Monday, 16 July 2018

The Personalness of Morality

A stylised humanoid figure, as might be made of plasticine, stands under a tower of letter-blocks spelling "ethics" as the tower falls on them.
Ethics and morality are odd things. Sometimes it's clear that an ethical belief is something we hold to be universal – that there can be no question that something is wrong. Sometimes it's clear that it's a personal thing – that we hold for ourselves that that thing is completely wrong, but do not expect others to share that belief.
This isn't just a matter of different beliefs fitting different categories, though. It's also a matter of different people or ethical systems having different views of relativism. Very few people would extend moral relativism to murder or slavery in the modern context (though there are those who do), but many people (though far from all) are ready to see ethical beliefs about drugs, alcohol or sex as matters of personal morality.
The difference matters, and can be seen most clearly in political controversies on social issues. Given that nearly all agree that to kill is usually wrong, laws against that are uncontroversial. Yet there are, in many countries, laws restricting what consenting adults do together, sexually, in various ways. It's not that long since laws were in force in ‘western’ countries that most of my readers would probably find morally repugnant now. And yet, what they forbade is also, to many, morally repugnant. They think it is harmful to society, and to the individuals involved, and therefore should be forbidden by law. The same argument applies to the drug prohibition still in place in most western countries. For that matter, it also applies to crimes that cannot be argued to be victimless – there's just not the same potential for that argument to be controversial or denied in those cases.
So the religious ‘pro-life’ campaigner sees their argument as one regarding absolute morals, and do not consider abortion a victimless offence. The pro-choice campaigner is more likely to see the question of abortion in a relative way, but do not consider forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term to be victimless offence. In this picture, we must not forget those who hold a religious conviction that abortion is wrong, but do not campaign to ban it, or make it more difficult. In many cases this is a deliberate and thoughtful decision, not a simple lack of activity; the same people might indeed vote in a referendum to make or keep abortion legal. This is because they see this moral question as a personal one – that while they might consider it murder, they accept that other people would not do so because of the question of when life, or personhood, begins.
Similar variation can be seen in views regarding animal welfare. Those who think of animals, especially food animals, as nothing but things will care little for welfare on farms. Those who view it as acceptable to raise animals for food (or other products) and kill them, eat them, harvest renewable products from them and so forth, but see it as a moral duty to treat them well in so doing, are fairly prone to be evangelical about that view, to seek to change the law. Those who view it as morally wrong to eat meat, or even other animal products, are less likely to demand that their moral view should prevail and determine the diet of everyone else (though there are certainly a very vocal minority who do seem to think so).
Of course, some issues are taken as absolute at both poles. Not like the abortion debate, where both sides are passionate, but only one is seeking to enforce their morality on society at large (after all, just because abortions are legal doesn't mean you have to have one). On some issues, both sides' positions are arguably to make the law be based on their own moral position. For example, in the ongoing (in many places) debates on trans rights and gender recognition, the most hard-line positions at both ends take a moral stand on insisting what policy should be. The fact I agree more with one than the other doesn't change that. Or consider affirmative action in things like university (or college, for North American readers) admissions. For those who support it, it is a moral imperative to make up for the socio-economic disadvantage and/or structural racism experienced by certain groups – or even to make up for a history of crushing, horrific racism, even if it was only experienced by prospective students' ancestors. For those opposing it, at least for some, it is an immoral proposition because it compromises standards, it denies fairness based on actual attainment by prospective students. The fact some oppose it because they actually support racism is not relevant to the point I am asking you to consider.
Sometimes we see a moral imperative that we feel should apply across society. We campaign for it, we support changes in the law. Quakers are often supportive of environmental causes, and of those promoting equality. Of course, sometimes these can be in tension; there have been many cases in my experience where the drive to include disabled people has ended up in tension with some environmental cause. The one most live right now would be issue of straws (which there's plenty of resources out there to read both regarding the environmental problems of single-use plastic straws, and the reasons that alternatives don't work for many disabled people). I've seen similar impacts at Quaker events, where a decision is taken to do things in a certain way to be more environmentally friendly but it increases the barriers for disabled Friends. Where we think moral imperatives are absolute, how do we determine their interaction?
Other Quaker moral drives include peace; we see war as an absolute moral wrong, violence as pretty much always wrong. That does not mean that we judge every person engaged in such activities as immoral, however. We will rail at our governments for not working hard enough for peace, but that doesn't mean we despise the squaddie for their choice of work. We view gambling as immoral, for a range of reasons, but we are more likely to criticise the industry that enables it, indeed that promotes it, than we are to demonise the gambler themselves.
You may by this point be wondering what my point is here. What argument am I trying to make? You might wonder if I am holding moral relativism as superior to absolutism, at least on some issues. You might suspect that I am going to propose some yardstick for determining what things should be considered relative, and what absolute. I suspect many of you would roll your eyes at any such. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of you would like to hear what I have to say. Well, no eye rolling, and possibly disappointment – I'm not going to do these things.
What I am going to say is this: think. Think about morality, about what is relative and what is absolute. Thing about what of your moral positions you think should be imposed upon the world, and what you are content to agree to disagree concerning.
Then there's another step: reflect. Don't just work these things out logically, and don't just try to take an inventory. Sit with yourself and try to understand why you feel a certain way about certain things.
Finally, I would urge you to do one more thing: discern. Individual discernment is an important tool, though it cannot supplant corporate discernment. If your understanding of the Divine tends that way, you could say this step was prayer, but of the more inward sense, or the sense of praying for wisdom or to know God's will. Our supreme moral guide is not our intellect, nor our emotions, nor any writings, insightful and thought-provoking as they may be. Our guide is the Spirit, and that doesn't just mean knowing what is right and wrong for us to do; it will guide us to know what about morality we should see as personal, relative, and what should be seen as absolute, for all.
Basically, I just want you all to think about the difference between personal and absolute morality, understand where you stand, and seek to understand better.
That's hardly revolutionary, is it?
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