Posted by: camtimothy | June 5, 2010

Absolute or Universal Morality

Dan Wilson posted this comment on my “Absolute Morality” essay/blog post.  I just wanted to respond in some detail as his ideas have a good deal of merit! Dan’s thoughts are in blue/italics.

I agree with you in principle, but I think that there are several sticky wickets which keep this from being practical as a universal moral code:
1) With regard to both clauses, what is the definition of “harm”?
For example (and please, everyone, this is just an example, not an attempt to start a different debate): does denying homosexuals the right to marry cause them harm? I’d say yes, but many people would say no. Unless you can define “harm”, your code degrades into relativism.
True, but then defining terms is always going to be the subject of debate and discussion.  I think that the dictionary definition of “harm” can be accepted without any problem.  It is when we delve into situational ethics that we are open to debate.  Your example of homosexuality begs the point.  You stated that some people would say that denying homosexuals the right to marry does not cause them harm, while some would say that it does cause them harm.    I would argue that actually, everyone would agree that denying homosexuals the right to marry would be harmful to homosexuals—at least emotionally if not physically—but some simply don’t care.  Granted, those who don’t care about the harm to homosexuals may be thinking about the overall effect that they believe gay marriage would have on society in general, but now we have gone into situational ethics.  And gay marriage—or any sort of marriage for that matter is essentially a cultural imperative.
On the other hand, killing homosexuals, beating them, harassing them, etc would be obvious violations of my proposed universal moral imperative: to do no harm to other humans.
2) With regard to the second clause, what if, by causing harm to another person, we can prevent a greater harm from befalling them? For example, is it moral to deprive a mentally ill person of their liberty in order to prevent them from harming themselves? Where is the line drawn? Is it never appropriate to cause harm while preventing harm? If it is sometimes appropriate, how much difference in level of harm must there be to make it appropriate? Who is the judge?
Again, situational ethics.  We have evolved and prospered as humans because of our tribal instincts and with those instincts has come a “greater good” philosophy and a need for intra-tribal order.  Today, we have laws and we imprison, fine, or even kill people who are convicted of disobeying those laws.  Obviously, we are causing harm to those who disobey our laws and hardship to their families.  

What I, and others such as Sam Harris, are proposing is not anarchy.  A universal morality is nothing more than a starting point.  And notice that I use the term “universal” rather than “absolute”.  An absolute morality would necessarily stem from an authority.  Whether this authority is an imaginary divine being or an earthly dictator, the effect is the same.  There is no room for debate or discussion or compromise or situational ethics.  

The Roman Catholic Church takes the stand, for example, that abortion is ALWAYS wrong and forbidden.  Their doctrine is a position from authority.  Circumstances are mostly meaningless.  Most faith-based imperatives are arguments from authority.  Doesn’t matter that it is always a human being acting as a conduit from God to Man, this is still an absolute morality based on an absolute authority.  We are arguing that such a morality is not only not desirable, but not necessary either, except to those who desire power over others.

Remember that actions can be moral, immoral, or neutral.  Within that range, there will often be gray areas in which determining the greater good may play an important part in determining how to act.

3) Also with regard to the second clause, what if by harming one person, I can prevent harm from befalling others? The old “Would it be moral to kill Hitler in order to prevent the Holocaust?” dilemma.
Situational.  Under an absolute morality, a commandment such as “Thou shalt not kill” would make killing Hitler an immoral act.  Under a universal morality, this might still be considered an immoral act, but one that might be necessary in order to prevent millions of deaths.  Quite frankly, I do not think that humans are even capable of agreeing on any morality that is not based on authority.  That is pessimistic I know, but given our history of inter-tribal and intra-tribal rivalries and the intrinsic nature of humans (a vast range from good and kind to ambitious and ruthless), we are probably 20,000 years past the time when we could have generated a logical universal morality.  We may need to do what we can to try now, but I’m not sure that it is possible.
With one exception (mentioned below), I think all moral codes suffer from these sorts of problems, even something as simple as “Murder is wrong” (clearly it is not wrong in all circumstances, unless we resort to “well, in that case it’s not murder”).
Matt Dillahunty (of “The Atheist Experience” fame) came up with the only moral statute that I’ve ever heard that holds in all circumstances: “It is never moral to own another human being as property.” Beyond that, things get complicated.

This may be a good idea, but it is still a situational ethic that would necessarily fall into a sub-zone of any universal morality.  Not owning you doesn’t help me in dealing with you on any practical level.  I could hire you, work for you, work with you, help you do things, or of course, harm you, steal from you, etc etc, without owning you.

In conclusion, cultural relativity will always stand in the way of a true universal morality, and there are many people who would happily install an absolute morality, as long as it was their absolute morality!  There will always be good people who want the best for others as well as for themselves, but there will also always be those who would deny others the pleasures and privileges that they themselves wish to enjoy.  

Tim Campbell



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