Belief, Ritual, and Morality: part 4

I’ve seen different definitions of ethics and morality, but back in my third year in College, when I had a course on Ethics, I learned that the former refers to an individual code of conduct while the latter indicates a set of social rules on human behaviour. These are the definitions I’ll be using in this post.

There are several sources of moral principles, namely philosophical, religious and traditional social practice, of which Stoicism and the Ten Commandments are good and respective examples of the first two. Traditions refer to the “because it is proper” kind of argument and may or may not have a practical reasoning behind it. Of course, the different sources may be combined, as when adultery becomes forbidden not just by social tradition, but also by religious principle; and philosophical thinking may or may not corroborate that prohibition.

Perhaps more common than most people care to admit is the social origin of religious morality. Take the virtue of hospitality, for instance. It was highly valued in Old Norse society, judging at least by the late written sources, such as the eddic lays Hávamál and Grímnismál. That’s not by accident: in a far less populated world, where danger could easily hide just around the corner – more so than today – and without modern media, hospitality not only provided a safe haven for generally everyone on the road, it allowed human bonding and was a useful way of passing on information, be it news from other parts, poetry or lore. In a way, hosting a traveler was an ancient equivalent of reading a newspaper, and it was done under rules of sanctuary and mutual respect emulated by (or from) the Gods Themselves. One wonders if They first established it or rather were sought after to provide examples that would grant greater authority; or, in other words, was hospitality a social virtue enhanced by divine examples or was it a Gods created institution? And if the latter is true, how far does it hold in modern western societies? Is it still relevant (or even safe) in today’s Europe and North America or should it be open to changes as society changes? If so, is morality divine or social?

My take on this matter is that if belief is personal, and ritual traditional, then morality is social. It is society that must construct its rules of human behaviour for the freedom, well being and prosperity of its members. This entails the danger of having relative and mutable principles that can oppress people as easily as they can free and nurture them, but I much rather have a morality that can be questioned, criticized, discussed and, if necessary, changed, than a dogmatic set of rules that does not budge no matter how much the world goes ’round. And modern views and actions of Abraamic religions on women and homosexuality are a pretty good example of the latter.

Are the Gods without ethical principles then? No! Do They not influence our behaviour? Yes, They do! And if you happen to be a priest or have a patron deity, They may actually expect you to emulate Them. Are polytheists amoral people? Again, no! Just because people don’t have moral principles dictated by Their deities doesn’t mean they don’t have rules of behaviour, and there’s a good historical example in Ancient Roman society, where people who believed and even worshipped the same Gods nonetheless adhered to different moral philosophies, Stoicism and Platonism being two prime examples (some Epicureans too, if you will). But how all of this plays out together – personal belief, traditional ritual and social morality – that’s the topic of the next few posts.


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