The word decent completes the above statement generally. Whatever religious, social, financial or political school of thought you may subscribe to, the inherent goodness of people is often stated and expressed faith in. One can immediately see the advantages of the verbal reaffirmation in this belief by multitudes, it sets the general expectation of society for doing good. The mere presence of rules, laws and regulatory bodies suggests a lack of confidence in the average human’s morality. Or these bodies aim to make the repercussions of seemingly immoral deeds so severe that being good becomes a survival instinct thus making our initial statement come true. Whether or not people are naturally moral is perhaps a different debate, what I seek is another answer to a question which sets the basis of the statement. Can people by themselves, tell the difference between good and bad for them to be able to decide what to do? People may or may not be fundamentally decent, but how do they know what decency is?

The question above as you can make out is concerned with what is morality? The answer although provided by constitutions, legal texts and religious doctrines is always a function of the person answering it. There is no absolute right or wrong but a general societal definition of the extremes of good and bad. What is perhaps more important is the legal definition of good and bad which is one which can be executed in response to your actions. While deviation from the theist code of conduct might at most result in your being ostracized, or the threat of eternal damnation, breaking the law due to a difference between your personal sense and the legal difference of, morality can lead to more serious and immediate consequences. Now although these bodies define the broad sense of good and bad and in a democracy reflect with a latency period, the general moral zeitgeist, there are questions which are not even touched by this system. Look at any of the differentiation policies we humans adopt, regionalism, communal-ism, caste-ism, racism, gender and orientation biases. Some of these have been legislated against but there are subtle things against which you can’t prosecute. Especially in a country like mine(India) there is rampant stirring up of trouble in the name of religion and region of origin. While hate speech may be prosecuted against, the number of cases that make it through are relatively few. So it comes to the individual morality of citizens as to how they face these daily questions of what is good and what is not?

Calvin and Hobbes

If you see a person of Arabic origin at an airport being unduly harassed by airport authorities, do you express disapproval, nod in approval or show indifference. A simple enough situation where your actions might have no bearing or impact on the circumstance of the individual. Yet the mere way you think of the situation defines your morality. By acceptable norms today the good thing would be to express disapproval and let the authorities know of your opinion. Here there might be a conflict of reason as your own involvement might cause further complications, you also run the risk of actually encountering a potential terror scenario. The morally indecent thing to do would be to encourage the officers and belittle a presumed innocent passenger by implying a link to a terror group. While the former might be in defiance of conventional morality it might be in keeping with that of your friends and family. Does that make it right? If everyone in the airport security queue approves of the actions of the security officers, does your silence or approval gain validation? These questions may lead you to choosing between two types of morality : one that is time independent, circumstance neutral and absolute. The other that is a function of the times and situations in which we live. The second approach of course sounds more natural and acceptable due to its apparent ambiguity. We might not know what is right or wrong but we do know that the distinction must be ill defined and not discrete. First lets look at the absolute morality. The basic flaw in this is of course that there is no era in which anyone can be considered completely moral; for with new ages come new technologies, cultures and societies which present their own problems. These situations and junctures at which one faces these odd choices are unique and thus the nature of the choice you make unclassified. For example, the Romans indulged in gratuitous sex in the forms of the famed orgies, while later generations would judge them for these actions, the lack of sexual inhibition of these and of the Ancient Greeks was possibly seen as a sign of maturity where bodily lust was a well recognized need. One which you did not have to be ashamed of. So from the point of view of an ancient the life of a married philanderer who kept not only exotic girls but young male proteges, his satiating a natural appetite and its public recognition would have had nothing wrong associated with it. But perhaps from the point of view of a church goer at the height of the Holy Roman empire this Paganism would be a deed equally lacking in morality as murder or incest.

The UA Rating Orgy from Asterix in Switzerland. It takes a few years to get the true purpose of the whip and the girls with Green faces.
The AU Rating Orgy from Asterix in Switzerland. It takes a few years to get the true purpose of the whip and the girls with Green faces.

As society and the life that surrounds us is perhaps the only true barometer of right and wrong. What lengths can you go to without disturbing the apple cart, the way of life? That extent on both ends of the spectrum defines the range of moral behavior. Thus what is moral today may not be so tomorrow. So when you say that people are morally decent what we mean is that as per the current definition these people stay away from the extremes. What that means is that you could for any given time, draw a normally distributed bell curve with the majority of the population remaining in the center and the extremes being held by certain select individuals. The range of decency could be defined as a period around the central line with a time variable standard deviation. An optimist might argue that there are more people extremely morally abhorent than those who are extremely moral. This would leave the negative side more elevated than the positive and the distribution no longer being uniform. The origin of this curve would plot the mean morality of a population. ( This may lead you to believe that there is an absolution in play but by mean I mean that the positive and negative become relative to this point).

A standard depiction of the Normal Distribution. Here we see the
A standard depiction of the Normal Distribution. Here we see the bell splaying out when the standard deviation is greater. This makes sense as the highest moral peak shall not be very far from the rest of the population. Also the varying values of the mean suggest the shifting of the curve from the origin. So, if the Y axis is Fraction of the Population and the X, relative Morality then a shifted graph might indicate the Morality graph for another time/place. While there might not be extreme definable moral absolutes one could at least agree to such curves being exponential if not entirely normal.

Consider the mean moralities as O1, O2, O3….On for the last ‘n’ years. While these may not have direct numerical representations one could argue that they are comparable. As we aren’t talking about numbers but the fractions of population you could ideally plot all the moralities across ages on a single graph like the one above. The offset from the Y axis is the only thing that would vary. While we say things like “Earlier, teenagers had more respect for their elders, they were more moral, they had better values” is society truly in a moral decline? Today there is a clearer understanding of wrong and right than ever before. If you think only scientifically, there is more sample data by the virtue of more time having been spent to get to now than 100 years back. So there has been the recording of more circumstances, more scenarios and more ethical quandaries. More time having been spent in the evaluation of the results of actions taken in moments of conscience driven decisiveness, we should now know what is closer to the right thing. Its the kind of evolutionary self corrective morality perpetuated by the understanding that evolution shall correct behaviors in deviation of natural law. So what survives ultimately is natural and thus has to be moral. Whether it be cannibalism, murder, adultery or even petty theft, these disturb the balance of society and thus reducing the chances of life propagation. Thus social evolution shall identify these as evils and try to reduce their occurrence.

By : This is funny if somewhat thought out Ten Commandments based way of Morality computation of the American Populous. The basis is dubious but the intent understandable.
By : This is funny if somewhat thought out Ten Commandments based way of Morality computation of the American Populous. The basis is dubious but the intent understandable.

So how do we compare these generational moralities? Do we have quantifiable means? Perhaps in the number of incarcerations/capita, crimes reported/capita, charitable donations/capita or wars fought? Each of these and many more suffer from the problem of multiple influencers. Crime might be reported less if the society was more tolerant, the justice system was weak or there weren’t enough people to do the policing. Either of this might not have anything to do with the moral zeitgeist. Can knowledge and the general banishment of ignorance imply an increase in moral values? Surely slavery was abandoned not because those who enslaved began loosing control and the threat of potential violence and impending social as well as financial meltdown became real. It must have been due to good citizens and multitudes of them recognizing that the ways of the past were wrong and that human morality had to rise beyond the very animal one of survival of the millitarily and fiscally fittest? In fact there is no such surety in these statements. Whether it be Civil Rights or any other such cause where what was considered normal became in a span of less than a few decades, appalling and repugnant, the shift took place with the understanding that not doing so would lead to a non progressive existence. I find it not difficult to conclude thus that the moral state of a society unlike what Noah and his ark full of creatures would have you believe, has been in a steady state of increase. As the recognition of previously acceptable norms as unacceptable today, is considered, Oi <= Oi+1 . The slope of this non decreasing function(against time) may have a few kinks in it but must be relatively positive. While wars, rebellions and religious events may introduce sharp changes in moral grounds these are themselves culminations of an ever increasing morality. Since we are looking at average morality and not what is perceived as moral in a day and age ( which is undoubtedly ever increasing) we can expect a few slumps too. This is because under trying times there can be the abandonment of senses by men and indulging in uncharacteristic acts.( eg. the Holocaust)

log(x+1) vs x^-2 which would not be a good choice the slope is sharper.
log(x+1) vs x^0.5 which would not be a good choice the slope is sharper.

From what I state in the previous paragraph the possible plot of mean relative morality vs time could be drawn as the function log(x+1){The +1 is to make it pass the origin}. The plot will thus initiate from 0 going to an age of moral maturity. The sudden rise from zero upwards is not strange as initial humans or our predecessors were primal, emotions would have developed with social living and experiencing, pain, life, death and other things. What is strange is the expectation that morality shall saturate at a certain age and go no further. The question of treatment of robots might present itself a few hundred years down the life. What if we do find Aliens a thousand years from now? Will our attitude towards them not determine how good or bad we are? What about circumstances which we are not yet capable of thinking. Dimensions which are not yet explored so ethics of today can’t be applied to them? Well the good thing is that the log graph is ever increasing, the rate of increase reduces drastically with the increase in x, in this case time. Yes technology will expand and we will learn new things but are the basics of human existence going to change so much that there will be spikes in moral value? So the Oi could be taken as a log(Ti+1). What is Oi but the mean on the Normal Distribution Graph? So on a single Graph you could potentially plot all the distributions of Ethical Behavior with varying SDs and Means which are Functions of their time away from now(the current moment).

So that was my rant about Morality and how it so difficult to identify, define and yet easy to judge. Knowing the right thing to do has always been important, why no body knows, most probably for survival if not post survival reasons. A Neuroscience study of the moral questions we face might throw new light on this discussion but one thing remains a constant to me :

You can’t consider yourself moral unless you know what being good is and even then your morality is a function of your environment.


While I reached the conclusion of Normal Distribution by myself, surprisingly I find it validated by :

The Palgrave Handbook of Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity: Formulating a Field of Study

Psychology of Applied Sustainability: Exploring the Limits of Human Adaptive Capacity

Policy Diffusion Dynamics in America


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