Wednesday, July 06, 2011

What is Moral is What You Feel Good After

The title of this post is a quote from Ernest Hemingway. It evokes a sense of personal conscience. If you perform some act and then feel a sense of regret afterwards, chances are what you did is not in line with what you believe is moral. Contrariwise, if something you do leads to a feeling of accomplishment or if it somehow enhances your self worth, the act was probably moral to you.

But is it possible for two different people to complete the exact same action or set of actions and come away with opposite feelings about having done it? The answer, of course, is yes. Consider this example: A young man who was raised Baptist goes on his first date with a girl he met in church. She is very attractive and very sexy. She also is very open about her sexuality and convinces the young man that’s she is ok about having sex with him, even though it is only their first date. He initially resists, but his hormones kick in and minutes later, the deed is done. Afterward, he feels intense guilt. He feels dirty and even betrayed. He vows not to give in to temptations of the flesh again.

Compare that with another scenario: A young man who was raised by freethinkers decides to attend a Baptist church service with his Christian friends. While there he meets a very pretty girl. They hit it off and he asks her out on a date. She accepts and the next night they go out. Afterward, she lets the young man know that she is ok with it if he wants to have sex with her. They do the deed and afterward they feel spent but happy. They each have found a new friend and both agree to get together a second time.

In the first example, the young man felt guilty because he broke his moral code. In the second example, there was no guilt, because the young man’s moral code did not include having sex outside of marriage. Therefore, he felt good afterward.

At this point the Christian (at least the fundamentalist Christian) will say the first young man should have felt guilty because he violated God’s moral code. The freethinker might counter that since God does not exist, the Christian’s moral code is based on a faulty premise. But since neither side can prove their premise, one side’s moral code is no better than the other’s. In such a situation, it would be inappropriate for one side to restrict the behavior of the other side based on their own view of what is moral.

So what should we base our moral code on? According to Christians, the bible is important for morality because we need a basis by which to judge what is right and wrong and the bible provides that basis. Without it, they claim, any act can be rationalized as moral.

But why does it have to be the bible? If we do need a benchmark for morality, why do we need to pick something that not everyone agrees is valid? Isn’t there a more universal benchmark we could use?

As it turns out, there is. Morality is simply a set of codes that direct behavior. In a social species, such as humans, it is important for individuals to behave properly when interacting with other individuals. Individuals who behave badly are often shunned by the group and do not get to participate in activities such as hunting or feeding rituals, which means that in harsh times, those who are shunned may actually perish because no one will help them through. In essence, then, good behavior is evolutionarily selected for and bad behavior is selected against.

What behaviors are selected against? Those behaviors that tend to diminish cooperation in a society or behaviors that tend to favor the individual over the group are probably marked for elimination. In a social species, behaviors that enrich the society, or at least those that do not diminish society, tend to be favored.

Taking a page from natural selection’s how-to manual, we can apply that same sort of criteria for determining what is moral and what is not. Morality is simply a code of behavior that limits a person’s actions to behaviors that are not detrimental to society as a whole. Prohibited behaviors, those that tend to disrupt or harm society, will be actions such as murder, rape, theft, perjury, embezzlement, assault, battery, or child molestation. The prohibition on less heinous behaviors must be weighed against the limitations on personal liberty and personal privacy that we all cherish. So we can debate whether or not something like public drunkenness should be a crime, or whether that decision should be based on connected behaviors.

But behaviors such as having sex outside of marriage, paying for sex, marrying more than one person, gambling, having an abortion, or marrying someone of the same sex should never be banned by law based on morality because reasonable people will disagree on whether or not they are harmful to society. There might be many reasons to believe that in certain cases, not having an abortion would be more of an encumbrance to society. There might be evidence to support the notion that gambling helps the economy and is thus good for society. There might be reasons to think that having sex with someone to whom you are not married is none of anyone else’s business. And there might be reasons to believe that allowing two people of the same sex to marry will not bring irreparable harm to society but instead make it more tolerant.

The majority religion in this country is Christian. But not even all Christians share the same moral code, because the bible can be interpreted many different ways. But even if all Christians agreed, that would be no excuse for restricting the liberties of those who are not in the majority. The Constitution was set up to protect minority interests from the oppression of the majority.

Having a set of moral principals based on a belief of what is good for society and not on what is found in an ancient text does not in any way prohibit individuals, families, or social cliques from restricting their own behavior further. If a family believes that having sex before marriage is wrong, then members of that family should refrain from doing it. Similarly, if a pregnant woman believes that abortion is a sin, then she should decide not to have an abortion. If a church group believes that gambling is sinful, then the congregation should avoid that activity. But no individual, no family, or no group should ever have enough power to restrict the behavior of others based on the more narrow morality of those who are offended. The Constitution does not provide anyone the right not to be offended. If some behavior offends you then avoid it, but don’t prohibit it. What offends you might uplift someone else. If after performing an action you don’t feel good about it then don’t do it again. But don’t prevent someone else from doing it, because they may feel differently.

Isaac Asimov once wrote, “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.” It’s good advice. I would just add don’t let your sense of morals prevent others from doing what they think is right, too.

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