Doesn’t every parent teach their child the difference between right and wrong? Don’t they try to lead by example that there is good and bad, especially as it relates to behavior? These lessons started early and instilled into a child, form the moral compass of that child. According to Merriam Webster morality is defined as the “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior and the degree to which something is right and good” (Morality, n.d.).
However, to understand this definition we must know the meanings of right and wrong and good and how they are determined. To take this even further Bernard Gert states that the dictionary definitions of morality are just the important characteristics of the word and cannot be considered without acknowledging its purpose: “to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons” (Gert, 2012).
Throughout the ages man has considered stealing and murder as wrong, because they went against the code of conduct set forth by their society. They were wrong because they caused hurt and damage to another individual and to the group in which they lived. There were laws during Biblical times that said man could not steal and could not murder. Punishment for such offenses was harsh. These laws have survived and are universal even today. But what about lying and cheating? Are they wrong? Do they break a moral code? Do they cause hurt and damage?
While there may not be a specific law that states lying and cheating are wrong and punishable by law, these two actions are accepted as wrong and in certain circumstances punishable. For example, a witness vows to tell the truth on the witness stand and if he lies he commits perjury which is punishable by law because lying on the witness stand is wrong in the judicial system. As students we understand that we are responsible for completing our own work on an exam and even young children know they are not allowed to copy their neighbor’s work on an exam. To do so constitutes cheating and is punishable with failure on said exam and at higher levels of education the breach of academic honesty can mean failure to graduate high school or earn a college degree. These four examples lie within the code of conduct of all societies and generally fall under a legal and ethical category but what about questionable actions?
We’ve all heard the term loose morals, often used to describe actions, dress, and relationships of young people. This is nothing new and each generation will proclaim that the younger generation has loose morals. But what does that mean and why? Again, we must consider that morals are based on a society’s or group’s code. At the turn of the 20th century, women wore long dresses that covered their ankles and arms and were rarely seen in public without a head covering. During the “Roaring 20s” women’s dress style changed and lower cut, sleeveless, straight, shorter dresses were the rage. The younger women who opted for this new style and enjoyed fun times in automobiles and dance halls were considered women with loose morals by the older generation of the time. These young women challenged the accepted behavior for women of the time. The idea that a young woman would be out with a man unaccompanied was just immoral in the minds of the older generation because again, it challenged the accepted norm. What would they think of young people today?
My parents raised me to understand and believe that the way I dress is important and sends a message as to my moral standards. I have always chosen to dress modestly, ensuring that all parts of my body that are intended to be covered are appropriately covered. When I see girls and young women in skimpy shorts, low cut shirts, and body parts hanging out, I am embarrassed and tend to have a lower opinion of them. I wonder what their parents taught them and why they act in such a way that suggests their morals are somewhat different from my own. Does our society consider this type of dress, or undress, morally acceptable? Advertising suggests it does. And yet schools have dress codes. Churches have acceptable dress standards. Work places have dress codes. I believe that many, maybe not the majority, but many people hold to a dress code that considers questionable dress as a lower moral standard.
My personal example of morality raises the question of can a society’s moral code change? Homosexuality is another example that challenges morality. During Biblical times homosexuality was deemed immoral and wrong, punishable by death according to the book of Leviticus 20:13: “ If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them” (New King James version). It was illegal and punishable by law up until the 1950s (Ford, 2013). Some societies still consider homosexuality to be immoral. Our society continues to debate this issue and while there are laws that make it acceptable today and therefore not a punishable crime, there are many who still consider it unacceptable and immoral which raises the question as to whether or not morality is also an internal and personal guideline as well as a societal one.
Every man has a moral compass, determined as a result of childhood teaching, societal rules, and an innate sense of right and wrong. While it can be, and is, debated that one’s morals can change over time, it is prudent to say that our experiences may influence us but our conscience sets the ultimate course on the moral road.