Attitudes about the morality or immorality of various lifestyle choices are in constant flux. It may be that opinions about what is morally acceptable have always been fluid, but the current of change is moving faster today than ever before.
The increased speed of change is arguably related to society’s connectivity through broadcast and social media and to its lack of connectivity through the more permanent institutions of family, church and community. Today’s Americans are exposed to a continual storm of public opinion, and many no longer find refuge in home or church.
According to recent Gallup polls, what Americans think is moral or immoral has been changing across all age groups. The number of people who believe it is morally acceptable to view pornography has jumped by 30 percentage points in little more than a decade, including nearly half of those between 18 to 34.
Acceptance of premarital sex in general and sex between teens in particular has risen dramatically since 2002. Having children outside marriage, once under strong moral prohibition, is no longer even regarded as a moral issue by most people. Americans today are far more likely to grant the morality of gay and lesbian relations than they were just a decade ago.
Opinion shifts regarding issues of human sexuality are most obvious, but there have also been significant changes of opinion regarding non-sexual matters. For example, more people now consider doctor-assisted suicide to be a morally acceptable option. Fewer people regard the use of embryonic stem cells as morally unacceptable.
It is not just that people are accepting, frog-in-the-kettle like, behaviors that were once considered morally reprehensible. They are also rejecting behaviors that were once considered morally acceptable or at least neutral. Using ethnically insensitive language is now considered a serious moral failure. A growing number of people see the death penalty as morally reprehensible. The number of Americans who consider medical testing on animals to be immoral has increased by 14 percent since 2002.
What was once considered grossly immoral by most of the population now enjoys moral acceptance and, conversely, what was once considered normal by most people is now regarded by many as immoral. The North Carolina bathroom law is a case in point.
Based on the fluidity of moral opinion in history, some people have concluded that morality is a merely human construct and is entirely subjective. Others maintain that the great body of moral beliefs has remained consistent over time, suggesting an objective morality exists that transcends human opinion. They argue that moral beliefs are like the ocean. The surface is often roiled and undulating but the great depths remain the same.
Although ethicists have not been able to come to agreement on the nature of morality, it is hard for anyone to deny that humans are moral beings through and through. In the 1950s, many people (including ethicists) considered homosexuals to be moral degenerates. In the second decade of the 21st century, many people (including ethicists) consider homophobes to be moral degenerates. What remains true, however, is that humans cannot escape the sense that some things are right and some are wrong. Whether new morality or old, there is always some morality.
Some biologists have tried to explain this inescapable moral compunction through evolutionary theory, though many ethicists have found their explanations philosophically unsophisticated and unconvincing. Even if evolutionary theory could explain how behaviors came to be considered right or wrong on prudential grounds, it fails to provide a bridge capable of supporting the weighty transition to genuine moral values.
It is highly unlikely that an evolutionary past could push us into our current moral state. It is also doubtful that morality has simply been thrust upon us from above by the threat of divine judgment, for this too would reduce morality to nothing more than prudent self-interest.
That’s not the morality we know, which always develops relationally. At its core is the longing to be right with others, including (most notably) the Creator. An evolutionary past cannot push us into morality nor can divine fiat pressure us into it, but God’s gracious invitation to relationship and to wholeness can draw us to it.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/31/2016