Morality as Social Norm?

The croud
Image by ீ ๑ Adam via Flickr

In this era where information is plentiful, and opinions are abundant there is an overwhelming confusion about things.  He or she who shouts the loudest often gets heard and agreed with. The issue of confusion collapses on two false hinges:  1. if we can do something we ought to do it and 2. if it improves the lives of others it must always be good.  Unfortunately these two hinges need a door – something that these secondary principals can start from.  Of all the ethical systems out there are two that most people accept with out thinking (just as a bumper sticker): relativism and utilitarianism.

Case in point this video game review  http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/767-inFamous, now I have not played the game but it is an open world comic book playground thing.  The contention that this reviewer has is over the morality system.  True that in this game and others, the player can only be a saint or a devil (when in fact we are all devils without forgiveness and grace.. but that’s beside the point) but there is a dangerous view at the 3:38 mark.  In fact I’ll transcribe it here:

“Good and evil are utterly meaningless terms that vary from society to society.  A few hundred years from now when overcrowding leaves us crammed shoulder to shoulder in the streets fighting over the last croissant in the poteciary; the denouncement of genocide will be remembered as tragically quaint.”

Yes, the killing of people will be accepted as a social norm when there are too many people.  Bah, you say this can only happen in the dreams of the futurists – then what about euthanasia or abortion today: these fevered dreams of Darwin, and Sanger.  The comfortable and pleasant moments  are deemed as virtue when in fact virtue is something untouchable like the sun – there must be sacrifice for virtue: the sacrifice of the self.

There is the dangerous combination of what society may be heading toward – a mixture of there is no right or wrong, but only what society says is comfortable; a combination of utilitarianism and relativism.  The horrors of soylent green will not only be accepted but embraced.  The issue lies in the misconception that morality is a social invention or that moral law is a social norm.  So let us address the issues at hand:

First, if we can do something we ought to. Can is not the same as ought.  An individual who says “I can go to the store and take food from other people carts” is right… they have the potential to, but they ought not to.  Yet a society or government can take what is not theirs and make it theirs – but just because they can does not mean it is right.  Essentially this is the ‘right makes might’ fallacy. A ruler, leader, or king is only as strong as their people not their might.  Weak people create malevolent leaders… just look at today.

Second, if it improves the lives of others it must always be good.  This begs the question who determines that it will improve the lives of others and for what cost?  If it is a single person or group of people there is a dictatorship or an oligarchy (who are more equal than others. This will quickly deteriorate into the improvement of those in charge, for what power does not free a man’s corruption?  If however the people themselves determine then there is this problem talked about in the Republic:

“Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing”

But then you might ask if a single person, nor a  group, nor all can determine what will be for the greatest good who will?  The answer is found in virtue not in these ‘sacks of happiness’ as Mill’s would imply.

Finally, that good and evil are meaningless terms that vary.  If they vary then how did the concepts of virtue and vice get started.  There must be a common ground at some level.  Besides that those who state the relativism do so from a ‘higher’ plane.  What I mean by this is that no tribe of Africa says “You don’t know me, don’t judge me” nor does the poor farmer in Siberia say that “working hard and feeding my family is only something I do because it is forced upon me”.  The only people who truly believe that relativism is true are those distant from vices.  But that does not make them any more virtuous or credible.  G. K. Chesterton wrote in an essay entitled ‘Conceit and Caricature‘ that

“It is the pleasure which a man takes in the presence or absence of certain things in himself without ever adequately asking himself whether in his case they constitute virtues at all. A man will plume himself because he is not bad in some particular way, when the truth is that he is not good enough to be bad in that particular way. Some priggish little clerk will say, “I have reason to congratulate myself that I am a civilized person, and not so bloodthirsty as the Mad Mullah.” Somebody ought to say to him, “A really good man would be less bloodthirsty than the Mullah. But you are less bloodthirsty, not because you are more of a good man, but because you are a great deal less of a man. You are not bloodthirsty, not because you would spare your enemy, but because you would run away from him.” Or again, some Puritan with a sullen type of piety would say, “I have reason to congratulate myself that I do not worship graven images like the old heathen Greeks.” And again somebody ought to say to him, “The best religion may not worship graven images, because it may see beyond them. But if you do not worship graven images, it is only because you are mentally and morally quite incapable of graving them. True religion, perhaps, is above idolatry. But you are below idolatry. You are not holy enough yet to worship a lump of stone.”

The state of confusion will continue until people see that morality is not a social norm, but something brighter and bolder than the world.

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