Analysing General Paper Essay Topics: Morality and Values
n our previous articles, Zenith has covered other A Level General Paper topics (Fig 1.) of politics, media, environment, science and technology, and the arts. Today, we will be tackling a topic many students find challenging: morality and values. This topic is a particularly difficult one to meander, as morality and values are always subjective, i.e in the grey area. Being well informed and having a nuanced understanding of this topic will not only garner you an advantage over your peers but will definitely come in handy on any occasion your critical thinking skills are put to the test; these issues are increasingly being discussed online now too.
Fig 1. General Paper themes taken from the SEAB syllabus
What is morality?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, morality refers to “a set of personal or social standards for good or bad behaviour and character”. (Zenith’s Tip: When unsure of definitions of certain terms, look up reliable dictionaries, and use the definition to help you structure your arguments! Remember to note down the meanings of different words in a vocabulary bank when you’re revising too.) More often than not, the morals possessed by one are heavily influenced by the society and environment that they grew up in. The people we interact with also shape our understanding of various contemporary issues as well.
Societies play a key role in moulding their people. It can also be argued that morality is a social construct (ideas that exist due to the collective decision of the people), simply because no individual can be considered moral or immoral without a group of people in a society coming together to condemn or commend his actions. Morals are a system of beliefs, decided upon by the people. You can also argue that the people have no obligation to bend to the beliefs that society has placed upon them, but note that it is undeniable that prolonged exposure tends to have an indoctrinating effect. Take, for example, the notion that abortion is wrong and immoral. Some believe that since the fetus has a heartbeat, killing it would be akin to murder. Donald Marquis’s compelling thesis argues: Just like how murder is inherently evil because the future of the victim is being ripped away from them, abortion is immoral because one is stripping away the fetus’s possible future. Some societies have even gone to the lengths of ruling abortion as illegal (see Texas). However, many also believe that because it is their body, women have the right to choose. It is not by choice that some women conceive, and when they do, not everyone is ready to become a mother. Pro-abortion supporters believe that the choice should be made by the woman herself, who will be shouldering a lifelong responsibility when the child is born.
The environment that one grew up in consists of the people around them, who also have an extremely important role in shaping their moral beliefs. Young children are often viewed as moral ‘blank slates’, innocent and naive, almost void of moral bearings. As they grow and mature, they view adult figures, especially parents, as their role models. Children often mirror the actions of their parents and adopt similar beliefs due to the “mere exposure effect”. This phenomenon is known as a psychological phenomenon where people develop a bias for ideas, people, and actions that are more familiar to them. Like the term suggests, exposure does breed familiarity. As children or youths are exposed to ideas on social media, school, or those that their friends have, they become familiar with said ideas. As a result, they will then be more inclined to lean towards these actions or a particular belief.
What are values?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, values are “the principles that help you to decide what is right and wrong, and how to act in various situations.” Similar to morality, values can also be influenced by society and people. However, values differ from morality in the sense that they are a set of beliefs that are more personal. While morals are a system of beliefs collectively decided on by the people and passed on to an individual in society, values are embedded within an individual, susceptible to his own decisions. Values can be good or bad. They are also usually inculcated, meaning that they are taught through repetition. As mentioned earlier, children are “blank slates”, and repeatedly seeing their parents or other influential adult figures behave in a certain manner will slowly cultivate certain values and beliefs within them. For example, if children see their parents being modest, accepting praise good-naturedly, and giving credit where it is due, they are more likely to mirror this in their everyday lives and learn the value of humility.
Importance of morality and values
Morals and values, coupled with beliefs, are crucial factors in determining one’s behavior and actions. This is why people tout the importance of having a “good moral compass”. A society with questionable morals and values may cause it to erupt into chaos.
“Micro” systems refer to small systems in societies like families and individuals. A lack of morals or values on a micro level will result in individuals committing acts like lying, stealing, murder, sexual assault, etc., which will undoubtedly wreck relationships and tear families apart, both for the victim and perpetrator.
“Meso” systems refer to medium systems like communities, organisations, political parties, etc. On this level, immorality leads to chaos in the community and threatens to thwart societal order. A good example would be racism in certain American communities. Racism is a long-standing, deep-rooted issue present in many communities, and it dates back to black slavery in America’s past. Over the years, there have been many race-related murders. One of them that has ignited a flame amongst people is the murder of George Floyd. The murder of Floyd by three white policemen sparked chaos within the community as many citizens rose to protest against such an immoral act. The protests only heightened when the policemen walked away scot-free. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was born from this incident.
“Macro” systems refer to large systems like the legal system of a nation, or leadership in the nation itself. When immorality and bad values are present in the leadership of the state, the state will undoubtedly be plunged into chaos because the leadership is corrupted and incompetent. Examples include Al Qaeda, a militant Islamist organisation founded by Osama Bin Laden. Its agents engaged in numerous terrorist attacks, for instance, the destruction of US embassies, suicide bomb attack against US warship Cole, and the infamous 9/11 attack, all of which caused widespread fear and disruption to the lives of civilians.
Universal code of ethics
Immanuel Kant was a German Philosopher that believed in a set of ethical rules in order to balance out the intellectual and basal nature of mankind. Kant believed that basic moral requirements retain their logic under all circumstances and thus have universal validity. Therefore, regardless of what people may think of these basic moral requirements, their content is universal.
Non aggression principle
A universal ethical principle includes the non-aggression principle. The non-aggression principle prohibits aggression or the initiation of force or violence against another individual. However, any act of aggression in response as a mechanism of self defense against a previous act does not necessarily violate universal ethics. When we refer to “aggression” here, we are referring to “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations” as defined by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution.
Universal immoral acts
Universally condemned acts that are inherently bad are known as “mala in se”, a Latin phrase meaning “wrong or evil in itself”. These acts violate moral standards set by society and are the core of criminal activity. Mala in se comprises of murder, rape, assault, and theft.
Examples of immoral acts
#1: The Holocaust, 1945
The leader of the German Nazi Regime, Adolf Hitler, believed that the Jews were an inferior race that would thwart the racial purity and community in Germany. Hence, under the cover of World War II, Hilter carried out “The Holocaust”, which was genocide of mainly jews, as well as those targeted for racial, political-ideological, and behavioral reasons. “The Holocaust” saw the death of around 6 million Jews and 5 million others in various concentration camps (Fig 2.). More than 1 million of those who perished were just children.
Fig 2. Nazi concentration camp in Poland
The Holocaust is one of the most well-known inhumane acts today, simply because of the unjustified murder and torture of millions, and as we have mentioned earlier, murder is one of the universally condemned immoral acts.
Discrimination occurs when one is treated as inferior because they have different qualities like their gender, race, or sexuality. Discrimination is not inherently evil, but it is considered wrong by many people as prejudice is unfair and oftentimes downright unjustified. Discrimination can manifest itself in many ways, but racism is one of the most common ways discrimination is performed in the world today. Racism occurs when an individual is being treated as less-than and is not offered the same opportunities simply as a result of their race. Covid-19 hate crimes against the Asian-American community have been rampant in the last 2 years. Crimes include elderly being pushed to the ground, young children beaten up out of the blue, and peaceful passersby being knifed by random assailants. Some recent attacks include 2 brutal New York City murders.
Christina Yuna Lee, 35: Christina was found dead in her Manhattan apartment after a man had allegedly stabbed her 40 times
Michelle Go, 40: Michelle was pushed onto the subway tracks in front of an oncoming train.
Sample questions + paragraph
“The death penalty is too heavy a punishment. Discuss.” (Adapted from ACJC Term Exams.)
As with all questions, let’s start with a question analysis.
Q: Absolute question
K: “death penalty”, “too heavy”, “punishment”
D: Whether the death penalty is too heavy a punishment or if it is not too heavy a punishment
Due to the basal, impulsive nature of humans, extremes like the death penalty are needed to maintain societal order. The death penalty is one of the heaviest punishments a criminal can face and is reserved only for capital crimes like murder. Murder is one of the four universally condemned acts, “mala in se”, and is considered inherently evil in all societies. When murder is rampant, the consequences of this vile act are high. Not only will the families of the victim and the perpetrator be affected, but society will run amok. If such a heavy crime like murder is allowed to run loose, criminals may be emboldened to commit other crimes of a relatively “lighter” weight, contributing to a detrimental spiral effect. Citizens will then live their everyday lives in fear, and societal order will fall through. Even though the death penalty is extreme, because the accused will not be given a second chance to amend his ways or make up for his mistakes, it is necessary to maintain a peaceful society. It is undeniable that the death sentence is an extremely effective deterrence against crimes like murder. This can be seen in the local context, where the homicide rate in Singapore is at a low of 0.2% per 100,000 people. Singapore is one of the few countries that practice the death penalty, and as shown, it is extremely effective in keeping the homicide rate low. Hence, to maintain societal order, the death penalty is not too serious a punishment.
Talking about contentious issues like the death penalty, or other moral issues can be very daunting, especially if it is your first time. This is why Zenith’s tutors are always ready to help! Our tutors are friendly and approachable, which is why our students never hesitate to speak up when in doubt or ask for help. We believe in a modern style of teaching and learning, where our students can clarify their doubts both offline during classes and online via 24/7 WhatsApp support. You can expect many fresh sets of succinct notes done up by our dedicated tutors who not only ensure that your notes are up-to-date with the latest syllabus and content but also ensure that all content is summarised to prevent any information overload. As proof of our effective teaching methods, 66% of our students score distinctions across all subjects.
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