BARRETT: Redefining our morals



Tom Barrett

Early on in high school – as I was entering those years when I’d be forced to face some potentially pressing moral issues – my dad had a little talk with me. He told me that in any situation I encountered, whether it be studying and doing well in school or whether it was drinking and smoking, that I should think of whatever he would do in that situation as a teenager and then I should immediately do the opposite. Of course, he was kidding (to a certain extent), but like any son listening to his father, I took his words to heart on some level. I was certain I had a firm grip on what was right and what was wrong.

A sheltered kid growing up, I didn’t have much exposure to so-called “vices” like drinking, sex and drugs, but as I strayed farther from the nest of my childhood, I inevitably found myself face-to-face with such issues. At first, my logic was simple. Here’s a little sample. I thought drinking was bad, so it seemed that anyone who drank was also bad. But then I started finding out that people who I thought were good people were, in fact, drinkers. I was baffled: How could my initial judgment of these people have been so off. Then, an atom bomb dropped and completely devastated my na’ve sense of morality: Some of my friends started drinking. How could the people I was closest to – those people who I deemed good enough to be at the core of my life – sink down to such a level? My only conclusion: Maybe I was wrong for thinking this way.

I eventually realized how silly and small-minded my outlook was. But the point of my story is that it was only after I was forced to confront “immoral” behavior in my close friends that I began to see there were plenty shades of gray in between the black and white sides I pitted against each other in my head. And the more I started questioning what was really right and wrong, the more I found that these seemingly simple questions had some elusive answers.

As human beings, we like things simple. We like things clear-cut and direct. We look for our decisions to be two-sided: Republican or Democrat, right or wrong, hero or villain, etc. The problem is that we try to extend this thinking to the idea of morality and, in reality, most moral dilemmas have so much going on beneath the surface that a simple “good or bad” answer just won’t cut it. As I discovered through my experience with my friends and their drinking, drinking itself is not a bad thing. It’s just a thing people do. It’s only when people do it in a certain way that makes it wrong.

Too many of us have grown up like me, believing in this eternal list of right and wrong that has been passed down from generation to generation. By blindly following anything we’ve been told is right and wrong, we run the risk of making foolish assumptions like I did in high school. I’m not saying that we should just disregard everything we’ve been taught about right and wrong and believe whatever we want. Rather, we must be critical of our morality. We must question ourselves and ask, “Why do I believe this?”

We’ll discover that some things we have been taught for very good reasons, while we probably shouldn’t believe some other things. It’s a more difficult road to walk, but taking this path will ultimately lead to finding what morals in which we really believe.

Our beliefs lead to our actions, our actions become our habits and our habits make us who we are. The only question that remains is, what kind of people do we want to be?


Tom Barrett is a senior philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].