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.

2 thoughts on “Who has moral authority today?”

  1. Yogi B sez, “a nickel ain’t worth a dime these days”
    Public opinion is the widely perceived short hand for voting.
    I worry more about the public’s IQ and our shortening attention spans.

  2. John,
    You observe that rightness and wrongness are inconsistently defined among “western” societies over time, and so you conclude that rightness and wrongness are therefore only fluid concepts. People have historically referenced different moral authorities over time, so you conclude that the ultimate source of moral authority is the people themselves.
    This is a really fascinating and important topic, and I’m glad you’ve raised it.
    Question: What is rightness or truth? Is truth relative and subjective, or is there something absolute about truth?
    –If you say that truth is only true for a certain situation in a given society, then are all other societies absolved from recognizing it? If ISIS, the Nazis, the Inquisition, Pol Pot, Hirohito, Mao, Stalin, Al Qaida, and the Taliban have all been righteous within the subjective context of their own societies, who could say otherwise, if “truth” is only relative and subjective?

    –If instead you argue that truth is simply what the majority says it is, then minority views would, by definition, always be wrong, and as a consequence should always be suppressed or even punished by the majority.

    –If truth is merely subjective, then how can laws be enforced if “the law doesn’t apply to me” constitutes a valid argument? Or, if you extend the argument, “the laws of war do not apply to my culture” would constitute a valid defense against the prosecution of war criminals.

    –If truth is relative, then it would be possible to argue that “A is equal to Not A” in a rhetorical sense, which, to my mind is a violation of the laws of logic (the law of non-contradiction).

    On the other hand, if we acknowledge that something out there must be right and true in an absolute sense, the challenge is to define it. I offer this quote from Ravi Zacharias, who responded to an atheist who disputed the existence of God because of the presence of evil.
    “When you say there’s too much evil in this world, you assume there’s good. When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral law Giver, but that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove. Because if there’s no moral law Giver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil. What is your question?”

    Some of us believe we are created beings who, because we are obviously subordinate to our creator, acknowledge that our understanding of right and wrong is not up to us to define. Instead, we look to our creator for guidance. Where to look?
    –Look to observable authentication; find revealed truth in the testimony of eye witnesses, objective historical accounts, archaeological corroboration, and functional consistency over extended periods of time.
    –Look to logical coherence; find an authority source that offers personal satisfaction or comfort as a reliable means of interpreting day-to-day life.
    –Find transcendent or spiritual peace; there is a psychological safe harbor in having a moral anchor that keeps one from being tossed from “truth” to “truth.”

    Whether to leave a ten percent or fifteen percent tip for a waiter is not, in my mind, a moral question. It is a convention that obviously does change relative to time and place. Whether or not to steal the tableware, or leave without paying at all would be moral questions however. Some things (theft, murder, false testimony) are wrong because they have always been wrong and should always be wrong.

    Slavery is an interesting but complex topic. In ancient societies, captured prisoners of war would either be killed or enslaved. But slavery in those societies was also an economic means of repaying debts (like washing dishes if you couldn’t pay your restaurant bill). Once the debt was paid, you were free again. What changed over the following centuries was the status of the slave. Originally, a slave was a servant, but later was considered merely a piece of property. Slavery as it was known in Biblical times was chiefly an economic condition; in fact, in Paul’s letter to Philemon, Paul underscores how important it is to treat one’s slave as a spiritual brother. But slavery, as it was practiced in later centuries, and prior to the Civil War, had become immoral because it denied the slaves’ ultimate humanity and contradicted the Declaration of Independence’s argument that “all men are created equal.”

    Today we agree that slavery is wrong. But by what authority do we say it’s wrong? Majority rule? What if a majority in Mali believe it’s OK there? Would slavery be alright in that case?

    Evolutionists tend not to ascribe any moral authority to God or a divine creator. They argue that we are just random products of mutations and natural selection and survival of the fittest over time. To those people I ask, “If we are simply evolving in ways that allow our betters to succeed and survive over time, why should we worry about social inequality, and why shouldn’t we logically expect to find inequalities in strength, speed, intellect and success among various populations? On the other hand, if it is true that all of us are the product of an intelligent designer, why then do we persist in denying our common humanity and ultimate subordination to our divine creator?” Our nation was founded by men who confronted the king of England with the statement “all men are created equal.” The founders believed that basic truth to be absolute and superior to even the king’s authority. They believed that there was such a thing as an absolute truth, and so do I.

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