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Moral Relativism is never Exclusive (but is it Right or Left?)

January 15, 2010

Moral Relativism is never Exclusive (but is it Right or Left?)

To understand moral relativism is not hard. It basically uses the evolutionary model of progress to determine what is correct. ‘You used to say: Live and Let Live,‘ Paul McCartney sang for the opening of the James Bond movie of the same name then he goes onto sing: ‘…but in this ever changing world in which live in….Live and let Die…‘ Of course this was just a song but it does highlight the mentality of what goes through the mind of a moral relativist. Many people have used the same motives to justify a change in their moral stance from one extreme and then back again. Simply they claim that the world has changed and we need a new morality for the new world. We have evolved, moved on, become more sophisticated, after this event we must look at the world differently. A line has been drawn on the calendar so that anything beyond a certain date is now relative and anything before is no longer true.

Neither the Left nor the Right of politics has avoided using this. Nor is it limited to politics as many mainstream religions have been having arguments over what is and is not moral today. We often hear of accusations that someone who opposes a proposal is trying to drag us back to the ‘Morality of the Nineteen Fifties.’ This is an example of Moral Relativism as it uses the era rather than issue as the basis of debate. It may sound rousing to a mob or fit nicely into a news sound bite but it is nothing more than a way of avoiding the issue. We are to believe what was morally good in the nineteen fifties was only good for the nineteen fifties but due to the flipping of a page on the calendar it is no longer good. Whether it is time, event or discovery the habit is one of finding a new yard stick to measure what is true. Animal Farm by George Orwell had a similar rule: ‘Two Legs Good, Four Legs Bad.‘ Thus the number of legs was how things were to be measured for morality.

We cannot escape the news these days as it has into a constant blaring 24 hour telecasts. Twenty years ago a terrorist bombing was reported and we had to wait for the updates to come later. These days as soon as we have the news report we have live footage and within hour we have panels of experts debating the ramifications. September 11 was watched live around the world. For some people it was the first time that they actually thought about the possibility of terrorism affecting their lives. It was a monumental emotional time for many people who turned to their leaders and representatives for answers. Did we get the leadership and representation that we wanted or did we merely have our fears massaged.

What is significant is the speed at which the world was sold the concept of the ‘Post 911 World’. We were bombarded with this term until it became so prevalent that it was like a commercial brand name. What we were being sold at that time was the concept of ‘Post 911 Moral Relativism.‘ We were told by Bush and Howard that the old ways no longer work and we needed new tactics in the ‘War on Terror.’ What they are really saying is that they wanted to create a new morally to justify those tactics. Torture, Extraordinary Renditions, Pre-emptive Strikes were all considered to be morally repugnant to the west before 911 but afterwards they were not.

To heap all the ills of the world on one side of the debate would also be wrong. There has never been a shortage of well meaning people that are addicted to the concept of moral relativism. Describing any concept as wrong due to its age is narrow minded as it assumes that time itself is a moral compass. The same story comes from people who use culture to justify things like cannibalism and rape. National borders are also used as the measure of moral behavior where one nation tells all others to butt out of their human rights abuses. To say that it is wrong for our nationals to be treated cruelly by the government and then to say that foreign nationals can be treated cruelly is Moral Relativism. All these say that by accident of birth someone should have less human rights than others. ‘Are some animals more equal than others?

The problem with relativism is that in the end it becomes a dictatorship to rationalization. Every new event creates a new morality and nothing is ever static. Desperate times become the justification for desperate measures. Yet people are clever and they can argue with clear rhetoric justifications and excuses for some pretty vile behavior. It also assumes that there are no absolutes in morality. Rape becomes okay in the right culture; War is good if we believe it to be so; Lies are okay if everyone is a liar; murder is permitted if the society is condones it. Taken to its finality it becomes recipe for anarchy everything is permitted regardless of who it harms.

It may be that people find Moral Relativism attractive due to its ability to morph to fit any situation and demand little of its followers. Without moral absolutes it becomes the easy option that has no unshakeable convictions or truths. People may enjoy the supermarket approach to life where you even have the right to throw human rights, justice and morality in the bin after its use by date. Yet I wonder if in the blind rush to reject all notions of certainty whether uncertainty in all things is what they want. Of course some would reject all that I have written on the ground that it is not relative to the modern world.

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