankind understand our place in the universe and lay the ground work for society.  But churches are run by men (and women) who are human and subject to the fears, weaknesses and envy of all humans, on the one hand they deal with our mortality; on the other they are political institutions pure and simple.  I can remember turning to religion as a teenager to help understand the issues I had to confront.  There was a wonderful minister who provided great guidance and understanding.  Then there were adult members of the church who also served as role models.  The interesting truth was many of the adults represented both the best and the worst of what we hear about the church today.  As I went through my period of questioning who I was and why was I here, I found I moved further from the church as an institution, but closer to the idea of God as a creator of the universe.

Finally, we absorb from those we look up to, often the people we learn from are respected teachers and mentors who are instrumental in shaping our understanding of the moral codes we should live by.  They should open our eyes to concepts and understanding that are different from our parents, and perhaps different from our church so that we can incorporate key elements, or understand why we reject their basic premise.  It seems today far too many take without question what the educators tell them, without having a basis for argument.  Perhaps it is because it is in alignment with what their parents have taught so there is no conflict, or perhaps it is a result of a larger sense of pressure?  I don’t know which.

As a society our moral principles must incorporate the views of the many, and be in this sense an extension to a larger view.  So let’s talk about a couple of models for morality.  For this I’m going to use this simple discussion found on the University of San Diego web, but with some modification.

Essentially this site identifies 10 types of morality theories.

1.     Moral Subjectivism – right and wrong is determined by what you (the subject) thinks is right or wrong.

2.    Cultural Relativism – right and wrong is determined by a particular set of principles or rules the relevant culture holds at the time.

3.    Ethical Egoism – Right and wrong is determined by what is in your self-interest.

4.    Divine Command Theory – Let’s hold on to this for a while for this is the one I intend to discuss further.

5.     Virtue Ethics – right and wrong are characterized in terms of acting in accordance with traditional virtues (a good person)

6.    Feminist Ethics – right and wrong is found in womens’ responses to the relationship of caring.

7.     Utilitarianism – right and wrong is determined by overall goodness of the consequences of the action

8.    Kantian Theory – right and wrong is determined by rationality, giving universal duties.

9.    Rights-based Theories – we are to act in accordance with a set of moral rights, which we all possess because we are human.

10.  Contractarianism – the principles of right and wrong are determined by the social contract that everyone in that society would sign up to.

 There are other institutions with their own lists and as in most abstract education there is no universally accepted right.  Therefore, I would like to break down these theories into two basic principles. 

Subjective morality where what you believe is moral is based on what you think is right or wrong

Objective morality where there are pretty firm boundaries that define right and wrong and they should be universally understood. 

But before I get into this discussion I would like to go back to the Devine Command Theory I had passed over.  The University is pretty dismissive of this theory, citing a number of flaws in the construct.  First they dismiss the idea of a God, but even if God were to exist they question how man can possibly know the intent of God.  I have no desire to debate the validity of God, but because of this bias they do not distinguish, as so many others have, the two underlying premises by which moral judgments are made, either they are made subjectively by the individual or society, or the individual (and society) has an objective basis for their understanding.  A belief in God’s guidance can form a legitimate basis for an objective morality set if those intentions are codified to allow for a common set of understandings as described in their description of Contractarianism.  They, in fact, become the social contract.  The books of the old and new testament form the basis of this understanding for the Christian, and for both the Jew and the Christian the Ten Commandments form the social contract we have historically accepted as the basis for right and wrong.  Then of course we have things like the “Golden Rule” all geared towards shaping our views of what it means to be a “good person.”

So let’s talk about the differences between subjective morality and objective morality.  As the University of San Diego link points out subjectivity brings the individual and his or her views of right and wrong into play.  It argues that if personal self interest is benefited then it is morally acceptable behavior.  We see in society the move to these views, and the resultant conflict it creates.  To cite a position from the Democratic debates it is unacceptable that the rich Wall Street bankers and 1% not pay their fair share, yet the rich Wall Street bankers and 1% must pay their fair share as defined under the law, and it would certainly be morally wrong for them to pay more than the law requires because it would be against their self-interest.

There is an interesting video clip on subjective morality and its counter argument from a minister named Ravi Zacharias.  In the clip a young man asks why Mr. Zacharias is so opposed to subjective morality, after all we won’t suddenly begin running around doing foolish stuff.  I think this captures my thoughts on the difference between the two pretty well.

Well that’s about it… as I mentioned earlier, for those who’ve made it this far you can either agree, disagree, or dismiss.  Your call, but thanks for taking the time to read.

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