Determining Rights versus Wrong
Mass shootings, racial hatred, social injustice, incivility, fraud, and White Supremacy are just a few of the examples of the moral decay in America. These extremes forms of behavior have occurred because of a decline in morality and ethical behavior. Morality is the system through which we determine right and wrong conduct – i.e., the guide to good or right conduct. Moral theory describes how people, in their everyday actions and judgments, make decisions about right and wrong. Ethical behavior is a set of standards such as those embodied in a code of ethics.
Morals are the prevailing standards of behavior that enable people to live cooperatively in groups as it provides guidelines for behavior. Morality often requires that people sacrifice their own short-term interests for the benefit of society. A good example is to forego personal wealth to help others in need. A corporation acts morally when it foregoes profits to act in a socially responsible way.
One of the problems with the way we define morality today is for most people it depends on subjectivism. In other words, individuals define what is moral and immoral for themselves in their own unique situation. There are no commonly accepted standards of behavior.
This objective standard of right vs. wrong creates a lot of the problems in society. It means that what is good or bad for one person can differ from what it is for another. One person may think that lying to get ahead is good for personal reasons while another says it is bad because it compromises the trust others place in us. How can we learn to live together in such an environment?
Objectivism can create all sorts of problems such as stealing something or destroying personal property and then justifying it, under the circumstances, as looters have done when the opportunity presents itself -- perhaps due to perceived social injustice.
Some say the moral decay is attributable to a decline in religious attendance. According to a survey by Statista, the decline in religious attendance at churches and synagogues are at least partly to blame. The survey results for 2020 are as follows: Attend every week (24%); Attend almost once a week (9%); Attend about once a month (11%); Attend seldomly (25%); Never attend (29%); and No opinion (2%). According to a recent Gallup Poll, less than one-half (47%) of U.S. adults report belonging to a church, synagogue, or mosque.
Some will say that secular humanism has replace religiosity for many Americans. It means most people are nonreligious, espousing no belief in a realm or beings imagined transcending ordinary experience. Secular humanism is not as broad as atheism, which concerns only the nonexistence of god or the supernatural. It also holds that there is a lot more to life than religiosity.
Secular humanism addresses the values, meaning, and identity in life and to that extent create standards for ethical behavior. It is a comprehensive guide to moral action that defines one’s lifestance. It is a way of being and a guide to action for a good person. So, secular humanists will say they are just as moral as the next person who is religious but are guided by an external set of standards of behavior.
The problem with humanism as the sole source of morality is it relies more on a subjective determination of right versus wrong. Each person can define right and wrong for themselves. As a result, there are no commonly accepted standards of behavior for all of society.
The issue is whether a person can be moral but not be religious. The obvious answer is ‘yes.’
I believe a person can be ethical and humanistic. After all, humanism does require a standard of behavior that treats everyone as a human being with certain rights, although the rights are not defined by religion but a course of conduct such as an external code of ethics. What is lacking is a higher power to whom we are accountable for our actions beyond ourselves.
You may recall the mantra of the 1990s: “What Would Jesus Do?” While it refers specifically to Christianity, it is applicable to Judaism (“What does God demand, or the Bible require?”) and for Muslims (“What would Allah do, or the Koran require?”). These are guides to action and a system of accountability for one’s actions.
Can we reverse the decline in morality? Yes, but I do not see that happening in society today. We are a fractured nation, divided into separate camps of right and wrong. The standard of behavior increasingly has been as defined by the ‘cancel culture.’ Behavior is determined by one person or a group of people with similar beliefs. Go against the mainstream and you may be shunned by a segment of society and skewered on social media. Go against the prevailing norms of the cancel culture and you, too, may be canceled.
It does not matter whether you have committed the offensive action recently or in the distant past. The problem is none of us are safe anymore.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on April 6, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.