Some recent comments on my entry on moral equivalence, along with Postvixen’s recent opus, prompted me to get around to this commentary. I believe that certain moral standards are ‘absolute’, or as nearly so as to make no bones about the difference, while other moral standards are ‘relative’, or tied to the particular cultures and circumstances of those involved. Some examples:
One novel I read, Prisoner of Conscience, featured a culture where it was not merely socially acceptable to torture prisoners, but, in fact, the civic duty of the protagonist to do so. My sense was that the author tried to craft sympathy for her protagonist, who was a torturer and a slave-master, by putting him into a society where the people around him were even more reprehensible. All right, so he has people technologically enslaved to his service. But he’s nice to them. And, really, society ‘made’ him keep those slaves. He doesn’t have a choice in it. Honest. (Apologies to those who have read the books and accuse me of gross oversimplification. Of which I am guilty).
My conclusion, on finishing the two books of the series, was that the protagonist was a monster. And it didn’t matter if he was less of a monster than the people around him. It didn’t even matter that he was the only influential champion of good causes in the novels. He was still a monster. The lesser of two evils is still evil. This is a moral absolute of my world. It doesn’t matter that the slavery was legal and commonplace in the antebellum South or in ancient Rome. It was still wrong. Putting a man in chains and forcing him into servitude under penalty of death just because you can--not because of anything he’s done—is always wrong. Killing a woman because she says a word you don’t like, or don’t want her to say, is always wrong. Chopping off your servant’s hand because you had a bad day at work is always wrong. It doesn’t matter if your culture, religion, laws, or pet rock all say that this behavior is perfectly acceptable. It’s still wrong. As Don Henley sings, “Evil is still evil, in anybody’s name.”
You may notice above that I presented specific situations, as opposed to broad categories of actions, like “Stealing is wrong” or “Murder is wrong.” (“Murder is wrong” is way more problematic than you’d think, since it begs the question of “What is murder?” The most common definition of “murder” is “the unlawful killing of one human by another.” Posit a sufficiently immoral government, and you can easily get moral murders.) That’s one way that “relativity” creeps into even my “absolutist” argument. Circumstances influence the rightness or wrongness of an action. Enslaving a man just because you can is wrong. But making a convicted criminal do forced labor isn’t necessarily wrong.
All this said, I also think there are “relative” points of morality, which are heavily dependent on culture, religion, etc., and not just on the specific circumstance. For example, in my previous entry, I gave a hypothetical example of a “twelve year-old girl who thinks she's in love with her thirty-something neighbor and consents to have sex with him.” I went on to say that the neighbor in this story had committed a “reprehensible act.” But, in my mind, that’s contingent on the circumstance of my society. Two thousand years ago, would I still say that the man’s actions were reprehensible? What if he married her first? What if they lived in a society where older men were given the duty of introducing adolescents to sexual behavior, and he was executing this duty with compassion, care, and love? Am I still sure that he is wrong?
I will condemn the society that embraces human sacrifice, whatever their reasons or motives may be. But I’m less convinced that, say, the sexual morals of my own culture are the only correct ones. But that does not mean that my culture’s sexual morals are irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t like them. I may not believe that monogamous relationships are the only proper model. But it would be immoral for me to seduce someone who was involved in a monogamous relationship with another person.
I think I’m wandering off topic. I’ll just post this now and get to work. If I have anything else to add I can always do so later.