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Inspired by Is a moral society more open to the gospel than an immoral one?

There have been many debates going around regarding what constitutes moral or immoral actions; moral or immoral society; etc. This set of questions is in regards to society and how morality can be measured.


First and foremost, is it possible for a society to be moral or immoral?

If so, what does morality mean in regards to a society? Meaning, what's the difference between a moral society and an immoral one?

As a Christian, I tend to define morality based on the Bible. Can this same gauge be used for societies? How can I apply this metric to societies that are undeniably non-Christian?

Ultimately: What does morality mean in the context of a society?

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closed as not constructive by Richard Oct 20 '11 at 16:38

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
Per the quality standards this post is either way off topic or very Not Constructive. Therefore, I'm closing this one and leaving it here as a signpost. –  Richard Oct 20 '11 at 16:38

3 Answers 3

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Many religions and societies have a shared core of moral precepts. For example, the Dalai Lama writes on this topic:

All religions teach moral precepts for perfecting the functions of mind, body, and speech. All teach us not to lie or steal or take others' lives, and so on. The common goal of all moral precepts laid down by the great teachers of humanity is unselfishness. The great teachers wanted to lead their followers away from the paths of negative deeds caused by ignorance and to introduce them to paths of goodness.

A common moral intuition has been posited (with some decent evidence) by some researchers; see Marc Hauser's Moral Minds for an example. You may not agree with his interpretation of his data, but it is at least clear that a certain subset of morality is widespread (hereafter "common-morality") even among people who profess different beliefs.

Because of this commonality, there is a sense in which we can judge societies as moral or immoral without having to adopt any particular religion (which will unsurprisingly judge societies where different religions are prevalent as relatively less moral). You can ask--at least vaguely--whether a society promotes as a matter of course and achieves in practice broad adherence to common-morality. Furthermore, one can ask whether the society (including government institutions) treats its members as if it were an entity that followed common-morality.

For example, one can make a pretty strong case that the sub-societies of Somali pirates or Mexican drug gangs are not particularly moral (obviously: they induce people to kill and steal). Fine distinctions are probably difficult (is Japanese society more or less moral than Finnish society?).

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Without morals being somehow based on a common rule of law, such as the Bible, then there can be no true rule for morality unless leaders of a society set the guidelines for morality.

In most modern day societies, morals are basically the same as in the Bible. Thou shalt not kill and steal are just two examples. But without a true basic morality structure such as the Bible, then no one can truly say one thing or the other if something is moral or not.

Basically, if one society has a different set of morals than another one, each society will always believe the other society is immoral.


From the comments below ~Richard

Essentially, only members of the society can actually declare a society as moral or immoral, since people who are not part of that society do not have enough perspective to determine the morals of the given society. Even minor differences in geography or religious separation can lead to huge moral gaps. Therefore, no one can validly judge the morality of a society unless one is a member of that society.

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So, in essence, the only legitimate way to measure of morality of a society is by using the religion (or religious-like doctrines, eg humanism) that the society itself professes? –  Richard Sep 14 '11 at 21:07
    
I would say yes, that or leaders of a society coming up with a list of morals, but typically they are based on a religion. –  Nick122 Sep 14 '11 at 21:09
    
It depends on what you believe to be moral. How can someone possibly judge morality unless they are based on the same morality system. One society will typically declare an other societies morality as unmoral only because it may go against their morals. Do you get what i'm trying to say? –  Nick122 Sep 14 '11 at 21:50
    
I think I do. So, only members of the society can actually declare a society as moral or immoral, since people who are not part of that society do not have enough perspective to determine a moral stance? (Since there will always be minor differences: Spain-Portugal, USA-Canada, Argentina-Chili, etc.) –  Richard Sep 14 '11 at 21:54
    
Basically yes, therefore it is hard to get a good moral standing unless based on a universal standard. –  Nick122 Sep 14 '11 at 22:10

As a Christian, I tend to define morality based on the Bible. Can this same gauge be used for societies? How can I apply this metric to societies that are undeniably non-Christian?

In almost all societies, it can't. Perhaps the only societies where this can be used is those where by definition those societies genuinely use the Bible as their moral compass, for example in a monastery.

In most other scenarios, perhaps it is more meaningful to look at the law (in comparison to international / humane law), and how that law is applied (for example: is the application of the law itself horribly corrupt). Now, law (and it's application) vs morality are slightly different topics, but it is perhaps the best indicator we have. You can of course look beyond that into the zeitgeist of the population, but that is much harder to measure accurately.

Coming back to the Bible in the context of morality; the point I would make here is that in many cases, a significant portion of both the in-group and out-group do not accept the morality of the Bible; the most obvious glaring holes here would be things like the Bible's aggressive stance on homosexuality and gender issues (I know that record is old, but they are important). I know very many Christians who have absolutely no issue with homosexuality, and know of others that are fire-brand against homosexuality. To me this simply proves: if different people in the in-group can't agree which way that moral-compass points, then that moral-compass is broken.

To borrow from another answer:

In most modern day societies, morals are basically the same as in the Bible.

Again, I would turn this around: In most modern day societies, the Bible happens to be (give-or-take) basically the same as those in the society. One does not need the Bible to know that stealing and murder is a bad thing, for example.

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I specifically said society of Somali pirates (yes, it's a sub-society, just like Mexican drug gangs). Maybe I was unclear--do you have a better choice of wording to suggest?--but on careful reading you'll notice that I was not explicitly tarnishing the reputation of an entire society. –  Rex Kerr Sep 15 '11 at 8:09
    
@Rex sorry if I misinterpreted that; I've removed that. The comparison to the sub-societies such as pirates is already covered by my 2nd paragraph, so that section is now redundant. –  Marc Gravell Sep 15 '11 at 8:15
    
I changed it to "sub-societies" to hopefully make it clearer that I don't mean all Somalis. –  Rex Kerr Sep 15 '11 at 13:59
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+1 for "if different people in the in-group can't agree which way that moral-compass points, then that moral-compass is broken." I believe you are right about this. This is also the big reason for so many divisions in Christianity. One group looks at another group and says "They're immoral because of X" and so they split. Earth is broken and corrupt (along with all humans on it) and we won't have a true moral compass until we can commune with God directly. –  Richard Sep 15 '11 at 21:50

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