Morality is Malleable

Morality isn’t what it used to be. In the past, morality was a fixed thing, whether you got it from Confucius, mitzvahs, the Ten Commandments, or the Koran. However, at some time morality became a point of discussion and disagreement. When did that happen? In the West, maybe with Martin Luther and the 95 Theses…I don’t know.

Certainly, a generally accepted morality today is hard to define. Definitely, Ilhan Omar’s morality is not my morality: “CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” Morality differs person to person. It differs by situation. Morality also changes over time. For example:

  • Slavery and racism were OK, now they aren’t;
  • capital punishment and public executions were OK, now they aren’t;
  • colonialism was OK, now it isn’t;
  • abortion was not OK, now it’s a subject for intense debate.

“We can’t have morals and ethics unless we have some concrete rules about what is right and wrong. Otherwise, everyone’s ideas of right and wrong can fluctuate depending on their views, culture, background, needs.”


These changes raise some questions:

  • What are the sources of our current ethical truths? Are these sources credible?
  • Are the sources of your ethical rules credible to me? Are my sources credible to you? If we don’t agree on ethical standards, what then?
  • How do we know when morality has changed? For example: is Rip Van Winkle at fault if he wakes up and commits a gaffe by not realizing that vagrants are now a ‘protected community’?

“standards of morality that are based on human logic are precarious. The human mind is capable of rationalizing and modifying morality to meet a person’s needs or desires.”

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski

Laws require lawmakers. Don’t morals require some ultimate source? If not, what makes morality different from a popularity contest? When morality is malleable, it becomes a tool for the unscrupulous.

Without a fixed, eternal source of moral guidance, how does a culture resist the unscrupulous? History shows us cases where individuals or cliques have promoted ideologies and moralities that we now view with revulsion: Soviet Russia, China during the Cultural Revolution, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under Pol Pot.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Theodore Parker

Justice is morality meted out in the real world. Laws are society’s concrete implementation of morality. However, references to justice (or “social justice”) might be made in a political context, and will assume a particular morality; but whose morality? You will do well to wonder. You might be witnessing groupthink in action, or a political huckster trying to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Bottom Line
If there is no absolute point of reference for ethical maxims, why should we obey them? Just asking.
Do you find the implications of this troubling? Me too.
Be skeptical when you hear people justify their proposals by making calls to “justice”. Whose justice?