Seeing the Gray: The Legislation of Morality

By: Christine Gaba, Staff Writer

In an effort to explain why the playwright, Sophocles, ended “Oedipus Rex” with the guilty Oedipus having to leave his kingdom of Thebes, English Professor Lee A. Jacobus provided a provocative statement about ancient Grecian thought on government:

“The belief that the moral health of the ruler directly affected the security of the polis [city-state] was widespread in Athenian Greece. Indeed, the Athenians regarded their state as fragile — like a human being whose health, physical and moral, could change suddenly. Because the Greeks were concerned for the well-being of their state, the polis often figures in the tragedies.”

It was centuries ago when the ancient Greeks created the democratic legislation system that has had so much influence in the conception of our own government. Yet, both American society and the ancient Greeks seemed to have developed on their own similar ideas about the purpose of laws in a society — if the state is going to last, its laws should show the society’s sense of objective morality and, like in “Oedipus Rex,” take measures to enforce this morality upon anyone who challenges them. However, if not careful of how we form our notions of morality and law, we could allow our own biases to taint our policies and wind up with a monopoly of crooked thought in our government.

People’s ideas of objective right and wrong can be seen clashing everywhere. In the recent presidential election, thousands of people from all across the country showed their concern for their future government by marching through the streets or at their respective political rallies to support the laws and rights they want given priority. Whether it dealt with the support or denouncement of immigration policies, civil rights for LGBT members or which candidate should to hold office, many people did everything within their power to announce to the world how what they supported was right and what their opponents supported was wrong. The clash of objective ideals can also be observed on Ithaca College’s campus, most recently with the faculty union protests, where we see our professors rise up against an administration system that they believe has been unfair to them.

When I say “objective morality,” I’m referring to ethical standards that our society believes are universal, not relative to time and place, such as believing we shouldn’t murder or steal from one another. For example, many crimes are illegal because they cause physical and emotional damage to victims, leaving behind feelings of vulnerability, therefore hindering societal progress.

It is also important to attach some form of punishment to these crimes. The punishment not only discourages people from committing them, but also reinforces our idea of objectivity for our laws by acting as a form of redemption for the perpetrator. Every time a crime like murder or theft occurs, there is a cost for society. Whether the damage is monetary or emotional, it goes against our standards of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. By being punished, the perpetrator pays the cost back to society for their crime, getting cleansed of their debt while also satisfying our society’s need to see what they believe as right and wrong supported by the government.

In “Oedipus Rex,” one of the crimes that Oedipus commits that forces him to leave Thebes is the murder of the original king, Laios. Oedipus takes over as king, and his reign is fruitful for Thebes until a terrible plague is sent upon it by the gods. The people of Thebes discover that the only way to lift it is to obey ancient Greek custom and law and exile Laios’ murderer.

Once the truth comes to light that he is the one who committed the crime, Oedipus, despite being a powerful member of his government, follows his society’s laws, gouging out his own eyes before exiling himself. Despite all the good that Oedipus had done, he still committed a crime that could not go unpunished. Thebes would not be in good health until he was reprimanded according to the regulations of his government, a harsh lesson about the necessity of law, order and morality.

However, laws are subject to bias. Whatever lawmakers think is objectively right plays a part in the laws they agree to pass and have govern our society. In the Oedipus story, the king should not have had to gouge his eyes out before leaving Thebes — there is no practical or productive reason for it. He did it because, out of all things, he was compelled by his own beliefs for what he believed was right and wrong. He believed that it was right for him to lose his sight, because of his crimes. In fact, it was Oedipus who, at the beginning of the play, created the law that murderers had to gouge out their own eyes. It was a completely subjective law for Oedipus and his legislators to uphold, and we can still see essences of this kind of subjectivity in our laws today.

For example, we can see subjectivity coloring our opinions when we regard different political parties from our own. Many of us don’t know the particulars each party is fighting for, because they sound like they are against us and thus not worth further investigation, causing us to simplify each party’s goals and generate bias.

Recent research has sought to explain why we possess such different opinions on moral objectivity from each other. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham published the findings of their studies in 2007, “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize.” The intention was to see how a liberal’s objective morals differ from a conservative’s, and vice versa. The study shows that there are five psychological foundations that are used as the basis for morality for everyone: harm committed, fairness given, loyalty maintained, respect exhibited and sanctity preserved.

“As a first approximation, political liberals value virtues based on the first two foundations, while political conservatives value virtues based on all five,” Haidt and Graham wrote. “Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. For this reason, liberals often find it hard to understand why so many of their fellow citizens do not rally around the cause of social justice, and why many Western nations have elected conservative governments in recent years.”

Hence why we often see liberals and conservatives at an impasse on certain laws and rights. They think differently from each other, and have developed their own codes for what they believe is right and wrong. However, because subjectivity gets mixed in, it becomes essential for each side to paint the other as the villain, since they want their morals to be given more attention than the other side.

This amplifies the idea of one side having moral superiority over the other, setting each political party on their own island with few paddles to try to cross and understand where the other side is coming from. It makes you wonder why we bother with thinking of morality as objective, if it just winds up creating more problems for us.

But here’s the problem with attempting to completely separate law from objective morality: it’s impossible. Every law ever created was founded on the bedrock of objective morality, because someone thought it was right to have this law and wrong not to, and then fought to make it happen. Every right, every protection, every rule we have toward governing our society’s behavior and thought was never guaranteed. They were conjured in the human mind and then brought into existence.

Neither political affiliation can claim to be the morally superior. They can claim to be more progressive or more conservative, but not to have the higher ground on anything. The world isn’t in black and white, and neither are morals. We can’t allow ourselves to see the gray. We have to remain open to everything and everyone, even if we don’t agree with it.


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