In the last post we briefly explored the relativistic nature of morality in the context of time and space. In this post we will explore it in the context of culture and the individual.
It can be difficult to separate space and culture in relation to moral relativism, because the context of space always includes culture. So I am going to use an example that includes only culture, making the context of space pretty much irrelevant. For this next foray, we will discuss the general social mores of gang culture. I think this is a reasonable example because it is a culture that exists within larger cultural contexts, yet remains relatively consistent in and of itself. Specifically we will explore U.S. urban gang culture.
For anyone who has lived in areas with high levels of gang activity, it is easy to simply dismiss gang bangers as immoral, unethical criminal thugs. Indeed I would be hard pressed to disagree, as my own moral framework precludes many of the activities that are common within gang banger culture. From the perspective of our generalized cultural mores, gang bangers are a pretty nasty bunch who, in their blatant disregard for people who aren't involved in their stupid, deadly games are very bad people - immoral people. But that does not mean they are not operating within the confines of any moral frame. Indeed, given the illicit nature of many of their activities, their general social mores are considerably more restrictive than those of the larger cultural contexts in which they live and act. And the social consequences for acting outside that framework are brutal. Rather than simply being marginalized by their peers, becoming an object of disdain, a gang banger is more likely to be severely beaten, possibly killed. And it doesn't necessarily stop there. Their family and/or close friends may also be at risk for retaliation.
There is some overlap of course. From my own perspective, I think it is blatantly immoral for someone who gets busted with a bag of cannabis to tell the police where they got it. My own reaction is not to kill the person or beat them, but at the same time, I am not going to be terribly upset if they get their ass kicked. I firmly believe that one should take ownership of their own choices and that it is immoral to push their consequences off onto someone else. But gang bangers tend to take that concept much further - it doesn't matter what the crime is, or even who committed it. You simply cannot talk to the police about it. Doesn't matter if it was your worst enemy, doesn't matter if the crime was raping someone and beating them to death - you cannot tell the authorities. If it is bad enough - offensive enough, then you deal with the perpetrator yourself or with some help from your fellow gang members. It is simply unacceptable to narc. The only possible exception would be something that is too egregious to ignore and too much to deal with, such as terrorism. But the exceptions would be rare and extreme. In general, the consequences of talking out of turn are severe and often permanent.
There is also a strong emphasis placed on taking care of your own. Another concept that is quite conducive to my own moral framework. The difference is the extreme it is taken to. I am not inclined to kick the crap out of somebody or shoot them, because they talked shit about my best friend. Gang bangers take this basic concept to a dangerous and from my perspective immoral extreme. They aren't inclined to worry about collateral damage when it comes to settling scores. What must take precedence at all cost, is vengeance and protecting their space - if there is some random innocent person in the way, too bad they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The key though, is that from their perspective they are operating from the context of their general cultural mores. And the individuals within that cultural context generally mold their moral framework to function within that context. While from our perspective, it would be perfectly reasonable to call the police and give a statement if we had the misfortune to witness a murder, from theirs it is immoral to do so. To them, any situation that would require they talk to the police about a crime would be a serious and significant moral dilemma.
With that, we come to the individual. By this point you may have noticed a pattern - that culture encompasses space, which in turn encompasses time. So it shouldn't be surprising that the individual encompasses all of these. Coming to the individual, we come to the most finite context of all - though even that can be broken down further by time, space and culture. The individual is not static. We mature as we move through time and if we are even the tiniest bit introspective, our moral framework evolves as we age. And many people change their space, moving to a different environment that will have an impact on their moral frame. Likewise, some of us also change our cultural context to some degree or another. A good example of this is my ability to relate to the notion of not talking to the cops about certain things - this was not the result of the culture in which I was raised, to any strong degree. This was the result of my having spent many years in a subculture that found certain types of illicit behavior acceptable - mostly in regards to illicit drugs. It actually contradicts to some degree my upbringing, which would not discourage one from reporting illicit activities. Though there was a supporting moral premise that one should accept responsibility for their choices, so that is not an absolute.
An example that I used in the thread over at Dispatches, is the death penalty. I like this one because I think it very nicely breaks through the surface agreement that two individuals respective moral frames might have and delves into the moral reasoning that produces the same outcome. Like many people I know, I am morally opposed to the death penalty. I am not apposed to it for the same reason that a lot of people I know are. I have a great many friends who believe that the state should never take the life of a criminal, under any circumstances. I rather fervently disagree with the moral calculus they use to oppose the death penalty. I don't believe that it is the least bit immoral for the state to execute people who are guilty of certain crimes. There are crimes that I fervently believe are reprehensible enough to warrant the execution of the guilty party. The moral calculus that brings me to so voraciously oppose the death penalty, is the risk that people who are not guilty of a capital offense might be executed for one. I simply cannot accept that any perceived benefit of capital punishment is worth the risk.
So the outcome of the calculus is exactly the same - both my friends who believe absolutely nothing could excuse state sanctioned execution and I come to the same conclusion. But there is more than a little bit of difference in how we get there. It is not a simple matter of nuance. We have a full fledged and extreme difference of opinion that is only made irrelevant by the fact that a strong enough certainty of guilt to satisfy my moral sensibility is virtually impossible and rare enough that I don't think it is worth executing those few and having the capital option on the table at all. If it were hypothetically possible to determine absolutely, the guilt or innocence of everyone convicted of certain crimes, I would have absolutely no qualms about the state executing them.
This very naturally leads to the question of the imposition of any person's moral framework on society as a whole. If there are no universal objective moral truths, then how can anyone justify imposing their moral frames on anyone else - even if a lot of people take very similar moral positions? The short answer is that we simply can't. There is never a reasonable justification for imposing one's moral frame on anyone else, with the possible exception of parents imposing their moral frame on their children. But even that is not an entirely reasonable proposition. The most important and to some degree the only purpose of morality, is as a governor of an individuals own behavior. Morality transcends law, social conventions, the environment in which one is raised and all cultural considerations, when it comes to any person's daily decision making processes. It is the single most profound control of our behaviors, our innate sense of what is right and wrong.
That is not to say that laws, social conventions, the environment in which we were raised and cultural considerations don't also play a part in our decision making - indeed all of those things provide a profound influence on the development of our moral frames. It is just that none of those things can have the absolute impact on our decisions, that our moral frame has. Our moral frame is why we choose to do what is right, even if we are quite certain we could get away with doing something we believe is wrong. It is why, for example, I couldn't just walk into a book store and slip that copy of The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome into my briefcase, even if no one is looking. It is not the fear of consequences - I am pretty sure that if I actually tried, I could get away with it. It is my moral belief that it is inexcusable to steal something that I can live without that stops me.
So where then do - or should laws come from, if not from some universal or simply objective moral truth? In point of fact, they should come from what is determined to be the best way for people to behave within a society, for making that society a reasonable place for everyone who lives within it. We don't need morality to tell us that a society that allows people to gun each other down in the street, is not going to be a very reasonable one to live in. We don't need morality to tell us that allowing rape will make a society untenable for most of those who make up that society. We don't need morality to tell us that allowing people to steal from others is going to make society rather chaotic and unpleasant. We can debate the definitions of murder and manslaughter. I don't believe, for example, that shooting someone who has invaded your home with clearly nefarious intent is the least bit immoral - yet there are plenty of situations in many states where doing so is illegal. There are gray areas when it comes to rape as well - is it rape when a man (or women) applies a great deal of verbal pressure, until the other person acquiesces? I don't happen to think so (though I could see contexts in which it would) but there are those who feel that no should be the end of it and any questioning or pressure after that - no matter what, constitutes rape if the other person gives in. And while I am not one to countenance theft or suggest that it should be legal, I do believe that the context of a theft determines it's morality and legally speaking should be taken into account. I am not inclined to think that someone who steals food in a desperate attempt to feed his or her family is being immoral.
I do however, tend to perceive many aspects of my moral frame as objectively true. This is not to be confused with believing that any aspect of my moral frame is a universal objective truth. There may be aspects of my moral frame for which I have a hard time conceiving of a context that would make them moral or at least not immoral. There are many aspects of my moral frame that I believe are absolute within my cultural context. But this is my opinion, nothing more and nothing left. This is my opinion, which forms the core of that which arbitrates my conception of right and wrong. It is that which prevents me from beating or killing someone, merely because they made me so very intensely angry - even if I was certain I could avoid legal repercussions. While there are a lot of people within my culture who have very similar moral positions on many of the things that I do, they are still nothing more than our opinions. What stretches beyond out relative opinions on issues such as equality, slavery, murder, rape and theft are laws. Unfortunately, sometimes laws are produced that are based on morality, rather than on the basis that they make for a better society for more of the population. It is almost inevitable that when laws are made that reflect morality, rather than a reasoned attempt to make society function more smoothly, they are going to unreasonably restrict the rights of some people.
In part three, I will discuss further the differentiation of perceiving one's morality objectively and universal objective moral truths, because that was tripping someone up on Ed's blog, so I imagine that I need to be especially clear on that point. The person who was seeing a contradiction there, Fortuna, is probably a pretty bright person, so I can only assume that this is going to confuse a lot of people - probably because of a failure on my part. So I will definitely explore this in somewhat greater detail. And I will wrap it up with a discussion about what I see as the responsibilities of the moral relativist - and indeed anyone - to constantly reexamine their moral frame and their motivations, their moral calculus.
And I promise, if there is anyone left reading this at this point, that I will do my best to make it as interesting as possible.