What Does “Moral” Mean?

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In every society, there is a set of principles that are passed on from generation to generation about what is considered right and wrong behavior. Whether in organized first world societies or primitive nomadic tribes, moral values guide people’s actions. The exact details can vary dramatically, but the practice of teaching morals is inherent in any kind of community that follows rules to keep itself functioning and protected.

Defining Moral Behavior

Clearly the definitions of right and wrong are significantly diverse. In all cases, children learn these principles through instruction as well as through trial and error experimentation. The instruction comes in the form of communication from someone older who spells out what is acceptable versus what is not. However, there are always children who, because of lack of context or plain rambunctiousness, learn what occurs when one acts bad. This practice of getting punished reinforces not just avoidance of the bad behavior but why it should be avoided, which can be a much stronger lesson than any abstract instruction.

In today’s modern society, morality is also a far more abstract concept covering for more behavior than in a tribal setting. For example, in most basic nomadic communities, morality is centered around survival. Doing bad things can literally get a person seriously or killed very quickly. So morality as defined by a tribe is often a matter of life and death. In a modern society, morality is far more ambiguous. People can do plenty of things that are frowned upon by their communities, but it doesn’t mean that they will suddenly be killed. Instead, they may very well go about their business day to day, known for being immoral, and able to function and survive doing so. On the other hand, outright violations that a community has defined as a crime can quickly get a person incarcerated for longer periods of time, losing their freedom.

How We Apply Morality

Most people learn basic morals at a very young age because they are need to function and benefit from being in a given community. Without cooperation, people quickly find themselves losing the benefit of the greater group. If they are not strong enough or independent enough to survive on their own, the need for the group forces conforming behavior soon enough. This is often seen in how children develop in school, learning very quickly to adjust to group and class behavior.

The classic test for classrooms has usually been, what would a person do if they found a bag full of money on a bench or sidewalk while walking by? Clearly the money is there. The owner is nowhere to be found. And no one else is present to see what occurs. Sounds too good to be true, right? However, a good a number of people would take the money, no questions asked, and walk off. A minority would actually look around for the owner, and a smaller group would actually turn the money into the local police department for recovery. Who is right? Who is moral?

In our modern community, most would say that a really moral person is one who turns the money in. If no one claims it, then it is theirs to receive and keep. However, many would also be satisfied with a bona fide effort to find the owner before walking off and pocketing the cash. A good majority would say that the person who just takes the money quietly is immoral behavior. However, some would point out that doing so is not illegal, because the money was essentially found without an owner present or visible. So it’s the finder’s property at that point. As a result, it would probably fair to say that many folks believe good morals involve doing the right thing, even at the expense of one’s opportunity or benefit, as in the case of returning the bag of money to the police if no owner is found.

What Happens When Things Go Gray

Yet morals and morality are more than just doing the good thing. They are abstract rules we follow to define what it means to be a good human being. Things around us may change, grow, age and be replaced. Yet our understanding of what is right and wrong doesn’t change when it comes to some core principles. Everyone agrees that killing is a bad thing, even when done for defense. Others agree that stealing should be prevented or stopped when it occurs, otherwise no one would respect anyone else’s property and belongings. And the list continues with a number of practices that generally reflect behaviors to avoid.

Where morality goes into a gray area is what we call victimless actions or no-harm behaviors. The intention is usually for self-gratification or pleasure, and there is no harm to anyone else committing these behaviors. Yet our morals, depending on our culture and background, would say that some behaviors are still wrong. Overeating is gluttonous and wrong because it wastes food and is unhealthy for the body. Eating or drinking substances that cause disorientation or hallucination are bad because they create addictive behavior, loss of control, and loss of inhibitions, which can get a person in bad situations.

What we end up finding in self-reflection is that being moral is in practice far more often about maintaining a balance in life and moderation as well as respecting one’s community. The idea is painted as doing good, helping others, sacrificing, and being charitable as well as law-abiding. Yet, fundamentally, being moral in a positive manner is about being proactively beneficial to one’s community on a regular basis.

Teaching Takes Practice

Teaching kids to be moral with all the above complexities often goes in a bit of a roller-coaster fashion. When they are young, good and bad seem to be clearly defined. Unfortunately, when they hit teen years, the ambiguity of more challenging morals tends to be something that has to be learned through trial and error. Then, in full adulthood, most find their place and generally follow acceptable community morals because they want to benefit from community opportunities. So, in short, we learn to commit to a social contract. We agree to behave properly to enjoy the benefits of protection, safety, resource access, and improvement of our individual lives. In this respect, being moral is very similar to primitive tribal principles: we learn to survive.

There is no perfect morality. We all have our flaws that come out from time to time. Being moral then comes back to balance where we strive to control our flaws and keep them in check. We are then able to think about higher issues such as cooperation, creativity, and collective production. Our morality defines us and our roles in our community. It promotes our lives or holds us back, depending which way we swing in balancing our wants with our disciplines. So to understand being moral, it’s often necessary to first understand what right and wrong is where we live and share with others. When we understand what makes us tick towards more than just living alone, then the rest begins to fall in place.

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