Divya Manian

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Mortality of Morality

Morality, as Wikipedia says, is “a set of beliefs distinguishing between right and wrong behaviors”. There is a perception among many people that moral codes are permanent, that, what now is morally right will remain so eternally.

My assertion (which Wikipedia calls Moral Skepticism) is that morality meanders with time. Paul Graham covers some aspects of it in his essay about What You Can’t Say.

200 years ago, you were only allowed to love thy neighbour if he was also of the same social class as you. Slavery was moral. Women were morally obliged to mind the business of taking care of children instead of voicing their opinion about politics.

But, I can hear you say, the basic principles of morality are eternal. You only need to read the religious texts of several religions to see how common the moral codes are! But religious texts are always derivative, and interpreted. For example, the meaning of Hijab in Islam has changed over time.

A moral code is usually defined by the triumph of an opinion that influences a majority. 100 years ago, almost every state or region had a different moral code, but thanks to colonial globanization, most countries now share the what-was-then-Christian view of equality and human rights. Some European countries have become more liberal (legal drug use, gay rights, etc), and the world seems to be moving towards a uniform liberal moral code.

Thanks to the internet, these liberal moral codes have spread a lot faster than before. All you seem to need these days is a petition with 300K signatures (citizenship not necessary) to raise awarness for altering existing moral codes in any country.

Iran’s protests are an example of how moral codes are getting impacted with technology. Youtube, Flickr, Twitter have all featured prominently in the arsenal of a protestor, so much that China and Iran are taking steps to control them. Protestors have also got a bigger audience now, instantly. But interestingly, the new era of communication does not seem to make people protest more than simply putting a twibbon or adding their email to petitions. There has not been any kind of protests in the internet era like those that put an end to Vietnam War or Black Inequality. If anything, technology has made us complacent about morality.

Still, moral codes are changing. As an aeron-chair expert, I also think it is safe to assume a moral code is under attack and very vulnerable, when people find the need to defend it anonymously instead of identifying themselves with it. For example, most people will have no hesitation in stating their opinion about child pornography, but some people will rather talk “off the record” or “anonymously” about gay marriage. In fact, Washington judiciary approved a motion to make anonymous the names of people who were petitioning to revoke the rights to gay marriage.

I know some of you might be offended by this dissection of morality, but this is just a thought experiment. I do have my own codes of morality (which tend towards liberal), but I do understand my moral codes might change too. I hope this post provokes some of you to leave a comment with your take on morality!

Thanks to Nandini for making me think about morality while we were having a session at the Argument Clinic about Japanese culture.

There is a much more serious discussion on Moral Skepticism here.