The subject of morality is always a contentious subject among those who debate it. Understandably, no one likes it very much when those with differing views on what is or isn’t moral is seen as trying to force ‘their version’ of morality on you or society as a whole. Whether a person or a group’s vision of a moral standard should be employed on society depends on what makes the idea moral, immoral, or benign in the first place. If morality is something we get to invent, then it’s just a matter of getting enough people on your side to foist it on the rest of us. In this case, by definition the majority determines what’s moral and what isn’t. Conversely, if morality is something we discover, then it’s only natural that it be implemented as a rule regardless of the public opinion.
This angle of the discussion is pivotal to debate as to whose vision of morality is used. Those who are skeptical if the idea that morality is discovered will often claim that we find behaviors moral, immoral, or benign as the result of some social compact, that society has decided what’s right and what’s wrong. Doesn’t it strike you as obvious that we don’t find behaviors moral, immoral, or benign because they have been decided so.
The notion that we decide what’s moral and immoral runs contrary to what we know about ourselves. Society is an abstract thing. It’s nothing more than the label we assign to a group of individual people living in the same general area. Each neighborhood is a little society in its own right; and is part of the larger society which is the town; and is part of the larger society which is the state or province; and is part of the larger society which is the nation, and so on. This implies that groups of people, societies, have made conscious decisions that certain behaviors are right, wrong, or indifferent.
If it’s that morality is decided, then we have been brainwashed into believing murder, rape, and theft are morally wrong. It isn’t that they are actually immoral in themselves, but society could have, in theory, decided those behaviors were good. I’m glad they didn’t. In fact I don’t want to live in a society where morality is is a social construct. That would mean morality can be determined in the opposite direction. What is now immoral (out of behavioral fashion): robbery, racism, drunk driving, etc. could be considered good things if enough people get together and decide on it — if morality is determined by social compact.
But think about it yourself. If morality is determined, then at least hypothetically, you could convince yourself that rape is morally good. Could you though? Sure you might be able to concoct a rationale, or a justification, but that only shows that you know it’s wrong. I mean could you make yourself actually believe that holding a woman down and tearing off her clothes all the while she is screaming, fighting, and pleading for you to stop is morally a good, or even a benign thing?
I think upon careful reflection you should be able to see that morality is not something societies decide on. We know raping children and killing people for no reason is wrong — not because your neighbors frown upon it. We know it intuitively and we would find it repulsive to hear that someone believed otherwise. It’s more than a mere disagreement with society.
Of course there are grey lines. Not because there is no correct answer, but because none of us like to believe we enjoy doing immoral things. The fact is we all like to do things others might consider immoral and that muddies the moral waters. We seek to justify and reason away our bad behaviors. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right or wrong answer. It simply means we must work a little harder to discover the truth and accept it when we do find it. We might even have to convince some people they are mistaken. I find myself in agreement with Atheist author Sam Harris on this, and I’m paraphrasing: In science when there isn’t agreement or a consensus we don’t throw up our hands and conclude there’s no right answer, we search until we discover it, so why should we assume there’s no right answer when it comes to morality? Personally, I think it’s worth arguing over.