Out From Under the Umbrella

playing in the rain

On Morality

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According to Webster’s morality is defined as:

mo·ral·i·ty

noun \mə-ˈra-lə-tē, m-\

: beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior

: the degree to which something is right and good : the moral goodness or badness of something

And this definition is courtesy of  Bing Dictionaries

Definition of morality (n)

 
  • mo·ral·i·ty
  • [ mə rállətee ]
  1. accepted moral standards: standards of conduct that are generally accepted as right or proper
  2. how right or wrong something is: the rightness or wrongness of something as judged by accepted moral standards
  3. virtuous behavior: conduct that is in accord with accepted moral standards

The phrase ‘turn or burn’ caught my attention earlier this morning.  It’s a phrase used often in fundamentalist Christianity by those who believe in a literal hell. Turn from your wicked ways and get right with God or you’ll be in torment for all eternity.  I’m so glad I no longer believe that ridiculous notion.

Conversation ensued that got me thinking about morality and ethics.  We all know that legality has no impact on the morality or ethics of a given situation.  However many people, Christians and religionists(is that a word?) included, participate in highly questionable behaviors simply because there is a loophole in the letter of the law which allows for such behavior.  Not only that, many people would participate in other questionable behaviors were it not for the fact that they might get caught.  In other words, the only reason they don’t commit certain illegal acts is because they wouldn’t want to suffer the consequences of having done so were they to be found out.  They weigh the benefit to themselves to the consequences they might suffer to determine the ‘worth’ of their naughtiness.

I had this conversation not long ago with some family members.  We were watching an episode of an old television program call In the Heat of the Night. The premise of the show was the morality and ethics of capital punishment. That got us talking about morality and why we do the things we do.  These are not church-going family members but they are Bible-God believers.  They don’t believe they evolved, but were created, yet they pick and choose from the rest of the Bible the things they believe are true and the things they don’t.

One of them commented that, “without prisons and the death penalty the world would descend into chaos because people would offend with no consequences.”  I thought on that for a few minutes and posed the question: “Is the only reason you don’t do unethical and barbaric things because you’re afraid going to jail?”  To which they replied, simply, “Yes”.  When I said, “I don’t recall ever not being unethical because I was afraid I’d get caught”**, he elaborated and his wife joined in.  They both agreed that they, at some point would have committed murder or done serious bodily injury just short of murder [as a matter of vengeance or retribution], or committed theft, among a plethora of other things had they not been afraid of the consequences.  I thought, “Well, thank Dionysus for that!”  These family members would also classify themselves as moral, ethical people.

I’ve often joked that I wouldn’t steal from my employer because I’m not cut out for jail.  There is no way in hell I could do the communal toilet and shower thing.  That is a joke, of course.  That isn’t the reason I don’t steal from my employer, or murder someone, or vandalize.  I have a personal code of ethics that is independent of the law.  I know that mine is not the same as others’ and morality is a grey area.

In my line of work, which is accounting, I’m sometimes asked to do some unethical things.  Some of these things might only be unethical simply because they are against the law.  The tax code in America is a complicated animal and I frankly disagree with quite a bit of it.  But there are other things that are unethical regardless of the law. If it is unethical because it’s against the law I don’t do it because I am afraid of the consequences, but if it unethical because of my own personal code of ethics I refuse regardless of the law. I digress.

That got me to wondering if the only reason you give for not doing something unethical is fear of consequences can that really be called morality or is that just pragmatism?  Do people really not stop to consider what their personal ethics are and why?  Is there any such thing as morality?

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**I realize I’m saying this never having had a child hurt by abuse. Nothing makes my blood boil more than the abuse of children. I can imagine a scenario or scenarios where my compassion might have it’s limits.  Even though I, myself, have been abused, and even imagined being strong enough (or using artificial means to make myself strong enough) to defend myself, I didn’t act upon it – nor did I seek nor want retribution or vengeance.

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6 thoughts on “On Morality

  1. Really interesting post. Your family sounds scary. 🙂 But seriously, it hadn’t occurred to me to consider how much laws may be a deterrent to unproductive behaviour – I think I sometimes live in an idealistic bubble where surely everyone realises that for a nice society you have to be nice.

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    • “Your family sounds scary.”

      You have no idea. 😀 Thankfully I’m fairly certain the insanity is limited to a few and not the whole.

      I think I’m in that bubble, too. I hadn’t realized that either. I suppose that since I don’t think in terms of whether something is against the law or not to determine whether or not I’m going to do a thing that most other people thought that way as well.

      I did point out to my family members that I didn’t think legality was a very good deterrent since people still murder, rape, and pillage regardless of the consequences. People still do these things knowing they’re likely to be caught and jailed or put to death.

      I was shocked at their revelations, to be honest.

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  2. First it was meaning (not having it without a god), now its morality (not exercising appropriate behaviour unless there is a threat hanging over their heads); these fundies do scare me.

    Here, this shameless self-promotion of a meme is my take on it:

    http://thesuperstitiousnakedape.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/so-you-think-youre-a-good-person/

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    • You meme truth. 🙂

      What I find so strange is that, not just my family members, other people use this reasoning (if you can call it that). They don’t go to church because they eschew the fundamentalism inherent therein, all the while still subscribing to some form of fundamentalism. Weird.

      It just makes me realize that [some] people don’t really think about their ethics or why they have them.

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  3. Pingback: Atheism and morality | Mindful Digressions

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