A difficult question for the philosophically challenged (ie; yours truly)…

(Apparently some of this made it into a version of a previous post. Apologies if you have read some of this before.)

A TV show I recently watched about polygamy had me pondering the pros and cons of these arrangements which are so foreign to me. Then I spoke to a friend who declared absolutely that polygamy is “immoral”. I pondered his viewpoint.

It seems to me that social norms (which might be synonymous with culture) often pass for morality. In Australia, polygamy is illegal – you can only be legally married to one person at a time. But while that law (when it was made) may have been guided by “moral” notions appropriate to that era, we have to accept that our social norms have changed. Where once homosexuality was unacceptable, gay marriage is now legal. Where once women showing their legs was a sign of promiscuity, it is now completely normal. Why is it impossible that the attitude to polygamy won’t also change? And if attitudes change, does that change morality?

Furthermore, our laws and cultures differ to laws in other societies and cultures and I am unwilling to insist that those societies/cultures are less moral than ours. That’s why I think social norms is an alternative phrasing to morality. Social norms are what we are comfortable with as a society and therefore reflect our culture.

Is morality a culture-specific concept or should it be Universal?

Pondering all this, the other night I asked P what he thinks morality is. He said something along the lines of “It’s treating others how you want to be treated”. It’s actually a really good answer. It’s simple and it’s a good guideline for every day behaviour.

A day or so later (from a well-read friend), I learned that this is a common view of morality known as “The Golden Rule”. When this term was introduced to me, I found an article on philosophynow.org about “The Golden Rule” and how it is reflected in many religions and schools of thought. But, says philosophynow.org, it is not as golden as we once thought (you can read their arguments here). I must admit, their semantics confused me. They talk about the negative version but every sentence has a negative version… doesn’t it? So I’m not sure I grasp the philasophical problem they perceive.

The article goes on to discuss the “Platinum Rule” which demands a higher goal. It says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I find this one harder to relate to my life. The words “enemy” and “persecute” are extreme for the sheltered society I know and I struggle to find a context for them. Furthermore, I am not given to prayer and love is not a term that sits easily with me except in relation to my most intimate family. I have no idea what “loving” an acquaintance looks like, let alone a person I actively fear or struggle to interact with.

If we use more modern language, I think it might look something like “Try to understand opposing viewpoints and respond to wrongs with rights”. That does sound a bit piss-weak by comparison, though.

I realised today that basically I think the things that are “wrong” or “immoral” (for me) involve deliberately and wilfully hurting/harming others. In other words, if three people choose to live together (in a polygamous relationship) and are all consensual and happy with the arrangement, then I have no problem with it. It’s their business and they are not hurting anybody. Well, at least, they aren’t hurting anybody any more than anybody who chooses to persist with something that their family/friends might be uncomfortable with. But even career choices can cause that level of discomfort so I (personally) don’t think that is grounds for accusations of being immoral.

Perhaps morality applies only to the most basic rules that allow societies to exist safely and cohesively??

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