Friday, September 13, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Moral Systems

Sorry this is so long, kid, but I just can't cover this material in a shorter way. Use what you like and ignore the rest.

Number one is broken up into three subdivisions. Subdivision A is moral relativism. This stance contends all morality is relative only to each individual. In other words, whatever an individual thinks is moral, IS moral. Basically, this stance asserts that there is no real way to judge morality except to judge whether an individual lives up to his own standards. This causes a number of problems. First, why are there so many moral issues every single human society agrees upon? These are issues such as murder, theft, the obligation to parents to care for their children, and many more. Second, this would mean that a man who believes it is good to torture, murder, and eat his neighbors is perfectly moral as long as he genuinely thinks that that these are appropriate actions. It doesn't matter that the rest of society condemns it. Even worse, any individual can tailor his moral opinions to match whatever he wants to do with the moment. Everything he does is moral because he says it is moral. Suggesting that this itself immoral, because he is really making up his moral view as he goes along, cannot be asserted under this stance. After all, his morality may well be, "whatever suits me at the moment."

The result is total chaos. The question even arises, is it possible to pass laws against doing anything at all? After all, if the act is not immoral why should there be a law against it?

Sub division B is moral skepticism. This is even worse. It states that if there are any morals we can't know them and there probably aren't any, anyway. It is an argument that is one of total hopelessness. It is hard to imagine how anyone can take a position which is so negative and completely surrender the value human reason and the capacity to make decisions.

Subdivision C is moral nihilism. It goes beyond moral skepticism in that it declares that there are, in fact, no morals. Unlike moral skepticism, it doesn't say that if there are any we can't know them. It says they simply don't exist. There are various schools of thought leading to this conclusion. Frankly, I consider all of them to be the kind of airy fairy nonsense which makes people despise philosophy.

Essentially both logic and reason are twisted and tortured as if on an intellectual Procrustean bed. By the very rigid standards of classic Greek logic, the conclusion seem to make sense. The problem is that the assumptions leading to those conclusions have been so distorted that those conclusions are clearly not valid. Because we don't have a lot of time or space let me just point out that the fact that there are universal moral standards which spread across all human cultures clearly indicates that there is something there. If there were not, different cultures would hold radically different moral opinions. Surely, sometime in human history, there would be a culture that would honor murderers and thieves, making them into leaders and rulers. Yes, I see the obvious joke. But the point is, it is a joke. Rules about what constitutes murder may vary from place to place, but the act is nevertheless despised and condemned by every human culture.

Number two is ethical relativism. This position holds that all moral standards must be judged within the context of the given culture or society which is being discussed. In other words, it is wrong for people to behave a certain way in America today, but it was acceptable for them to behave the same way in America a hundred years ago because the culture has changed and therefore so have moral standards. This argument is often made today in regard to slavery. Slavery is certainly wrong today, but it was considered to be normal and therefore was morally acceptable in America's past. This ignores the fact that thousands of years ago there were at least a few Greek philosophers who condemned the concept of slavery. It also ignores the fact that when the Spanish, before any Englishman ever set foot on the new continent, were busy enslaving Indians, there were at least a few friars who bitterly objected to the practice. The Catholic Church even held hearings on the issue. Rarely does a culture totally and completely accept any moral position. There are usually at least a few who criticize the accepted morals of the day. And that being so how can you say we must accept the morals of a given culture as if that culture were unanimous in its beliefs?

This creates several problems for those holding this position. Pressed on the subject, most of them would agree that slavery is, in fact, a bad thing. And they would not defend the horrors of slavery even in the context of the past. This means that must be some moral standard which they themselves accept as objective. An even more extreme case is the classic example of the ultimate evil, Nazi Germany. Who can say that it was in fact morally acceptable to do the horrible things done in the death camps because at the time it was considered to be moral by the dominant culture? This is an example of the kind of reasoning I consider appropriate to college sophomores. I'm well aware that many famous professors hold this position. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be a fine example of very clever reasoning which is clearly not applicable to the real world.

In fairness, I am willing to concede that what is accepted as moral or immoral does vary. But that does not mean that a culture or a member of a culture is exempt from being judged for offending against other moral standards. One more example. Consider the case of the British and sutee. When the British conquered India, they were horrified at some of the actions the Indians took, including the practice of burning a young wife to death if her often elderly husband died.

She was expected to throw herself on his funeral pyre . Of course, very few women were actually willing do this, so she was generally thrown on his funeral pyre. Since it was also acceptable by Indian custom for men to marry when older and women to be married off when quite young, many young women were killed in this manner. Is our moral relativist willing to say that the British were wrong in condemning the practice? Should they simply have allowed it to continue? Similarly, should we have refused to hold the Nurenberg trials condemning the captured Nazis? I think very few moral relativists would actually go so far. And that shows the moral bankruptcy of their own, again, admittedly rather clever, position.

Next is soft universalism. This might be regarded as a compromise position. On the other hand, sometimes compromise positions reflect reality. Soft universalism says that there are universal moral values but that they are expressed in different ways in different cultures or under different circumstances. For example, all human cultures have rules regarding marriage. Many of these rules are morally based and are considered by that culture to be of the greatest importance. Yet we find some cultures that say that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Other cultures see no problem with one man having multiple wives or one woman having multiple husbands. Soft universalism would say that marriage then does reflect a universal human moral. It goes on to add that the expression of that universal morality varies from culture to culture.

This is the system with which I most strongly agree. It has been criticized as not taking a clear and firm position. However, I contend that is it's very strength. The human mind does have a tendency to enjoy absolutes. We like things to be clear and simple, right or wrong. Difficulties arise when we try to apply that to the real world. Real life is messy, complicated, and often morally ambiguous.

To go back to my Nazi example, it seems a moral absolute that we had to oppose the Nazis and stop their horrific crimes. That seems simple and clear. However, the only way to stop them was a long, grueling, vicious war in which millions of innocent people were killed or mutilated. Such a brutal war, the worst in history, seems clearly immoral. That also seems simple and clear.

So what were we to do? We did what we had to do. We went to war and we did the horrible things necessary to stop the even greater horror of the Nazis taking over the world.To me this is the perfect example of the problem of moral absolutes. We did horrible things, but they were the lesser of two evils. Committing those acts was certainly immoral but it would've been even more immoral not to commit those which were necessary to defeat Hitler.

That's a complicated, messy position. It is a cruel position. But it is the only correct decision. Let me add that to this day Americans call World War II, The Good War. They are deluding themselves. No war is good and this was the most horrible war ever fought. But it was necessary under the circumstances.

The final position is hard universalism. This position is most often considered to be a part of fundamentalist religions, but is often seen in other areas where it is not so easily recognized. In America this attitude in a religious sense is reflected in the Christian Dominionists. This is a small, but very influential group, which believes that the laws of the Old Testament should be applied in America as the only law. This would bring back stoning, the execution of teenagers for habitually disobeying their parents, and other such practices. Most Americans aren't even aware of the Christian Dominionists, although they have strongly influenced such movements as the Moral Majority and the Religious Right.

In fairness to those groups, it should be noted that many members of those two movements do not hold the extreme beliefs of the Dominionists. Nevertheless, the sense of absolute certainty and the belief that God is 100% on their side, which can make no serious error because God is on their side, partly derives from Dominionist influence. A similar movement is found among extremist Muslims who regard Shariah law as an absolute necessity, which must be adopted in its entirety by all nations.

The ultra religious are not the only ones to take such a position. It is clear that many people regard their own belief system as the only proper one. Many Americans today consider the Constitution to be virtually a new book added onto the Bible. They speak of it in reverent terms as if it were infallible. This is ironic considering that Thomas Jefferson, one of the most popular founding fathers, believed the Constitution should be scrapped and rewritten every 19 years. Clearly he thought it to be a very flawed document which would need frequent and thorough revisions.

The problem with moral absolutism can be demonstrated in the example already given of how to stop Nazi Germany. There was no way to stop their conquest of the world short of the horrors of total war. But what happens to moral absolutes in that case? Given the technology of the day, there was no way to bomb a factory without bombing the city around it. That meant the killing of innocent civilians -- men, women, children, and babies. Obviously an absolute moral no-no. On the other hand, allowing the Nazis to conquer the world and commit their acts of mass murder was also clearly wrong by moral absolute standards.

What's a moral absolutist to do? Taking a morally absolute position feels very comforting. You're always sure. There's no room for doubt. God is always on your side. The problem is, it just can't be effectively applied in a real-world situation.

1 comment:

  1. I do not believe that laws should be based on morals. I do believe that most people think they should. However, that's a whole different topic.