Is traditional morality obsolete?
According to Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner, it is. In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “Reinventing Ethics,” he argues that the world has become too large and complex for the moral codes devised for small localized communities: “As I see it, human beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance.”
Gardner is not the only one saying this. The world is changing, and our understanding of the world is advancing along with those changes. The idea that ethics must change as the world changes is commonplace.
But many critics of traditional morality base their criticisms on a misunderstanding that Gardner shares.
“If my argument is correct,” he writes, “the professional deals every day with issues that cannot possibly be decided simply by consulting the Bible or some other traditional moral code.”
To think that traditional morality consists of simplistic applications of prescriptions is itself a simplistic notion.
Despite what critics of the Christian Gospels frequently claim, Jesus never says, “Follow these rules and you will be saved.” Rather, he tells stories, he challenges religious authorities, and he questions his own followers, never allowing them to feel satisfied with their understanding of right and wrong.
Anyone who thinks the Bible provides moral certainty has not read it carefully.
One has only to notice how Jesus responds to the Pharisees, how the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth or how the rabbis interpret the Torah in the Talmud, to see that determining the right thing to do is not a simple exercise but requires humility, wisdom and imagination.
To be fair to Gardner, it is true that technological developments present us with circumstances never encountered before. Once scientists mapped the human genome, the question of how to use this knowledge was raised for the first time. Such developments require new thinking, but they do not necessarily require us to abandon traditional concepts.
On the contrary, the more the world changes, the more important it is to recover the traditional concepts that our ancestors developed to meet the challenges of their changing world. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we just have to figure out how to make it work on new roads.
Just because we cannot turn to Confucius or Aristotle for specific answers to contemporary moral dilemmas involving end-of-life decisions, or Internet privacy, or genetic modifications does not mean that traditional moral sources are obsolete. Classical ethical texts endure because they deal with basic concepts that underlie and inform our understanding of how to live. In his letter to the Corinthians, for example, the Apostle Paul tried to explain why love is essential to human flourishing, not provide an exhaustive list of acceptable behaviors.
Whether it is the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita or Plato’s Republic, sources of traditional moral concepts are important because they remind us that certain ideas endure because they are grounded in fundamental insights into human nature. And even though technology, medicine, economics and politics change over time, human nature stays pretty much the same.
Maybe that’s why contemporary research into the conditions of human happiness confirms the central notions of traditional morality. The key contributors to happiness are a modest income and stable, committed relationships. In other words, obtaining an education, finding meaningful work, getting married, having children, being involved in the community — all these traditional activities tend to make a person happy.
What contributes to unhappiness? Pursuing wealth at the expense of family, having extramarital affairs, being self-indulgent or suspicious, persistent gambling, drinking to excess, isolating oneself from others — anything that destroys relationships.
It turns out the Apostle Paul was right: Love really is the greatest virtue because more than anything else it characterizes healthy relationships.
And the seven deadly sins really are deadly — they destroy relationships and therefore make us (and those around us) miserable.
The most recent, sophisticated research on happiness has not provided us with new answers to life’s persistent questions; it has merely confirmed the age-old answers. So instead of constantly trying to change morality to fit what society has become, maybe we should look again at the traditional moral sources to learn how to change ourselves.