WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE “A GOOD PERSON” OR A “BAD PERSON”? THE PROBLEM WITH MORALITY.
“Life is neither good or evil, but only a place for good and evil”.
What is Morality? Why does this topic even matter? What’s so special about having a moral reference point?
Morality is from the Latin moralitas which means “manner, character, proper behavior”. It is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong).
I believe the issue of morality is very vital as man in general is born blank (i.e not racist, immoral and no idea of what good and bad consists of) and can be socialised into violence or a number of ideas. This obviously also raises questions on the right way to raise a child, the right process for rehabilitation for the criminally convicted and so many other questions.
The problem with the question is in the definition. Who or what determines what is good or bad? Who says what is acceptable and what is not?
It is no secret that morals can vary from person to person and culture to culture however many are practically universal, as they result from basic human emotions.
A few years ago I came across this problem in a public forum between Christians and Atheists. The topic that was raised was not necessarily one on morality but one on a divine deity and its responsibility towards the starving folks from third world countries.
Though my topic has nothing to do with my previous discussion, I feel it might be necessary to repost it for the sake of clarity.
The post read as follows:
“I have read a number of views here from both Atheists and Believers especially with regards to starving children in Africa.
First of all let me start by saying that I am African, born, bred and raised in Africa. When we speak about Africa and its problems you must understand that God has nothing to do with it. Africa is one of the richest places on earth. Our people believe that we did not develop so many things in the past because there was no need for it. as necessity is the mother of all inventions. Africa has an abundance of food and in cases where there isn’t there is the land which is rich and fertile, we have good weather so there is a lack of need for massive structures and prior to colonialism there was respect for animal life. We did not kill animals except for when it was needed. Africa in a lot of ways is the cradle of life for the world.
The problems in Africa are complex but I can assure you they were not caused by God. They were started by colonialism, extended by slave trade and have continued by racial discrimination. Every single one of these is caused by men such as myself. When Barack Obama became president it was a big deal that a black man was elected. This feeling was not developed by God it was done by people. African presidents who were taught corruption by colonial masters have for centuries plundered and stolen its resources for their own good and starved their own people.
Africa is in trouble because of people and not because of God. God by nature has given us free will and as such will not deny us of the consequences of our choices. When a king/president rules with terror do the people not suffer?
Look to yourselves and see if you ever learnt anything from the 1st or second world war. Millions of people died. Did God cause this? How about global warming, Did God cause climate shifts?
More important than blame what have you done about it? I can honestly say that in all my years in Africa I have never seen one so called NGO or charity asking for £3 a month to help children ever.
I am happy for the girl that got to go to Disney land but I also know that even in the bible God did not always come down from heaven himself to make a change in the life of his people. He sent someone to deliver them. Look at Moses, Nehemiah, David, Habakuk and Jesus (who walked as a man).
To my fellow Christians be careful not to miss what that really means and my fellow Atheist be careful when speaking about things you really do not understand but have only seen from the media. God has nothing to do with problems in Africa. Africa is damaged by people. To borrow from a saying “Guns dont kill people, people kill people.
When you refuse to feed others when you have enough, you have starved him (not God), When you refuse shelter to a friend, you have made him homeless (not God). God answers prayers through people in a lot of cases so do not say he doesn’t. I have so many testimonies to share but not enough time as I am only passing by.”
In retrospect the post read more like a vent than an educated ramble but it still raised the question of morality. Who determines in your life or in the life of the people around you what is Good and what is Bad? Maybe if we can solve this we can solve the problem of human responsibility and maybe make the world just a little bit better.
Is morality determined by man (as an individual), society (collection of men), emotions or by a divine moral reference point.
Let’s examine the problems with the first one.
Morality defined by man:
“The whole course of human history may depend on a change of heart in one solitary and even humble individual – for it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost”.
M. Scott Peck
If the definition of what is right and wrong is determined or left to be determined by you or I then what we are essentially saying is that anything outside of myself cannot determine if what I have done is right or wrong.
I guess morality is a philosophical discussion more than it is a scientific one. If morality is defined by a man then ultimately does this mean that if that said man feels that it is morally right to beat a dog till almost death as a teaching then he is right? What does this bring?
In essence what we are really saying here is that if Thomas Smith decided that he wanted to beat his child as a sign of love (maybe in his own way he feels that if he corrects a mistake today it is unlikely to happen again tomorrow). Would you say Thomas Smith is morally a “good person”? After all Thomas Smith is doing this because he feels he is being good to the child.
What if it wasn’t so destructive in nature? What if all Thomas Smith believed was just as he was born without clothes, he feels he is right to walk around without clothes? As man ages so does his preference. A very powerful quote that explains this can be taken from a man called Paul who once persecuted and killed Christians but later became a Christian himself and suffered the same persecution he himself had met out to countless others.
Pauls famously explains the ever changing nature of man in 1st Corinthians 13:11 “ When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
Also as important in morality as defined by man is the question of the Will of man. What happens to his Will?
Albert DeSalvo (A serial killer) famously said “It wasn’t as dark and scary as it sounds. I had a lot of fun…killing somebody’s a funny experience.”
The problem of morality as defined by man is even clearer in the case of Peter Sutcliffe where he also famously stated “The women I killed were filth-bastard prostitutes who were littering the streets. I was just cleaning up the place a bit.”
If he defines/determines morality and in his mind he was doing the world a favour; is he morally wrong? How about TV’s most beloved serial killer “Dexter Morgan”? What he morally right as he only killed serial killers?
Morality defined by society:
How about morality as defined by society? In order to even discuss this one must start with culture. In the simplest definition of culture, it is the way of life of the people. Culture is man developed but more importantly collectively agreed. This means that just because Samantha jones likes to run around her neighbourhood naked, it does not make it the culture of that society. It must be done and agreed by the collective to be so. Culture in a lot of ways is similar to language. It is mans distinction from animals or the beasts of the fields. We (Man) have managed to create structure where it ordinarily won’t have been. This has sometimes been done for the survival of the species and other times for sexual satisfaction (not implying that these are the only two reasons).
Regardless of why a culture started, it brings in some really important questions to the table. A good way to explain this is to look at certain societies both past and present. The first that comes to mind is pre abolishment of slave trade. For the most part certain societies in the world (developed societies) believed that it was okay not just to own, rape, force labour but to kill at will as it was their “property”.
This was a society that did not even treat dogs that way at the time but seemed okay to do this with humans. Were the owners evil or was it society that defined it? Clearly it was society as now that the mentality of this has changed (even though racism still strongly exists) it appears that so also has society.
How about the Holocaust? Was that society or man? In modern times there is a society/village in Papua New Guinea that accepts cannibalism as a way of life. Are they “morally right”? After all it isn’t a crime to eat other humans there? Is the argument for morality as defined by society also based on location (we know cannibalism is not legal in the USA or UK)?
Also importantly is the fact that the only thing that is really constant in life is change and just as we all know now, Slave trade is no longer legal. Society has changed its mind on it, same as being gay. This means that society can also change its mind on other aspects. If Society changes its mind on its stance on Paedophilia, does this make it right? Do you see the problem with morality when defined by society? Can we also customize/manipulate society through public propaganda so morality can also be changed (Just as with Slavery and Homosexuality)?
Morality defined by God (Spiritual Deity):
Let’s look at morality as defined by God/Spiritual Deity. The first and most obvious immediate problem with this is “Which God”? There are many extinct polytheistic religions that man never heard about simply because they died out before man invented written language.
In Hinduism alone, there may be as many as 330 million gods. Some religions worship a pantheon; some religions believe that there is a god in each of us or that we are all a part of a god. There are potentially billions of gods if you follow this system.
Even in religions that agree on a singular deity that deity still differs. It seems like the search for the one true God from an educative perspective will take more than a few hundred life times to know the truth and even then I think if viewed by the same rigidity required for scientific hypotheses to be determined a “fact”, mankind will still come up short.
Now lets see if possible to go away even for just a bit from that problem of
“What God first” and take the assumption that there is only one true God. Lets for the sake of conversation say that this is the God of Abraham/Ibrahim (please notice I did not say Christian or Muslim). I use the God of Abraham simply based on the fact that this is the only time that Christians and Muslims agree on deity and they represent the largest religious sect in the world. Every thing after that simply becomes a disagreement. Unlike “morality as defined by man” and “morality as defined by society”, there is some hope here. First of all in order to be a God, God cannot change which means that his stance on good and evil can not be speculative. God is totalitarian (This is found in the definition of being a God), this means that he has a clear distinction on what is classified as good or evil and this combined with our previous point means that the reference point in theory will be eternal. He has no beginning and no end and is seen as the creator of mankind. This means that he is ageless and timeless.
Even with those being major positives it is also difficult to move away from the fact that God seems to exist through a spiritual consciousness (I am also not saying it is impossible that God is physical) but very often when people talk about hearing from God they are very often not speaking physically. This means that it is impossible to avoid the problem of “manipulation”.
I can presently think of 9 examples when this has been a problem
1) Human sacrifices in Buddhist Burma (over 500 bodies found)
2) Members of lndia’s Thuggee sect killing over 20,000 people a year (estimated to have killed over 2 million people) to appease the goddess kali
3) The Mountain Meadows massacre by a group of Mormons and Paiute Indians (120 men, women and children).
4) The Medieval Inquisition is a series of Inquisitions (Roman Catholic Church bodies charged with suppressing heresy) from around 1184 which tortured and killed thousands (true amount uncertain).
5) The witch trial by Puritans that settled in Massachusetts in the 1600s (20 alleged witches were killed and over 150 others imprisoned).
6) Roman Persecution of Christians (Christians were rounded up and killed. Some were torn apart by dogs, others burnt alive as human torches. This lasted over 100 years). The death toll also in its thousands if not 100 thousands.
7) Aztec Human Sacrifice (over 20,000 sacrifices a year). The sun God needed daily sacrifices of blood. This also is estimated to be in its millions.
8) Islamic jihads (holy wars), mandated by the Koran, killed millions over 12 centuries.
9) Thousands of pagans murdered by self proclaimed Christians not including the crusades killing an estimated 1 million plus people.
A few famous quotes on good and evil when decided by a spiritual deity include.
“God did not create evil. Just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of God.”
“In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.”
Finally just before I end this introduction to this very controversial topic and give you a chance to share your thoughts. It seems like no matter what route you chose in defining morality or picking a moral reference point. There will always be the issue of manipulation.
Manipulation very often has a negative connotation to it and in fairness there are genuine reasons why this is the case. However, it is performed daily by almost every one of us and every sector. Think of your local McDonalds for just a second. Have you ever gone in and the music is slow paced just like your pricey restaurant? Even the music is designed or put to create an atmosphere of fast food. Lets take another look at the shelves in a shop. Do you think the ready made meals and the drinks are next to each other by chance? Think about your favourite political speech. Do you think it was not tailored or designed to elicit such a reaction from you? Think about a theatrical preview of a new movie. Is it designed to get you to watch it or not to?
Maybe all of this sounds sinister, Lets think about the first time you went after a person you liked (obviously I say this on the assumption you are a well balanced person). When you went on that first date? The clothes you picked or even dressing up for an interview. Were you seeking a particular response?
So can we say knowing fully well that we use it to survive and it is actually a vital requirement for successes in this present age that it is wrong to be manipulative?
They are all attempts to control the variables in our environment to suit a response in which we find favourable. It affects a person’s free will and choice and when people are really good at it we know them as social puppeteers. Prostitutes use this, politicians use this and religious leaders use this.
Or do we excuse ourselves as well that it is okay as long as we determine it to be (morality as defined by man), maybe according to society (morality as defined by society) or maybe as long as my religion says its fine (Morality as defined by Spiritual deity).
No matter which one of the three we (people) chose to live our life by, it is arguably more dangerous to not have a moral reference point so this remains a question that requires an answer. Maybe the answer is in the question, maybe its not. Maybe you know an answer. I sure would love to read your thoughts on it. So please share your thoughts, don’t just read and go.