Considering Morality versus Social Regulation

Morality. Such an interesting, subjective concept. By definition, morality is basically the distinction between right and wrong (or good and bad) behavior. While the definition sounds simplistic enough, what is good or bad is primarily defined through social contexts, which means that not all concepts of right and wrong are universal (or, potentially, even shared by the majority of society).

Continuing that line of thought, sanctions against behavior, even those supposedly based on moral principles, are not universally viewed as good or bad either. The perfect, controversial legal examples are: gambling, polygamy, and prostitution. On the other hand, some interesting social sanctions are: racial or ethnic bias in specific areas, bias toward sexual orientation, and the constructed regulations regarding the "legal" age of marriage (note that this one is, technically, also a legal example, but plays into social sanctions as well).

While the concept of morality and values as socially constructed sanctions to promote certain types of behavior is certainly nothing new (after all, Nietzsche suggested such ideas in the 1800s), we still continue to hold onto the idea that morality is an inherent trait and base legal sanctions upon perceptions of morality.

Because this can be construed any number of ways, I want to make something perfectly clear: I am fascinated with behavioral studies, specifically sociology and psychology, and a topic like this is quite interesting to examine and discuss. This article is a thought experiment designed to generate discussion. Further, I am going to intentionally discuss controversial issues, and so if you are easily offended I suggest not reading after this point.

Seriously, if you're still reading at this point you cannot say I did not warn you.

We'll start with something a little less controversial in case someone did not heed my warning and scanned the next paragraph anyway: gambling.

Gambling has had an interesting history in the United States, bouncing between being prohibited behavior and legalized behavior. Sanctions on gambling typically revolve around the perception that gambling is an immoral activity serving only to corrupt those who partake and to attract criminal activity. As with any other activity, there will always be people on one extreme or the other (ii.e. compulsive gamblers who are addicted to the behavior and those who proclaim gambling as a sin and rely on the fear of religious persecution to keep others in check). The vast majority of people, however, are not going to fall into those extreme categories.

Gambling, however, is a rather tame example of socially constructed sanctions that claim to be based on moral principles. Prostitution takes the concept a leap forward, and really begins to open the door to controversial discussion.

The idea of providing sexual favors for a price is not a novel concept. According to historical texts, prostitution has existed since the beginning of written history at least, and potentially even existed prior. Much like gambling, it has seen acceptance (even being looked upon favorably as a profession at times) and prohibition. Also like gambling, prostitution is not universally banned around the world, not to mention the disparity of being legal and illegal within the boundaries of the same societal regions (i.e. countries).

These are simply two examples helping illustrate two points before we delve into the meat of the discussion:

  1. Morality is not universal (in other words, the concept of good and evil is defined within the constraints of one's environment/society and varies from one person/community/region/culture/etc. to another).
  2. Sanctions against behavior that claim to be based on moral principles cannot, by their very nature, truly be based upon morality. Instead these sanctions are based on other concepts (be it religious in nature, as the sanctions against prostitution began, or simply as a result of the majority of those in a law-making capacity choosing to place sanctions against certain behaviors).

Alright, now that we have the understanding of why these concepts are so interesting somewhat established, let's look at some very controversial questions that arise out of such realizations:

  1. Mental disorders are characterized by a number of factors, and some are only diagnosed by the failure of an individual to conform to the norms and values of the society in which they reside. Keeping the idea that morals and values are often socially constructed, are such individuals truly ill or do they simply share the same beliefs as another culture?
  2. Taking the above question a step further: the average age of consent for participating in sexual activities in the United States ranges from 16 years of age to 18 years of age. The average age where a couple can legally marry in the United States (with parental consent) ranges from 14 years of age to 16 years of age (most states recognize the age of 18 as the legal age to marry without parental consent). What are the origins of specifically choosing an age wherein such activities are legalized? In other words, we know these ages were socially constructed, but how were the specific ages chosen?
  3. Continuing along the lines of arbitrarily choosing ages upon which to base legal concepts, what makes the age of 18 symbolic of the transition into adulthood? What makes the age of 21 a suddenly acceptable age at which to consume alcohol?

Personal THoughts

Generally speaking, laws tend to be established for one of two reasons: to protect the rights given to each citizen for being a citizen of their country or to provide recourse against those individuals who bring disorder or cause disruptive behavior within society.

There is a generally accepted principle that one sacrifices a certain amount of individuality in order to be a part of society (i.e., certain rights of the individual must be forfeit in order to preserve the society as a whole). The question this raises, though, is whether or not such a restriction is fair given that an individual (normally) has no choice about living within a society (there is certainly no choice at birth, but often an individual is constrained by other factors that also do not allow relocation to a society wherein their beliefs and values are more aligned).

Ok, so I didn't get as controversial as I thought about getting after all. There are just some things that even I can't take the devil's advocate stance on for the sake of discussion. ;)

So, what do you think?