Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99 % of them are wrong.~ H. L. Mencken
In the last 24 hours, I’ve had several conversations with others about things that most would consider to fall in the realm of “morality.” I’m not going to link morality to religious norms, as that is certain to land me well within the 99% of wrong. But what about social norms? I propose that our social norms dictate our emotions toward ideas, situations and even each other.
The first, well and second, conversations were sparked by an intelligent discussion about assisted suicide and whether it should be legalized. As you can imagine, there were a number of perspectives. Some I perceived as thoughtful, such as the comment about how legalization would remove stigma. That comment was followed by one claiming that by removing the stigma of suicide, we were removing the major obstacle for those contemplating it. Yet another professed that our bodies belong to God and we cannot make that decision and must wait for God to decide. Someone stated it was unequivocably cowardice, while another laid out why it wasn’t. As I watched this play out, I thought that the root of the issue wasn’t really suicide, it was death.
Huh? Let me explain. Different cultures approach death in different ways. Most of us are familiar with martyrdom and how it theoretically has a positive impact on our afterlife and is thus appealing to some. I would hazard that many of us are familiar with the tradition of holding a modern-day wake (as opposed to a traditional one that was held to make sure and individual was, indeed, deceased) to celebrate a life well lived. And I am certain we are familiar with somber Western funerals. In each case, someone has died. It is how the living commemorate someone’s death that seems to matter.
Morality is a nebulous thing. Some claim it based on religious belief. Others lay a stake in the knowledge of being able to look oneself in the mirror after the fact. The very definition of morality states that it occurs in degrees. It is no wonder that we are unable to pin down exactly how to feel about things. Unless we are taught or told how to act, we don’t have a clue about morality.
I watched a movie today that provided the springboard for another conversation. The question became was it moral or immoral to endanger thousands of people in the name of justice. One view was that it was immoral, based on the value of the lives at stake. The other was that it was moral because justice would be served upon those who were guilty of crimes. Oddly enough, the movie illustrated that justice was another difficult thing to define. It became an issue that justice was an illusion that centered around one individual’s idea of morality.
So how do we define morality? I don’t believe we can all agree on a single definition. What feels right to me may feel incredibly wrong to you. Who has the right to define someone else’s morality? At what point are we overstepping our boundaries in the name of a greater good? Who defines the greater good?
I’m going with being able to look myself in the mirror the next day. I don’t want to be someone else’s judge and jury. That’s an awfully steep slope to start sliding down. I can’t make a decision for someone else, because their decision may be a complete contradiction of what I feel to be right. All of our moral compasses point differently. We must live together and thus follow generally agreed upon norms. When it comes to things that evoke strong emotions, we are best served by remembering that forcing our morality on others is bound to have consequences that rend more often than heal.