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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater 10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial

    Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11. Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however. Here are [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Israeli Music Producer Racks Up Over 535,000 YouTube Hits – in Two Days

    Phenomenon: Tel Aviv-based musician and “sampler” extraordinaire, Kutiman (aka Ophir Kutiel) has hit another one out of the park with “Give It Up,” a fully-functioning song in its own right, assembled from hundreds of ameteur and instructional music videos. The Jerusalem-born musical prodigy is best know for his diverse online musical projects. In the latest video, uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 12th, Kutiel thanked most of the musicians and individuals he chose to include in the meticulously-edited clip, which opens with [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    Behind-the-Scenes Reel of Ridley Scott’s Moses Epic Shows Scenes Using 4000 Extras (VIDEO)

    A recently released behind-the-scenes reel of Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings shows just how far the director has gone to portray one of the Bible’s most famous narratives. In the clip, which shows scenes involving up to 4,000 extras, the visionary director discusses what drew him to the biblical tale of Moses. “The Moses story was a massive challenge, which I really love. I wanted to explore the complexity of his character and I was stunned by [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    Turner Classic Movies Showcases ‘Broad Sweep’ of the Jewish Experience on Film

    JNS.org – Since 2006, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable and satellite TV network has hosted “The Projected Image,” a month-long showcase examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed on the big screen. At last, after previously covering African Americans, Asians, the LGBT community, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, and people with disabilities, the annual series is delving into Jewish film this month. “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” whose first segment aired Sept. 2, runs [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    An Inside Look at the Hasidim (REVIEW)

    The sight of young girls in pinafores and young boys wearing peyos – sidelocks – dangling over their ears is a sure sign that you have entered the enigmatic precincts of the Hasidim – the pious ones. Veteran New York Times journalist Joseph Berger’s new book, THE PIOUS ONES: The World of Hasidim and their Battles with America, takes the reader on a journey into the enclaves where various sects of Jews live a seemingly outmoded way of life in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    How Jewish Television Pioneer Milton Berle Inspired Modern Comedy Stars

    JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle. Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics. “Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    Jewish ‘Hoops Whisperer’ a Secret Weapon for NBA Stars

    JNS.org – Idan Ravin’s friends chipped in to buy him a humble but life-changing bar mitzvah gift—a basketball hoop his father attached to the roof of his garage. Little did his friends know that years later, he would be the personal trainer of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, and Stephen Curry. Ravin’s new book, “The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Head of Basketball’s Best Players,” details his rise from a Jewish upbringing [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.