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Our first president said that virtue of morality was a necessary spring of popular government. He said who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference on attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric [of society].

► Senate candidate Roy Moore in a September 2017 debate with Republican primary opponent Sen. Luther Strange

Well, yes. But what morality are we talking about here?

Are we talking about some of it or all of it?

After all, young George Washington was “a man on the make. He wanted to get rich. He bought, sold and traded slaves, raffling off some in a lottery and permanently dividing families. After arranging to marry the richest widow in Virginia, Martha Dandridge Custis, he wrote a series of passionate love letters to the wife of one of his best friends. And then there was his insatiable craving for land, which led him to cheat some of the men he had commanded in the French and Indian War out of acreage they had been offered as an incentive to join the fight. As biographer Ron Chernow put it, Washington ‘exhibited a naked, sometimes clumsy ambition.’”

Of course, he matured with time, but who’s perfect?

What’s really called for here is more specificity; in fact, that seems inherent. Like a number of words in this list, the problem isn’t that the word isn’t significant; the problem is that the real broad scope of the word has been cast aside, and redefined to include only a tiny piece of the original.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines morality as “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour” – which may be a reasonable enough definition, although it offers little guidance: What exactly is “right” and “wrong”?

The author C.S. Lewis took a stab at this, suggesting three components to morality: “(1) to ensure fair play and harmony between individuals; (2) to help make us good people in order to have a good society; and (3) to keep us in a good relationship with the power that created us.” That suggests what the purpose of morality might be, but still doesn’t help answer the question of what it is – the practical nature of the moral.

Because our code of ethics (ethical philosophy covers roughly the same territory as “morality”) eventually covers everything we do, including many or most of the choices we make in our lives, that becomes an awful lot of territory for us to cope with as a matter of public life. Inevitably, nearly all of us wind up paying more attention to some parts of this vast territory than to others, and those choices we make say as much (probably more) about us than about those who we would judge.

The Wikipedia entry on morality includes this useful paragraph:
“If morality is the answer to the question ‘how ought we to live’ at the individual level, politics can be seen as addressing the same question at the social level, though the political sphere raises additional problems and challenges. … Moral foundations theory (authored by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues) has been used to study the differences between liberals and conservatives, in this regard. Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tended to value care and fairness higher than loyalty, respect and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans valued care and fairness less and the remaining three values more. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Haidt also hypothesizes that the origin of this division in the United States can be traced to geo-historical factors, with conservatism strongest in closely knit, ethnically homogenous communities, in contrast to port-cities, where the cultural mix is greater, thus requiring more liberalism.”

In the book The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind, researchers Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban argued that morality is often based in selfishness: “we often perceive our own beliefs as fair and socially beneficial, while seeing opposing views as merely self-serving. But in fact most political views are governed by self-interest, even if we usually don’t realize it … we engage in unconscious rationalization to justify our political positions, portraying our own views as wise, benevolent, and principled while casting our opponents’ views as thoughtless and greedy.”

Or, when socially broader, morality can be used as a lever, an ideological tool to stop other people from doing what (we think) is harmful to them.

So what can we say of morality that people across our society can accept and understand in a common way? Not much, apparently. “Morality” has become a code word, with provisions that would be commonly understood only in split-off – and often in-conflict – elements of society. It’s a brickbat, not a standard of conduct. It will not mean more until people in America reach beyond it and come to come common agreements – which they seem not to do at present – about what actually is good and bad.

Our conceptions of morality, evidently, are flying apart, and some seemingly logical center is failing to hold.

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