The question, then, isn’t should we make moral judgments. We do—that’s a simple fact. The question ought to be, on what should we base our judgments? (“Moral Judgments, Part 1”
When I taught seventh and eighth graders, I soon learned that a good number of the
boys students found it amusing to look for double entendres, particularly ones with a possible sexual slant. I decided early on that I could either learn all the latest slang and work to avoid any words that might carry sexual innuendo, or I could teach my students to employ a little self discipline. I opted for the latter.
The problem I came up against was that some bright kids astutely said, in essence, But why shouldn’t we laugh? It’s funny. They were right, of course. Suggestive interpretation can be funny. Dirty jokes can be funny too.
So, I asked, is that the standard we use to determine what we listen to — if it makes us laugh?
It’s the question we should all be asking today. Is the standard we use to determine what we read, watch on TV, listen to on our iPods, where we go, who we hang with, how we spend our time, what Internet sites we visit nothing more than that it entertains us? Is the highest good, our feelings of pleasure — happiness, mirth, satisfaction, gratification, amusement?
You’d think so, judging by what we talk about and how we spend our time. But most of us realize there are more important things than what pleases us — the good of our family, for instance, or for Christians, doing what God wants us to do. In public schools here in California, the overriding principle students are to use as a guide for their behavior is, Do no one harm.
But all those and the countless other standards used in the business world, in government, in the legal system, in the marketplace, offer no definition for “good” or for “what God wants” or “harm.”
Is it harm to make fun of someone? If so, then why do we allow Saturday Night Live to stay on TV? Is it “good” for someone to be mocked for his lack of singing ability on national TV? Is it “what God wants” when we write a book that says there is no hell?
How are we to make such judgments?
We could go with what pleases us. Saturday Night Live is a funny show, so whatever they joke about is just fine.
We could say, A person gets what he’s asking for, so the clowns who try out for talent shows when they have no talent, deserve to get hammered. But does that mean someone cheering for the Giants in Dodger Stadium is asking to get hammered?
We could say, What we think is right, is what God wants us to do. So when people like President Obama support fetal stem cell research because they believe many, many people will be cured of diseases as a result, does their belief in their cause mean they are doing what God wants?
Clearly, every issue has two sides. Who’s to say what’s right? Person A says pornography hurts a person and tears apart marriages. Person B says it’s an innocent way of releasing sexual tension.
Person A says abortion kills babies. Person B says abortion saves children from lives of abuse and neglect.
Person A says bullying is part of growing up and every kid gets teased. Person B says bullying destroys self-esteem and pushes victims toward retaliation of one kind or the other.
On and on, round and round. Is it true that we should just go with what the majority of people believe to be right? Do we take a vote? Today it’s wrong to throw Jews into concentration camps, but tomorrow, if we have enough votes, we can decide that good means Jews will be arrested and jailed?
Is there no fixed standard? No way to know what is right and what is wrong for all time? Or are we left to our whims or to the trends of society fashioned by the best propaganda money can buy?
One of the telling facts that came out of President Obama’s statements about the Supreme Court’s deliberations about the Constitutionality of the health care law was that he considered the popularity of the law to be a reason it should stand and not be struck down. As if popularity outweighed the Constitution he has sworn to uphold.
But President Obama is a man of the times. As is Donald Trump. Secretary Clinton is no less a product of our times. How do they define good? It would seem they do so by whatever they want.
Essentially, our society has come down to this: every person does what is right in his own eyes, and if he’s doing something the law says is illegal, he moves with greater caution so he doesn’t get caught.
There ought to be a better way to determine what is right and wrong. And there is.
This post, part two of a short series on moral judgment, is an edited version of one that first appeared here in April 2012.