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Universality Through the Eye of A Needle

- the moral relativism of Mother Davis -

Mother Davis scratches her chin and questions:

How can anyone seriously argue for the existence of universal morals and values?

As I ask this question, I put the emphasis on the word argue because the very existence of an argument demonstrates that there is substantive disagreement about the morals and values that are being described as universal. If there is just one person who disagrees with a set of morals or values, then those morals and values are by definition not universal. After all, the single dissenter is part of the universe.

When people argue for the existence of universal codes of morality, they always get caught in this inconsistency, and have to wiggle their way around it by stating that in definitions of universality, the opinions of some types of people just don't count.

Take, for example, William Bennett, the self-appointed expert on what is universally true and moral and good. Bennett writes big books about supposedly universal morals, and then he gets angry at liberals for not supporting these same morals! Apparently, when Bennett describes his "universal" morals, he's referring to a universe that only contains conservatives, and American conservatives at that.

Years, ago, in my last week as an undergraduate, I had a debate with a burned out philosophy professor. This professor was resentful of the fact that his students didn't seem to care about what he had to say anymore, and wondered what was wrong with his students that could cause such disinterest. "It bothers me," he said as we sat in a pizza parlor drinking beer, "the way that so many of my students seem to believe in moral relativism. Philosophically, moral relativism is untenable. One simply must accept that there are certain basic universal values."

I challenged him to name one such universal value.

"Well, no one believes that it's okay to murder babies," he responded.

"Then how do babies get murdered?" I questioned in reply. "If no one believes that it's acceptable to murder babies, then how does it happen? Are you saying that people murder babies even as they acknowledge that the practice is morally unacceptable? What about the societies in which infanticide is not only tolerated, but given official social sanction?"

"You're missing the point," said the professor glumly. "I don't think that we can accept that those are moral societies. If we accept moral relativism, then we cannot condemn those societies as immoral, and baby killing becomes an okay thing to do."

Well, that's the way the argument for moral universals always turns, isn't it? The debate starts out with a claim that absolutely everyone agrees on moral issues, then turns to a dismissal of those who dissent, and finally arrives at the proclamation that the ability to engage in moral condemnation of those who do not share in the supposedly universal concept of morality is preeminent over the acceptance of obvious facts, such as the fact that every issue of morality has multiple perspectives, each perspective having some supporters.

No moral perspective is universal because every universal perspective is debated, but the validity of these debates is casually and inexplicably dismissed by believers in a universal moral code that must apply to absolutely everybody. Their supposedly intellectual arguments are all based upon the emotional obsession with the ability to condemn the moral lapses of people they don't like.

Now, I'm not saying that I approve of killing babies. However, the question must be asked: WHO ASKED ME? Well, no one did, other than that philosophy professor, who wasn't really interested in my thoughts anyway.

The point is that whether I, as an individual, approve of killing babies has very little to do with the question of whether a sanction against infanticide is a moral universal. No one person or group has the power to declare moral universals, not even William Bennett.

A moral code is only universal if every being capable of making moral decisions adheres to that code. Obviously, there's always someone who disagrees with any particular moral code, so there aren't any moral universals.

Such thoughts lead moralists to despair, but I don't believe that such despair is necessary. The idea that only universally respected morals are necessary for the survival of civilized society is ludicrous. Complex civilizations have existed on Earth for thousands of years, yet each one of these civilizations have had to deal with disagreements about issues of morality.

In fact, civilizations have suffered most when dissent about morality has been suppressed. Take, for example, the great Islamic civilization that prospered during the time of Europe's Dark Ages: at its height, the Islamic empire valued tolerance of different religions and cultures under its rule. The morally sever, conservative Islamic fundamentalism people think of today only prospered AFTER the decay of the Islamic civilization.

Moral decisions are strongest when individuals are allowed the freedom to debate about values with others who disagree. I am perfectly capable of deciding that I don't approve of murdering babies (or anyone else, for that matter) without adhering to William Bennett's pretense to universal morality.

Ultimately, morality does not depend upon universal agreement, but upon individual conscience. People like William Bennett believe that any valid system of morality must be universally acceptable to everyone. I, on the other hand, believe that any system of morality that does not accept different perspectives of conscience is nothing more than a thoughtless imitation of the appearance of goodness.

Of course, that's just my opinion. Disagree with me if you like.

Mother Davis

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