Why do we have morality?
Because the world is complicated.
Morality is nothing more nor less than a guide to navigating the complexity of the world. It’s a map.
If it’s a good map, it’s reasonably accurate. But it is also approximate. That’s the whole point of a map. If it includes every detail, we’re looking at the full complexity of the world on a sheet of paper. That is no improvement over the world itself.
A morality might say, “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s a good direction for setting our life-compass. We’ll point it toward “not-killing” and walk in that direction.
But the complexity of the real world throws up a lot of rough terrain on that journey. What about mosquitos and biting flies? What about chickens and pigs and fish? What about our ancient tribal enemies? What about the people our governments tell us are enemies of the state, or criminals who have earned the death penalty? Should a teen-aged girl who has just been jilted by her boyfriend be prevented from killing herself in a fit of depression? What about an old woman in the excruciating terminal months of bone cancer? What about the person who chooses to leap into a raging river to save a child and drowns along with the child?
The world is complicated. Morality is at best a simplified, approximate map. But morality is seldom at its best.
Sometimes morality is dated. The complicated world has opened new sinkholes, thrust up new mountain ranges. The old map will drop us into a bottomless pit, or set us on a journey over impassable heights. The map no longer guides: it misguides.
Sometimes morality is oversimplified. It paints the world in cartoon colors and shapes that have no bearing on the complicated world it is supposed to guide us through. Instead, it provides a distorted picture that only confuses us.
Sometimes morality is just plain wrong. Like the maps to the El Dorado treasure that circulated through the Old West, crudely drawn and sold for the price of a few whiskeys at the local saloon, morality can be nothing more than a false tool of politics, crafted in smoke-filled back rooms by people who are far from moral in any sense of the word. They fill their maps with fictional perils and imaginary paradises. Such a morality is intended to manipulate us to their gain, at our expense.
It’s an election year between two dying political parties in a decaying republic. Moral posturing is rampant, and none of this morality is at its best: much of it was concocted in smoke-filled back rooms solely to win elections; the rest is cartoonish and hopelessly out of date.
What remains valid about the moralities being peddled — perhaps the only thing that remains valid in this smoky saloon filled with political and religious prostitutes hawking moralities stained with cheap whiskey — are the cardinal directions noted on every map. To the east, it says: Love God. To the west, it says: Love Your Neighbor. To the north, it says: Speak Truth. To the south, it says: Act With Compassion.
But even more important than these cardinal directions is this: to remember that morality is a simplified map of a complicated world.
We live in a complicated world. Not in a map.