Monday, March 10, 2008

Moral Crusader

In recent posts there has been much talk about morals, relativism vs. absolutism, and what is deemed right or wrong. It is obvious that we can debate relativism vs. absolutism for an infinite amount of time without coming to a consensus view. This is what is most important, I believe, because one persons views will always differ from the next. While religiosity can be called into play here, it must be stressed every individual in society is brought up uniquely. Each person has their own set of experiences, given-advice, and environmental upbringing, which creates a persons moral standards.

Regardless of calls for moral absolutism, there will always be deviations. With that being said, how does this play in policy making and the electorate? Todays headlines flash the tragic news of New York Governor Elliott Spitzer's involvement in a prostitution ring. It is yet another case of our policy makers getting illegally wrapped up in the very laws they are charged to enforce and follow. It is interesting to note how quickly the electorate will turn on those politicians that are caught in an unfortunate, and sometimes illegal, act. It is common place for an individual to harp on the bad deeds of their politicians, while also performing their own less-than-moral acts.

In the case of Spitzer, it is obvious that he must step down as Governor, but as more of a political and familial decision (much can be said of the politics that pushed this story forward as well as why other flagged politicians have not stepped down as well). Morally, though, is it right that society holds their decision makers to a higher standard then how they hold their own? While moral relativism (in my opinion) is the only possible case for society, is it right to act as moral absolutists in regards to their elected officials? Is public policy more of an "ideas game" than an "individual game"?

Image Source: CBS News


Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

In a world of moral relativism, there is nothing wrong with what he did.

Progressive said...

Now, I don't know if I would characterize it like that. The central tenant of moral relativism is that morals do not reflect absolute, universal truths, but instead a persons social, cultural, and environmental circumstances. With that being said, we live in a society that teaches it right and wrong and our laws reflect that. Just because our society is allowed individual thought does not assume that there are no morals or that deeds such as Spitzer's are right.

Moral absolutism assumes a universal moral code, that can be broken as well. Using a crude example, Catholic priests work within a strict, absolute, moral code and still have acted in immoral ways. So, in fact morals can be broken regardless of the system.

Indeed, it seems like society is barking up the wrong tree in blaming societies woes on moral ineptitude due to relativism. I do not think one can conceivably set out a strict moral code that can govern all situations.

For that matter, Spitzer is an excellent example because he preached his own moral absolutism, yet still contradicted it. The real question then is why? I doubt the answer is because of relativism, but because of a personal need of his.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Let's say that I was raised by a band of itenerant thieves. I was taught from an early age that stealing was not only morally acceptable, but an obligation for passing into manhood. Suppose also, as a right of passage, I was to take the life of an enemy. In such a situation, based on the moral view of the world that I held, both stealing and killing would be deemed moral behavior. Just because you believe differently doesn't make my behavior morally wrong. It is only morally wrong if I violate my own moral code.

Yes, Spitzer admitted breaking his own moral code. According to my beliefs it is called sin -- falling short of the mark. It is because we are human and cannot live up to a moral absolute. It doesn't change the absolute, it merely reinforces the humanity of the individual. If he had believed that prostitution was acceptable -- or that it was acceptable to break whatever other laws he may have broken -- then according to his moral code it was OK. As society drifts toward moral relativism we drift toward chaos; a world in which each lives according to his own beliefs no matter what others, or society may generally hold to be acceptable behavior. It is a world in which anything goes.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I think there's a distinction between moral relativism and amorality. Clearly, there is an incentive to anyone attempting to escape moral judgment to portray relativism as amorality, but these legitimately are two separate concepts.
I suggest that moral relativism is not limited by the individual, but the society (-ies) in which that individual operates. Using our hypothetical brigand, he is guilty of a crime, provided that his neighbors have different values from his family group. The relative values of different groups affect the individual's role and consequences within that group, but the values of each system are real (or absolute) within that context.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I'm not sure that I follow your hair-splitting. To me, amorality means without morals -- no code of conduct -- nothing. Moral relativism on the other hand is taught in such a way that the central message is: just because you have a certain moral code that you believe to be correct does not make it so. Why is your set of beliefs any better than someone else's that may differ widely from yours? It teaches tolerance for all beliefs. It teaches that there is no clear-cut right and wrong. The lines become blurred until no one knows what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior. They may know what is legal or illegal but because of the blurring of the lines, they see no reason to accept such distinctions as correct or proper behavior. That blurring of the lines is much different than amorality. It essentially establishes that we must each develop a personal moral code by which to live and that all moral codes or positions are equally valid. Whether the behavior is legal or illegal is irrelevant.

Sue said...

(pleased be advised that this is intended - at least in part as tongue-in-cheek). You know Chris, I think this "moral relativism" you keep talking about is a straw man.

Because in all my years in academia (where I certainly meet lots of liberals), and teaching (where I come in contact with lots of conservative students) and in all my time on-line where I read both conservative and liberal blogs I have never once met anyone who actually practiced moral relativism. Every single person I have encountered is firmly convinced of the rightness of their own moral view, and that it is better than all other moral views in the universe.
I'm certainly no exception. I am utterly convinced that my own moral values are far superior to other moral codes out there; I'm contemptuous of Christian morality and Islamic morality, and Earth Goddess morality. While as a sociologist, trained professionally in "cultural relativism" (a totally different thing than moral relativism), I am able to objectively understand how your (or any one's) moral values are a product of your (or any one's) culture and social class and ethnic upbringing, and I can say, "ah ha, I see where that value comes from and why you hold it," that does not prevent me as an individual from being firmly convinced that my own moral values are far superior and truer and more right than yours (or any other groups) are.

Not that I've ever said that to anyone before, because my mama taught me that it was mean to tell other people that they are inferior to you, and that good people aren't mean. :)

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: Thank you for that chuckle. Now for some serious questions:

Do you ever challenge the moral beliefs of your students? Do you ever attempt to convince one of those students that beliefs they were taught at home may not be right? Of course you do, or you would be failing in your job. Is that not teaching the student that there is no absolute set of beliefs that are correct? Is that not therefore teaching moral relativism? What then is the result to society? Does it not create a confusion regarding what is right and what is wrong?

I can't say that I hold the key to all wisdom (or any wisdom for that matter). I do believe however that there are moral absolutes. There are things that are unquestionably right and wrong. There are many things that may be neither.

I believe that abortion is wrong. It is murder. It is not illegal. Society has accepted it.

I believe that homosexuality is wrong. We are male and female for a purpose. The design is obvious. Society is beginning to accept it as "normal." It is not.

I believe that when we promise in marriage to be faithful that the promise should be kept. As humans we often fail at that but society no longer places a stigma on such behavior. Instead it is celebrated by media and the exploits of celebrities.

Where are the lines? They are becoming blurred by something that is disguised as tolerance. That tolerance is indoctrinated through the schools and the media by teaching that our moral code is not a code at all. It is not even merely guidelines. It is all a myth designed in the darkness of ignorant history that enslaves us to belief systems that are no longer relevant. Oh, wait, there's that word again.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I believe what you describe happening in our society may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, instances of amorality in the guise of tolerance. However, I don’t think such excesses overturn the positive outcomes of a philosophy of tolerance.
I agree with your definition of moral relativism insofar as it asserts that no single set of values is universal or absolute. I disagree with the assertion that the recognition of other sets of beliefs creates a slippery slope in which there is no right or wrong. If we follow this train of thought to its conclusion, hypothetically that the moral relativist accepts that there exists somewhere a set of beliefs that justifies every behavior, then there is no difference between relativism and amorality. (This is why I made the earlier point about the amoral misusing relativism as a shield. I’ll put up William Jefferson Clinton as an exemplar of this; pick your favorite scandal.)
The distinction I make is that moral relativism is context-specific. If an individual belongs to a group (or otherwise operates within it), then he or she is subject to that group’s morals. Those morals may be different from the values of other groups, but they are real (even immutable) within the group.
A person may be a physician and a Roman Catholic, and would thus be held to different, potentially conflicting moral standards within the context of these two groups. These constitute two relative sets of morals; neither is universally applicable, but both are applicable within their own context. Breaking the moral code of either group could result in censure or ouster. This is different from the slippery slope that results in amorality; this may also be different from what you have asserted is being passed-off as tolerance or relativism. There exists a legitimate danger for the relativist drift into amorality.
I also think it’s important to recognize that the US system of government is predicated on some degree of moral relativism. If it weren’t, we’d have little or no use for the judiciary, and we’d likely have a lot more laws that ban things. The framers of the Constitution recognized that there is potential for both time and geography to affect how laws are interpreted and upheld. They also created a framework that began by guaranteeing freedoms, rather than establishing a laundry list of banned activities.
I believe people should challenge their own and their community’s morals. Just as the danger of true relativism is drifting into amorality, the danger of absolutism is drifting into legalism and dogmatism. I can’t think of a single longstanding set of beliefs that has remained unchanged, or that hasn’t been used for nefarious purposes at some point. Constantly challenging morals curbs a group away from the irresistible force of amorality and from the immovable object of legalism.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I suspect we may be fairly close in our views of the subject.

Some who read this blog may view me as intolerant. In some areas that may be true (the three issues that I listed in an above comment for instance) but in other areas it is far from the truth. The point that I wish to make is that I believe there are moral absolutes. They are universal; they are not tied to cultural norms or to laws of men. They apply to all people of all races, creeds and backgrounds. When those absolutes are violated there are consequences. Our country -- our society -- seems to be steadily drifting away from that concept. Behavior that the majority of the people find abhorrent is suddenly being portrayed as acceptable and those that condemn such behavior are vilified by academics, by the media, and often by politicians operating under various guises but often as the wolf to which you earlier referred. I don't claim to know what all of those absolutes are but I would guess that there are ten in particular that would be a good place to start. The ten to which I refer seem to have been banned from public display in most places.

I agree that legalism is a danger of one extreme. Anarchy is at the other extreme. Our current drift is toward anarchy. I am opposed to both extremes. It is difficult to remain in balance. Once the scales begin to tip in one direction or the other it is very difficult to check the movement.