Morality and compassion in a postmodern world: Column
By Rich Elfers
A friend of mine challenged me about not defining morality and compassion in a recent column. I wrote about the lack of morality of the modern Republican Party. I also noted that today’s Democratic Party has compassion for some groups, but not morality or concern for all groups, especially conservatives.
The definition of morality is “virtuous conduct” or “the quality of being in accord with the standards of right or good conduct.” Compassion is defined as, “Deep awareness of the suffering of another accompanied by the wish to relieve it. synonym: pity.” (Wordnik)
We live in what has been called the postmodern world. Today, morality is what you as an individual decide is right or wrong.
There is no universal truth.
Or is there?
Our western culture is based upon the premise of what Isaac Newton called natural law: gravity, motion, and the nature of light. The English philosopher John Locke took those natural laws and converted them into natural rights: That all men are created equal and whose rights include life, liberty, and property. Thomas Jefferson, taking and adapting Locke’s ideas, clearly defined those natural rights in the Declaration of Independence. But, instead of the right to property, we are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness. These standards of morality formed the foundation for our nation’s laws and the structure of our government found in the U.S. Constitution.
The problem we have today is that when the Constitution was created, in the summer of 1787 in that hot and stuffy room in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, there was no one writing a glossary of terms for all the words that were used in that document. That was probably a good thing in the short run. Had there been a definition of terms, there might not have been a Constitution. People have a tendency to put their own meanings to words. When words are not defined, there is room for different interpretations. The ambiguity of the meaning of words allowed the Constitution to be passed by the 39 delegates and then ratified by the people of the 13 states.
In the long term, because the Constitution has a lot of vagueness, we need nine justices to interpret what the words mean 232 years later. For those of us who have followed the recent decisions of the Supreme Court, there are strong differences of opinion over what those words actually mean. Those differences divided the decisions over the drawing of congressional districts.
Compassion can and has been interpreted in different ways. Is it compassion for individuals, groups, or corporations? That depends on who decides, whether conservative or progressive justices.
As you can see, defining what morality and compassion are is not so easy or simple. The answers are complex and depend on the context of the case. If I tell you someone murdered someone else, your first response might be that that person should be punished. But if I then tell you that person murdered someone to protect a child from being murdered by someone else, the answer changes. That’s the nature of law. It depends.
While we like to believe our morality differs from another’s in our postmodern world, the reality is that there are natural laws and natural rights that govern human behavior. In actuality, we all really know what is moral and compassionate if we’re honest. It’s only when we’re seeking to gain power and advantage for ourselves that our definitions of right and wrong change.
My friend strongly advocated I define terms. I agree, but not when it comes to the words “morality” and “compassion.” Those definitions are self-evident.
Rich Elfers can be contacted at email@example.com.