Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

‘One truth’ or many?

This article addresses itself with impressive rigor to one of the central questions of human civilization: Is there an objective, universal moral code recognized by all but pathological individuals, or do ethical values take fundamentally different forms in different cultural or historical contexts? The author takes the latter position, and presents a strong case for this often-maligned thesis of moral relativism.

MC Escher's 'Relativity' reproduced in Lego form

The impossible made real? MC Escher’s ‘Relativity’ reproduced in Lego form.
[ Image Source ]

I find that this question is not so easily answered. In late 2010, StumbleUpon member Vikas1sharma and I carried on a long debate on the subject, in which he argued for absolute moral standards that apply — or should apply — without regard to context, while I took a stance similar to that of this essay. I have also defended this thesis in discussions with an old friend of mine who became a born-again Christian and tried to convince me of the essentiality of what he called The Law: the precepts laid down by God (as interpreted by orthodox biblical scholars) and presented for our guidance.

The eventual position to which this has led me is somewhat paradoxical: I am convinced that morality is relative, but is not absolutely so. Values do diverge widely in different times and places, and what is proper and necessary for one civilization may be suicidal for another. But there also seem to be a few irreducible principles to which it seems probable that any psychologically sound individual would agree irrespective of context; that some individuals, for example, continue to see no wrong in the act of rape does not imply that rape is or ever could have been acceptable to most. Similarly, in modern society, there remains a residuum of pathocrats who would happily see the few prey upon the many, but this represents mental aberrancy — psychopathy — on the part of the residuum, and has acquired a sheen of meretricious respectability only because the very lack of moral restraint that defines this residuum also frees it to disseminate its false values by deceit.

But I will not claim certainty. I believe that irreducible principles exist, but since what I describe can as easily be attributed to imperatives of self- and societal preservation as to any inherent distinctions of right and wrong, I recognize that there is room for argument. Very possibly, there is actually a continuum of moral standards on any given question, and where a society falls on that continuum is merely a matter of mutable convention determined solely by where most of its members (or most of its influential members) place themselves on it. This would be consistent with earlier observations I’ve made on what I call “limited infinities”; indeed, it would tend to yield a limited infinity of such continua, each of which is a limited infinity unto itself.

Each of us, however, is as such a finite being despite containing an infinity of infinities; and each must therefore think and live according to certain principles, however subjective they may ultimately be. Do not, then, expect me to remove all moral judgments from what I write. Certain acts, I am convinced, really are wrong and must be discouraged; certain factional moral codes really are pathological and must not be allowed to hold sway. I cannot “prove” my convictions, but I cannot fail to live by them.

Originally published as a review of a philosophynow.org essay on moral relativism.

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