As much as we would like to live in a world where moral relativity were a reality, the fact of the matter is we don’t. In fact, as much as we say we would want to live in such a world, if we were to really think about it, we don’t.
Look, as much as I understand the whole, “Live and let live” sort of hands-off, “leave me alone” sort of mentality, the fact remains that we live accord to (and thereby assert) a moral code, be it conscious or unconscious. For us to truly understand what that code is then, we must first understand what it is we are talking about when we speak of this word “morality”. If I were to define it simply, I would say that morality is a code or standard by which we determine what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps it is an overly simplistic definition, but I have found that oftentimes in order for us truly get to the heart of the matter, we might need to simplify, obtaining a better foundational perspective by which we can then extend to the more complex issues.
There is something in us that tells us simply that just because someone shouts the loudest or carries the largest stick does not necessarily put them in the right. I think it is often demonstrated with our strange fascination (and romanticizing of) hopeless causes. Last stands, unrequited love, governmental oppression, etc… these all seem to resonate with us in some way. What we fail to understand sometimes though, is that in order for us to have these sentiments, the concept of morality is absolutely necessary. Without any sense of morality we cannot in any way say that Mother Theresa was a better person than Adolf Hitler except in personal preference, it would have no more distinction than someone saying he/she preferred chocolate ice cream to vanilla.
Humans are inherently moral beings. That’s one of the major separations between us and other animals. We have an inherent sense of categorizing things into “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad”. As much as we would like to deny it, we still live by it, even unconsciously. If we are to have fully examined our lives and live it to the fullest, I would argue beyond that it is good thing understand morality, but that it is absolutely necessary.
All worldviews require a basis of morality. Everyone has a worldview. Therefore, everyone has a basis of morality. If we understand this, then we begin to shed some of the misconceptions many people subscribe to in the hodgepodge of modern society. For the balance of our discussion, I’d like to take a look at a few concepts that help us to better understand morality.
1. Morality exists
This seems like a rather obvious premise to set forth but it is one that is necessary. In order for any sort of meaningful judgment call to be made we must understand that there is this idea of what is “good” and what is “bad”. It’s intuitive and inherent in almost every aspect of our lives. As much as some people would embrace the concept of a purely amoral existence, we just aren’t wired that way. The irony of amorality is that it in and of itself purports a moral norm in that anything that purports a moral code is “wrong”.
Perhaps the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, are used to mean different things and therefore not really suited to be used interchangeably. However, if we really look at the nature of what morality is, perhaps it is not that far off to consider it similar to the idea of rightness being correctness. That is, the same idea of two being the correct answer for the question “What is one plus one?”
2. All morality is absolute
What does that mean? What I mean by this is that there is no such thing as relative morality. This is something that is asserted by our simple definition of morality. Should morality be relative, then we would have no basis to define the terms, “right”, “wrong”, “good”, “bad”. There is a large distinction between moral relativism against situational morality, and unfortunately, one that we tend to forget or ignore oftentimes. For example, we consider it generally a “bad” thing to lie, however, we applaud Mr. Schindler in his lies to hide the Jews from the Nazis. However, this is situational, were Mr. Schindler lying to escape a charge at court, we would not hold him in such high regard. However, given Mr. Schindler’s position, was it better that he lie or send the Jews under his protection to suffering and death? The simple fact that we use the word “better” in this situation tells us that some sort of non-relative moral judgment is being made.
If we simply consider the assertions of any sort of moral code embedded in any worldview, we see that the absoluteness of morality is asserted in the very intuitive, simple, and oft-overlooked foundation of, “this worldview is correct (right) and any worldview that contradicts it is incorrect (wrong).” Let us even take the all-inclusive worldview of moral relativism. Even given the broad and contradictory statement of “there are no absolutes save that there are no absolutes”, we see that there is an implicit assertion. If this statement is true (right), then any statement asserting otherwise would be false (wrong). If we honestly think about it, every single worldview asserts that. Thus, for moral relativism to be a functional worldview, it asserts a principle that fundamentally contradicts itself.
3. Morality is objective
If we are truly concerned about understanding what is right and wrong, then we have to understand that we cannot define it on our own. The objectivity of morality goes hand-in-hand with the idea that morality is absolute. This will probably be the bulk of our discussion on this topic of morality, because the objectivity of morality is what is either being ignored, forgotten, or consciously disregarded in much of society today. What we fail to understand, when we disregard the objectivity of morality, is the innate nature of what morality is. We may disagree on the application of morality (e.g. the definition of charity and what constitutes an act of charity), however, the basis behind what is good and what is bad inherently cannot be something that changes person to person.
If morality were relative then it ceases to be morality. By definition, right and wrong are ideas that are defined outside of the scope of simple human experience, because if we go back far enough, the human experience has no way of determining what is “good” or “bad” unless it has been defined for us already. Even should we try to shift the concept of moral relativism to the scope of society rather than an individual, we still cannot rectify this situation because by definition society is a collection of individuals, and therefore, the individual will have no means to gauge what is “good” for society outside of the context of what is “good” for the individual, thus bringing us back to square one, unless morality is defined for us, we cannot, in any way, define morality for ourselves.
What then does this mean practically speaking? Well, for starters, morality cannot be defined by how we feel. While feeling and intuition may be a gauge for what may seem “right” and “wrong”, any basis of morality purely on emotions does not work. Anyone who suggests otherwise, I would argue, has a rather glaring misconception of how human emotions work. If anyone has taken time to stop and examine his/her own emotions, he/she will find that emotions are fickle and hardly constant. We can run from one extreme to another in rather quick succession. We see this with our preferences all the time. However, we would be grossly negligent to in any way equate morality with preferences. One plus one equals two regardless of how I feel about it, that is the nature of objectivity, and as we discussed, morality is something that must be objective. Thus, anything that is purely defined by an emotion cannot inherently be either morally right or wrong. While we may find some sort of emotional fulfillment from performing morally right action or abstaining from morally wrong action, we cannot draw any sort of definition of morality from any sort of feeling.
What this ultimately means is that any shift in the moral boundaries of humanity are either a shift in the application of a moral principle or the justification of inherently immoral action. The logical question we have to reach, if we conclude that any morality that humanity is bound to inherently cannot be defined by humanity, is who defined this morality? When we begin to dig at this question then we will understand how we are meant to live.