Always in times past, cultural belonging has meant having at one’s disposal a set of generally clear moral rules. Culture has served like a parent—telling us what is right and what is not. Suddenly things are not so clear. Moral reality is changing, and not just the rules themselves, but our relationship to them.
Certainly we face moral quandaries that we’ve not before encountered — for example, those presented by new reproductive technologies and other forms of genetic manipulation.
But the changes are deeper than just new questions. The immense diversity of our increasingly pluralistic world means that few beliefs go unchallenged for long. And more fundamentally, culture is simply beginning to surrendering its past parental status.
Moral dictates have served important purposes. They’ve helped coordinate social behavior—kept us generally on the same page. They’ve offered a shorthand for what tends to work and what not. And they’ve provided a sense of order in an often complex and uncertain world.
What do the changes we see mean? Many view them darkly—as evidence of moral decay, as a sign that we humans have gone astray. They advocate a return to the clear dictates of old. But, by all evidence, there is no return.
Others offer an opposite equally partial interpretation. They hail these changes as liberation from cultural constraint. Here lies an equal danger. A “do your own thing” social ethic in the end simply begs the moral dimension. It provides no real guidance at all.
Many of our best thinkers have argued that the solution lies in identifying universal moral principles—values that transcend time and place, like the golden rule. But even that is at best a start. In a pluralistic world, people with different ethnicities, genders, and personality styles tend to want very different things “done unto them.”
Again our times challenge us to an important kind of growing up—here as moral beings. This means accepting, both personally and culturally, not just greater moral responsibility, but a whole new level and kind of moral responsibility. Our task increasingly is more than just understanding the rules. In an important new sense it is to write them. And it means bringing to bear greater sophistication how we frame moral decisions—learning to weigh an increasing complexity of often contradictory concerns and accepting that even when we do so successfully, we can never know for sure that we are right.
Our times demand that we set aside our moral training wheels—address moral concerns with a subtlety and sensitivity not before needed, or really, I would argue within our capability.