(Originally written 16th February 2011, with later amendments)
MoralityFor the purpose of clarity it seems worth devoting a paragraph or two to discussing what I mean by morality. The word "morality" means different things to different people. Most people seem to have quite a fixed idea as to its meaning and many have difficulty in understanding that their conception of morality is different from that of others.
To me, morality means following the axioms spelled out above in one's dealings with other people. This includes such matters as honesty, respect for others and personal kindness in relationships. To be quite specific in my disagreement with some definitions, in my opinion morality, sex and religion are three entirely separate subjects with nothing whatever to do with each other (and the latter two are not in any way the business of legitimate government).
With this definition, government should always act morally itself and be on the side of morality in others. I do not mean by this that every action which would be considered (on this definition) to be immoral should be subject to legal condemnation, although many such acts should, and only immoral acts should be so condemned. On the other hand, it would be immoral, in a very minor way, for someone to refuse to help a person in need of relatively minor assistance, such as directions to find a destination, but that is obviously not the sort of minor matter with which the law, or government in any guise, should concern itself.
Religion and MoralitySince so many people claim that morality for them is based on their religious beliefs, it is perhaps worth discussing why I do not think this is morality at all. A moral act (or a moral refraining from action) is something done (or not done) because this improves life (often in a quite minor way) for someone else, and acts of this kind make for a happier society for everyone, as they do in more serious cases.
If a so-called moral decision is based on religious belief rather than on thoughtfulness for others, then this is simply following some dogmatic assertion, a command followed without thought. That is the action of an amoral automaton, not a consequence of morality.
Most if not all major religions would support the statements I have made in the panel above, but most also add other rules which I would not support and some of which I would consider to be immoral or at least, depending on circumstances, capable of being immoral, while others I would not consider have any moral implications.
My conclusion, therefore, is that religion and morality have nothing whatever to do with one another. People can be very moral or immoral regardless of what, if any, religious beliefs they may hold and of how rigidly they live by those beliefs.
Society or Individual?The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives eight different definitions for the word "society", applicable in various different contexts. Two of them are relevant here:
What we are discussing here is the nature and detail of the system of customs and organisation and the second definition specifies the meaning of "society" we require, I have quoted the former because of its inclusion of the purpose of the customs and organisation adopted, i.e. for harmonious and interactive coexistence or for mutual benefit, defence, etc.
It seems obvious that without the individuals who are its members, a society cannot exist as anything real, but is at most just an abstract concept, whereas individuals can, and sometimes do, exist and survive without society of any kind.
Some political systems, mainly those of a totalitarian nature, maintain that individuals are of relatively little, or even no, importance, and their interests must always be subservient to those of society as a whole, which they usually equate to the state and its government. This view seems to be to be in total denial of fairly obvious facts, appropriate only to a colony of insects such as ants (even elephants, whales and meerkats have evolved beyond such an approach). Society consists of individuals, each of whom has his or her own personal needs and desires. Society as a whole has no needs or desires of is own, and exists only as the sum of its parts, in other words, it exists simply to serve the needs and wishes of the people who comprise it. Certainly there are circumstances when the needs or wishes of an individual or of a minority group may conflict with those of the majority, but then the purpose of government is to resolve those issues in a way that considers properly the rights of both sides, not simply to side with the majority (or of a government department) while overriding conflicting interests
Society and Individuals
It must not be thought, however, that each individual can simply live his own life without taking any notice of the needs or wishes of others, since we cannot exist for long in such isolation. The was put very well by Jean M Auel in her book The Mammoth Hunters:
Some Personal ExamplesIt has been suggested that I should end by recounting a few of the minor actions I take from time to time and to explain my reasons in each case, so here are a few. In every case I not not claiming any special merit - very many other people do the same things, probably with the same motivation:
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