Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On Morality

(Editors Note: I am in the process of writing a trial sermon on anti-racism, for no purpose other than some disappointment over the anti-racism sermon at FUUNO last Sunday. In the meantime, I have this piece, which was a response to a friend asking on Facebook how one would define morality. He asked us to define it in the context of a lecture, but one that did not exceed 500 words. I did this, and realized that Facebook is not the appropriate place for such at-length musings, but my blog is. So, here you go. 500 words on morality.)

Morality is one of those wonderfully vague concepts, nestled somewhere between honor and ethics, under the category of justice and in the general area of human interactions. I'm tempted to quote Confucius, about how everything flows from everything being in proper order and circumstance, but morality isn't a fixed set or rigid code to be applied in all situations. It isn't really rigid in execution - this is not channeling Machiavelli so much as it is acknowledging that, in the whole of human experience, internal principles matter only so long as they can be consistently applied to varying circumstances. Coming from a religious tradition where reason predominates, dogma is shunned, and the genuinely unanswerable is acknowledged as such, morality seems to me to be the exact point at which justice, personal philosophy, and social norms collide. Morality varies from person to person, moreso from culture to culture, and yet it circles around a platonic absolute.

What is that absolute? Far as I can tell, it is the way to interact with an other, and with any other, and with every other, that is not just straightforward but honors notions of inherent dignity and respect. Of course, we have as always the bugbears of outliers to confound everything - how does on respect the inherent dignity of, say, a child molester? The reply that seems most appropriate, that is the easiest best fit, is that one acts with ones inherent dignity, using the capacity as not-a-child-molester to figure out justice for that individual who has broken rules of both society and morality. And yet, that perspective, acting civilized in the face of acts deemed barbaric, is not enough - too much of that is defaulting to an ingroup/outgroup, and us/them, an acceptable/other perspective. That ignores the relational aspects of this - it is Balder being the god of justice, but largely ignored because he has only kindness and no judgment. And this cannot be the reaction of a vigilante - Rorschach, for all his power as a punisher of wrongdoing, has no capacity to act as a righter of wrongs. In this situation, as in every situation, to act with morality is to acknowledge the harm done, and to work towards a future where such harm is not done again. To not just rehabilitate the individual, but to better engineer the structure of the individuals environment, of the environment of all individuals, so that one can move as quickly as humanly possible to rectify a situation while still respecting the rights of all innocents.

I've been talking a lot about justice. It is what I deem the most important constituent part of morality, but it is far from alone. Justice in isolation is how a society regulates it's internal functioning - morality is how individuals within society function together in a manner that respects justice. More importantly, it is the way that individuals interact with one another without the need for society to do any more than be composed of individuals.

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