The Growing Obsolescence of Moral Codes

By: Alton C. Thompson

“Morality”—from the Latin moralitas (meaning “manner, character, proper behavior”)—primarily refers to behavior, with moral behavior being “good,” or proper, behavior, and immoral behavior being “bad,” or improper, behavior. A related concept is that of amorality, which is “variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles.” Related concepts are “mores” and “folkways,” the difference here being that “mores ‘distinguish the difference between right and wrong, while folkways draw a line between right and rude.’”

A moral code is an explicit statement of the “behavioral rules” associated with a given society or group within a society. I say “rules” rather than “rule” because, although the behavioral rules of a society/group are, at times, “boiled down” into a single rule (such as the Golden Rule), the fact that a single rule is necessarily abstract means that it is subject to varying interpretations. Thus, a single behavioral rule is typically supplemented with specific rules that “flesh out” the general rule. Not only does this clarify the behavior expected of members of a society/group; in doing so it reduces the opportunities for varying interpretations.

From a historical standpoint, mores and folkways preceded the development of moral codes. Given this, it is not surprising that societies/groups with moral codes tend to be ones that have (or had) written languages—so that the moral code of the group is written on some medium. (For example, the Ten Commandments were said— Exodus 24:12—to have been written on stone—by God.)

How “good” (and “bad”) behavior has been defined has varied between societies/groups, and also over time. For example, in Exodus 34 we find this passage:

10Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.

11Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.

12”Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you.

13Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.

14Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

15”Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices.

16And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.

17”Do not make any idols.

18”Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.

19 “The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock.

20Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

21“Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

22“Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.

23Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel.

24I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.

25“Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.

26“Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.

“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

27Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”

28Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

The passage above begins this way: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.” (For an explanation of why the breakage occurred, we need to go back to Exodus 32:19: “When Moses approached the camp and saw the [golden] calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.”)

Note that in verse 28 this code of conduct is identified as the Ten Commandments—and is presumably the initial version of the Decalogue.. “Ten Commandments” is an odd name for this set of commandments, however, given that there are more ten listed (the exact number depending on what one includes on one’s list, and how one groups commandments—if one does). Its references to celebrating the festival of unleavened bread and a bringing of firstfruits are positive commands, but the bulk of the commands are of a negative (“do not”) nature. Of most interest here, however, is the fact that these commandments are basically of a cultic nature—i.e., ones that, from the perspective today, are devoid of moral content. For the prevailing notion today regarding what makes a behavior moral is its impact on others: Behaviors that are harmful to others are immoral (“bad”), those that are helpful to others moral (“good”).

Behaviors referred to in a moral code may also become expressed in formal laws, but laws tend to differ from moral rules in at least two respects:

  • Moral rules can be either of a positive or negative nature. For example, the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy consists of eight commandments stated negatively (some of a cultic, rather than moral, nature) and two stated positively (observe the Sabbath, and honor your parents). The five “commands” in Job, however, are all of a positive nature; as such, their purpose is to encourage people to engage in the behaviors enjoined by the “code.”

Laws, in contrast, tend to state prohibitions—to specify those behaviors that one should not engage in.

  • With a moral rule per se there are no penalties associated with a failure to follow negative rules; benefits may, however, be promised for following the positive rules. The expectation is that one will feel an obligation to follow the rules, whether positive or negative, and in addition will follow the positive rules because of the personal benefits said to be gained by following those rules.

Laws not only specify those behaviors that one should avoid (and only such behaviors); they specify penalties for failure to avoid those behaviors—the nature of the penalty depending on the severity of the “crime.” Because of this fact that penalties are associated with a failure to “obey the law,” an enforcement apparatus is required—for (a) apprehending violators, (b) determining what punishment is to be administered, and (c) then actually administering that punishment (e.g., collecting a fine, incarcerating, providing “corrective” treatment, executing).

Traditionally, moral codes have been directed at (human) individuals, and have been instituted in recognition that some (but not all) of the ill-being that exists in a society exists because the behavior of some individuals is impacting negatively on the well-being of other members of the society; the purpose of the moral code, then, is to prevent the future occurrence of such behaviors—and the code may be supplemented with a set of laws (with accompanying enforcement apparatus) to add “force” to the components of the moral code.

Over time, as it becomes evident that the negative moral rules (and accompanying laws) are not solving the ill-being problem that exists, positive moral rules are introduced and the society’s members are encouraged also to follow those rules also. As these have no penalties associated with them for non-compliance, the society’s members are encouraged to “put themselves in the shoes” of those in the society with ill-being, thereby feel empathy for them, and act to decrease their ill-being. Etc. Thus, if the ill-being of a societal member can be attributed to an accident, a disease, etc.—rather than the actions of another societal member—the goal of positive rules is to address ill-being having its source in such “other” factors.

Stained Glass Depicting Jesus Christ

Stained Glass Depicting Jesus Christ
(Picture Courtesy: Microsoft Online)

The institution of positive rules may or may not “work” to achieve its intended end—that of eliminating ill-being from the society. That is, regardless of the arguments put forth for why the “good” person should follow these positive “commands,” not enough people may do so to eliminate ill-being in the society. What may be done then is for those determined to “correct” this problem to engage in political activity with the intent of getting laws passed that will initiate programs to address the ill-being problem that exists in the society. The various programs that constituted the “New Deal”—enacted in response to the Depression the country was then in—are examples of this.

Despite this latter fact, ill-being is currently widespread in our society, and if anything is becoming even more so. In addition, a new factor has begun to enter the picture—a factor currently responsible for but a small portion of the ill-being that exists, but a factor that shortly will be causing not only increased ill-being, but deaths on a massive scale—with even the possibility of causing the extinction of our species (along with many other species). Because of recent developments in our society, there is not only a need for a revised moral code (and accompanying set of laws); increasingly, the problem of ill-being itself will fade into the background, and the problem of survival, rather, will emerge as our primary concern. This latter fact means that moral codes and laws must play a lesser role in our society, and new means must be developed to address the ill-being/survival problem that looms ahead.

First, though, we need to become aware of the sources of the threats that face us currently:

  • Organizations such as business corporations—and governmental units themselves. For example, reckless behavior by firms in the financial sector (enabled by repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999) resulted in a fall in household wealth of $11.2 trillion in 2008. And the U. S. government’s bogus war against Iraq cost our country the lives of about 4,500 service people, and several hundred thousand Iraqis (and our President was not prosecuted for being a war criminal!).
  • Members of the elite (including rich corporations) are able to “buy” politicians—either directly or through lobbyists they hire—for the purpose of writing legislation that favors them—that enables them to engage in criminal activity that is, however, legal. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (referred to above) is an example of this.
  • One’s situation in the economy may be such as to expose one to various threats. Especially if one is placed in a “low” position in the economy one may be at risk for unemployment, for severance, for low pay (and low-quality benefits), for exposure to hazards (chemical, accident, etc.), etc.
  • The very way of life (a higher-level “situation”) that one has forces one to be a polluter—in that everything that one consumes involved pollution in its manufacture and transportation, one’s “journey to work” involves pollution, etc. The significant pollution for which one bears responsibility—by simply living in the society—is that of CO2 emissions, which are resulting in “global warming.” And that, is an extremely important matter!

In principle, our existing moral code could be altered to address the first two problems—and, in fact, laws have long been in existence to control the actions of private organizations such as corporations (a type of “individual,” so it is claimed!). But our society has become so inegalitarian that there is no reason to believe that more laws will be passed to control the behavior of private organizations; nor is there any chance that laws will be passed to “rein in” the elite. Our moral code could be altered to decry reckless activity by private organizations, lobbying, etc., but what good would this do? Without such an altered code being given “teeth”—i.e., laws that would outlaw certain behaviors—there is no chance that that altered code would be followed.

Insofar as situation is a problem, the source of that problem is the structure of the society itself—for it is “situations” that comprise that structure. Given this, the only solution to this problem is to change the structure—which is not easily accomplished (to make an understatement!).

The same can be said regarding way of life. For how does one change our way of life?! The simple answer is: We can’t. That fact implies that we are doomed (see the Bill McKibben article linked to “global warming” above).

But are we, in fact? I, for one, believe that there is some reason for hope—for those who recognize the threat posed by global warming, and realize that if they engage in adaptive activities, they may be able to survive the changes that will inevitably be occurring. And, if, in doing so, they create a society that is relatively egalitarian, and has institutions that ensure (so far as is possible) that it remains that way, the “situational” problem discussed above can be solved as well.

Even if some engage in this course of action, it seems clear that the next few decades will see tremendous deterioration and a severe loss of human life (and loss of many species). Unfortunately, these losses cannot be avoided. Those who do engage in adaptive activities will have no guarantee that they will survive—either because of global warming itself, or because of violence against them instigated by those who have not engaged in adaptive activities. But despite this possibility, they should engage in adaptive activities anyway, with the hope that they will survive—and will also be able to save at least some of those who failed to engage in adaptive activities.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.

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