The Limits of Absolute Relativism

The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

~ The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden is the sixth scene in the chronological order of the narrative in the Sistine Chapel. The image consists of three pieces of which the fallen pair is depicted to the left, the pair being expelled by an angel in the right, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center.

It has come to pass that after the first meditation on the relationship between God and Man that I felt my heart in a troubled position. The acknowledgment that man for all practical and logical reasons cannot understand God in full as an ant could not fully comprehend a human being has shaken the very core of my earlier beliefs. For if humanity cannot understand God, it would be impossible for humanity to understand the absolute will of God.

Thus if what I thought be so, ethics and moral philosophy which is so commonly associated with God and religion may not be able to stand alone. A brief look into history reveals that ethics and moral philosophy is commonly augmented by divine revelation of some kind to increase its validity and strengthen its authority. So my thoughts came to rest upon secular ethics and moral philosophy of which God and religion plays no or a lesser role.

Subject

Definition

Sanction

Ethics

Right and wrong as defined by conscience or reason

Conscience, praise or blame, reputation

Religion

Right and wrong as defined by religious authority

Conscience, eternal reward or punishment

Law

Legal and illegal as defined by judicial body

Punishment by legislative body

Etiquette

Proper and improper as defined by culture

Social disapprobation and approbation

Source: Ethics, Louis P. Pojman

Secular ethics are at its fundamental roots different than religious ethics. While religious ethics are metaphorically vertical in the sense that it comes normally from divine revelation or intervention, secular ethics, on the other hand, derives its authority by usually appealing to the logos (logic) and acceptance of the society in a horizontal manner. Yet without perceived divine revelation that grants its legitimacy, would secular ethics be able to achieve the same authority and acceptance as religious ethics?

Aristotle

Generally, secular ethics and moral philosophy can be broken into three main branches. The first is Aristotle’s Aretaic ethics in which one must first develop character or virtue to ensure that good and right behavior becomes habitual. However, Aristotle’s golden mean whereby one should abstain from the extremes and find the middle quality is rather blur in determining what really is the middle position of things.

For as Will Durant states, Aristotle’s golden mean would mean that between cowardice and rashness is courage; between stinginess and extravagance is liberality; between sloth and greed is ambition; between humility and pride is modesty. But unlike a mathematical mean, the extremes in behavior and thought cannot be quantified and thus it is impossible to determine the golden mean accurately, either by independent judgment or by empirical calculations.

Immanuel Kant

The second branch of secular ethics emphasizes on the nature of the act and forms the core of deontological (duty) ethics. An example of deontological ethics would be Immanuel Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argues that there are two kinds of imperatives , with the first being the hypothetical imperative which is conditional, and the categorical imperative that is not conditional but is universal and rationally necessary.

The third branch of secular ethics are theories of teleological ethics (goal directed) that focus primarily on the consequences of an action rather than the nature (deontological) of the action. Among the theories in teleological ethics is utilitarianism whose founding fathers are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Utilitarianism stresses on the ultimate goal – producing the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people.

Jeremy Bentham                     John Stuart Mill

All three branches of secular ethics and moral philosophy are, however, not absolute as the lack of divine revelation of absolute authority is absent in determining which form of secular ethics is right. And since all forms of secular ethics and moral philosophy are not without weaknesses, flaws, and a lack of synthetic form, they are imperfect and subject to the situation to which they are implemented and to the individual’s perspective and position.

Therefore secular ethics and moral philosophy face an assault to what we commonly know as ethical relativism. Ethical relativism holds that there are no universal moral principles and that all moral principles are subject to culture and the individual. This stand is popular and in many ways logical. A good example would be the Spartans of Ancient Greece that were known to discard deformed children (and leave them to die), and accepted that stealing is morally justified.

While we may believe that the Spartans were wrong in many ways, their society at that time accepted their actions as a social norm, thus making it morally justified. This form of thought would lead to the downfall of moral objectivism (there are universal moral principles) and the emergence of subjectivism whereby, “morality lies in the eyes of the beholder” as the victor. Yet if this be so, would not subjective morality lead to increased anarchy and chaos, the very things that morality is supposedly there to prevent?

Furthermore, since no man is an island, a man, who believes that his actions are morally justified through moral subjectivism, would inevitably commit an act that would affect another individual whose moral principles might not be in line with his own. As we well know, what is good for one individual might not be good for another individual, and this lack of common ground can only be replaced by absolute tolerance. But it would be ironic indeed to agree that all morality is relative and turn around to say that absolute tolerance is above and outside the jurisdiction of moral relativism.

Despite the argument that subjectivism and moral relativism would crumble under its own weight, it is true that the world is subject to it. The customs, norms, laws, and accepted behavior in one country is vastly different in another country. And though similarities among the different races and countries are occasionally present, they lack unity in diversity. It is, however, common to see that a country that is stronger either economically, culturally, or military forcefully dictating their form morality on a weaker state.

Does this mean that, despite all the arguments and attempts to achieve universal moral principles that would overcome chaos and bring order to the society, it is still an impossible task? Does this mean that might is right in that the victor and the stronger group’s morality are ultimately and absolutely the ‘universal moral principle’? If so, would it not be correct to say that it is power that is the ultimate moral principle, as power seems to validate and give the right of the victor to impose his will and morality over the loser?

~

_____________________________________________________________

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: