Civil Morality

There is an on-going discussion out there about morality and how to appropriately legislate it. It’s a tricky and volatile issue that leaves all sides fighting for their own respective views with more passion and vigor than your average topic.

Where does an overarching set of morals come from when looking at a society as diverse as ours? Certainly family, religious organizations, the educational system, and other groups are key places where morals are passed on to a greater or lesser degree. Which morals are taught, and their justifications, are as varied as the teachers of them. So what makes a moral a moral? How do you decide? And how can it translate into the larger society?

Without a doubt, the founders of our country had a strong base in the Judeo-Christian traditions when they framed the Declaration, Constitution, and the very country itself. However, through expansion, immigration, slavery, taking over native lands, etc. the makeup of the population became increasingly more heterogeneous. With more people – carrying with them their personal religious, political, and cultural backgrounds – I can only imagine how difficult it was to develop a set of universal laws and guidelines that were sensitive to the needs of the many and the few.

At the risk of pressing the hot button, take the gay marriage debate as an example. Without getting into the thick of it, some view there should be full marriage rights, some are for civil unions, some for none at all, and some for an outright ban. Throughout this discussion, morality based on religion is thrown into the mix as justification – and then it’s generally Christianity. It doesn’t even have to be about gay marriage, take school prayer, gun control, abortion, war, or almost anything else. How do you legislate morality when what is considered “morally right” or “wrong” can be so subjective, particularly when different religions, cultures, and personal histories can inform the debate in contradictory ways?

A part of my experience on Semester at Sea was to take classes in between our ports of call. Each course would be divided up by port to help make the subject relevant to where we were headed. My art class focused on Angkor Wat in Cambodia just before I went there.

One of my favorite classes was on religious ethics. We took issues like insider trading, child labor, abortion, divorce, polygamy, in vitro fertilization, etc. and filtered them through the lens of the religions of the countries we were about to visit. I recall when we had the debate about insider trading in a Japanese company we discussed how it might be considered ok because of the value placed on the community (or company) over the individual. (I’m simplifying, of course.) Talking about abortion in a Hindu or Buddhist context where karma and rebirth plays a role makes for an interesting conversation. Was the embryo/fetus/child being punished for bad karma from a previous life? Will the mother and doctor be punished in their next life by becoming a bug or something? After all, it’s something that karma will work out anyway, so it’s not for government to deal with anyway. And that’s not even getting into the “personhood” of the embryo or any concept of “sin.” (We actually came across a number of different groups/societies that defined when personhood began. For some it began at conception. For others it was at a certain stage of pregnancy or at birth. There was even a group that felt that someone wasn’t really a person until the age of 7 for males and 14 for females.)

With so many angles and filters to consider, how can we decide? Can there be a unified policy when not everyone is coming from the same place? Is it simply majority rules? Or does there need to be more consideration for different points of view?

I don’t have any answers. I can only add that I think that life is far to complex to be dealt with using absolutes.

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