Can I be both moral and liberal? Can you?

In my post on Monday, I wrote about teenagers and racial tensions.

I was nervous about this post for several reasons.

First, racial issues are touchy. As a white woman, I have a hard time writing and talking about race. I worry I always sound…lacking. But I think it’s important, even critical, to talk about race, so I push through my discomfort and do it anyway.  So I was grateful for the supportive comments.

Second, I used the word “moral.”  Here is what I said:

The teenagers’ actions in Jena, Louisiana typify how this deep passion and commitment can go terribly array if it is not respected and directed by a moral upbringing and by caring, present adults.

The word “moral” has some serious baggage to it these days. We tend to think of the conservative, religious right when we hear “moral.” So I feel the need to explain my use of the word, because I intend to claim it, own it, and use it.

I have recently been reading blogs and writings about adolescent sexuality written by those on the side of the conservative, religious right. I got started with Mrs. Y’s blog Stork! Stork!, which I like. I find Mrs. Y to be realistic, accepting, and loving in her approach to adolescent sexuality education. I have found many other blogs and writings which I don’t like because they are close-minded, anti-sexuality, and sexist.

What almost all of these blogs and writings from the right have in common is this word: moral. And I like it. I like the word. I like what it implies. And here is what I understand the word to mean:

moral–kind, appropriate, the correct distinction between right and wrong, truth, upright, honorable, goodness and correctness of behavior and action

These are all things that I think are good. And none of them directly pertain to the religious or political right any more than they do to the religious or political left. So help me define this word.

In the comments, provide examples of how morality applies to adolescents and to sexuality. What are your experiences with moral or immoral behavior? How do you help a child become a moral person? Or are children innately moral? I would love to see a discussion on this get going, because I think it’s one of the left’s downfalls that we don’t claim morality as an important value.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I agree that we need to take back the word “moral” in the sense of “kind and fair.” I don’t think children are innately moral, but I think they pick up morality pretty easily from being around it, the same way they don’t innately speak a language, but they pick it up easily from being around it.

    I think it’s immoral to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to. I also think it’s immoral to have sex without regard to the possible consequences of STD’s and pregnancy. But I don’t think premarital sex itself is inherently immoral.

  2. Personally I choose not to use the word “moral” because it has too many implications of religion and too much implications of “there’s a right and a wrong and no inbetween”. (I grew up with that kind of thinking and suffered under it. It took me years to reprogram myself that life is all shades of gray.)

    I prefer to use “ethical”, because it speaks more of treating others honestly and fairly and not screwing anyone else over (metaphorically).

    However, one word that I think the left needs to reclaim is “values”. We certainly do have values, good ones at that, and when asked why we vote the way we do, more of us need to claim “values” as the reason. My values were the reason I voted against Bush in the last election.

    When someone brings up “morality” with “adolescents” and “sexuality”, I end up feeling a feeling of repression and, yes, a bit of left over shame. I still haven’t quite shook that feeling that what I was doing back then was wrong, even though I know otherwise.

    Can adolescents act immorally in their sexual lives? Define “immoral” when it comes to sexuality. It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for myself for years now. Certainly they can be unethical… cheating on partners, dating multiple people and not letting everyone know this, etc. These are the same things adults can do. But immorally? Yes, teens can rape, teens can use coersion to get sex (and even there we have to figure out the difference between unethical and immoral), teens can mentally and verbally abuse. But I think most teens are stumbling through trying to figure out how it all works, and are too busy making possibly unintentionally (and some intentionally) unethical mistakes to really have the problem of immoral sex.

    But these are just my half-fleshed out thoughts at the current point in time. Ask me 3 months from now, and my opinions very well might be different.

  3. I think, to some extent, this is playing with words, but I looked up moral and ethical and my understanding of the dictionary difference is that ethics is more the ACT related to the morals, which is more the judgement between right and wrong. I don’t agree that is how they are always used. I DO believe that moral has a more religious right slant to it and ethical has more of a sectarian left slant to it. I agree with Dr Rayne – I want her to strongly reclaim the word moral without the religious right connotation to it. I have a very strong spiritual connection with my higher power (whom I do not choose to call God). When I am living in right action, I am behaving in a moral way, in alignment with what I find to be right. We must make these decisions for ourselves, there is a difference between right and wrong. There are generally small differences between good people and what they consider to be right and wrong and reasonable people have to allow each other to disagree about these small differences. But there are very large differences between absolute right and absolute wrong and to refuse to speak and state such a basic difference does exist, is wrong. I will disagree with the moral underpinings of many religious programs, I will agree with the moral underpinings of many religious programs. I think children grow up to be better people when they are raised by people who are striving to follow a moral compass that has a spiritual connection, even if I don’t agree with the direction the compass points. I don’t want the connotation of that spiritual compass to belong exclusively to the religious right.

  4. I think it is immoral for adults to withhold comprehensive sexuality education from young people; to make the determination that abstinence only sexuality education is sufficient to prepare young people for our complex and emotional sexual lives. I especially think it is immoral for that sexuality education to exclude the real possibility that a young person may identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender, and therefore keep those who do identify as GLBT in the closet.

  5. For me a moral is an unprovable axiom, while ethics are behavioral guidelines, often based on morals. I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. I can’t prove it, it’s just something I feel and believe. Because of that moral, I think that is is ethical to be honest – we should not lie. One could arrive at the same ethic from a different moral. A belief that it is immoral to disobey a commandment of God, and God has commanded us not to lie still results in an ethic that supports honesty. Maybe this is word games, as Dorian suggests, but that’s how I use them.

    And in day to day use I am far more sloppy. Unethical is bad and Immoral is really bad.

    All that said, I don’t see anything inherently immoral or unethical about teenagers being sexually active. It may not always be wise, but it’s not necessarily wrong.

    And I agree with Margaret the withholding potentially life saving information is fundamentally immoral.

  6. […] up to be all about knowing and teaching and learning right from wrong. That is to say, all about morality. What I have mentioned yet, though, that bears mentioning in this context, is how morality and […]

  7. […] our sexuality education has been downgraded to incorporating only the physiology? Why and when were morality and emotion taken out of the public discussion of sex? Regardless, I stand proudly with Rev. […]

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