Apparently, according to some, humans have entered the most immoral period in Earth’s history. Ask any fundamentalist, and they’ll tell you that our times are the direst since just before Noah’s flood. They remind us of a clear distinction between right and wrong but, thanks to the secularization of our society, we have not only crossed that line, we’ve obliterated it. Secularization has “redefined” morality by making up our own rules and thereby destroying the sacred.
But what is morality? Is it a system of do’s and don’ts; a Decalogue, commandments, or Levitical laws? Or is it a philosophical idea, a thermometer registering how humanity ‘feels’ it should treat itself and others? Could it be a societal contract in which a civilization agrees on how to treat each other for the sake of communal living?
Fundamentalists claim they know what morality is, and they find themselves terrorized by those who don’t heed their strict interpretations. To that end they have imbedded themselves into our political structure, they have mounted a massive resistance to science, and tried to rewrite history—all for the sake of maintaining their view of morality.
Yet observations of nature show us that there really isn’t a real ‘designation’ when it comes to morality. When we observe other primates, we see some fascinating, and some disturbing trends in how they treat each other within the context of a society. Even those who claim to know what morality is don’t agree on it. Ask twenty different fundamentalists what morality is, and you’ll get twenty different answers.
So it appears that when it comes to morality… we made it up. We invented the word, and then we made up the rules that define it. And we’re still making it up… and redefining it: individually, collectively as a society, and philosophically as a species. They’re our rules and we have only ourselves and each other to answer for them.
Some will bring up the law of consequence. They remind us that there are ‘consequences’ if we break one of these rules—but what rules; and what consequences? If I jump off a building, then I will fall: that’s gravity. But what if I kill someone? That’s a societal punishment, but only if someone can prove it was me. Nature doesn’t care about my act. In fact, nature kills all the time. Death is so common in nature that we use it to define life. We have spectacular footage of the ways nature has singlehandedly wiped out large swaths of life: people, animals, and foliage. Her most common weapons are: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, pestilence, disease, and ultimately, age. We all die, it’s just a matter of timing.
We also kill. We kill animals for food or sport, or because we consider them pests. We torture and kill animals in labs in the name of science and research. We euthanize our pets when they are sick. We even kill in the name of morality via capital punishment—because they killed first. We go to war and participate in state-sponsored killing. The most powerful lobbying organization in the history of the world, the NRA, has only one purpose: to protect guns—an instrument whose sole purpose is to kill. The term “guns and god” is synonymous with morality.
In fact, one might ask, “if God is pro-life, then why does EVERYTHING die?” You might say that the one constant of life is that it always ends… and it ends badly.
So ultimately, maybe we should abandon the concept of morality altogether and look for ways that elevate humanity rather than force it into a series of dos and don’ts. We base our guidance systems on ways that help us not only survive, but thrive. In philosophical terms, we might use the phrase attributed to Hippocrates, “Primum non nocere” First, do no harm. As the basis of how we live, this one phrase alone could do more to elevate how we treat each other than any idea of morality ever could. If we do our best to live, respond, and act from compassion, that one new rule that could completely alter the human configuration, bottom to top, top to bottom, and inside out.
The Universe itself doesn’t promulgate compassion, but it does support it—and all life responds to it. Our mythologies are filled with epic tales of how love changed and lifted one human into greatness, who, in return, pulled humanity up with them. We have real-life heroes as well: Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, the Buddha, Jesus… and the list goes on.
By creating a “moral code” based around compassion, we might discover that we’re simply enhancing evolution and making the world better for those that follow. Our ultimate morality would be helping our fellow humans to survive and thrive. Our laws will become less arbitrary. Life will truly become “sacred,” and we will honor that life—from the beginning to the end. As our needs change, our morality will change, but always in the interest of human thrival [sic].
Yes, we’ll still be making it up, but what a story we’d be telling.