Is there a “Universal Code of Morality”

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For many years, anthropologists and philosophers have tried to find a definition to the word ‘morality’ which can satisfy all different perceptions that are believed by different people all around the world. It was found that there are two ways to use the term ‘morality’: descriptively and normatively. Descriptively refers to ” a code of conduct put forwarded by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for his/her own behavior” (Gert, 1).

On the other hand, using the term ‘morality’ normatively refers to “a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would put forward all rational persons” (Gert 1). This definition means that there exists a universal code of morality, which can be applied to all people in all places and at all times. Among those who believe in the normative use of the word ‘morality’ is the French writer and satirist, Frani?? ois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, aka Voltaire. Voltaire believed “there is but one morality as there is but one geometry”.

However, one believes that a universal code for morality can barely exist. Moral codes cannot be distinguished from codes put by religion, cultural differences or political interests. Therefore, it will be very difficult to find a universal code that will unite all the ideas, beliefs and principles of all the groups or societies around the world. It is more realistic to believe that morality is based on the beliefs of a group or society, which disagrees with what Voltaire believes.

Many of the famous literary texts have evidence of the difference in morals whether between different characters, societies or generations. Some of these texts are “Antigone” by Sophocles, “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli and “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” by Ibn Tufayl. These texts prove that there are various different morals depending on religion, culture or individual relativism and therefore cannot be united to form a ‘Universal Code of Morality’. In ‘Antigone’, Sophocles displays two different moral perspectives, that of Antigone and the other of Creon.

After Creon’s decision to “graced one (Eteocles) with all the rites, / (and) disgraced the other (Polynices)” (Lines 27-28), Antigone decided to perform the burial rights for Polynices by herself. Antigone believed that a dead person’s soul would not rest if it was not buried and this was what the people believed at that time. She considered this belief to be one of the moral codes she uses in her life and she was willing to die in order to uphold them. Such a moral belief is dependent on religion and therefore, might not be believed by other people who have other religious beliefs.

Other groups or societies can also disapprove Antigone’s disobedience of a civil law, Civil Disobedience, in order to defend her moral beliefs. Some groups do believe that civil disobedience is morally incorrect such as the Nazis. The Nazis believed so because of their inhumane acts on the Jews in 1940’s and Adolf Hitler made it seem that if one person thought something was right that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right (Morals and Laws in Antigone).

On the other hand, one believes that Creon’s morals relied on his individual opinion of what is right and what is wrong, and his character and his political position at that time i. e. a king, in this context, of course will influence this. Creon’s position as a king forces him to disobey a religious or rather a divine rule, in order to maintain stability in the region and his people’s respect, even if it’s through scaring them. If Creon had not decided to bury Polynices, who is a traitor, then he might be encouraging other citizens to betray him.

This same code of punishing the traitor even if it was disobeying divine rules, made Creon take the decision to kill Antigone. Creon stuck by this decision because of his pride since he will not allow himself to be defeated by a women, “… While I’m alive, / no woman is going to lord it over me. ” (Lines 592-593). Therefore, it is clear that both Antigone and Creon had different views in the moral codes to which they abide to and this was dependent on religion, political status and personal opinion or interpretation.

The second literary text, Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, shows a very different set of moral codes, which serves the political interests of a prince. In “The Prince”, Machiavelli justifies the performance of immoral actions if they are necessary. For example, Machiavelli’s says that when taking over a principality, the prince only has to do two things, kill the previous prince and his whole family and do not change the current laws and taxes (Machiavelli, Ch 3).

Here, Machiavelli justifies killing people because if the prince “crushes” them, they cannot come back to take revenge (Machiavelli, Ch 3). Another immoral code that Machiavelli justifies a reason to use is forcing people to do what a prince want even if it is against their will. He gives the prince the authority to use force because it is easy to persuade people, however to keep them persuaded, the prince might need to use force. Of course, force here can take many forms such as killing, torturing, blackmailing etc. nd all these types of forces are immoral and should not be used against people to achieve certain personal interests.

In chapter 8, Machiavelli analyzes a strategy that could be used by a prince, which involves becoming a prince primarily by being a “wicked genius”. However, he believes that if the prince has no mercy, no religion and deceives his friends, this might be able to get him an empire but he will not have any glory. Here, even though Machiavelli does not encourage wickedness, he still shows that it is a way to win an empire.

In the same chapter, Machiavelli allows the prince to be cruel at one blow if this is necessary for his security. Chapter 15 shows some of the major secularities in Machiavelli’s morals. Machiavelli believes the following: a prince has to know how to do wrong and when to use it to his advantage, virtues that are just followed because they are virtues can cause the prince’s ruins, and vices must not always be avoided since they might bring security and prosperity.

These ‘morals’ disobey many of the morals set by some of the religions and are a good proof of how different Machiavelli thinks of what is moral and what is not. In the next chapters, Machiavelli encourages princes to be cunning because those who used to be cunning where always more successful that than those who were not (Ch 18). He also advices the prince to understand the nature of mankind so that he is able to deceive them better, and should always appear to have good qualities even if he does not have them (Ch 18).

By giving this advice, Machiavelli encourages princes to deceive their people in order to gain their trust and make full use of them for his own benefit. As can be seen from the evidence shown above, Machiavelli has established his own set of moral rules to satisfy a prince’s personal interest and help him succeed in governing his people. These morals are very different from the morals established by certain religions, for example, which shows how different people have different moral codes and therefore it will be difficult to unit them.

The final literary text is Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan”, which talks about how Hayy developed his own set of religiously dependent moral beliefs through his experience of living on an isolated island. During this experience, Hayy concluded that the universe is “one in spite of its multiple objects” (Ibn Tufayl). He moved on to consider whether it is created or eternal and even though he could not decide, he concluded that the universe must have a “cause” on which it is dependent on and that this cause is non-physical and above it in essence, even if not in time (Inati).

In order to move further in his deductions, Hayy imitated animals by ” experiencing sensations to preserve his animal soul” and he imitated heavenly bodies by doing things like circular movement, which provided him with continuous but impure vision (Ibn Tufayl). All the above deductions lead Hayy to conclude many of the morals that he lived upon and this was shown when Absal, a friend of a king, Salaman, of a neighboring island compared his beliefs with Hayy when he came to his island seeking solitude.

Absal observed the rituals of his religions but he was indulged into its inner truths, unlike the rest of his people. Absal’s religion was mainly dependent on symbols but no direct truths and Hayy could not understand why Absal’s religion resorted to symbols and permitted indulgence in material things (Ibn Tufayl). Therefore, he decided to visit Absal’s people to explain to them the pure truth. Even though he was shown respect at the beginning, as he started to go beyond their literal meaning of their “Scripture”, people started to avoid him.

Hayy understood then that such people are not able to grasp the direct truth which is beyond what their religion states, and that they need religion for their social stability and protection. After realizing that the attempt of making them see the pure truth might lead to their destabilization, Hayy and Absal returned back to their deserted island. It is the reactions of the people towards Hayy when he tried making them understand their religion and therefore their morals and values better, is the evidence that people will not accept any other interpretation of morality except their own.

Absal’s people established these rules through religion, and even though Hayy’s moral and beliefs were similar, yet they felt that he was trying to change what they have learnt and felt offended. Through these three literary texts, one sees how each text had a different interpretation of morality. In “Antigone”, the difference in morality was between Antigone and Creon where divine morals were competing against morals set by individual relativism.

In “The Prince”, Machiavelli created his own set of morals dependent on political and individual interests. In “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan”, morals were similar but were interpreted differently and this text shows how groups feel reluctant when someone tries to change their morality and beliefs. All these texts show the various kinds of morals, which will be difficult to unite, and if a universal code of morality was created, one believes it will not be able to satisfy everyone’s needs and it will not be followed.

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