Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What's Immoral?

Last week I dashed off a quick response to an on-line discussion group about morality. I said that it seemed to me that morality -- a sense of right and wrong -- is really an individual thing. Everybody HAS morals, but not everyone agrees.

There are also societal norms, which correspond pretty closely to what most of the people (or at least most of the powerful people) in the society think of as morality, and so those norms get CALLED "morals".

But people deviate from those social norms and conduct themselves according to their own personal morals. I wrote that, when the deviations are ...
 • minor and inconsequential, we call them "bad manners".
 • of middlin' import, we call them "immoral".
 • serious, we call them "illegal".

But, since then, I've been thinking more about that middle category, and I've decided that I should have been more detailed. Specifically, of the various kinds of middlin' departures from societal expectations, if they ...
 • offend the senses (like cigaret smoke or shouting), we call them "rude" or "annoying".
 • displease us esthetically (like clashing colors or whatever music young people are listening to in whatever generation you care to name), we call them "ugly".
• take advantage of the weak, gullible, or helpless, we call them "unfair" or "dishonest".
 • involve sex, we call them "immoral".

I realize that this is a generalization, and probably not a completely fair one, but it seems to me that, far more often than not, people who use the terms "immoral" or "immorality" are probably obsessed with sex. And not with their own -- with other people's.

Case in point: Wisconsin's recent Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the grounds that it's "immoral". What, MARRIAGE is immoral? You'd hardly get any of the amendment's proponents to agree to that. No, they think that a particular kind of SEX (the kind that they themselves choose not to engage in, no matter how much they want to) is immoral.

Unfortunately, as I said above, the morals of the powerful tend to become the laws that apply to everybody.

As far as I'm concerned, there should be only a single standard for having the law prohibit any kind of behavior: is it harmful? If not, then it's just moralizing.


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