Reading about someone who had had his mobile phone stolen, I started to reflect on theft, morality and our perceptions of right and wrong. If a friend or colleague tells you he or she has been a victim of theft, your usual reaction will be one of disgust, indignation and perhaps anger. We instinctively feel that theft is “wrong” and that those who steal are “bad” people who deserve punishment.
Two things give me pause. The first is this: if you were to go around asking ordinary citizens to say honestly whether they had ever committed theft, very few would be able to lay their hand on their heart and answer no. Whether it is keeping some object found in the street, using a tube ticket that someone has dropped, accepting too much change, reusing a stamp that has escaped franking, borrowing something and never bothering to return it, etc., I would say most of us have been guilty at some time or other. I know I have. How is it that we condemn “theft” in others while condoning it in ourselves?
If you can honestly say you have never stolen the least thing then you are an unusually moral person. And this brings us to my point. Though the law punishes some sorts of misbehaviour, our reactions to these acts – and to the law itself – are informed by something we call morality. We consider it “morally wrong” to steal, for example. But why? What is this thing called morality and why do we think it so important, assuming that we do?
There are many theories about what morality is. Some say it is a social contract to which we are all mutually bound; others that our social behaviour is decreed by some god or other; still others that morality is practical: it limits my freedom but provides benefits to society as a whole and thus to me also; yet again, some like the Utilitarians assert that morality seeks to bring the greatest degree of happiness to the greatest number of people. None of these theories is without serious problems and despite searching for many centuries, no one has yet discovered a solid objective foundation on which to build a moral code. In consequence, moral codes vary from community to community and change with time.
Assuming our community has a moral code, why would we subscribe to it? There are definite advantages for the person who steps outside the moral code. This is of course paradoxical because the existence of a moral code supposes that everyone adheres to it. If every individual ignores it, then the code cannot exist. Notwithstanding, how often have you done something that you know is “wrong” (e.g. told a “white lie”, taken something without asking, etc) on the grounds that no one will know or that you can bluff it out if caught? Is morality, then, less a matter of conviction and more a matter of succumbing to pressure from the surrounding community?
In a religious society, saying what is moral is easy: it is “What God wants”. Religious believers seem to think that only a religion can provide a moral code. This ignores the fact that if their code is decreed by God, then it isn’t a moral code at all: it is merely adherence to a set of arbitrary commandments under the fear of divine punishment. A moral code surely presupposes some sort of agreement, explicit or implicit, between those who share in the code. If it is imposed from outside (or “above”) then it is not a moral but legal code, even if the judge and jury are not of this world.
But this still leaves the question of what morality is in a secular community and on what we would base such a moral system. This is not merely an academic question. British society is becoming more and more secular by the day. The fact that certain religious groups have sprung to prominence doesn’t alter this because no single one has preeminence and the resulting “multicultural” morality can only be a secular one if it is not to favour one religious (or atheistic) group over another. This is a difficult lesson for some people to learn but it has to be learnt if social upheaval is to be avoided.
Returning to our question, then: on what should we base our moral code? Is it even possible to have a single, universal moral code in a multicultural society?