Who has moral authority today?

Several years ago I was out for dinner with my wife and found that the correct tip had invisibly and suddenly become fifteen per cent. Forever, it was ten per cent. Now, suddenly it wasn’t. My reaction was “wait…when did this happen?” and then “who decided this?”

Things change. What was OK yesterday is suddenly no longer OK, and vice versa. Some of us may not be tuned in, and we wonder where the changes come from.

My example of the increase in the tip is trivial, but it started me thinking about the issue: who decides? Following are two examples that are more meaningful.

First – Bowe Bergdahl, the US deserter from 2009, rescued in a prisoner exchange. The US offered up five Taliban prisoners, they released our deserter. Not only that, but our anti-war President honored the deserter’s parents with a Rose Garden ceremony. Of course in fairness I should say ‘accused’ deserter.

The contrast in this example is with the Roman view of prisoners. Not even deserters, but troops captured in battle against the Carthaginians in 215 BC. Hannibal sent a delegation of paroled prisoners to Rome with a ransom offer. The Roman Senate debated the offer in the presence of the prisoner representatives. The historian Livy quoted one Senator asking the representatives “Do you think to buy yourselves back to the place you lost by cowardice and crime?” The Senate declined the ransom offer. No counter-offer, no bargaining, just “no”.

Slavery is my second example. Until 150 years ago, slavery was a fixture of western civilization. Slavery was common in classical Greece and Rome. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners. Today, practically everyone in the western world agrees that slavery is morally wrong.

Standards change. Morals are set and transmitted by moral authorities, and these authorities change along with the standards. In early Christendom there was one moral authority: God, whose words were recorded in the Bible and interpreted for us by the Pope and the King, God’s representatives on earth. For a long time no questions were taken, and discussion occurred only at the margins, for example in defining heresy. Then figures like Henry VIII and Martin Luther appeared, the Protestant Reformation occurred and we were all able to read the Bible for ourselves in the vernacular and begin to make our own judgments about morality. This is a simplification, but the trajectory should be clear. Moral authorities were one, today they are many.

Parallel changes occurred with governance and political authority. Crudely put, we’ve gone from Caesar Augustus to Huey Long. I’m left with questions.

1. Who decides right and wrong today? Who or what can speak on any moral issue and exert a compelling influence? Some will tell you it’s Kim Kardashian and her cohorts:

Where once people would head for Church of a Sunday for a bit of spiritual direction from the preacher, himself drilled by his rigid code, now we get it from the Kardashians, Kanye West, the former Bruce Jenner, Donald Trump etc.

Moral authority today is as thoroughly democratic as our political system. Morality is now determined by mass opinion. Mass opinion takes us invisibly (to me) from ten per cent tips to twenty per cent tips.

2. What about the rest of the world? My discussion applies only to the western world: western Europe plus the ‘settler societies’ (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Parts of the Islamic world are an exception – people who reject western liberalism and center their beliefs on an unchanging source: the Koran. What about Buddhists and Hindus – to what extent do these cultures experience moral drift?

3. Has evolution made our emotions different over time, accounting for moral change? If true, does this mean that Islamic fundamentalists are evolutionary throw backs?

4. Does this process imply anything for constitutional government in the US? How do we reconcile an 18th century document with 21st century impulses?

On one side are supporters of ‘the living constitution’ defined by Bing as this: “the Constitution has a dynamic meaning or that it has the properties of an animate being in the sense that it changes”. On the other side are originalists who argue “since the original designers of the Constitution provided for the process of changing it, they never intended for their original words to change meaning”.

The bottom line
In the western world, morality and the sources of moral authority changed over time. What was moral in the past is not moral today, and the reverse. Moral standards today are set in a process of mass discussion and deliberation that seems unconscious and invisible. Moral authority today comes from the masses.