Morality informs countless aspects of our lives, from the way we interact with others to the way we think about ourselves. But does our concept of morality objectively reflect absolute ideals of good and evil, or is it a shifting, arbitrary rulebook that varies from culture to culture?
Yes, morality is relativeShow moreShow less
Our definition of what is right and wrong has changed dramatically over time, and will likely continue to do so.
The characterization of morality as a static, absolute rulebook is misleading, especially when one considers the extent to which powerful majorities throughout history have manipulated definitions of good and evil to their advantage. There are many examples of this subtle but purposeful moral rule-bending.
Until around World War Two, it was considered immoral for women to wear pants or have jobs outside of the home, for no legitimate reason other than to keep men the “masters of the house." () Similarly, homosexuality and transgenderism were both deemed immoral for centuries in order to silence the queer community and maintain the status quo of the straight, cisgender majority. Finally, white people have historically considered the subjugation, enslavement, and torture of black people to be their moral right, keeping them as slaves in the past and continuing to oppress them through racist social institutions. () Even today, in our seemingly progressive society, good and evil are largely defined by those in power, from popes to politicians. To be upstanding citizens, we are expected to obey authority, even if it is corrupt, and work hard, even if our system prevents us from achieving.
In all of these examples, it is evident that prevailing definitions of “morality” do not necessarily reflect objective truth but instead exist to advantage the powerful majority, shifting to adjust their changing needs. Again and again, morality has been weaponized to silence the experiences-and often, the suffering of the marginalized. Evidently, morality is far from objective. Instead, it is relative to the needs of the powerful.
While this argument holds true for some moral rules, it fails to explain many of the more universal, long-standing maxims, like “killing is wrong” and “sharing is good.” The ruling class would benefit little from such norms, many of which rely heavily on the virtue of altruism.
Other moral norms actually disadvantage the powerful majority. Modern notions that embrace individuality, thinking independently, and standing up for what one believes in are a few examples.