The Social Construct of Morality

Joining the ranks of religion and politics, morality has quietly become a minefield to be publicly avoided at all costs.  Discussion on the matter, let alone debate, is just not politically correct; someone is sure to be offended.  Others might disagree, but I assert that morality, once commonly guided by absolute principles broadly accepted by society, has gradually evolved to a matter of individual preference.  I personally believe that matters of preference are subject to compromise, while matters of principle should be firmly upheld.  The problems begin when my principles differ from yours.  While my intent here is not to impose my ideology, I do want to explore the cultural inconsistencies in the interpretation of right and wrong within our society.  To that end, I pose these questions as food for thought and comment:

Should the foundation of morality be based on an absolute – a definitively established set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, or should it be left to the interpretation of individuals or larger society groups?  Should these cultural standards be established or affirmed, recognizing that not everyone will be in agreement?  Do we let the majority decide, or do we default to the lowest common denominator within our culture – the individual?

I’m using the term ‘lowest common denominator’ in the context of contrasting two ends of the spectrum for judgment over what is and is not acceptable, i.e., morally right.  By that I am referring to an accepted societal viewpoint in which the wishes/rights of individuals have priority over those of a larger population.  I’m drilling down to the idea of ‘individual rights’ as the lowest level driver of moral authority, assuming ‘rights’ are interpreted in the strictest sense.  I’m also using the concept of right and wrong in the same context as morality, since by definition, morality is the principles of right and wrong in behavior.

The fact is, belief and value systems within our culture vary so greatly that there is an enormous gap between what most of us believe as individuals and the reality that exists within our society.  Despite what many would assert should be, I don’t think a consensus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ truly exists in our culture because we simply cannot agree on the boundaries.  Sure, there are certain actions that are almost universally considered taboo, but the waters get murky when you start talking about simpler issues of right or wrong.  Subsequently, no one is satisfied.  We assess issues and behaviors, etc., based on our personal perspective, recognizing the influence that our experiences, beliefs, and shifting cultural views have on us.  Perhaps the most commonly accepted concession is that what is ‘right’ for one person or group may not be so for another.

As a society of like minded people (I’m talking in the broadest sense), we’ve traditionally made sweeping cultural decisions about what is considered right and wrong.  In the age of political correctness, those decisions are being challenged by those who believe the ‘one’ is just as important as the ‘many.’  Priority of designated ‘rights’ has shifted away from the absolute and/or cultural majority to individuals and small groups with interests that do not conform to traditional norms.  Current cultural pressure dictates that we are no longer supposed to judge right or wrong whenever there is the potential that an individual or group might take offense or in some way be repressed.

Some would argue that morality is and should be a social construct.  That concept is indeed at the heart of the questions I’m posing.  Since defining morality as a social construct implies that there are culturally established standards of right and wrong, how then should this morality be imposed upon society, when by doing so, it may in fact conflict with the principles and values of those in disagreement?

In a discussion on this subject several years ago, a friend of mine argued that cultures judge right and wrong at will while governments protect the rights of individuals.  I don’t entirely agree with this, although I think I understand what he was getting at.  Cultures do define and judge right and wrong, however, governments obviously do not always protect individual rights.  The legal imposition of morality is in constant flux and the monitoring and protection of affected ‘rights’ depends on a host of social and political factors, all of which vary by culture vis-à-vis country.  I would point out that even in the U.S., public perception of certain assumed rights is itself frequently a cultural misconception, based on popular assumption but with no specific legal basis.  Simply put, just because we think we deserve something doesn’t mean we’re legally entitled to it, and having a voice doesn’t always equate to having a vote.

That same friend also asserted that “tyranny of the masses precludes justice and fairness” in the application of moral constructs imposed upon broader society.  Assuming that’s true, where then is the demarcation between social morality and individual rights?  How exactly should fairness be defined?  Given the imposition of social/cultural morality on the broader population, exactly how and where is the line drawn when a generally accepted social ‘good’ conflicts with the perceived rights of a smaller group within that population?

My point is our individual concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is founded entirely through our personal perspective, which is a product of our experiences, environment, religious beliefs, and cultural influences.  When does the determination of ‘right’ by the majority justify decisions that adversely impact the minority?  I think we’d all agree that it sometimes does.  Perhaps the bigger question is should it?  Is there in fact an absolute truth that supersedes an inconsistent socially constructed morality?

I think our society today frequently confuses its beliefs with its desires, or more accurately, we shape our beliefs to conveniently fit our desires.  More to the point, we allow our preferences to shape our principles instead of the other way around.  We also confuse our freedoms with rights.  As a result, everyone creates his or her own reality.  In my reality are my perceptions of right and wrong.  There are people who agree with (i.e., share) my perceptions, and people who do not.  Consequently, there are multiple social moralities on any given issue.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve been so programmed to embrace everyone else’s opinions and beliefs, we’ve compromised our own principles in the process.  I’m not suggesting that anyone should be intolerant or judgmental, but I think the terms are often used as a convenient weapon against those who philosophically disagree.  There is nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s not politically or socially correct.  In fact, I believe that by adhering to the rules of political correctness under the premise of ‘not offending anyone’, we’ve completely prostituted ourselves to a homogeneous culture where people are persecuted for defending a principle that conflicts with the preference of others.  There are many people who are not concerned by that, so maybe I’m being cynical.  I just have a hard time accepting that actions and behaviors should be justified based on whether they pass the ‘doesn’t harm anyone’ test.  Shouldn’t there be some better criteria for judging the morality of what we think and do?

We live in an age of anarchy – not political anarchy, but social and cultural anarchy.  Everyone is encouraged to ‘do their own thing’, whatever that thing may be – and it’s all supposed to be okay so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or infringe upon anyone else’s rights.  It’s an inconsistent premise at best and I don’t buy it.  When the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Actions, whether by individuals or societies, have repercussions.  Our decisions and behaviors, whether in public or in private, slowly shape the world in which we live, and ultimately influence who we are.  We create our own cultures, just as we create our own realities.  Whether you believe in a single authority or cultural evolution, there are many social moralities.  The trouble with that is, none are right, some are right, all are right.  It all depends on your perspective.

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Parental Responsibility in Social Training

Have you ever witnessed children running wild in a restaurant or retail store while the parents, apparently oblivious to the chaos, completely disregard the effect this behavior has on everyone else around them?  Of course the child’s behavior is not really the issue is it?  After all, the actions of children are merely a reflection of the parent’s priorities and values.  Unruly, precocious, undisciplined children left to explore the world on their own terms are simply another symptom of a larger socio-cultural trend that inflicts many adults today – a warped sense of entitlement compounded by a general lack of personal responsibility.

As a parent myself, I simply don’t accept the notion of the overwrought mom or dad, out in public trying to enjoy a family meal or finishing up errands with kids that are overly tired or bored.  Children and their needs should always be the parents’ first priority, but this is often not the case.  The parent’s agenda far too often comes first – the dinner out, the gift to buy, the dress to try on – all the while with kids in tow.  I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I have left a cart full of groceries in the store because one of our toddlers was having a melt down, or how many meals one of us finished alone in a restaurant while the other waited in the car with one of our unruly monsters.  Our needs, our schedule, our time together – all came second to our kids.

I also don’t accept the parental ‘philosophy’ of untethered social training, in which children are allowed to explore the world around them with minimal restraint or direction, the justification for which is to encourage creativity and individual expression.  Seriously, give me a break!  I see parents every single day who evidently subscribe to this theory, either by design or through the abdication of their parental responsibility to provide guidance and leadership.  Truthfully, I think many parents today are simply too lazy or too consumed with their own personal desires to provide meaningful parental leadership to their own children.  Instead of owning up to the tough role of parent, they instead try to be ‘friends’ with their kids.  Children need their parents to be role models who hold them accountable for their actions, not ‘friends’ who condone destructive behavior and shield them from the consequences of their actions.

Children are naturally inquisitive, energetic, and reckless. They are also inherently kind, honest, sensitive, and generous. However, they are unfortunately also a product of their environment. Values such as respect for others, self-discipline, and good old fashioned manners must be instilled and practiced, starting at home. A child’s behavior is a direct and unequivocal reflection of the parent’s behavior and values. Children are taught, or perhaps more accurately, allowed to learn and practice disruptive, disrespectful, and inappropriate behavior.

The mere fact that some parents feel that ‘everywhere’ is a training ground for social interaction, as if that somehow defers the parent’s role, neglects one of the core responsibilities that parents have for raising their children.  Training for social interaction begins and ends at home and should define the boundaries for what is acceptable when out in public.  The “everywhere” argument implies that the world shares responsibility for training children. I disagree.

Many adults, particularly young adults in their 20s and 30s appear to believe that the world about them exists solely for their comfort, convenience, and satisfaction. Perhaps this is the result of a couple of generations of economic prosperity, but this particular demographic seems to feel that they are owed something – abject servility in restaurants and stores, instant gratification and satisfaction, and freedom from personal responsibility and accountability. For the most part, they’ve not experienced serious difficulty in their lifetime – no cold war nuclear threat, no painful economic hardship, and very little in the way of any significant personal sacrifice. They’ve never spent hours in line for gas on odd days of the month, or worried about a mandatory draft. They’ve been too busy enjoying the American dream, getting what they want when they want, and along the way have become morally complacent, materialistic, and hopelessly entitled.

I don’t know for sure exactly how this mindset became part of our culture. Maybe it was instilled by the parents of my own generation. Maybe it was the environment in which this latest generation grew up. Regardless, it is no wonder that so many of today’s children mirror those attitudes. It’s been bred into them. Children today reflect the same sense of entitlement that they see their parents demanding in their own interactions.  If a child breaks something, it’s the store’s fault for having it accessible. If the parents can’t “control” them, they excuse the behavior by saying the children are “uncontrollable” rather than accept responsibility for the fact that they are failing their children in this aspect of their development. Parents insist their kids have the “right” to run and play in public, to make as much noise as they want, to learn social interaction everywhere they go and regardless of the consequences for others around them.

So don’t blame the kids running between the tables in the restaurant or rolling on the floor in the retail store; they’re just children who learn from and emulate their parents.  It is the parents who are at fault.  It is the parents who should be asked to leave when children are behaving in a way that is disrespectful or inappropriate for their immediate environment.  Better yet, the parents should exercise good judgment and remove their children without having to be asked.

Social training should only take place in public places that are conducive to age (or maturity) specific interaction. This, of course, depends on the behavioral capacity of the child. Children who have been adequately taught appropriate behavior at home and who demonstrate appropriate behavior when out in public may well be able to handle a more sensitive adult environment.  In any case, there should be no carte blanche for public social training.  Unfortunately, the burden of discretion falls upon the parents, who themselves too often need remedial social training.