Unless you’re one of these people who are going to freak out if I use the phrase “relative morality” in a sentence, read on.
Constantly re-examine your ideas of morality.
I wrote a long and winding thesis citing everything from the shifts in morality that the Israelites had to adopted while wandering in the desert to the immorality of mixed-race marriages sixty years ago that has dissolved today…but I doubt it’s entertaining enough to be blog worthy.
Long story short, most morality is really social convention in disguise…yeah, that’s right…I said “most”. Not “some”, I would go so far as to say “most”. Consider most of the things you consider to be moral, and ask yourself “why?” This is often a tough question as people don’t consider what their moral compass is before deciding on their morality.
I’m not here to question what your moral compass is. You can use your faith as well as you can use political philosophers. Jesus has some great things to say in the vein of morality as does John Locke. Choose your own moral compass, but recognize this danger:
Most great thinkers of their time, if they think for long enough, wind up contradicting themselves. Freud and Brecht are good examples of great thinkers who by the end of their careers completely refuted what they stated as absolute at the beginning. Sometimes you’ve got to ask “Okay, that was a good idea then, but do you still feel that way?” If enough time has passed and the answer is still “yes”, then they are probably dead (or in the case of Jesus, not dead but only speaking in mysterious ways). I bet even Socrates might have had some decided changes of thoughts if he hadn’t sucked down that hemlock.
That’s one thing all great thinkers have in common: the ability (or perhaps the need) to change their mind.
Unfortunately I’m not a great thinker. I recognize the need to change my mind and reanalyze pretty much everything, but I need help. This causes me to have crises of faith, both in philosophy or religion. Often in these crises, people either break ties from their faith entirely or embrace it unquestioningly, pretty much because it’s easier than admitting their not a great thinker. As we learn from the MTA:
“To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought.” -Henri Poincare
So if I’m supposed to question my own thoughts, morality, and even those sources that teach us our beliefs, what can you count on as a moral compass?
One piece of advice that I got from Michael Pollin is “Shake the hand that feeds you.”
Sure, he’s talking about food. Basically he’s saying know where your food comes from. If you can’t shake the hand the feeds you, you can’t trust the process that created it. A couple months ago I was in Lancaster where I could shake hands with a chicken farmer. I challenged the ways he raised the chicken, and he was happy to talk to me about it. That vital challenge cannot happen in the dairy aisle of Shop Rite. (I’ve tried it, the crates of eggs refuse to give up their secrets.)
Perhaps we should do the same with morality: “Shake the hand that feeds you.”
Know where your morals come from. Find a living barometer that you can question and challenge and (perhaps more importantly) questions and challenges you back. In this way you can keep your morals alive and vital. Nourish them by questioning them and changing them. If you can’t shake the hand that feeds you, you’ll be taking your morals out of context. Perhaps the Ten Commandments would be worded slightly different if they were written for us instead of the ancient Israelites. Perhaps John Locke might question his own views on revolution in the grip of the modern government-industrial complex. Perhaps even Henri Poincare might have changed his beliefs on belief if he had lived long enough.
If your moral compass has shuffled off this mortal coil, it is your duty to continue thinking for him not to let his thoughts fossilize with his bones. His mind might be gone, but his thoughts can still survive and thrive and grow into new and wonderful things. His books aren’t his thoughts; your questions about his thoughts are his thoughts.