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On Morality

The first part in a three-part series on civilization, published March 2018 in Bilkent News.

Humans naturally come together to form groups that depend on codes of conduct to survive. The nature of such a code mimics the nature of the community, both of which revolve around a fundamental purpose: rules prevent people from violating other members of the group, so that the community as a whole may go on to fulfill a common aim. Some of these rules are later laid down as laws; others are intended rather to act upon the inner heart, and do so under the name of morals.

The effect of morality on human behavior is indirect, and usually results from individual interpretation. When tempted to steal, a person who has since childhood been warned against the act will face greater internal conflict than a person who has not received similar instruction; the impact of this conception of wrongness is tied to the assignment of value to the moral, and to the determination of self-worth based on its observance. Morality also frees people from having to personally evaluate actions by providing a ready-made scale of goodness: by categorizing various behaviors according to their degree of evil – which depends on how socially disruptive the behavior in question will be – morals light a clear path in life for people who do not want to forge their own. They allow people to judge others based on premises that seem elevated, larger than the individual, so that these judgments can be made without the uncomfortable knowledge that they are personally motivated. Indeed, although morals are never universal, imposed definitions of good and evil seem more legitimate than internal values – even if both are equally arbitrary. Therefore people who fall in step with common morality feel validated, as if they are fulfilling the will of a higher power, and are therefore purer or better than their amoral counterparts – as if they now have the right to pass judgment on others, simply because they have aligned themselves with incontrovertible truth. And this is indeed the larger purpose of morality: these judgements are often what keep people from flouting rules, especially in societies where law enforcement is either weak or not yet conceived of. Religion and religious institutions sometimes take on the dual roles of moral authority and enforcer of morality, roles that can be filled to various degrees: the Spanish Inquisition dealt notoriously brutal punishments to those who were declared heretics, which in the context of the Inquisition could mean anyone who was not Catholic, did not behave in a manner appropriately Catholic, or in any other way crossed the religious authorities. Morality thus shows its hand as a justification for the consolidation of power, as it also is in the smaller context of our individual lives, where we often place ourselves in acceptably moral positions when describing events in hopes of shifting public opinion – and, by extension, power – to our side.

Morality is a changeable and hypocritical sort of law. It does not recognize its own function as a detainer – and, in some offices, a punisher – of social disruption, which adds to its effectiveness as an internal check by making it seem absolute and universal. However, as cultural outlook changes, due either to the adoption of a new set of values (through external imposition, communal assimilation or cultural or military domination) or to the transformation of social needs and purposes, morals also change; behaviors to shun and to praise vary according to which among them serve the new social purpose best. Homosexuality, divorce and extramarital sex were all seen as immoral acts in the recent past, while today they have been normalized: the focus of society has shifted. The growing polarization of our culture allows each group to form its own morals, and to look down on other groups with impunity in an increasingly isolated world; the prioritization of self-construction over communal unity, combined with the tendency to trivialize morality, means that where religion holds little sway, our old morals are taking a back seat. A new set of unwritten rules is forming, except that the details of these rules are different for every subculture, and although the basics stay largely the same – we are still an extension of our old society, and our fundamental social contract is unchanged – the social outlook on other matters, such as issues of gender, sexuality and self-perception, is changing. Whether these moral fractures will cleave society into even smaller units is unclear; there seems to be little contemporary social unity in any case, which is not necessarily terrible. We are at what appears to be a new stage of social evolution – one perhaps repeated manifold times over the centuries, but new to me, and new in the sense that social isolation no longer begets disaster in the fundamental way it did for the survivalist societies of the past. It will be interesting to see whether this division of morals will produce social weakness – and if it does, what then? Will one of the subdivisions manage to assert its purpose and morality over the others? Will our most fundamental morals – the aversion to murder, theft and rape, to perjury and brutality – change? It is interesting to consider whether such an event will change a civilization entirely – cause its dissolution, perhaps, due to a deviation from its fundamental purpose – and whether the weakness of one society will provoke its cultural annexation, violent or otherwise, in the years to come.

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