How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The ChangingMinds Blog!
Morals as social division
We talk about moral and immoral people, using the words as synonyms for good and bad, but who defines the difference? What makes something good or bad?
Morals, it seems are rules that we create and perpetuate within large groups and societies as systems of social control. If you act morally then your action is entirely praiseworthy, whereas immoral acts invoke disgust and revulsion. With such extremes of response, we thus take great care around morals. Morals thus paint a clear black-and-white world in which we are faced with stark choices.
Morals are also used for social division. If you are moral, then you are accepted in the society that defines the morals, whilst immoral acts leads to rapid expulsion. Morals are also used for class division. The Ancient Greeks, who had a lot to say about the subject, defined the nobility as automatically good and we still embed the notion in phrases such a 'the great and the good' and notions of the aristocracy Being somehow superior. The basic principle that is used in many societies still, is that those with with money, power and especially 'breeding' are morally superior. This may seem unfair but in practice can be socially useful. Consider yourself to be a rich and powerful person. You thus are defined also as moral. This mantle of morality acts as a dampener and shaper of how you behave. You may thus act charitably to those less fortunate than yourself.
Whether this action comes from the heart or is cynical purchase of social approval is another matter, but the basic benefits to the society are same. Thus the powerful are held in check.
There is also an inversion of this in which the rich powerful become arrogant and corrupt. Ignoring morality, they become selfish, debauched and sinful. And when this happens on a wide scale societies collapse. Morality is often about the rich helping the poor and the powerful protecting the weak. When such systems of social support collapse, those who depend on it will leave, die or revolt. Many revolutions, including those in France and Russia, were against a hedonistic aristocracy that that had largely abandoned morality as it increasingly sought pleasure over social responsibility.
The guardians of morality have long been the church, though in the modern milieu the media have become patchily strident and particularly where immorality sells papers. The social life of 'celebrities' is scrutinized and often found wanting, creating a social inversion where the lower classes can feel a smug schadenfreude at the exposure of behavior that many of us indulge in. The underlying truth, though, is that we set higher morals for those in the public eye, expecting them to model how the rest of us should behave, and thus perpetuating the principle that those higher up the pecking order are somehow more moral.
An interesting Documentary by American PBS (Public Broadcasting System)
called People Like Us, looks at social class in america, and how each class sees
each other and rates each other. It is an eye opener, but for sure, you'll see
yourself somewhere in the mix. Check out this post:
and also the PBS website which highlights the documentary and has interesting
interactive activities and clips. It is hard to get a hold of the DVD but PBs
replays it occasionally.
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