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Can An Individual Be Immoral?

February 21, 2013

Can An Individual Be Immoral?

(Edited from an article previously published by the author in the context of a discussion on moral relativity)

If all morality is relative and the individual is the arbitrator of his own morality than it must follow that the individual cannot ever commit an immoral act under a system of his own creation.  The obvious counter argument to this claim is to point to those times when individuals commit acts which have previously been categorized as being immoral using the criteria of their personal system of morality.  I believe the counter argument to be without merit and the rest of this article is devoted to explaining  the basis for my position.

The system within which this individual is operating is essentially one of moral relativity.  The question of whether or not a specific action is moral or immoral is left to the individual.  The individual compares the contemplated action to the do’s and don’t of his personal system of morality.  This personal system is the sum total of various beliefs and values which he now uses as the criteria on which he makes his decisions.  This describes, in my view, the system that many claim to be operating  under in these United States.  “What’s right for me may not be right for you”, or even more directly, “Everyone has the right to decide what is right and wrong for themselves”.

While it may be true that in practice we all live our lives according to the criteria of a personal value system, it is also true that one of the benefits of such a system is that we can never commit an immoral act.  It is because no one individual can be allowed to determine his own set of values that societies can often be seen as reacting harshly to those who suggest that they do.  The whole point of being a member of any society is to live in an environment where the members share certain values.  If a society is no longer seen as a place where these shared values are protected and nurtured than that society does not have long to live.

The reason for this is because morality is not an individual pursuit, but for it to exist it must involve two or more people.  The castaway on a deserted island can decide for himself what is “right” and what is “wrong”, if one can even use those terms under those conditions.  The individual who claims that a personal value system is superior to any other fails to realize that a personal system is really no system at all.

The reason a personal system fails is because the individual can do no wrong.  This includes those times when an individual apparently  breaks a rule of his own system of morality.  The reason he broke a particular rule is because he decided to carve himself out an exception which, interestingly, makes his system even more relative in the greater system of moral relativity. This exception may be specific to a particular set of circumstances, or it may be a blanket exception for all such acts, present or future, but either way it is a special dispensation which is given by the person and which may, or may not, be give to others.  The reason that we feel comfortable giving ourselves the exemption, while generally excluding others, is primarily due to a belief that we know ourselves and the situation better than anyone else and thus we are uniquely capable of distinguishing between the times such exceptions should be granted and when they should not.  As can be seen in the following paragraph, the way we avoid committing an ostensibly immoral act is to justify the act using a variety of excuses..

For example, it may be against our moral code to steal, and yet we may do so seemingly in conflict with the suggestion that no individual commits an immoral act under his own system of ethics.  Under further examination there is no conflict as by engaging in the act of stealing we have decided that the higher moral value, at the time, is to steal.  We may suggest the victim “owes it to us”, or we “need it more than the victim”, or the victim “stole it from us in the past”, or any number of other similar justifications by which we ourselves from the responsibility of following the previous, and possibly future, strictures of our own value system.  The very same thing is true when we claim that “I knew it was wrong when I did it”.  This does not support the claim that an immoral act was committed in conflict with the value system, rather it supports the claim that the person committing the act decided there was another higher value which caused him to ignore the first.  This is the beauty of a personal system of ethics, the exigencies of the time and place allows one to act accordingly.  In this way, we suggest to ourselves that we are “moral”, and I would further suggest that it is by examining this phenomenon that we realize no one ever commits an immoral act as defined by his own code of ethics.

The relevance of this conclusion, as suggested above, would seem to be obvious if we examine the relationship of the individual to the society of which he is a member.  If none of us can commit an immoral act, than the concept of morality itself is called into question. The problem inherent in living in a society without any moral compass would again seem to be quite obvious.  This would suggest that the final judgment of whether a particular action or behavior is moral cannot be left to the individual.  I return to the same conclusion which I reach each and every time I examine similar issues, society, not the individual, is the arbitrator of morality.

Thank you for your interest.

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