Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Thoughts on morality.

I was thinking about morality today, and it suddenly dawned on me what defines what is and is not moral. I was thinking that despite differing opinions of individuals on what should be considered moral, it's pragmatically a society's consensus on morality that matters. Then I realized, morality isn't what each individual thinks it to be, or even what society agrees it to be, and it certainly isn't what some invisible man in the sky says that it is. What defines morality is what it will be agreed to be.

I don't just mean that the morality of an action must be decided after the fact, what I mean is that what is most moral is what will be considered moral in the future. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins discusses what he calls the "changing moral zeitgeist". This is the phenomenon by which morality evolves (so to speak) through time. Prime examples of this are racism and slavery, which have been the norm until very recently in our history, but are abhorred by anyone we would consider civilized today. I admire Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson was a slave owner. We all hate Hitler, but the racism that fueled his genocide wasn't nearly as far behind the moral zeitgeist as we would like to believe. The trick to being as moral as possible, I realized, is to be ahead of the curve. Don't try to do what people consider right today, do what will be considered right tomorrow, or next year, or in a thousand years.

Of course, without precognition, it's difficult to know what direction the moral zeitgeist will take. Short-term changes can be sometimes be predicted based on other recent changes as a natural progression, such as the acceptance of homosexuals following from recent moves toward race- and gender-equality, and those who are slightly ahead of the curve already vehemently oppose homophobia and campaign for gay rights. Long-term changes are harder to predict, and even the most progressive among us surely hold beliefs that will be considered appalling within a few generations, but we don't see anything wrong with them today. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to be far enough ahead of the zeitgeist that our posterity will recognize our good intentions, and as with Jefferson, chalk-up our failings to the times in which we live.

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