Stealing, lying and cheating.
Think back to being a child. What were you told about these three behaviours?
Go on, take a moment.
My guess is that as a small child, your parents told you that these things were naughty, bad or wrong. Perhaps when you were a little older, it was explained to you that they were immoral.
Whichever way, it is unlikely that the concepts of morality or even for that matter of naughtiness were ever explained to you, and that’s a shame, because the way people understand these concepts can be hugely character forming. I can’t count the number of times that I have seen half-witted parents leaving their young children at school with the parting advice of ‘don’t be naughty’ squeezed through lips that can barely move for fear of losing a home rolled cigarette. On its own, ‘don’t be naughty’ means nothing. What the child needs to understand/be taught is precisely which actions constitute naughtiness. And when they grow up, the same applies to right, wrong, good and bad. On their own, they have no meaning. These are all terms which we use to describe much more complex notions. They are a kind of shorthand that we use to talk about the conventions of conduct that we have learned.
Obviously, my list of misdemeanours is not an exhaustive one. We could include murder, torture, genocide, and countless others, but as it seems doubtful that most of you indulge in them (at least not on a regular basis) let’s keep it simple and think as kids for a while. What is it that puts lying, stealing and cheating into the ‘wrong’ or ‘imorral’ category.?
Most obviously, they all things that none of us would wish to happen to ourselves. Nobody likes to be lied to, nobody enjoys being cheated, and nobody wants to be deprived of their possessions by theft. The notion of treating others as you would like them to treat you is quite a compelling one.
It is ever popular to look to religious writings to provide us a template for what is morally sound and morally questionable. After all, this is where the majority of us (certainly of my generation and before) got our first insights into a moral code.
It would be relatively easy to base a system of morality on the law of the land in which we live. The laws of the land are there to guide us, and provide us a set of rules by which to live. Could this be a system of morality? Does the law tell us right from wrong?
Should we look to the great philosophers for the secret? After all they have been debating it for centuries.
In actual fact, the solution is incredibly easy. You were lied to as a child in order to control your behaviour, and the same thing is happening to all of us now. In reality, there is no such thing as morality. There is no right and there is no wrong. It is, as I always say, only stuff.
If we look at the possible roots of morality listed above, you will hopefully see what I mean.
Basing our moral standard upon what we would find acceptable if it were to be done to us is perhaps the most compelling approach. It makes sense that treating others as we would expect to be treated ourselves would draw a fairly clear line in the sand, and that anything on the far side of that line could be considered morally dubious or wrong. Take for example, a good hard punch in the face. An unprovoked punch in the face is something that we surely could all agree on disliking. You didn’t deserve it. The attack was unprovoked. You would be quite justified, assuming that you weren’t sitting on your arse as a result, to retaliate in the most extreme was possible, and consider yourself quite within your rights.
In the vast majority of cases, this would be correct, but that does not mean that there are circumstances under which it becomes questionable. What if your attacker had mistaken you for someone else? What if there is an absolute arse hole that looks just like you walking around doing unspeakable things to people. If he had assaulted your assailant’s family in some way, then he would be quite justified in retaliating. The fact that they made a mistake and wrongly identified you surely wouldn’t warrant a violent response on your part, or for that matter, for their act to become classified immoral. After all, you have made genuine mistakes in the past, and you would not expect to be punished for them.
What if your assailant was mentally ill and couldn’t be held responsible for his own actions?
What if his drink had been spiked and he didn’t know what was going on?
What if he was feeling aggressive because he had just received devastating medical news and was lashing out?
It becomes a little bit trickier to apply a simple rule, doesn’t it?
Taking our moral code from religion is a little more straightforward. The rules are written down in a big book, and we all agree to abide by them. We have a strong consensus of opinion, and that could be regarded as a system of morality.
The notion works fine until we take into account the fact that different religions have different codes of conduct, and that what might be acceptable in one faith might well be abhorrent to another. Ritual sacrifice, for example, is quite a popular pastime among the people of certain faiths, but it would oil no parsnips with a Buddhist.
No, whilst religious doctrine works well as a rule book for living within a particular faith-based society, it fails to provide a universal system of right and wrong. As we have seen recently, even the popular notion of respecting human life has not been universally adopted among the religious community.
As far as the law of the land goes, we have very similar difficulties to the ones which arise from religion. Laws work well within their country of origin as a guide to acceptable conduct. When those laws have been democratically decided upon, then so much the better, but they cannot be seen as providing a universal system of morality.
To begin with, not everyone who lives under said laws is going to agree with them. Secondly, laws vary wildly from country to country. There are numerous cases every year of holiday makers and expats getting into trouble for doing something in one country which would have perfectly acceptable if they had done it in their own. Speaking as an expat myself, I have to be very aware of this. So again, no unified system is created.
As far as the philosophers go, they would be out of a job quick smart if they answered this one. Fuck ‘em!
For the notion of morality to have any sort of unified meaning, we would require it to be something upon which we could all agree, and frankly, we don’t. There are no circumstances under which everyone will agree that something is right or wrong. Only the other week I had a conversation with someone who for reasons I shall not go into here, believed that Hitler ‘got a bad press’ for doing something which was essentially good. I am proud to say that I could not agree with him, or for that matter, see much value in his argument, but an argument he had, and he firmly believed in what he was saying. My point is, that even the atrocities of the holocaust can find supporters, and with that being the case, we have very little hope of finding a universal consensus on petty theft or adultery being intrinsically right or wrong. Seriously, he supported the holocaust for fuck’s sake!
So what do you do?
First off, accept that any notion of morality has only been introduced to control your thoughts and actions, and that the finer points of that notion will change depending on where in the world you go and who you talk to.
Secondly, accept that other people believe this shit, and most importantly, accept that it is perfectly OK for them to do so.
Finally, decide what is right for YOU. Decide where YOU draw the line. Be prepared to stand by it, but also be prepared to rub it out and redraw it if your feelings change. YOUR morals are as much an arbitrary set of rules designed to serve your own purpose as are anyone else’s. If your purposes change (and they probably will) don’t feel bad about adjusting your morals to suit. We all do it.
There is no universal morality, so all you can do to judge your own actions is to consider how they make you feel. I couldn’t in all honesty, say that killing another human being is wrong, because I don’t believe in wrong as an entity. I can however, say that I suspect that doing it would make me feel terrible, and that in itself is a sufficient guide to steer me away from taking it up as a hobby. I should add that I feel that same about stealing, cheating (for the most part), and lying. I don’t do them because they would make me feel wretched in the long term. If you feel differently then that’s fine, but accept that there are likely to be consequences imposed upon you by a society that, for the most part, feels differently.
In the words of the great Mr Crowley, “Do what thou wilt”.
Just be sure that you can live with yourself afterwards.
(Minister of stuff).