Societies have many ways to instruct us in right versus wrong behavior. Not everything that is wrong is against the law. Laws are made against certain acts that are declared by a governing body to be wrongful behaviors. But laws don’t have to be agreed upon by all the people of a given society, so not everyone thinks those acts are wrong. Also, laws can become outdated, so that even things that most people agreed on at one time as wrongful behavior may no longer be viewed that way. This means that we should NOT assume that things that are legislated against are necessarily worse than things that are not legislated against. In modern democratic societies, the best reason for there to be a law about something is when the government has a compelling interest in regulating particular behaviors or protecting the members of society concerning the thing in question. What is ethical and what is legal are separate issues – related, but separate.
Societies also have customs – certain things that are done or not done in a particular way. These may be minor in importance, like the custom of not talking in an elevator, or they may be considered very important, like the taboo against cannibalism or incest.
Societies can reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. The rewards or punishments are called sanctions. If something is against the law, then the sanctions used can come from governmental sources, like the police and the courts. But even obeying or disobeying social customs that are not legislated can be rewarded or punished. The difference is that these positive or negative sanctions are enforced by everyone in society, not just government representatives.
The socialization process is the way that people internalize the values and styles of their society. We tend to believe things should be done a particular way simply because it’s the way we’ve been taught to do it. In fact, socialization is such an effective process that often we can’t even imagine that things could be done a different way or thought about a different way. The way we know is the way that feels natural to us, and we generally mistake that for meaning that it IS natural.
Knowledge & power
Our opinions tend to be things that we really haven’t investigated thoroughly. Most of the time, we simply accept the ideas that we’ve been socialized to believe. For example, people tend to vote Democrat or Republican mostly because the significant people in their lives vote that way – people like their parents, their friends, and other members of their social class. It’s much rarer that people actually think through individual issues and come to their own reasoned-out ideas. And even when we do think through the issues, we’re still influenced by the values that we’ve learned from whomever we think of as significant authority figures.
It’s important, therefore, that we consider the sources of knowledge that influence us. It’s not that these influences are necessarily wrong. It’s just important that we identify the different “voices” that affect our own thinking on the issues – and then to push that a step further and try to understand why THEY believe the things they do. For instance, is a particular leader of government or religion voicing a particular position JUST because it’s favorable to them remaining in power? Power issues are often at the heart of what we think of as “knowledge,” so before we accept the word of authority, we ought to ask what’s in it for them.