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Morality: A Constant Evolution

Brody Ford

Time and again, the most divisive political issues both domestically and
worldwide are rooted in questions of morality. Gallup.com ranks the top 4 most
polarizing issues within the United States as abortion, the death penalty, homosexuality,
and stem cell research. Ethical issues being the most hotly debated topics is nothing
new. Historically, people have always fought for what they believed to be right, and for
the laws governing them to reflect those beliefs. Societal norms regarding morality and
ethics typically change generationally, with the youth often questioning the social
institutions of their elders. But, where does our morality come from? Is it an absolute
decided by and inherent to the individual? Or is it a product of your influences and the
time period during which you live?
Most believe their own ethical values to be the objective truth, but its important
to remember that we are all products of our environment. More than anything, our
values reflect the culture we come from. If you were to ask someone in the 21st century
whether placing individuals on trial with repercussions of torture and death solely for
reasons of their choice in religion was wrong, youd be hard-pressed to have someone
disagree. Though, if you asked this same question to 15th century Europeans, youd
likely a very different result
From the early 15th to the 19th century, the infamous Spanish Inquisition
occurred.[1] During this time, heretics (those who opposed Catholicism) were seen as
prominent enemies of society and of the unity of good people. These heretics were
subjected to highly-publicized trials, torture, and execution - all mandated by the church
and state. This is just one example of something modern society would consider
inarguably evil, yet it happened historically on a wide scale. Slavery, the Holocaust,
widespread imperialism, the crusades - none of these things would have happened
without public support. How could such atrocities garner the kind of popular backing
needed in order to happen?
Its easy to look to the horrors committed by humanity in the past and feel a sense
of disconnect. We learn history through the lense of our modern societal values, and
because of this its easy to demonize humans of the past. Its not that people in the past
were somehow worse, or more inherently immoral than those today, but rather that they
were born into a society where different ethics and behaviour were taught as the
expectation. Continuing with the Inquisition example, the average European considered
heresy to be a serious offense[2]f because the Catholic Church, a prominent institutional
power, pushed that rhetoric. By propagandizing the link between heresy and the

destruction of society, the Church was able to use pathos to push an ethical message and
get the average person on board with an idea that would sound like complete insanity to
an outsider.
The story of the Inquisition is not an isolated incident. Since the beginning of
human history, moral and ethical concepts have been central to, and pushed as,
propaganda - very often to support political ideas and action. One of the most famous
moral idioms, Eye for an eye, stems from the moral code of the Babylonian king,
Hammurabi.[3] He ruled between 1792 1750 BC, and during this time his moral
principles were forced upon the Babylonian society through a series of laws literally
carved in stone in the center of the city. The principal of Eye for an eye, tooth for a
tooth, was instituted as a simple law to discourage crime, but over time the rule
permeated its society to the point of creating a culture of retribution within Babylonia.
Even in Mesopotamia, the oldest human civilization, the same pattern of institutional
power deciding what is morally just holds true.
So, what is truly morally just? If we look to the modern moral and political
climate, not much has changed. Popular ideas on social issues are shifting rapidly, and
are very often tied into legislative decisions. In Pew Research polling in 2004,
Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 60% to 31% margin. Now, just 11 years later
the United States is on the heels of a landmark Supreme Court verdict to nationally
legalize gay marriage. Gallup.com now reports that Americans support gay marriage by
a 60% to 37% margin. What happened? Since the acceptance of homosexuality is often
considered to be an issue of morality, what could cause public opinions to change so
rapidly?
The acceptance of homosexuality is very often considered a moral issue, but
history shows that the morality is shaped by societal influences which can cause a
deeper change in the mindset and moral values of most Americans. Human rights
activists have been fighting for same-sex marriage rights since the mid 20th century, but
the United States public and government has traditionally opposed this. Arguments
against gay marriage have traditionally been centered around accusations of violating
nature and morality. In 1953, ONE magazine attempted to publish an issue with a cover
story titled, Homosexual Marriage? The issue was delayed by the U.S. post office
because they determined it to be obscenity. It took a Supreme Court decision in 1958 to
allow the magazine to be published. Throughout the rest of the century, the marriage
equality movement gained little mainstream traction, and the majority of the country
continued to be in strong opposition of it. This trend continued until a legal decision
caused people to start questioning their beliefs.

In April, 2000, Vermont became the first state to recognize same-sex


partnerships by legalizing civil unions.[4] Civil unions were a legal partnership
arrangement very similar to marriage in that they provided almost-identical legal
benefits. While the American public was far from instantly convinced that same-sex
marriage was no longer immoral, this law alone signaled a shift in the inertia of
commonly held beliefs. As time went on, the movements momentum continued to
build, and public acceptance of same-sex marriage grew with it. In 2004, the first legal
gay marriage took place. By 2011, gay marriage was legal in more states than not. In
2015, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage. In a span of a
little over a decade, what was once determined to be immoral has now become
supported by the majority of the country. Just like the ancient Babylonians followed
King Hammurabis moral mandates, the average Americans moral standpoint was
malleable and flipped very rapidly by changing policies.
So, how do we determine what is morally just? We cant. The concepts of good
and evil are social constructs that only have meaning based upon the group of people
deciding their definition. Consequently, what is considered moral cannot be an absolute,
but instead, is inherently subjective, and consistently shifts. Common consensus does
not equate to objective truth, and it is impossible for ethics to be judged by an individual
outside of the context of the expectations of the society in which they live.

Works Cited

"Hammurabi's Code: An Eye for an Eye." Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d.
Web. 2 Nov. 2015.

"Heresy." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.


"How Vermont's 'Civil' War Fueled The Gay Marriage Movement." NPR. N.p., 23 Mar. 20013.
Web. 31 Oct. 2015.
"Spanish Inquisition." - New World Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
Anstead, Susan. "Law Versus Ethics in Management." UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE, 6 July 1999. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.
Pojman, Lewis. "Against Relativism and for Objectivism.", Feb 22, 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.