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Are Some Morals Universal or Are All Morals Culturally Defined?

Casey has a Ph.D. in Sociology and 15 years of experience in academia.


When studying philosophy, the issue of morals and whether or not we believe some morals are universal or culturally defined is fascinating to discuss. For me this is an interesting topic because in the field of sociology which is my major we have our own views about the topic of morality.

In philosophy you have two kinds of morals:

  • Absolute morals meaning there are some beliefs of right/wrong that are universal. Murder and similar "bad" behaviors are believed to be universally seen as immoral by cultures all over the world. People who believe in absolute morals think that some behaviors labeled as moral/immoral exist across all cultures.
  • Relative morals means that you believe morals are culturally defined. According to relative morality, there are no universal morals and that you can only understand morality by examining individual beliefs and cultures.

The Sociological Perspective

In the field of sociology we look at how socialization determines who we are as people. Morals are a reflection of socialization and the culture that we live within. We learn right/wrong from our parents, peers, teachers, government, workplaces, etc. According to sociologists, the philosophical perspective of "relative morality" would be a very similar view to how the field of sociology might view morals.

What we define as right or wrong can change. We can learn certain morals as children but those beliefs can change as we are exposed to new ideas throughout our lives. You can have many different morals within a culture. In one city you can have numerous cultures with each culture having their own beliefs of right/wrong.

People who have positions of power in society have the authority to create laws and influence the beliefs of their citizens which means they can define right/wrong. Authority figures can influence the creation of laws and punishments to enforce the right/wrong behaviors those in power have defined.

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Thinking About These Ideas More In Depth

Are some morals universal?

There are many who might view the topic of murder as being an absolute moral found in all cultures in the world. Most people would agree that killing another human being is bad but is there a universal agreement that it is immoral?

When you think about killing people there are socially acceptable forms of ending another person's life. In the United States, people are put to death for committing terrible crimes through the use of lethal injection or the electric chair. War and fighting for a cause is socially acceptable killing. In some societies cannibalism or ritual sacrifices to Gods is socially acceptable killing.

So if there are socially acceptable forms of ending peoples' lives does that mean murder isn't a universal moral?

From a sociological point of view I would say there are no universal morals. I would say that morals are defined by our social experiences and cultures.

Murder as defined by the society I live listed in our dictionary is "killing (someone) unlawfully and with premeditation."

A culture that practices ritual sacrifices of humans to honor their gods could be viewed by outside societies as committing acts of murder and violating morals. To those within the society, they may see the sacrificing of humans to the gods as a necessary practice to honor the wishes of supernatural entities who are believed to be in control of the fates of human life. To outside cultures, sacrificing people may be viewed as immoral and "evil" but to those within the culture sacrifices are a part of their religion.

To understand socially acceptable forms of killing you first have to examine the culture of the society. You have to look at religion, laws, politics, traditions, rituals, and individual beliefs. To fully understand why some forms of killing are labeled as moral/immoral you have to examine a wide variety of factors to understand right/wrong. You have to stop looking at the world through the lens of your own socialization and see the world through the eyes of someone else's culture.

Religious Perspectives Contain Absolutism

I can understand absolute morals from religious perspectives. Many religions regard their beliefs as the "right" or true path to follow in life and those beliefs shouldn't be broken. Many secular philosophies to life follow the belief of absolute morality and judge all humans on Earth by their belief systems views of right and wrong. Under the belief that a God created humanity and rules to abide by, some morals are viewed to be universally right and wrong.

The topic of morality is an interesting one because depending on your own beliefs and social experiences you may perceive morals differently. Some people tend to believe in absolute morals and some in relative morals.

So what do you think? Do you think some morals are universal or are all morals culturally defined?

© 2020 Casey White

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