What is morality? This is a question I have been pondering lately. Not in the sense that I am confused as to what morality is, but in the sense that it seems the word is used differently depending on ones circle. As a philosophy major, I use a philosophical definition of morality. This definition tends to be quite open. But non-philosophers use a far stricter definition. Or rather, far stricter definitions, since there are more than one. The definition used by Conservative Christians, a definition that I have come across many times here, is by far the strictest. It is also the most troubling to me, because it puts a belief in a deity above actions.
So what is morality? The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry defines morality as “Morality is the distinction between right and wrong. It is the determination of what should be done and what should not be done. Morals deal with behaviours as well as motives. There is a great deal of discussion on what is the source of morals and whether or not they are objective. Biblically, morals are derived from God’s character and revealed to us through the Scriptures” http://carm.org/dictionary-morality. This is to say that morality is defined by actions. Certain actions are right and certain actions are wrong. But this definition puts God before those actions. Many Christians will say that God must come before everything. But here is where my issue comes in: if you put belief ahead of actions, then you can create a system of morality where actions don’t matter so long as you believe. I think this has been done in many cases. I think this has been done when atheists are trusted as much as rapists. The atheist needs not do anything but be an atheist to be considered immoral. This means that a person can build orphanages, donate blood, volunteer at their local soup kitchen, and donate half their income to charity, but they will continue to be seen as immoral simply by virtue of being an atheist. This is also seen when Christians tell people that it doesn’t matter what they’ve done, all they need to do is come to Christ and they will be forgiven. Think about that: it doesn’t matter what they’ve done, all they need to do is come to Christ. All they need to do is come to Christ. That Serial Killer who raped and murdered 6 women? He doesn’t need to be punished by the legal system, he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness of the families he tore apart, he doesn’t need to do anything for humanity, he just needs to come to Jesus. But his crimes weren’t against Jesus. His crimes were against those 6 women. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that that Serial Killer deserves to be tortured for eternity for his crimes. I believe that the punishment should fit the crime. I believe he should spend the rest of his life in jail. I believe that it is up to him to reach out to the families of his victims if he wishes to be forgiven, and I believe that it is up to the families to forgive him. I don’t think Jesus gets to forgive him for something he did to someone else. My problem with this definition is that the born-again Serial Killer is viewed as more moral than the atheist who has worked so hard to help others simply based on the fact that the Serial Killer believes in God and the atheist doesn’t.
But, like I said, this isn’t the only definition of morality. A philosophical definition would be “Morality speaks of a system of behaviour in regards to standards of right or wrong behaviour. The word carries the concepts of: (1) moral standards, with regard to behaviour; (2) moral responsibility, referring to our conscience; and (3) a moral identity, or one who is capable of right or wrong action” http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/morality.htm. This definition is not so strict, because it says nothing of needing a deity to be moral. In fact, it says nothing more than morality refers to behaviours that are considered right or wrong. But what are these behaviours? Neither the Christian nor the philosophical definition actually speak to what actions are right or wrong. The Christian can turn to the Bible and say “this is what the Bible says,” however, different Christians get different moral codes from the Bible. But the philosopher cannot simply turn to the Bible and say “this is right and this is wrong.” The philosopher must first discuss whether or not morality is objective. If the philosopher says yes, then they must determine where morals come from. If they say no, then they must determine how we can know what is right and what is wrong. The Objectivist must go on to determine how they know that their moral authority is in fact the moral authority. They must determine what the moral authority has determined to be moral and immoral, and they must justify how they know as much. And then they speak on how we should act. The Subjectivist must show how they know morality is subjective. Then they must justify how we can create laws and social based on morality. Finally, they must justify why it is not acceptable to just do as one pleases. It isn’t until all that is done that the Subjectivist can speak on how we should behave.
Many people don’t like the philosophical definition because it is not black and white. It does not tell people “this list of behaviours is okay, and this list of behaviours is not.” Many people like being told what is right and what is wrong. But I prefer the philosophical definition precisely because it doesn’t try to tell anyone what is right and what is wrong. It makes people think. Morality is not a black and white issue, so why should our moral codes be black and white? Morality is very much shades of grey. If it wasn’t then things like abortion, the death penalty, and the legalization of drugs wouldn’t be so controversial. And we’d never find ourselves confused as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. Morality is something that needs to be thought about critically. And it’s something that needs to be discussed. The philosophical definition makes that critical thought and those discussions necessary. It means that you don’t just get to believe that something is right or wrong based on authority. And it means that it is your actions that matter more than your beliefs (though that isn’t to say that your beliefs don’t matter at all).