My experience in life would suggest that there are those individuals who believe that morals or morality as a whole is like Plato’s Theory of forms. That is, that the Ideal exists as a form of abstraction divorced from the reality of everyday life. That this ideal or form of morality exists unsullied by human minds and only those who have attuned themselves to the search and study of such things can truly know them. A sort of hole knowledge versus the profane of worldly knowledge. For Plato, in a nutshell, the known or physical world can be observed with our five senses. Then there is that eternal world that is untouched by mankind and his five senses where perfect ideals exist. This is, of course a dimension uninhabited by mankind. Plato attempts to find a solution to the problem of universals. From Plato’s standpoint, his concept of time was a little shorter than ours today by twenty five hundred years. The major problem with the idea of forms as perfection is that they never change. Thus we come to believe that morality has only one form in theory and never changes. Thus christians, Jews, Muslims, and many other religious groups decry any change to the public sense of morality because it has changed from the rigid and frozen past. Abortion is murder, abortion must be prevented so that the woman can receive her just desserts from have committed a sin in the eyes of god through illicit sex, sex out of holy wedlock (we haven’t had holy wedlock ever since the state took over the authority and required licenses for that act of legal sex). The man and woman must be made to pay for their sins. Of course the question becomes: where do morals end and revenge take over?
So in an elevated world of perfection we find that the form called moral code is given from above and the job of the philosopher is to decipher this elevated knowledge and reduce in to intelligibility for the consumption of the common layman. A priest normally does this between saying his office while philosophers hang about in bars, drinking wine and trying to determine who buys the next round. The major problem with religious morality is that it is based or perhaps even anchored in the past norms of behavior while the world has become modern or less concerned with past moral rectitude. The fun part is that while religious morals seem not to change, the morality of the common man does. A marriage certificate with it’s seal of state approval is a rather recent event in the history of mankind. Only the nobility and later on, its substitute, The wealthy, required certificate proof with sealing wax and velvet chords. The little people were lucky to get a priest, when he was literate, to write their names in some community bible. Obviously the problem with forms and their sense of perfection is one expects morals to have some sense of perfection if one follows this line of reasoning. This is the same problem that the ideal concept of law, or it perfect form encounters. Justice in its non perfect from is a rather messy affair at best and tends to be hit or miss at worst.
Well, we might think that morals should be relative to the times, that there are no absolutes here. Would that really be true? does premeditated murder become simple manslaughter two thousand years later? Perhaps we need to make a distinction between prescriptive moral behaviors such as you will honor your mother and father versus prevention of behavior as in thou shall not kill. The prescriptive element is a positive behavior, we think you should do this. we don’t say you’ll go to hell if you don’t, but there’s a chance if you don’t, besides, you’ll break your mother’s heart. Where a prohibition or prevention, is a command not to do that action. Even thinking of such action is a sin, right? So we have the sin of commission and the sin of omission. Sort of black and white, isn’t it? Well, that is what we expect from morals, either it is or it isn’t, no in between state of grace or whatever.
Unlike the Greeks, who were, for the most part, polytheistic, the major religions of the world aren’t. We do not speak of our god as being subject to any set of moral standards, he imposes his own. Of course when your many gods operate in a system that is defined by the actions of the many gods as if they were human then one expects them to have a godly sense of morality. We might ask the question of whether we can separate religion from morality? Would it make sense to do so? Strangely, we are stuck with the same question that faced Plato. How do we understand a code of moral conduct that comes from a most eternal and perfect place or separate world? How literally can we take those abstractions of perfection in a non perfect world? Then we have committed several more errors in judgment by basing one religion of the legs of several others. The torah gives us the five basic books of the old testament which the Jews then add commentary as they struggled to interpret those words, both the history and the teachings. The Christians come along, take the Torah as the basis for there faith but then add more books of the several prophets of their new age. In a way, these are commentary but expressed as the word of god and not rabbis. Then Islam takes what it considers the basis of its faith, the Torah and some Christian texts, then writes their own scripture. On top of which they add further commentaries which take on a quasi sacred value. Of course in India and the surrounding nations one can spend decades reading a lot of holy scriptures that date back several millennia and intertwine with new upstarts in the process. It may be said that perhaps only a billion or so have little or no faith based belief system. I would think that at least five billion have some reliance on a religion other than political and social theories.
We are left with the opinion that religion is intertwines with culture, with social values in a society, and that these values give impact to our sense of morality. You see, religion never came first, never descended from that high eternal world of perfection and in doing so gave the world a perfect moral code of behavior. Religion has, in the past and continues to in this present, give explanation to that which is unseen or unknown. It tries to answer a basic question that even science fails to explain clearly. Why did I get cancer? Why didn’t the medicine work to keep my baby alive? Why did that tornado strike my house? We look for reason in statistical probability of occurrence not wanting to hear that chance, the throw of the die, often affects our lives in unpredictable ways. A mathematical formula is not a clear explanation why that drunk driver hit daddy’s car and killed him. We find no comfort in numbers. Numbers are abstractions while at least god has a chance to be a real being. We’ll take our chances on god, he can make 2 + 2 = 5.
You see, most religions tell us that there is a perfect world somewhere else. It’s not here on this planet where nothing can be perfect. this planet is a profane place, meaning not holy, perfect, and eternal. And they are right for it astrophysics is correct, in five billion years or so this planet will get burnt to a crisp piece of carbon, not unlike toast. Plato’s forms exist, but only in a perfect world, an eternal world, a holy world. Down on this profane planet we are left with messy sets of conflicting moral codes which we squabble over and sometimes go to war over. Morality cannot float down from on high, it must be built from the ground up. In a practical world, we cannot afford the perfect forms of morality. And thus, I believe, I have used up m moral good will for the year.