The Meaning of Morality

What we today tend to focus on as examples of morality truly are moral issues, but they are only the very barest beginnings of moral consideration.

For instance, there’s a realm of behaviour that is uncontroversially understood to be wrong, even evil. To raise a question about this realm is to be recognized by all sides as having a damaged mind. Included in this category would be matters like murder, different varieties of nonconsensual sex, and corrupt business practices.

There is also a set of contested moral questions, in which one party tends to take the side of tradition or convention, and the other the side of liberation from tradition, with each party feeling true morality is on its own side, representatives summoning as many arguments and examples as possible in support of their conclusion. Included here are varieties of consensual sexual practices, certain instances of the taking of human life, and the distribution or redistribution of money.

This same bifurcation, of uncontroversial and controversial moral convictions, can be found in smaller ways in our own private lives. Think of alcohol. Pretty much everyone agrees that to drive drunk is a terrible thing. There isn’t any such consensus on other uses of alcohol. Some are fine with drunkenness as a part of life, and at the opposite extreme there are others won’t touch a drop.

When we think about morality today, we tend to take the controversial cases as representative of moral fervour. We live out our moral duty by being faithful to our side of the debate, whether that means a peaceful and clear sobriety or an iconoclastic Dionysian frenzy, whether it takes the form of a traditional sexual ethic or a transgressive promiscuity, whether by working hard for a bigger paycheque or scaling down costs in order to live within a smaller income.

The same thing is true, perhaps even more true, in the political sphere. To fight for morality is to fight over laws about marriage and gender, over laws concerning abortion and euthanasia, either fighting for sanctity or for emancipation, and always feeling like the voice of justice is speaking through us.

Those liminal cases are important. We have to decide what we care about and how much we care about it and draw our lines in the sand.

But it seems to me that the reason why they’re important is so often lost.

We speak as though each decision is the doorway to happiness. We may even believe that a life of satisfaction is just on the other side of doing the right thing, or seeing the right thing done.

But happiness is not there. Happiness doesn’t come from making one choice, or by accepting one rule. Those choices and rules are only there to make it possible for us to pursue the sort of moral life which will actually lead to happiness.

What we think of as morality, with its promise of happiness, is only the outer entrance to the way of morality.

To pursue the moral life and the happiness that can come from it, is to commit ourselves to the life of growing in virtue. It is to embrace years and decades of trying to become better than we are, of seeking to be our best in all the situations that may arise.

No one will ever force us to do all that work, which is why most of us will never undertake it.

But we can be inspired to take up the challenge for ourselves. We can find inspiration in examples and words, in stories and encounters.

But first we have to realize that morality goes much deeper than we often assume.

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