Sunday, August 9, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter II

Chapter II (pages 38-43), “Moral Codes”

Most acts, especially those that are self-regarding, are morally neutral. Nevertheless, in every society there are certain behaviors that are required and others that are forbidden. Individuals who violate these social precepts bring scorn upon themselves, though rich people are given more scope to choose without incurring disapproval. The moral codes that are active in different societies vary greatly. "In view of this diversity of moral codes, we cannot say that acts of one kind are right or acts of another kind wrong, unless we have first found a way of deciding that some codes are better than others [p. 39].” Most people make their decision about the relative value of a moral code based on a highly parochial viewpoint.

Perhaps people cannot be blamed for following their local moral code, but surely it often is praiseworthy to deviate from it. Many social advances, such as the abolition of cannibalism or slavery, have emanated from moral reformers who rejected part of their received code. While it is admitted that such disobedience was helpful in other times and places, the general feeling is that our current moral code is essentially perfect.

For the most part, avoiding sin is all that is required to be reputed a moral man – you needn’t take actions that are positively kind or beneficial to others. The fears of sinning that are inculcated in people lead to excessive self-centeredness and timidity. Great lives are made of sterner stuff. Positive duties are imposed in each profession, however, from king to firefighter; occupations develop their own morality, which sometimes is codified in law.

Two ethical codes can both be current, though they are contradictory. Christian non-violence long coexisted with codes of honour that required dueling (and hence homicide) over insults among gentlemen. Despite the absurdities and the tragedies that have been connected with it, the ethic of honour also roused people to a higher regard for others and a distaste for betrayal. “When the conception of honour is freed from aristocratic insolence and from proneness to violence, something remains which helps to preserve personal integrity and to promote mutual trust in social relations [p. 43].”

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