What's To Become of Right and Wrong? A Wrapup 

This fourth in a series of posts on Right and Wrong will attempt to wrap up the discussion, with the admission that not everybody is going to agree on it. That's no surprise; my desire is to represent Christ as well as I can and leave the outcome up to God.  

Once again, I'm going to do this by excerpting from previous comments. In calling this a wrapup, I'm not saying we won't allow further discussion, but it seems we had come to a kind of conclusion, which I thought was worth bringing out of the long thread of comments and into the main page here. As in previous posts in this series, I'm using blue font for the visitor's words--the most central part of the discussion was with Paul--and black for mine.

I'll start with one of my comments. This is edited for brevity; you're welcome to read the whole thread for context.

"Paul, . . . I'm asking, as I have been for many rounds of this discussion, for a definition of ethics that works. Again,
What I'm looking for in a definition of morality is one whereby you can look at a clearcut situation like this or the others I mentioned above [anti-Semitism, slavery, child sacrifice, etc.], apply your own definition, and say, 'yes, it was immoral for the reasons I state here.'

"I think the point where we're not meeting could be summarized in the word 'clear-cut.' If there is such a thing as something that is clear-cut immoral practice, as viewed across the ages, then I am justified in asking you to define it in those terms. You apparently believe there is not such a thing. That's the distinction you want to maintain between absolute and relative, which is legitimate.

"It's legitimate, but there's a catch. If you give up on saying something is clearly immoral, as viewed across cultures and ages, then you are (as you have done) giving up the ability to say that in their own times and places, slavery, suttee, and child sacrifice were wrong.

"But I don't think you want to do that:

[Quoted from a previous comment by Paul'"If I was king of the world, I'd outlaw slavery. In my conscience and in my heart, slavery is wrong and I think that slavery *was* wrong, even then. [End Quote]

"I don't want to do that either. That's why I can't accept a relativist ethic."

Paul responded:

"Tom, when you say 'clearcut,' that is the same as what I mean when I say 'absolute,' that is, something that should be part of any morality, in any society or any age.

"I reject that approach and that does mean that I give up the ability to say that in their own times and places, slavery, suttee, and child sacrifice were wrong. [emphasis added--Tom G.]

"However, I can still 'want' to outlaw slavery in other societies because that is my moral code, instilled in me by my society. There is nothing stopping me from doing so, even as I acknowledge that, in slave culture, slavery is not wrong.

"I think your word 'want' is problematic because we may run up against things we may want to do but which are contrary to logic."

Later he added this :
"Tom, I love your distinction between agreement and clarity. Certainly, clarity is a requirement for agreement; can't have agreement without clarity, so that's the first order of business. But I'm still arguing for agreement that relative morals are not self-contradictory." 

And I answered,

. . .

"I agree there is no necessary logical contradiction in having morals change from time to time and from place to place. It's only a problem if you want the word 'morals' to have some content beyond 'what we like here.' And I do, for reasons I've said frequently here and will repeat again in a slightly different form now.'*

"There is no purchase to such a content-less view of morality, no strength, no real meaning. This is important; so that a person and a society can grow, can develop in character, can look back and say, 'I (we) did the right thing,' and have it actually mean something.

". . . by your definition, if America had laughed at Katrina's victims, if we had said, 'Go ahead and drown, starve to death, get sick in your own waste in the Superdome,'--and if we had agreed in that, then we would have been right! We would have been moral.

"Instead, large portions of our country are coming through with help, and we view this as right. I've worked hard on hurricane relief with dozens of other people (and we're not done) and I believe there's something ennobling about this. This depends on there being something actually right about it.

"By your system, we can't do wrong, at least not as a society--whatever we agree on, is right. If society decides it's right to ignore hurricane victims, then they have the right to make that a moral right. Now, a few maverick individuals may send a truckload of relief, but such bad people can be dealt with. Those who refuse to send aid would be doing the honorable, noble thing.

. . .

"So if you're okay with all that, and with all we've said previously about slavery, anti-Semitism, child sacrifice, and so on, then I'll grant you there's a certain logical consistency to relativist ethics. If whatever some vaguely defined societal grouping decides is right, is right, and this can change whenever it changes, then how can I argue against that?

"Promise me one thing, though: next time you look at some society's practices--today or in history--that you think are wrong, give yourself a mental slap on the hand and say, 'Paul, that's not right! These people are being entirely moral.'

"Next time, for example, you see a lone student rolled over by a tank in Tian An Men, if you feel any revulsion toward it, just say, 'Whoops, I'm wrong; actually, I'm so glad for the moral standards of the Chinese leaders.' (Don't you dare judge them by your irrelevant American standards!) When Iraqis blow up Iraqis with IEDs (that's the main form of violence happening there now), just recognize they're doing exactly what's right for them. When you see video of the Holocaust, just remember that everywhere on this planet and at every time throughout history, societies have always lived on an equally high plane of following their local morality, and be grateful for humanity's fine and spotless history, apart from a few renegades that each culture has to put up with.

"Remember that if you disapprove at all, that's just an accident of where and when you were born, and you have no standing to disagree with any of it.

"If you're okay with that, then you can be a consistent relativist. As for me, that just doesn't make sense and I can't do that."


As I said at the top, we may or may not come to agreement at the end of all this. I've been thinking about how we form belief systems, and soon I'll be writing on Necessity, Plausibility, and Desire, and how they all come together in our beliefs. A topic like this one (relativity in ethics) is crystal-clear to me, but not to Paul; he would say it's crystal-clear to him with opposite conclusions--unless he is wondering now (as I've proposed) whether there really might be great cause for discomfort in his stance. His response to this is here, by the way.

Jesus confirmed there would always be disagreement over spiritual things, and the New Testament tells of spiritual factors involved in that (the Holy Spirit's work, and deception by the enemy seeking to counter that). When opportunity comes I'll be exploring that here.

Part 4 of a series. See also:
1. Evolution and Ethics
2. The End of Right and Wrong?
3. What Do "Right" and "Wrong" Then Mean?

*Paul and I discussed whether it's fair to represent relativist morals as "what we like here." I recognize his objections but I don't think they suffice to change the point. 

Posted: Thu - September 22, 2005 at 10:01 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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