Friday, February 19, 2010

Moral Objectivism

Along with Metaphysics and Epistemology, Ethics is one of the primary focuses of Philosophy. It may also well be the branch of Philosophy which has the largest impact on the real world. The morality, or lack there of, of certain individuals can affect millions, or even billions of people. There are those who do not believe in Good or Evil, that these things are merely a point of view, and that morality varies between individuals and societies. This ideology is known as moral subjectivism. There are also those who believe morality is universal, and applies to all people in all situations. This is known as moral objectivism, or absolutism. In order to behave morally, we must first ask is there such a thing as Good and Evil? And if so, what is Good and Evil?


Moral subjectivists, like the Ancient Greek Sophists, may defend their ideology by pointing out the obvious fact that not everyone behaves morally. The most poignant example may be slavery, most notably the enslavement of African people, which lasted nearly four hundred years. Moral subjectivists would claim that the slavers and slave-owners obviously did not think that they were doing anything wrong. This claim is likely correct. However, just because the slavers believed they were not doing anything wrong, does that mean that they were not?

If one were to ask the slaves if their masters were immoral, they would most likely say yes, so long as their masters weren’t within earshot. What is more, if one asked the slavers if they would like to be treated the way they treated their slaves, they would also likely say no. Why then do they own slaves? Because they do not believe that their slaves are people. Europeans of centuries passed knew how horrific life as a slave was, and that it was wrong to treat people like that. So they convinced themselves that their slaves were not people.

When people behave immorally, it is not because they have different moral values, but because they have found some rationalization for their actions. In the example mentioned above, the rationalization was dehumanization. Slavers convinced themselves that their slaves didn’t have the same rights as they did, and therefore were excluded from moral consideration. If morality were truly relative, then slavers wouldn’t mind being slaves. A thief wouldn’t mind being stolen from, a rapist wouldn’t mind being raped, and a murderer wouldn’t mind being killed. Obviously, nobody wants to be enslaved, robbed, raped or murdered, and if they do these things themselves it is only because they have rationalized their behaviour. If there is anyone who wouldn’t mind these things happening to them, it would not be because they have different moral values, but because they have a low sense of self-worth.

For the most part, moral subjectivists are correct when they claim that nobody thinks that they’re a bad person, and this is part of the problem. Everyone will do something immoral, usually numerous times, over the course of their lives. A good person recognizes when they have done wrong; they feel guilt over it. They try to atone for their misdeeds, and modify their behaviour to avoid similar moral infractions in the future. But an immoral person, they don’t recognize when they do something wrong. They find some rationalization for it. When they rationalize one injustice, it becomes easier to rationalize another, and so on. A conscience is like a muscle; it atrophies with disuse. The worst atrocities are justified by dehumanization. The Nazis convinced themselves that the Jews were vermin to be wiped out. Rationalizations for immoral behaviour need not be limited to individuals, but can be shared by entire societies. But no matter how many people believe it, a lie is still a lie.

Even though nearly all people wound claim that they are not evil, out of all the billions of people that have ever lived it seems likely a handful of them may have been ‘sith lords’: people who not only knew they were evil but revelled in it, and saw no need to rationalized their actions. Though they know the difference between Good and Evil, they are so nihilistic that they do not care about such distinctions. They may believe that if morality is subjective, then really there is no morality at all. When most people do something immoral they need to find some rationalization to convince themselves that it was somehow a good action. The rare and nihilistic ‘sith lords’ feel no need to justify their actions, for they feel no obligation to be Good.

The most severe immoral behaviour is caused by narcissism, deluding yourself that other people don’t have the same rights as you, deluding yourself into believing that no matter what horrendous things you do you are justified in doing them, and therefore not Evil. How then does one behave morally? Quite simply, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. No matter what someone believes about His metaphysical nature, most will agree that Jesus was a great moral teacher. If morality is universal, then you must obey the Golden rule; treat other people as you would like to be treated. This requires empathy and compassion, the opposite of the narcissism that leads to suffering. Unfortunately, dehumanization is not limited to the oppressors. The oppressed can easily come to believe that their oppressors are monsters, justifying immoral actions against them. By its very nature, war leads to dehumanization of the enemy, as well as horrible atrocities committed by both sides. Jesus had the solution for this too; love thy enemy. Even in war, a moral person remembers that his enemies are people too, and they have no less rights then he does. Finally, since we are all sinners, it is important to forgive other people when they wrong you, for you, so long as you are a moral person, would want to be forgiven.

It is also important to take Utilitarianism into account when making moral decisions. Utilitarianism is the belief that a person should do whatever causes the most amount of good for the most amount of people. Though Good and Evil exist, no one person or one action is completely Good or completely Evil. Everything in the Universe exists along a continuum, or a spectrum. Clearly some actions can benefit some people and harm others. Utilitarianism must be use to judge in these situations, but Utilitarianism is always trumped by the Golden Rule. For example, by being purely Utilitarian a person could justify kidnapping millions of people and performing countless horrendous experiments on them in an attempt to find cures for diseases. But who would want to be kidnapped and experimented on by mad scientists? This example makes it clear that the Golden rule, along with compassion and empathy, must take priority over Utilitarianism.

How does universal morality apply to specific moral issues? Let’s start with drugs. Are they bad? Does a person have a right to shoot whatever they want into their bodies, even at the expense of others? Most people would agree that a drug addict is a dysfunctional member of society, so the question is; does the drug addict have an obligation to be a functional member of society? Well he does live in society, and everybody in that society is interdependent on many other people. We eat food we do not grow, live in houses we did not build, use products we did not make, and so on. Anyone who lives within a society is obligated to be a functional member of it. This is what Kant called duty ethics. For example, if somebody has a baby, do they have the right to stay perpetually high and neglect the baby to the point that she dies? Of course not. And just as a parent has an obligation to their child, we all have societal obligations that prevent us from just doing what ever we want. We must contribute to the society that sustains us. Merely using drugs is not bad. Someone who gets a little a drunk or high on the weekend is probably okay, but someone who starts abusing drugs to the point that they cannot provide for themselves and becomes a burden on the state that supports them, that is immoral. Of course, if these people realize they have a problem and want to get better, then society has an obligation to help them. Society does have an obligation to ensure that its citizens can become functional members, since the individual and society are interdependent on one another and both their needs must be balanced. Individuals must me made to feel valued and respected by their communities, so that they will take pride in contributing to them.

A more complex moral situation would be a doctor who invented a cure for cancer, but realizing what a desirable commodity that is, charges an exorbitant amount for it. A man whose wife is dying of cancer steals the cure. Who is in the wrong here? Stealing to save somebody’s life is still technically a rationalization, but it is one many people would do and can easily empathize with, and is also easily forgivable. It was the only thing the man could do to save his wife, and he probably believed that letting her die would be more immoral than stealing, making the doctor the immoral one. From a purely consequentialist point of view allowing someone to die through inaction is the same as actively killing them, since in both instances the person is dead. However, they do differ in terms of personal moral responsibility. On average a hundred and fifty thousand people die everyday. Since most people do not do anything to help those who die each day, are they guilty of their murder? The answer is obviously no. A doctor, however, should be more concerned with helping people than with his own personal profit. Charging exorbitant amounts for things like food or medicine is much more clearly immoral than high prices for extraneous products, which is more dubious. The doctor is clearly exploiting his patients, taking advantage of their desperate situation. He is treating them merely as a resource, which is clearly wrong. The doctor certainly wouldn’t like it if someone used him in this manner. To treat a person as anything other than a person is wrong, which is what this doctor is doing.

The doctor of this scenario clearly lacks empathy and compassion for the poor and sick, and if he were poor and dying of cancer I’m sure he wouldn’t want a cure priced too high for him to afford. From a Utilitarian point of view, he is also behaving immorally. A Utilitarian should strive for the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount people, which the doctor is not doing by pricing his cure too highly for some people to afford it. The man on the other hand clearly has empathy and compassion for his wife. If he were dying he’d want her to do everything she could to save him, so he is following the Golden Rule. Saving her life definitely causes more good than letting her die or stealing the cure, so he is behaving ethically from a Utilitarian point of view. He is only guilty of rationalizing the theft of the cure by thinking that since the doctor is immoral he does not deserve moral consideration, which is not really true. Nevertheless, the man is clearly more ethical than the doctor.

What is likely the most obvious example of morality apparently varying between cultures would be the issue of gay marriage. A comparison to how this ideology arose can be found in the Dune series by Frank Herbert. In the old days, on the desert planet Arrakis, anyone caught outside the Sietch (sanctuary) not wearing a stillsuit (a garment that reclaims a person’s water from their perspiration, breath, etc.) was immediately killed. On that mythical planet, where there is never one drop of rain, conserving water was so vital to their survival that anyone caught wasting it was punished by death. This was a rationalization bought about by their extreme circumstances. This is more or less what brought about the sexual laws of the Israelites. They were in a situation where it was vital to their survival that they reproduce as much as they could. So great was this need that any behaviour that seemed to discourage procreation was punishable by death. Like the Fremen of Arrakis, the Israelites were in a situation that brought about this harsh rationalization. Hard lives require hard ways. For a variety of complex reasons, this rationalization continued on in the Judeo-Christian world long after it was rendered obsolete. Today, a modern opponent of gay marriage would likely make the claim that tolerance of homosexuality leads to tolerance of progressively more decadent behaviour, ultimately culminating in moral bankruptcy. It would be unfair simply to dismiss such a claim as merely being bigoted, but analyzing it in depth would go beyond the scope of this essay.

Over the course of history, many people and many societies have been forced to rationalize their immoral behaviour. This can mislead people to believe that morality is subjective. But in truth, it is merely that people are very good at finding excuses for their own immoral actions. These people deserve…forgiveness.

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