Changing Values With the Passing of History
“A SYSTEM of rules that a man follows (or ought to follow) in his personal life and his social life.” That is how the French Encyclopædia Universalis defines the word “morals.”
This definition really applies to everyone. It includes the believer who follows the principles of his religion and also the person who does not adhere to any ethical system or religion but has certain principles that guide his life. Even the anarchist, who claims that he has “neither God nor master,” has chosen his values, if only the right to make his own decisions.
But what is the basis for these values? Upon what are such moral choices founded? Do they change with time?
Various Values in the Past
“Spartan” is a word used in many languages to describe lack of comfort. The term refers to the harsh conditions under which young citizens from the ancient Greek city of Sparta were educated. Separated from their parents from early childhood, they had to learn implicit obedience. The purpose of this education was to make them model soldiers.
Other peoples followed different values. For instance, ancient Israel had the code of laws given to Moses by God. Those laws included dietary, physical, moral, and spiritual restrictions. The Israelites were to worship Jehovah God and him alone.
Regarding sexual morality, the Mosaic Law severely condemned fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality. The purpose of this was to separate the Israelites from their neighbors, not only religiously but also morally. This was because many of the peoples around Israel practiced debased, damaging sex worship, including male and female temple prostitution. Some even offered up their own children as sacrifices to their false gods.
In the first century C.E., a decree by the council of Christian apostles and elders in Jerusalem instructed Christians to follow basically the same sexual morality as the Jews, telling them to ‘abstain from fornication.’ According to Vigouroux’s Dictionnaire de la Bible, this instruction was extremely valuable, as fornication was a common practice among the pagans at that time.—Acts 15:29.
The diversity of moral standards persisted throughout history, with alternating periods of tolerance and of stricter ethical rules. Homosexuality, vigorously condemned in the Middle Ages, was more or less tolerated during the Renaissance in Europe. In Switzerland, when Calvin settled in Geneva during the Reformation, he inaugurated a period of uncompromising moral rigor. On the other hand, some 200 years later, the French Revolution legalized the formerly rejected values. It came out in support of a new “moral freedom” and made it easier to obtain a divorce.
Today’s Differing Moral Values
Today, even within the same society, people have different moral standards. There are those who advocate strict moral rules, while others advocate moral “freedom.”
Moral codes have changed quickly. “For most French people, adultery has a precise meaning. It is negative and is contrary to good morals,” says the French book Francoscopie. However, the same source notes that for many others “marital unfaithfulness is no longer viewed as an escape but as a right, a right that should not call into question the affection a couple may have for each other, but, on the contrary, it should even enrich and strengthen it.”
Abortion is another area in which ethical values have changed rapidly. While abortion is still a crime in some countries, it is tolerated—even demanded—in others. It is interesting to note that the French Medical Association considered abortion to be a crime until it was legalized in 1974. Today, many French people consider it morally acceptable.
Yet, on what are such morals based? Should our moral values be merely relative and change according to circumstances?
Man Has Established His Own Moral Values
Down through the centuries, philosophers have proposed many ideas to try to answer such questions. Some have proposed a ‘universal code of morals’ but cannot agree on whose definition of morals should be the standard.
Others have felt that concern for one’s fellowman should guide one’s conduct. But what one person considers proper concern for others may not be viewed that way by someone else. As an example, for centuries many slave owners considered it proper concern to feed and house their slaves, but the slaves felt that proper concern should result in their being freed from slavery.
There is no doubt that the wide variety of often conflicting views that philosophers have had regarding moral values has confused many people. Their ideas have not produced any common standard of morality, nor has their philosophizing led the human family to peace and unity. If anything, their many and conflicting ideas have led an increasing number of people to conclude that a person’s own personal standard of morality is as good as that of the “experts.”
That is why many today have adopted the viewpoint of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who felt that man ought to be his own judge as to moral issues. This way of thinking has even been adopted by many churchgoers. Catholic authorities, for example, are worried because many Catholics no longer follow church teachings on sexual matters and use contraceptives condemned by the church.
The lesson of history is that various moral codes have been established by humans, but in time such codes have been called into question, changed, or forgotten. However, the Bible principles mentioned earlier in this article are not subject to the whims of philosophers or changing societies. Of what value are such Bible principles today? Is it possible to follow them?
[Blurb on page 7]
“MARITAL UNFAITHFULNESS IS NO LONGER VIEWED AS AN ESCAPE BUT AS A RIGHT”