Let’s face it; individuals a struggling, our societies are in turmoil, the world in general seems to be in trouble! We have global warming, political, racial and religious tensions, localized armed conflicts, a refugee situation, a global pandemic, a looming economic crisis. The sheer scale of the issues tempts us to stick our heads into the sand and hope for the best. Or we might want to leave it up to others, politicians, business owners, scientists etc., to figure it out and let us know what to do. The problem is that often our leaders get into all kinds of partisan cockfights rather than coming up with viable solutions. Valuable time and opportunities are lost. We empower others to act on our behalf, we end up with the short end of the stick.
In the past relatively educated minorities could maintain a degree of stability and ensure collective progress, this no longer seems to be the case. With modernity comes opportunity, and increased responsibility. One underexplored area where I believe everyone has increased responsibilities into the future, around morality. Briefly defined as a series of principles about right and wrong, individual, and societal capacity to understand morality and act accordingly determines the kinds of lives we are going to live and the types of societies that we build.
Not taking a moral stand perpetuates the status quo – at best
If former societies were characterized by rigid and slow evolving moral codes, our modern society appears to have swung too far into the opposite direction. Relativism, i.e. the notion that knowledge, truth, and morality are not absolute, and only exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, undermines our attempt to come up with the collective moral framework required to address the geography, society and culture transcendent issues our global society is facing. No wonder we fall back into outdated models of power and decision making. Having no moral framework is as bad as trying to apply an outdated one. It prolongs the lifespan of rightfully decaying features in society, perpetuating and often escalating issues. Moral concepts are the “medicine” against social diseases. The nature of medicine is that it is only effective when applied to the right disease. The measure in which the medicine is applied is important also, too little does not cure, too much kills the patient. The trick then; to apply the right medicine, to the right circumstance in appropriate doses. This requires experimentation.
There is no morality without risk
While we might never achieve an absolute understanding of right and wrong, thinking that there is no such thing or that problems will solve themselves is a mistake. Destroying our environment is wrong, racism is wrong, gender discrimination is wrong. These are not simply opinions; these represent realities that threaten our collective existence. If we do not consider them wrong our own existence becomes irrelevant. Beyond existential arguments, realities such as these also contradict our higher-nature vision, needs and aspirations. The human experience includes constant struggles to overcome lower impulses and realize higher selves, it is what distinguish us from animals. These struggles have been recorded in the spiritual, cultural, and historical accounts we hold dear. These accounts also indisputably demonstrate that morality comes at a risk, the risk of discomfort, rejection, opposition, violence and even death. It is these risks thought which test the integrity of an individually and societally held moral values. Overcoming these risks is the ultimate test of character.
The friendly advice you might need to ignore
Ultimately, your character is yours to own, and when it comes to taking a moral stance, you are likely to encounter a lot of resistance. Change is hard on individual and collective levels. When you decide to stand for something you might fail, but you might also be threatened, fired, ostracized, taken to court, intimidated, beaten up and worse. First, everyone needs to overcome their own hesitation to act. Next, it is understandable that parents, spouses, colleagues, neighbors etc. will advise and caution you into standing down on moral issues. This personal and interpersonal dynamics often prevents us from morally progressing. In fact, overcoming both love and hate seems to be an indispensable milestone in individuals’ journey toward moral understanding and moral autonomy. When Greta Thunberg began her activism journey, she was discouraged by her father who was concerned for her well-being and few others took her seriously. Greta pushed through regardless. One finds similar struggles in the lives of all individuals society considers Moral Leaders, from Malala to Ghandi, from Mother Theresa to Mandela.
A humble attitude of learning
So, now you have become aware of a moral cause you feel strong about, how do you go about addressing it?
First be prepared for a steep learning curve, deciding to swim upstream will instantly make you realize the strength of the currents you are up against. Persevere and accept the fact that there is much you need learn and that often you will have to adapt. Focusing on your own moral learning rather than demanding that of others will safeguard you against arrogance that often derails moral causes.
Next, be patient and humble yourself some more to the experience. Even the sharpest rock will eventually smoothen out in a fast-flowing stream. Losing your sharp edges is not something to be worried about, it is not the same as conforming, rather it is the realization that a rock is a rock and water is water and both play a role in the dynamics of life.
Finally, realize that though you matter, it might not be all about you; it takes many rocks to build a dam! Abdicating your moral responsibilities stunts your personal progress and ultimately undermines the progress of society. Being morally engaged, will make you a better person and in the long make our world a better place.