There is fundamental and profound disagreement on the issue of what morality is all about. This is not overly surprising, since the whole area is still very much primitive, philosophically speaking. Most people are still at a base authoritarian level (whatever I’m ordered to do is moral) and have not really evolved beyond that. There is not much use of rationality in the public discourse about morality at all.
The role of morality is to distinguish between right and wrong. The area being examined differs (morality, as I define it, is preoccupied with the individual evaluating their own actions, while ethics is about evaluating rules for groups and societies), but the principle is generally the same. And what we mean by right and wrong, at least in general definition, is more or less the same: by right we mean an action or a motivation for action that is desirable and by wrong we mean an action or a motivation for action that is undesirable.
We live in hierarchical societies, and this fact pollutes all domains of thought, although none more than the social domains, morality being one of them. As for any other system of thought, morality can be exploited to support the status quo. I find that this is not really discussed a great deal. We discuss how certain ideologies support or don’t support the status quo, but we don’t really examine moral principles as such in that same light. Perhaps because, to a certain extent, we treat moral principles as personal beliefs and sacrosanct (in the same way that self-identity has become sacrosanct).
You may, of course, dismiss my statement as a consequence of my radicalism, but to me any moral system which does not start from the premise that one’s collaboration with the social order must be subject to questioning is automatically a failure. That should be one of the fundamental questions that any moral system examines, and must answer rationally. What is the source of morality and how does that entail conformity, or non-conformity, to the social order? Why do we cheer non-conformity in certain instances, and boo it in others?
On the first question, there are three general classes of answers. Either morality has no actual source and is mere preference or desire elevated as morality, morality has an internal source (intuition, conscience), or morality has an external source (God, the law, culture). I have argued at length that the first and third are logically incoherent, although I expect to change no one’s mind. Rather, I want to point out that all these answers can turn into a support of the status quo (although obviously I think the first and third, again, are more likely candidates).
The first position eventually must collapse into the third. I have already discussed the problem with anomie: anomie necessarily leads to tyranny because informal structure will be most easily influenced by those few with the power to do so (whether it’s money, popularity, education, or whatever). The same thing is true of a moral vacuum. Since we must act, and therefore cannot actually live in a moral vacuum, people’s opinions about right and wrong would be open to the influence of those with the most power. We would end up with a structure of external morality similar to the one in hierarchies today, where superiors impose their morality on inferiors under threat of (real or imagined) harm.
So the only two alternatives we have are morality imposed by an external source or molded by an internal source. Because most of our societies are made of hierarchies, the former will inevitably support hierarchies. The three external sources people tend to most believe in are God, the law, and culture. These suffer from being circular, as humans create gods, laws and cultures, and therefore these sources are not truly “external,” “infallible,” “objective” or “absolute” (or whatever else they claim to be). There are many other problems, but I’ve already discussed all those.
More to the point, the moral systems derived from such sources are inevitably pro-status quo. Believing that God, the law or culture are the infallible source of right and wrong leads to servile obedience to the hierarchical institutions that dictate what God says, what the law says, or what culture is; and since most hierarchical institutions depend on each other and prop up each other, obeying one usually leads one to obeying all of them.
There are counter-examples, but these counter-examples tend to prove the point. For instance, the Quakers used to be a very rebellious denomination of Christianity, but their rebellion was conceptually based on a doctrine they called “Inner Light,” that the truth about right and wrong was accessible internally by all. Social movements such as anti-slavery and the suffragettes relied heavily on the “conscience” as a counter-balance to the law. Appeals to religions, laws and cultures are inherently dichotomous and divisive; appeals to our common humanity are universal and uniting.
But there is a problem with moral systems using internal sources, as well. Despite the fact that they are once removed from hierarchical institutions, they do not safeguard against prejudices that are integrated within our psyche. Someone who is a profoundly hateful person will not become magically moral if they look within. Misunderstood prejudices can also integrate themselves in our psyche without our knowledge (such as the way in which many people think they are not sexist or racist but adopt implicitly sexist or racist beliefs).
There is also the added problem that morality is inherently individualistic. As I make the difference, morality is about individuals evaluating their own actions, while ethics is about the rules that a group or a society should adopt. Even if they are well-intentioned, moral rules like the Golden Rule often implicitly support the status quo simply because they do not integrate the social context in which our actions take place. The standard of “how we want to be treated” incorporates hierarchical thinking because the issue of “how we want to be treated” necessarily includes the issue of “how hierarchies want us to behave.” The Golden Rule is very good because it forces people to think about reciprocity, but that reciprocity necessarily stops at the individual level.
But even ethical principles can suffer from the same problem. Take for example Sam Harris’ ethical standard of “well-being.” Apart from his support of evolutionary psychology, which is pure nonsense, Harris’ program suffers from the same problem than cultural relativism does: who defines what “well-being” is and on what grounds? In practice, the ones who will end up defining “well-being” for us are the ones with the influence and power to do so. And even when we do the defining for ourselves, we will most likely adopt practical standards which follow hierarchical standards (such as “health” as defined by the medical institutions, “wealth” as defined by capitalism, “happiness” as defined by natalist-think, and so on).
As for my other question, why do we cheer non-conformity in certain instances, and boo it in others? Well, I think authoritarianism has a lot to do with it: we tend to support non-conformity when that non-conformity supports “our side” (e.g. Schindler’s List, the American Revolution), and we tend to attack non-conformity when that non-conformity goes against “our side” (e.g. socialist or communist revolutions, civil rights movements). We let hierarchies define what is “legitimate” disobedience and what is “illegitimate” disobedience, which just makes no sense at all since disobedience means disobedience to those same hierarchies that are trying to impose unjust moral principles. The fact that we are told what is legitimate disobedience and illegitimate disobedience, and that people accept this uncritically, is in itself wrong.