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May 10, 2012 1:18 pm

The Problem With Moral Relativity

avatar by Adam Jacobs

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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.

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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.”

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