Thursday, 21 February 2013

It Is Our Choices, Harry

This week in philosophy I've been studying moral relativism. I had come across it before of course, it's probably the aspect of philosophy that people object to the most, even when they've never really studied it themselves. Everyone who think they know what it is, knows it as the idea that "wrong" can depend on the situation, and they usually come up with the most extreme examples to object to. Sensationalism. That's just how people are, and that much won't change.

I've always contended that morality, by definition, is relative anyway, so this is at least an honest approach to it. I don't think most people even know what morality is, if they ever think of it at all.

Maybe I'm just getting old, because I am quite certain I never used to bother with it myself, and I do know that every generation thinks that morally, things can't get much worse, so clearly it can, because how many generations have said this............

As part of my studies I had to come up with two examples of things I considered to be morally wrong. And that was my first problem. I overthink things (SURPRISE!) and couldn't decide if my choices were in fact moral or ethical examples. So I was guided by the professor's own examples, one of which I was quite happy to go along with. Genocide.

He maintained that genocide was in fact not a candidate for moral relativism, because it is objectively wrong.

How the hell does anyone decide that? Is it a majority decision thing? You'd have a hard time finding any real dissent, other than psychopaths, so it seems to be pointless discussing it, but let's be honest, there have been plenty of examples in history where people have supported genocide, swept along in a tide of nationalism, or revenge, or whatever. They may have known what they were involved in was wrong, but that didn't stop them. So it obviously didn't seem wrong enough...did it?

At the time, they looked at it relatively. "Us or them," they said. Or "We have no choice". Or whatever.

Or did they?

Do people stop and think if what they are doing is wrong, relatively, objectively, or otherwise, or do they just  do whatever seems best for them, at the time?

I actually wonder if it's not so much about moral relativism, as moral meh.

Most of our moral decisions do not involve anything as serious as genocide (at least not directly, but we won't go there today), they are usually more at about the level of fairness you get playing board games. When your opponent goes to the bathroom, you can alter things a bit. Nobody dies. Most people don't even think of that as immoral. It's just cheating. A joke. No harm done.

So, much as in my idea that everyone has their own limit with literacy, everyone has a moral line they won't cross. The problem is, the vast majority of people have not invested any time in deciding where that line is, in advance. So when push comes to shove, it might be over there.

I think this, more than anything, is where the average Joe's relativism comes in, it's because he's making moral decisions on the fly. Opportunity strikes. The delivery van doors have been left wide open, and the driver is in the store. Nobody's looking.

There's a story, I'm not sure quite how true it is, because my ancestors are long dead and I can't ask them, that the Romany attitude towards property is that if you're not guarding something, you can't want it very badly. Romanies don't steal, therefore, they simply find things nobody wants. There's actually some logic to this, and let's face it, it was the attitude of entire colonializing nations towards land, for a long time. In fact at the same time authorities in Europe were busy persecuting travelling people for "finding" food on local farms, their armies were helping themselves to billions of acres of other people's farmland. That's pretty relative.

My essential nature is one of optimist, and I think most humans will behave themselves fairly well, most of the time, provided they aren't up against the wall. At the same time, I do tend to agree with the cynic that the world is mostly divided between those waiting to be ripped off, and those waiting to rip you off, but what I actually see, in the circles I move in, at least, is people holding back on the latter.

Which doesn't me going UGH a lot, every time I see another example of people behaving badly, when they didn't need to. My thoughts are always "You didn't have to do that, you chose to".

So I think that's where the relativism comes in. Not in the theory, but in the act.


  1. Ask any American if his country has ever engaged in genocide or terrorism. He will probably say no. Then point out the genocide of native americans and the widespread terrorism of the british-american bombings of German citizens. Then listen to the response about how well justified it was. Or the dame thine with slavery.

    The answer to any moral problem is "it depends" and mostly it depends on your point of view.