Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why does moral relativity have to be such a dirty word?

This question is not new to me.  I spent the greater part of my four years at Hillsdale College wondering this exact same thing considering I majored in Sociology and then picked up a minor in Philosophy.  These sorts of questions do not come up much in the banking world.  But I have recently had occasion to ponder it again . . . see what I get for reading other people's blog posts!  In fact I have been obsessing over it for the last two days, and decided it would be best to turn my, only slightly bitter thoughts, into a blog post.  I will disclaim though that my intention is not to 1. over simplify morality 2. reinforce stereotypes or 3. pass judgement. So here it goes:

Moral relativism is often slung at writers/philosophers/anthropologists/sociologist as a criticism for questioning or denying moral absolutes.  Very few people are proud to stand up and say, "I am a moral relativist.  Hear me roar!"  Yet, it is empirical fact that across varying cultures there are huge discrepancies as to what is thought of as moral, right or proper.  Different cultures and essentially differing subcultures place value on different attitudes, beliefs and actions.  This is observable and indisputable (in my eyes, because I am sure someone will try to dispute it).  The real question with relativity is then, do moral absolutes truly exist?  Traditionally, especially within western thought, that answer is yes.  When I think of moral absolutes the image that instantly pops into my head are of the ten commandments.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Thou shalt not worship idols.  Thou shalt not take the lords name in vein.  Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.  Honor they mother and father.  Thou shalt not kill.  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  Thou shalt not steal.  Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not covet.  If these aren't supposed to be moral absolutes then I don't know what are.  But I can't help but think of situations where breaking one, more or all of these commandments would not only be justified but, in my eyes, would be the moral choice to make. One of the most used examples from college was Nazi Germany.  Would you hide Ann Frank in your attic and then lie to the soldiers about it?  I probably would.  I would not only feel justified in doing so but would think I was right. I would also probably bludgeon a Nazi to death given the opportunity though.  Our society worships idols everyday.  It is not only tolerated and excepted but it has become the standard.  They are called movie stars, rock stars and sports stars.  Where do you think the term "star" came from?  We used to worship them . . . bright and shining in the heavens. 

So the question is, if that is the case, that these moral absolutes cannot be applied universally, then wouldn't it follow (especially if we are followers of Immanuel Kant) that they cannot be moral absolutes.  The whole point of absolutism is that it is universal but if we study culture any we can see that moral judgements and justifications vary from culture to culture based on the traditions and practices of that culture.  Western thought, that is the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian traditions, dominate our culture.  It is difficult for many of us to look beyond those traditions and embrace the idea that we might not always be right.  That there are other ways of looking at the world, other perspectives to take and other courses of action that may also be right. Tolerance, acceptance and compassion are all values that Christ embodied in the Bible, yet too often I have seen Christians, and other faiths, fighting over the little details and they forget to step back and look at the big picture.  

I, for one, can appreciate a little moral ambiguity.  It keeps us on our toes.  It makes us question and perhaps reaffirm our beliefs and values. What is the point of believing something if you don't know why you believe it?  Just because someone told you to?  Is that the right reason to believe?  We have to ask ourselves these questions or we all become sheep blindly following a shepherd that may or may not be leading us to the slaughter.  This applies not only to morality and/or religion but also to politics! :)

With all that being said I make this last statement:  The complexity of humanity is often stifling.  There are no easy answers just like I do not think there are any absolutes.  We must stop thinking of the world in black and white and recognize it is all gray area where man is concerned.

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