Thursday, April 26, 2012

Moral Relativism Al Dente

I don't believe in any universal moral code - like, anyone who has gay sex is going to hell. If you don't like gay sex, that's fine for you. What a gay man does with other gay men, however, is entirely their own business. But opponents of moral relativism often complain that if all morals are relative, then what stops me from killing you for personal gain? This is really a strawman argument, because none but the radical extremists of moral relativism are suggesting that everyone's motives are justified by the doctrine of individual morality. That's really where ethics comes into play - regardless of what your and my morals are, we each have the potential to behave in ways that violate the agency and the humanity and the consent of each other. It's not what's right in a universal sense, it's what does and does not violate the rights of you or I.

So, for example, could murder ever be justified? What about corporal punishment? What about assisted suicide? What about people who don't value life as highly as the rest of us - people who, say, are fully willing to risk their lives for the thrill of extreme sports? Murder is "wrong" because it involves taking a person's life against their will. But if they hand their life over, then that's their decision to make. I'm not arguing that we shouldn't look out for each other's wellbeing, or that people never make bad decisions about their lives and even about what they want or think they want. But when it comes to taking a hard black-and-white stance on issues of morality - believing that this or that type of act is ALWAYS wrong and NEVER justified - we really need to step back and understand that not everyone's experience of the world is the same.

That's the substance of moral relativism al dente. Individuals may have their own unique moral codes, but each of us is connected to the rest of us, and the decisions we make and the actions we take affect the rest of the population. The result is a sort of interwoven mesh of morality, where each thread is pliable, but not entirely separate from the other threads. We must be flexible in determining how to apply our concept of morality to other persons who may have differing views, but this does not mean that anything goes. It's not a hard stance on universal morality, but neither does it lend complete freedom to people to do anything they want without consequence. I believe this is what most people who defend moral relativism are suggesting, but perhaps describing it as moral relativism al dente would help get across that point.

Note: The title of this post was totally ripped off from Derk Pereboom's Determinism Al Dente, the philosophy text that convinced me that free will is compatible with determinism.

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