Morality as a Man-Made Thing

During the twentieth century, many college-educated Americans came to believe that morality is a purely social creation. Perhaps this is because they took a college course in cultural anthropology and were required to read one or two famous books from the cultural relativism school of anthropology – I mean, Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture or Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. These two books were once widely assigned to college undergraduates, especially in the period between the end of World War II and the first half of the 1960s.

Whether through reading these books or in some other way, students absorbed and carried into later life one of the central doctrines of the cultural relativism school, namely, that moral values and the rules of morality are purely the creations of society. The unspoken corollary of that positive doctrine is the negative doctrine that these values and rules do not have a metaphysical foundation: they are not created by God.

But if the rules of morality are mere social creations they can be modified when society decides that they need modification. Take, for instance, the rule against fornication. If that rule is God-made, it cannot be altered even if changing times suggest that it should be.

But if this rule is man-made, and if we live in an age in which the sexes are equal, in which a postponement of marriage till the late twenties is desirable in many ways, and in which effective contraceptives are readily available – if all this, then why shouldn’t society modify its rules and say that fornication is morally allowable? Why not indeed say that it is virtually mandatory, and that there is something morally defective in a young person who preserves his or her virginity beyond 18 or 19 or 20 years of age?

In the old days, fornication didn’t “work” very well. No wonder society banned it. But by the 1960s it “worked” just fine, at least when done by young persons who were not stupid or careless. And so sometime in the 1960s and early 1970s American society, thinking that the rule against fornication is a man-made rule, abolished it.

And if simple fornication were now allowable, a more steady kind of fornication – the cohabitation of unmarried young men and women – would be equally acceptable. And if fornication and unmarried cohabitation were morally acceptable, then abortion would have to be morally acceptable too. For contraception isn’t infallible, and young people in the heat of passion sometimes become careless.

04 Feb 1974, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA --- Associate Justice Harry Blackmun of the US Supreme Court said that the abortion decision he wrote a year ago, "will be regarded as one of the worst mistakes in the court's history or one of its greatest decisions, a turning point." But he said it was "a case the Court couldn't win, because the country is so evenly divided on the subject" and both sides feel so strongly about it. The usually reticent jurist made the remarks in an informal chat with newsmen at St. Paul Mechanic High School. The case he is speaking of is 1973 Roe vs.Wade, when he ruled for the Supreme Court that states may not ban abortions in the first six months of pregnancy. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Harry V. Blackmun, author of the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade

In other words, mistakes are bound to happen, unintended pregnancies are bound to occur. If we were to have a moral regime of sexual freedom, a moral regime in which fornication is not only allowable but encouraged, there would have to be a method of rectifying these inevitable mistakes.

Abortion would be that method. If abortion is morally and legally prohibited, we cannot have a regime of sexual freedom; for unmarried sexual intercourse will then become too risky a thing. Sexual freedom without the “safety net” of abortion would mean that young persons would have to run such risks as unwanted parenthood, undesired marriage, forced dropping-out from college, interruptions of career plans, and so on.

Of course, modification of the rules of morality in order to authorize abortion was a much bigger step than was the somewhat earlier modification of the rules in order to authorize fornication. For under the old rules, abortion had been considered far more shameful, far more wicked, than mere fornication.

Fornication had indeed been seen as very naughty, but abortion was seen as something akin to downright murder. Yet once society decided that fornication was just fine, it had no real choice but to say abortion is just fine too. Whoso says sexual freedom must also say abortion.

Some mental gymnastics were needed, and still are needed, to justify something that had hitherto been considered a kind of homicide. In the case of fornication you could say to yourself, “Fornication used to be wrong, but society has changed its mind.” It wasn’t so easy to justify abortion.

Many people, despite their general belief that the rules of morality are no more than man-made things, were not easily able to persuade themselves that the rule against abortion was no more than a man-made thing. But the gymnastics were done, and those who wished to believe that abortion is morally allowable usually succeeded in persuading themselves, and persuading one another, that it truly is morally allowable.

They were helped in this effort by the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling of the U. S. Supreme Court. The Court held (in a ruling that abounded in mental gymnastics) that the right to abortion is guaranteed by the Constitution. But since the Constitution is for Americans a virtually sacred document, and since the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are normally seen by Americans as God-given rights, many people construed the Roe decision as an assurance by the Supreme Court that abortion is not just legally right, but morally right as well. It accords with the will of God.

Having gone this far in modifying traditional rules of sexual morality, it was only logical that the old rule against homosexual sex should be modified too. If we are to have a regime of sexual freedom, why should gays and lesbians be excluded? And why shouldn’t they be allowed to marry?

Above I have given a few examples of what follows from the meta-ethical theory that the rules of morality are purely man-made things. Some people (liberals or progressives) are happy with these consequences; for they like sexual freedom. They don’t seem to realize, however, that this theory can be used to justify much more than sexual freedom – can be used to justify things they don’t like. Some day they, or their children, may have a very unpleasant awakening.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.