Passing moral judgments isn’t easy because right and wrong are sometimes elusive. They vary from person to person, place to place, time to time. Let’s look at some examples.
What’s the moral truth about abortion? My four children all were adopted, so you might think I’d oppose abortion. Yet I feel that every pregnant woman and girl should be allowed to make the painful choice herself; preachers and politicians shouldn’t make it for her. This is the only answer that seems sensible to me.
What’s the moral truth about the death penalty? The Old Testament mandated execution of many people, including Sabbath workers, disobedient children, gays, non-virgin brides, and many others. But the New Testament said nobody should cast the first stone. I hold the latter view.
What about patriotism? Almost universally, it’s considered patriotic for young men to kill each other in war. To me, it’s hideous and monstrous.
If there’s any underlying maxim in all this, it would be something like: Thou shalt not kill — unless politicians tell you to do it in war, or the warden tells you to do it on death row, or doctors tell you to do it at an abortion clinic, or it’s self-defense, or it’s an accident, etc.
Many other moral quandaries abound. When I was a young reporter in the 1950s, homosexuals were sent to prison for “sodomy.” Today, being gay isn’t a crime. Did moral truth change in the past four decades?
The same question applies to cocktails, lottery tickets and nude magazines or movies. Buying any of those was a crime in the 1950s, and many were jailed on “vice” charges. Now those indulgences are all legal.
In some states in the 1950s, birth control was illegal. Now it’s an inalienable right. Moral truth flip-flopped.
Similarly, Blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, movies, hotels and pools in the 1950s. (A century earlier, some ministers wrote that slavery was God’s plan.) And Jews were banned from some clubs and neighborhoods in the 1950s. Today, segregation seems unthinkable. Morality changed.
In the 1950s, unwed couples who lived together could be jailed. Today, it’s legal — and casually accepted. Why was it “right” to jail them then, but not now? Again, morality changed.
The Quran says God allows Muslim men up to four wives each, and the rich also keep concubines. Polygamy fills the bible and Mormonism. Yet, today’s Western laws decree monogamy.
What about private property? If you buy a mountain, are you entitled to cut off the top to get the coal, leaving nature forever marred? The moral standards of coal corporations and environmentalists aren’t the same.
Is it immoral for some people to be affluent and well-fed, while others are hungry? If so, America is the most immoral nation, since it’s the richest.
The problem with proclaiming a universal truth is that someone, somewhere, lives by an opposing standard. Personally, I don’t think there are fixed answers to moral questions. Views vary with each individual. Your responses depend on your emotional makeup. Our feelings steer us into certain outlooks — liberal or conservative, conformist or rebel — and then we develop logical reasons to support our inclinations.
Addendum: In a public newspaper in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, I couldn’t write the obvious: that moral codes are man-made, not divine. There are no cosmic behavior mandates. The universe doesn’t care whether people kill each other, or suffer horrible diseases, or copulate in an unorthodox manner. Only mere people are concerned with such topics.
This column has been adapted from a piece originally written on Dec. 10, 1998, for The Charleston Gazette.