Morality is both recognition of inherent right and wrong, and a measure of conformity to this recognition. Morality is therefore the basis of many laws.
In theory, morality can be either absolute or relative. In the former case, the fundamental principle of what is right and wrong does not and cannot change, whilst in the latter case, views of what is considered right and wrong can alter across time and/or cultures.
Absolute morality must be based on something external to human opinion. If morality is based on human opinion, and opinion changes, then the morality changes and it is not absolute.
Adherence to absolute morality can depend on the circumstances, without the moral principle itself being relative. A classic example is when a destitute man steals food to feed his hungry children. The act of stealing is still immoral, but is the lesser wrong compared to letting his children starve.
Absolute morality is sometimes conflated with natural law or the law of nature which is a theory that posits the existence of laws whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere.
Relative morality is ultimately based on human opinion, and is therefore subject to change over time, across cultures, or both. The following examples illustrate where opinions of rightness or wrongness of certain behaviors have varied:
- Slavery is an example of a practice that was once considered moral, with people using selected cultural and religious values to both attack and defend it. Over time, though, the idea that a human can be held in forced, involuntary servitude to another has come to be considered immoral.
- In some cultures or religions premarital intimacy is considered immoral, while in other societies it is acceptable.
- The practice of abortion is considered immoral and illegal in many nations, while allowed in others. Even in nations where the practice is illegal, the law often provides exceptions for cases of rape or saving the life of the mother.
- The degree to which a person can be clothed or unclothed before their state of dress is considered immoral varies across cultures.
Issues of Interpretation
There is often a debate over how some moral principles, like the commandment not to kill, can be considered an absolute moral value while acts such as killing in self-defense and capital punishment are condoned. The key to coming to terms with these apparent contradictions is in having a common definition or understanding of the underlying moral principle.
In the case of the biblical injunction "Thou shalt not kill", the common interpretation is that the intent of the principle is "You shall not kill an innocent person", hence modern translations have "You shall not murder". This is compatible with the principle of self-defense and allows for capital punishment while upholding the respect for life as an absolute moral value.
Morality and law
Morality provides the basis for many laws. Laws are passed by governments in order to provide justice for people who are wronged, or could be wronged if the law didn't prevent the wrong. For this to be the case, there must be a concept of what is right and wrong, i.e. morality.
Many examples could be quoted of actions being legal but considered to be morally wrong. An example is slavery, which has been legal in many societies at different times. However, in most of the world, slavery has been made illegal because it is considered morally wrong.