Can An Individual Be Immoral?
I would suggest that it is impossible for any individual to do wrong, as in commit an immoral act, under his own system of ethics. I understand, or at least assume, that there may be some readers who disagree with the premise, and thus I also understand the need for further explanation. I would suggest that all of us do what we think is “right”, meaning moral, at any given point in time. This would include those times when some might argue that we actually do knowingly and willingly commit immoral acts. How can I suggest that I understand we may commit immoral acts, while at the same time suggesting that one can never commit an act which is immoral under one’s own moral code? Those two positions would seem to be in contradiction with each other!
The reason that both may be true is that at the time of the commission of the “immoral” act, we have decided that the act in question is an “exception”. This exception may be specific to a particular set of circumstances, or it may be a blanket exception for all such acts, present or future, but either way we give ourselves a special dispensation which we may, or may not, believe should be made available to others. The reason that we feel comfortable giving ourselves the exemption, while excluding others, is primarily based on our intimate knowledge of ourselves and the belief that we are capable of distinguishing between the times such exceptions should be granted and when they should not.
In other words, it may be against our moral code to steal, and yet we may do so, seemingly in contradiction to what I have just posited. I would suggest this is not the case, as by engaging in the act of stealing we have decided that the higher moral value, at the time, is to steal. We may suggest the victim “owes it to us”, or we “need it more than the victim”, or the victim “stole it from us in the past”, or any number of other similar suggestions which are, in effect, an effort to exempt ourselves from the responsibility of following the previous, and possibly future, strictures of our own value system. In this way, we suggest to ourselves that we are “moral”, and I would further suggest that it is by examining this phenomenon that we realize no one ever commits an immoral act as defined by his own code of ethics.
The relevance of this conclusion would seem to be obvious if we examine the relationship of the individual to the society of which he is a member. If none of us can commit an immoral act, than the concept of morality itself is called into question. The problem inherent in living in a society without any moral compass would again seem to be quite obvious. This would suggest that the final judgment of whether a particular action or behavior is moral cannot be left to the individual. I return to the same conclusion which I reach each and every time I examine similar issues, society, not the individual, is the arbitrator of morality.
Thank you for your interest.
This was an excerpt from a longer piece in which I attempted to examine questions related to who, or what, is the final arbitrator of what is right and wrong.