Should we be moral relativists? (Part 2)

Protagoras

Protagoras

Since antiquity man has pondered the source of our morality. Indeed, early Greek philosopher Protagoras is credited with the controversial phrase, “man is the measure of all things.”  Is this true though?  Is the mind of man, either his personal or societal bent, the measure of moral quality, or are moral laws akin to the laws of physics or mathematics, being a described feature of the universe, rather than a personally or culturally defined development?  While the debate will inevitably carry on between camps that claim moral objectivism is true, and camps that claim relativism is true, one thing it seems we can say for certain is that neither view of morality allows us to say we “should” be moral relativists, as the question necessarily falls on its own sword.

Moral relativism seems to manifest itself either personally or culturally.  What’s deemed good for me and by me, is the “right” thing, or what’s deemed good by my culture is the “right” thing.  Assuming the question, “should we be moral relativists” is meant to apply to a universal “we”, it seems moral relativism itself disqualifies any meaningful answer to such a question.  The question implies an oughtness, as if there is a correct answer to the question about how we should behave.  It seems to presuppose that the answer “yes” may be less morally dubious than the answer “no”, or vice versa.  However, one would need an objective source of morality to affirm or deny the premise in any real sense.  If moral relativism is true, the question, and other questions whose answers imply a proper mode of right conduct by mankind, simply become meaningless.

If moral relativism is true, then to say we “should” behave any particular way becomes nonsensical.  We are permitted to say I “prefer” a certain action, or my culture “prefers” a certain action, but to carry moral relativism any further than preference to a particular action or outcome begins to reek of objectivism.  Further, what one person or culture prefers, cannot be a recipe for what I ought to do.  I am free to reject the preference of anybody else.  Consider a culture in which believing the sacrifice of children to a deity is considered “good”.  On moral relativism, we are impotent to condemn it as wrong.  My personal sensibilities, or the sensibilities of my culture, may find it distasteful, but in no way can that be applied across the personal or cultural boundaries inside which the ideology is promoted.

One might offer a rejoinder that appeals to some seemingly universal recognizable wrongdoing.  For instance, one might say it’s wrong to torture children for fun, and everybody seems to recognize that across cultures. Therefore, the relativist may say, there are just some things we can all agree on, and so we “should” do some things and “should not” do others.  However, on moral relativism we become free to reject any such notion as a fallacious appeal to popularity.  If one person decides killing babies for fun brings them joy, the moral relativist is impotent to condemn that action as intrinsically wrong.  The relativist may impose his current cultural standards upon the stray ideology by force of law, but this is simply a “might makes right” tactic, rather than an appeal to a true state of affairs in the universe where killing babies for fun is always wrong.  The worst any action can be is personally or culturally distasteful.  On this view of reality, an individual or societal quest for power by extermination of opposing people-groups and force, such as the ideology of the Third Reich, is no more or less valid than any other way of living.

In the end, moral relativism does not allow for any “should” or “should not”, as both would imply there are objective moral truth claims that can be applied to all people, places, and times in the history of the universe.  The moral relativist has removed from himself, all grounds for being able to say anybody else ought to be a moral relativist. In short, the question, “should we be moral relativists,” implies a state of affairs in the universe where there is a correct answer to the question.  However, moral relativism itself ensures that there can be no correct answer to questions about how we should behave.  Since the question itself makes an inquiry into how we ought to behave, its self-defeating nature allows it to be safely ignored as incoherent.

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The Greatest Goods

I kind of like to bother people. More accurately I guess, I like them to be bothered. Not just because I want them to experience irritation, but because I want them to think, and then believe things for themselves, rather than absorbing and regurgitating whatever they’ve been taught without critically considering if what they’ve accepted is true or not. This is bothersome to folks of all worldviews.

It’s fun to do to Christians because they’ve already accepted a worldview that includes objective truth so they can’t get off the hook from having an opinion. One thing I’ve challenged Christian friends with lately is their traditional views of some things that are typically considered “good” or “bad”. The more I’ve tried to think critically about what makes a thing good or bad, the more I think we often attach goodness or badness to the wrong thing. I was thinking about this recently while I was running, and because of it, I think I suddenly had an epiphany about what Jesus called the two greatest commandments.

All three of the synoptic gospels record Jesus’ response when questioned about what the greatest commandment is (Matt 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). He says it is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second greatest commandment is like it he says; to love your neighbor as yourself. These directives seem simple, but at the same time terribly complex. In order to take them seriously, one must first understand what it looks like to love something. I think generally, most people know what this looks like. The next task is to figure out what Jesus could mean by each of heart, soul, mind, and strength. For instance, I’m fairly sure that by strength Jesus isn’t interested how much I can bench press, and by mind I don’t think he means we should just think about God a lot. While I think a detailed discussion of what each of those things means is too lengthy for this space, what can be concluded from the complete set is that what is under this umbrella is your entire being. The very nature of all you are, everything you do, everything you say, everything you desire, and everything you think, should express love to God primarily, and then to other people. Quite often the two are intertwined. Really, it isn’t that profound, since Jesus says all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. It should be obvious, but it’s funny what can be missed.  It seems simple enough, but its actually an impossible task given that by his very nature, mankind is deeply selfish.

Although it is impossible to fully achieve, it seems to me the more I think about it, that attempting to follow these two “greatest” commandments will offer a morally right decision in all cases where a decision must be made. Ideally, no other instruction would even be necessary. Because we need to overcome our own selfish inclination though, and because sometimes we’re faced with competing moral choices, we need (and have been given) more detailed instruction. Generally speaking though, if the decision maker is to first ask, “How will this decision express my love for my Creator and Savior?” and then, secondarily, ask, “How will this express my love for other people?” then coming to the decision that best accomplishes those goals will always be the morally correct one. In other words, the moral value of something, seems to me to be exclusively tied to intent, rather than directly any action itself. In fact, it occurs to me that any decision that doesn’t take these questions into consideration may actually lead to what seems to be a right conclusion, but is actually a wrong conclusion, or vice versa. I believe we also get some things right or wrong some of the time by accident due to tradition and mistakenly tying morality to specific actions, rather than intents. Because we’ve switched off our minds, it leads us to generalizations that leave out final intent or consequence, and ultimately end up being incorrect.

In the following couple of posts I want to look at some examples where I think this happens. In the meantime, if you want a sobering look at how you actually go about using your heart, soul, mind, and strength, just try asking yourself how what you’re doing, thinking or saying shows love to God, or anybody but yourself. You’ll be surprised how far off you are! I know I am. I’m usually asking these questions after a decision to act a certain way, so instead of seaching for love based guidance, I end up seeking love based forgiveness.