Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Problem With Moral Relativity

May 10, 2012 1:18 pm 0 comments

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC. Photo: wiki commons.

In 1877, Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, started the Ethical Culture Society. One of the main tenets of the society is a belief that morality is independent of theology. Where things get sticky is how one defines that which is moral? Most of us have an intuitive inner compass that seems to inform us whether or not we are on that right track vis-a-vis our behavior – such that while we may make mistakes and possess blind-spots – by and large we know when we have done “wrong.” The problem is that a cursory exploration into various societies whether existing now or in the past, shows us that there is no simple consensus as to what precisely constitutes moral action. For instance, Aristotle was an advocate of infanticide, as were most in his day. For a mother to simply leave her unwanted baby on the trash heap outside until it expired was a perfectly normal and (to them) reasonable thing to do. After all, they did not want issues with overpopulation, and in any event, why burden the family with a gender it did not desire or saddle it with undue financial hardships when such a simple solution existed?

What argument could we bring to bear in opposition to what we would now consider an odious criminal deed? Some would suggest that society cannot function in the face of wanton murder, but that seems not to be the case as the Greeks and the Romans flourished for hundreds of years while engaging in the most vile and depraved activities (from a modern perspective at least). How do we know that Aristotle was not indeed correct? How do we know that our current enmity with Al Qaeda, Hamas and others is not misplaced? Perhaps they are in the right, and we are the ones who are immoral? They certainly think so.

The structural problem with asserting a morality sans clear definition is that it is too nebulous to be of any real value. In the absence of a standard by which we can measure our behavior, all behavior becomes simple preference – no more “right” or “wrong” than any other. In essence, groundless morality of this sort is actually called moral relativity – a doctrine that equalizes all forms of “morality” and thus fatally neuters it. Stripped of a clear picture of the nature of good and evil, all becomes permissible, and it is no longer logical to pass judgment on any particular action. There is no longer any such animal as morality.

Atheists and humanists put forth the notion that they can be moral without God. They believe that they as a community (or each individual) is the arbiter of what is right and wrong and that what society decides is the final word. Others take a different approach and suggest a kind of natural morality whereby people come to recognize that we need each other.

One might ask, “who cares?” In as much as I reject your entire notion of morality and given that we agree that there is no solid working definition of morality, I will do as I please – from marital infidelity to public humiliation to drunken brawls – if it feels good, it is. You tell me that this hurts society? But I don’t care about society, only myself. When the lion is hungry it does not contemplate the personal needs of the lamb. As serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer once said “If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing …”

And there’s the rub. He is entirely correct. In absence of a Creator who dictates what is good and bad there simply is no such thing. The fact that we feel the inner pull towards being good is positive, but as we have seen throughout history, it is an unreliable guide. We can only know that human beings possess self-worth, dignity, moral responsibility and value because we have been told that we have it by the One who assembled the entire system, as the Mishna says “beloved is man that he was created in God’s image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in God’s image.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Features Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    Israel and the Apartheid Narrative: 2 South African Student Leaders Weigh In

    JNS.org – About two-dozen people file into Dodd 175 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on a Thursday night, scouting out seats and picking at the kosher pizza in the back of the lecture hall. Miyelani Pinini knows the drill. A former student president of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, she’s attended and even organized her share of free-pizza events. But now she and a fellow South African student leader were the stars of this […]

    Read more →
  • Food Spirituality/Tradition The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    The Brewish State: Israel Taps Into Growing Craft Beer Bazaar

    JNS.org – It’s widely known that Israel has penetrated the wine market, with some of its sophisticated Israeli blends surpassing historically excellent wines from areas such as the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. But what about beer? For decades, Israel has offered solely the Maccabi and Nesher brands. Not anymore. “There is a huge push of people making beer at home. The country is approaching over 30 craft breweries in the last year or two, making nearly 200 beers,” says Avi Moskowitz, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Natalie Portman Says She Behaved Like ‘Average Everyday Jewish Mother’ on Set of Latest Movie

    Actress Natalie Portman acted like a typical “Jewish mother” on the set of her latest movie, Jane Got a Gun, the Israeli-born star told the New York Post‘s Page Six on Sunday. The 34-year-old, who also co-produced the western, said she made it her job to look out for everyone involved in the project, because the film has had to overcome “so many obstacles,” such as losing its director early on. She explained: “Actors changed. We suffered financial and legal challenges. We endured so many replacements. There were delays. […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    Scorpions Lead Singer Sends Message to Israel Ahead of World Tour, Tel Aviv Performance (VIDEO)

    “We’re looking very much forward to coming back to Israel this summer,” said the lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions in a video on Monday. “Make sure you don’t miss it because we rock you like a hurricane!” said a jovial Klaus Meine, quoting the band’s seminal 1984 anthem, “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The hard rock band lands in Israel for a show at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena on July 14 as part of its 50th anniversary tour. It will be the band’s third time […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)

    Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth. As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Lifestyle Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    Wine Brings Judea and Samaria to Tel Aviv

    JNS.org – Wine has long been considered a social lubricant, and it’s Nir Lavie’s hope that wine from his Har Bracha Winery in the Samarian hills will serve as a social lubricant between the city-goers of Tel Aviv and the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, two locales split geographically, and often politically, on the left and right of the country. The new flagship store of Har Bracha has recently popped its corks on 190 Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Gentile Actor Zachary Levi Says He’s Denied Roles for Being ‘Too Jewish’

    Actor Zachary Levi said casting directors have denied him roles for being “too Jewish,” despite the fact that he is not a Jew, the New York Daily News‘ Confidenti@l reported on Wednesday. “I guess they were looking for more of a corn-fed, white boy look,” he said. “My family is from f****** Indiana! Come on, I’m like dying here!” The Thor star clarified that he is Welsh, and that Levi is actually his middle name, while his real last name is Pugh. He said he […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    Tracing Chabad’s History and Success (REVIEW)

    The secret of Chabad’s worldwide success is revealed by veteran Chabad shliach (emissary) Rabbi David Eliezrie in his new book, The Secret of Chabad. The Chabad movement was founded by Rabbi Schnur Zalman of Liadi, Belarus, in 1775. Years later it came to the US with the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn in 1940, after his escape from Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Upon his arrival in New York, a number of his co-religionists advised him that there was no place for traditional […]

    Read more →