Thursday, August 21, 2008

More thoughts on moral codes

After some more thought, I've realized why I have such trouble with absolute moral codes, and why religious people may not.

My first principle is that I must follow my conscience above all else. If ever there was a situation where a particular moral code passed down by a church conflicted with what my conscience said to do, I would have to violate the moral code. So in effect, if there is no conflict, the moral code is fine, but when it comes right down to it what I'm following is my conscience. Yes it's personal and thus can be argued about, yes this means I have to think harder, and yes, it can lead to mistakes. But I'm concerned that taking moral codes given to me by someone else without asking why they are right or wrong will lead to even bigger mistakes. And if I have to understand why something is right or wrong, then I'm back to questioning the moral code and using my own judgement instead.

I think a key difference with me is that I don't have faith that, even if there is a God, any social institution can perfectly express the moral imperatives I should follow. My view is that there is always some level of political influence, communication/translation error and sheer incompetence in any organization. And the way to ensure that the level of these things in the organizations you are a part of is as low as possible is to keep questioning those organizations, and keep pushing them closer to perfection. And the idea of taking on faith that an organization's pronouncements are correct seems wrong, even when the organization has been around for thousands of years. Unquestioning faith opens the door to an abuse of power, and as humans if a door is open someone, somewhere is likely to step through. So even though I now have a much greater appreciation for the benefits of absolute moral codes than I had a few days ago, I am going to have to maintain my position against them as a personal guide to right and wrong. They can still be good for guiding society in a positive direction, and as the basis from which we start asking moral questions, though.

Another thing that became clear to me during a discussion this past week is that if you subscribe to the idea that your moral code is absolute, and applies to everyone, it can look like someone who subscribes to moral principles rather than a code (list of do's and don'ts) is a moral relativist, when that's not the case. I think there are certain moral principles that are always correct for everyone (although we may not have a full understanding of them yet). But on the other hand, I don't think any given behaviour (such as lying or adultery) must necessarily be forbidden in all cases. So I subscribe to absolute principles (which I am still trying to discover - it looks like a combination of utilitarianism and empathy works well) but I'm skeptical of whether any given behaviour should be forbidden/praised in all cases for everyone, and I think there's great value in asking why any given moral code makes sense, and thus coming to an understanding of the principles from which it is derived.

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