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Ellen Feig

Professor, Bergen Community College

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Based upon a discussion we are having in the Idea area, I wonder - how do you define morality and why? Where does your definition come from?

I have been working on curriculum for college students that incorporates literature and the notion of being a moral, ethical person; it is clear that I need to step back and first come up with a clearer definition of morality or ethics.

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    Jan 26 2013: Well, for me, being moral at any one moment might involve different principles, and I don't know if I can articulate them all. I would say it's important to be kind. I think it's important not to waste people's time. I think it's important to stay fresh, to say fresh things and come up with fresh ideas. Take risks. To not be emotionally violent.

    I guess I've cobbled together a morality from many sources--things I've read, people I've met, experiences I've had. I probably follow the 10 commandments except the ones about god since i'm an atheist. To some degree I really value feeling--one brings many influences to any one situation, and, using those influences and thinking about the current situation, one does what feels right.
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      Jan 26 2013: So I guess the reality is that morality has many definitions and they are contextual - personal, cultural and at times religious.
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        Jan 26 2013: Well, I don't know, Ellen. I think one difficulty is that people may share a general moral principle, but disagree on how to actualize it. For example, you and I may both agree it's important to be kind. A beggar may ask us for money. You may give him money, believing that that is kind because he may need it for food. I may not give him money believing that that is kind because he will only spend it on drugs and alcohol. I do believe, however, that in this scenario there is one action that is the kindest, but we might have to discuss the situation at great length before we could decide what is kindest. So maybe one is always refining one's morality, new situations may come up where different courses of action are possible, and one needs to keep thinking about them and discussing them with other people to decide what is most moral. We have to keep doing that with the issue of keeping people on life support, don't we, or the stem cell stuff. In the meantime, living in the real world, having to make fast decisions, I'm going to do what feels right.

        One thing I don't see mentioned much in studies of morality is courage. Do you agree? Why wouldn't courage be mentioned? It often takes courage to be moral, for instance to stand up for an unpopular position one believes is right.

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