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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About Bryant
Bryant is a business management and organizational development executive with over 15 years’ experience focused on financial and operational efficiencies, talent development and optimization, improved employee engagement, and cultural alignment of teams within the organization. He has diverse experience in successful financial and strategic planning, brand management, leadership analysis and talent development, as well as designing and executing improvements to teams’ cultural efficacy and organizational alignment. Bryant has experience in both International Public S&P 500 Corporate and Non-Profit Sectors, and also runs his own entrepreneurial business venture, a consulting company specializing in helping small businesses and organizations improve operational efficiency, leadership development, and employee engagement . Bryant holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and a Bachelors in Fine Arts (BFA).

2 Responses to The Social Construct of Morality

  1. Ronn says:

    Lord of the Flies in the Suburbs

    Bryant,

    First, please excuse my usual fast moving, choppiness. I often sit and think way too long about each sentence and then leap ahead with the next sentence, expecting everyone else to leap with me. It’s a flaw in style, I admit.

    One point that immediately comes to mind is the fact that there have been countless “absolutes” over the recorded history of humans – each culture just as certain as the next they held The Truths, even when contradictory at that time, not to mention by comparison to other eras or places. This in itself neutralizes any solidity for The Absolute Truth According to Humans.

    So, just for fun, let’s say that one percent of the “Truths” have (at best) a fighting chance of holding up under the scrutiny of the Big, Earthly, Historical Picture. What are they? I have one that might withstand the pressure. What is it? Keep in mind the term “survival”.

    Morality is a construct of convenience. Ouch! And, any Rule of Morality can be taken to an extreme that then defines Immorality, which then means the Rule has been reduced to its uselessness. For example: Three humans remain alive in the world. One man, two women. The man is married to one of these two women. His wife becomes sterile from an infection. To continue the species, the married man must have successful sex with the other woman. But, THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY! Do they allow the species to end or continue on? Which is the higher “moral” position? Keep in mind that last word in the last paragraph.

    Taken to the extreme, most morality looks idiotic to all but those who have an obsessive fetish with word play. For example, it’s convenient to say public nakedness is “immoral” – if you live in a cold environment. Nakedness in upper Norway isn’t immoral, it’s stupid at the very least! None the less, if the Norwegian man visits the Amazonian jungle, an adjustment will be required for the sake of his Survival… Strip!

    Morality has foundations in climate and tribal strength. If 20,000 men and women remain alive in the world, well… let the stupid man freeze to death. He’ll become a lesson for the younger ones. Morality provides guidelines within specific conditions. Conditions change over place and time. We have no serious control over those facts.

    “Humans don’t eat humans.” Tell THAT to the Donner Party or the millions of starving people in Nazi concentration camps. This never seems to be discussed “openly” but the camp Liberators found fresh bite and chew marks on fresh corpses missing limbs. The implications were (and are) clear.

    Morality is a set of necessary guidelines – STRONG SUGGESTIONS disguised as absolute truths. You’re right – we cannot agree on the boundaries, but it is a LUXURY of our current physical and social circumstances. The fewer luxuries gifted to a group, the clearer the Truths become, and the faster the harsher agreements arise.

    A parent has children. They are starving. The parent steals food from a store. THOU SHALT NOT STEAL!! Existentialism wins out. Lesser rules get thrown out the cultural window. Cultural Darwinism.

    Culture is a very thin veneer. Life demands Survival above all else. Survival is the physical Absolute Truth, and it has a hierarchy: survival of the individual, the mate, the family unit, the tribe, the region, the nation, the united nations, the planetary species. Survival is the strongest “moral” position in a world, despite any doubts or luxurious debates such as ours. THAT is a “moral reality”. Everything else is icing. Parlor chat. Wigs. Breast implants. Devices to segregate or integrate people for other purposes (normally the acquisition of power).

    Ronn.

    P.S. – On the other side of the coin, and not included in this discussion: SPIRIT does not demand Survival since it cannot be destroyed. It is outside of this and all other debates.

  2. john bates says:

    Personally I think the question to ask is who exactly is ‘morality’ benefiting the most,have a hard think about it and within that question you shall see why morality was created in the first place,whether you choose to accept the truth or not is up to you,it does not make it any less the truth if nobody chooses to accept it,also as far as ‘rights’ are concerned I think they were created to enslave the truly independant people into society and force them to participate or suffer consequences,I dont see why you have a bigger problem with somebody just sitting at home and not harming anybody were a outgoing murderer will get more acceptance than a solitary person,seems a bit unfair to me wouldnt you agree,would love to hear any counter arguments, john.x

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