Friday, March 23, 2007
Fundamentals of morality
I want to talk about the nature of good and evil, of morality. Now, I use the word "morality" to questions about good and evil; please understand that the word carries a lot of baggage. For example, one friend of mine once said that the proper definition from usage (i.e.: how people use it) was "something to do with sex". That's not exactly true; there have always been philosophers using it to refer to questions about good and evil, but philosophers use words in ways so unnatural that you might think about sexual immorality anyway.
The reason I want to use "morality" to discuss questions of good and evil is that I tend to use "good" and "bad" for outcomes. It's moral to try to bring about good outcomes... you see where the confusion could come in?
But before we can talk about the fundamental nature of good and evil, I need to address a common limitation in Western thought on the subject.
We live in a monotheistic culture, and a lot of people think that what is "moral" is "following God's will", and it's entirely possible that it is. However, you need to ask a question about that.
(Putting on my Christian theologian hat - yes, we Wicca can do that, especially if we grew up Catholic.)
Is this because God gets to set the rules, or is it because God knows the rules better than anyone?
This is a crucial thing to think about and it confuses a lot of people.
Think about life as being like a chess game. If God tells you the right move is to move your queen to a particular space, is it because God knows chess better than anyone else on the planet, or is it because God is going to change the rules of chess, and declare that you win once you move your queen there, even though it doesn't checkmate your opponent?
Keep in mind that it's impossible to prove that one answer is "right"; it's like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Nevertheless, we can establish that one answer both feels right, and is actually the one most people accept.
First, let's pretend God can dictate what is or isn't moral. That means that, if God declared it moral to torture people tomorrow, it would become moral to torture people.
You can't say that "God would never do that, God is too moral to do such a thing!" because "moral" is whatever God says it is!
The only reason to do "good" would be to avoid getting on God's bad side. But do we consider it moral to do things only to avoid getting someone angry? When teaching children to be moral, we've failed if they only behave to avoid being punished. We only have succeeded when they want to do the right thing because it's right. Why should it be any different with God?
The idea that God is moral and loving is based upon the idea that morality is bigger than (or at least on a par with) God. If we judge God by the right standards, we can say God is moral and loving.
So I find that idea more appealing, even though I can't prove it. But it's also what most people believe. For example, if God asked someone to do something that seemed to be wrong, what would we think? When someone suffers a great injustice and asks "why didn't God prevent this?" what do people often say?
That the Lord works in mysterious ways. That God has a plan. That we are threads in a tapestry, and we can't see the grand pattern.
We believe that, if we understood everything God understood, it would all make sense. Get it? We believe that morality has some kind of sensibility to it. We assume that God knows better than us, and that's why these things make sense, as part of God's will.
We believe that God doesn't set the rules, but that he explains them. We believe that God is a moral being who does what is good and moral.
Next post, I hope to discuss more about what we could infer about a truly moral being.