Friday, 17 October 2008

Absolutely wrong

Part 1 of 2: The perils of moral relativism, and how religion hinders in two conflicting ways

In your writer's opinion one of the most troubling developments of my time on the planet has been that of moral relativism. This should be explained before continuing. Moral relativism is the concept that morality is not absolutely definable, but is something borne out of cultures, traditions, history and the person themselves.

This topic is immense, and as such this section forms the first of a two-part post. As with most issues shades of grey exist. There clearly is some truth to moral-relativism in the way it is expressed above - on more subtle and less inherently moral issues, such as how much reverence to show one's parents or the correct behaviour when bored with a speaker (or a blog post), the responses will inevitably be coloured by the backgrounds and cultures of those concerned. This is no bad thing, and it would be very hard to objectively say what the right responses were.

However this is about as much accommodation to moral-relativism as we should be prepared to give. For those worrying that unwavering rules are about to be defined (don't kill and so on) then this need not be a concern. It is possible and entirely sensible to denounce moral relativism while understanding that stealing could be right in one context (when under occupation, say), while wrong in another (visiting your local library). Moral absolutism will take more to defeat it than crass arguments about the worthiness of pilfering bread to serve the famished.

In this post the curiously bi-polar influence of religion will be considered. In the next post the problems that moral-relativism has brought and the solutions to this will be examined.

Religion has brought two unhelpful contributions to the moral table. Firstly it has set out to provide its own version of the moral absolute truths. For the Abrahamic religions this has been a pretty sorry affair. Secondly it has managed to rail against moral-relativism while at the same time supporting it and using it to justify why religions should be allowed to do things that, separated from religion, would appear abhorrent.

One would expect religions to be rather good at providing absolute moral standards. They all contain written texts, all describe people who, at the very least, were communicators and set out to convey messages they believed were important. One particular form of these standards has become something of a clich├ęd image of the battle between church and state in the United States, the Ten Commandments. Like a couplet so catchy that a lyricist knows it is destined for the chorus, these commandments are such gold that they got in the bible, or torah, twice.

Much has been written about the paucity of wisdom that they provide for a moral gold-standard. Suffice to say that four of the ten are unrelated to morality, and the remainder, while helpfully explaining that murder is off the cards, fail to provide any guidance on how one should behave to one another (save not stealing and lying). No mention is made of how (or if) to protect those more vulnerable than oneself. No mention is made of sexual morality (which must come as a surprise given that even the church admits it talks of nothing else). No framework is provided to deal with new moral dilemmas that arise. No explanation is made of when it is acceptable to use force. Some have argued that it provides no explanation as to whether slavery is acceptable. This is a grievous slur against the good book of Exodus; the text is fully in support of slavery, and verse 17 urges the reader not to steal the slave that your neighbour has paid good money for.

In short the list is dismal and lacks any clear moral theme. If only this was a unique lapse in the bible's sense of all things proper. Judges 19 makes it clear that volunteering one's male house-guest for gang raping is, reassuringly, rather frowned upon. The bible rather let's itself down, however, by in the next verse proposing that giving your daughter up to the same gang is the sensible solution. This is your author's favourite example of biblical 'morality', I will leave the reader to find their own.

A more profound problem comes from this list and the numerous other shocking examples of 'morality' in the bible. That being: why we would think that any religious text, or god, was automatically moral. Julian Baggini rather excellently, using Plato, demonstrates the fallacy here. The following is paraphrasing, but the book comes strongly recommended.

Is God good because whatever God does automatically defines goodness? Or does his goodness come from him doing good things that are inherently good? The former should be pretty troubling for any religious person. It says that we can't say that god provides a moral compass - it's just the case that whatever he says is automatically good. If God decreed rape to be acceptable thus it would be.

So we come to the second option - the things God does are good because they have the property of goodness. If so then we're fine, because God won't pick the morally unpleasant options, but this requires there to be an independent source of what is and isn't good.

Apologies are required if you have had your fill of the word 'good'. In summary, one can realise that either you believe Abraham murdering Isaac would have been a good choice, because infanticide is good when god demands it, or you believe the reason the story shocks us is because of our objective understanding that senselessly killing an innocent strikes us to the core as being wrong. I have left out the third alternative that you think this is nothing other than one of the most ghastly, amoral fairy-stories ever told.

Having failed to provide an objective moral standard religion now tries to convince us that moral relativism might have a place after all. Sharia law meaning different divorce rules for some women? No problem, says Mr Williams, head clergyman of the Anglican church. Think that women should have parts of the anatomy butchered - seems a bit beyond the pale doesn't it? No problem - let the priests perform this tragic mutilation and the anthropologists can line up to defend it as a cultural norm.

From misogyny to homophobia to the oral suction of an infant's penis by a grown man to livestock practises causing unnecessary suffering religion has an incredible way of managing to say "I know this looks bad chaps, but you have to understand it's our culture to do this!". Out of desperation to protect antiquated and inexcusable moral anachronisms religion has become the greatest champion of moral relativism.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Excellent piece - I should check this blog more often! With regards to female genital mutilation etc, what I find depressing is that it's not just the religous who suddenly lose their moral compass. Many feminists, who are happy to condemn western misogyny, are strangely quiet when it comes to other cultures. For an example see Germaine Greer's book 'The Whole Woman', in which she claims that the West has no right to condemn FGM because breast enlargements and other plastic surgery are just as bad. I'm not making this up. Never mind that one is voluntary and the other decidedly isn't - in her mind they're morally equivalent acts.