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Absolute vs. Subjective Morality

Posted 11 April 2003, 5.03 am by winter

By endorsing that notion that all morality is subjective and the result of uncountable (though not infinite) forces upon an individual and is therefore unassailable, one ends up endorsing the actions of human beings like Hitler, Kissinger and Pol Pot. This is something many people balk at. The idea that the philosophies, moralities and actions of murders are as valid as those of a bank teller or mid-western grandmother who enjoys baking cookies and going to church is rejected instantly by such people. This means that there must be some moral absolutes for them and anyone else who would wish not to condone Hitler’s morality.

There can be many ways to arrive at these moral absolutes. Popular opinion seems the least credible of those that occupy my list, so I’ll ignore that except to say that most people are idiots (simply look at the US census figures for the number of people that believe in god).

Following Kant, we could formulate a rule or rules that generate maxims that any rational creature could understand the utility of. (BTW, ending sentences with prepositions is FUN!) Maxims generated by rationally founded rules would be universally understood (assuming that rationality is immutable and universal). For instance, “don’t act in a way that you would deny someone else the option of acting in” or “don’t make a special case for yourself” would be rules that would generate ethical maxims when confronted with actions and situations. So, if you were given the chance to lie in order to benefit in some way, you would have to say to yourself that you would not approve of someone lying about this matter to you, and that therefore you should not behave in this way. This requires the point of view that all humans are rational and all rational creatures should be treated the same because their differences are superficial.

Imagine an example where one was in a social situation in which lying about a future event (paying someone back for money borrowed or being someplace at a certain time) would seem to be better than being truthful. While this may grant you some sort of an advantage (it’s easy to concoct a story that sets up a situation like that) by lying you’re saying that it’s okay for any rational agent to lie and if this were true the institution of promising would fall because everyone would be ‘allowed’ to lie, the value of a promise would be nothing and you would not be able to profit from either lying or telling the truth.

There are plenty of situations where people would like to think that lying would actually be the morally correct thing to do (a la: the ax murderer’s example). The main problem with this argument against lying and it’s relation to the argument that one shouldn’t make an exception for one’s self is that it assumes that all humans are created equally. This cannot be so. Even if we start out tabula rasa social and economic forces differentiate each individual to such a degree that wild divergences are seen from this initial state. Besides which, we live in a world in which we can reject morality and rationality and lie freely and still maintain the practice of promising. Treating one’s self as an exception does not ruin the world, it’s probably the reason the world is at all interesting.

Another supposedly interesting maxim that can be generated by the ‘don’t make an exception of yourself’ rule is that murder is wrong because the killer does not wish to be killed. If an individual who truly supports capital punishment were asked whether he would support the state taking his life should he be found guilty of murder there’s no reason not to think that he would say yes, believing that if you kill someone, your own life is forfeit. Through this example it seems that as long as you support capital punishment, murder is morally sanctioned by the golden rule in that the murderer does not make an exception of himself when he kills, but admits his inclusion.

Of course this can be countered by the creation of a ‘precious life’ clause on killing, but that would dis-allow even state run executions and war and lead to a very dull world. You could say that if the state elects to kill you based upon your immoral act or an immoral act by the nation-state that holds you a citizen (assuming the state thinks murder is wrong, excluding when it kills) it is acting in accordance with the golden rule by treating you as you treat others. This weakening of morals to exclude certain acts of murder means that the absolutism of morality is already shaken.

Even if you maintain that all murder is wrong, there are well known examples and thought problems that seem to beg a moral person to be torn in two. Examples include killing to save yourself, loved ones, a thousand people, a million people, shooting Hitler or someone similar whom you believe to be a ‘monster.’

I’m sure there are other moral absolutes that can be generated in this way and that do hold up under scrutiny, but these seemed like interesting ones to me (and interesting ones to poke holes in).

A less powerful way to generate more absolutes is to take a personal opinion (such as ‘murder is wrong’) and justify it rationally through thought experiments and examples. This process is long and is bound to result in an incomplete list, not to mention one that is full of conditional clauses (‘murder is wrong unless…’ or ‘lying is wrong unless…’). If there are ‘moral absolutes’ they seem likely to be culture and class specific and conditional, and absolute only in a loose sense of the word.

Besides which, do we ever want to hold on to moral absolutes? Is killing to save someone else or in self-defense to be held in the same regard as the Zodiac Killer (one of the greatest, uncaught and famous serial killers ever) taking out a cabbie? On the opposite point, is it enough to say that Hitler was justified only in his own mind, just as everyone else is? Doesn’t that mean that no one can be condemned outside of personal opinion and that the whole notion of justice is fundamentally flawed beyond recovery? I certainly hope so.

If we don’t hold morality to be timeless and free of context, can we say that killing millions of people because of their religion or creed is wrong? Hitler certainly justified it, can we judge his morality to be flawed when he’s seen as a product of his times and environment? Is disagreeing with genocide the most that we can do, or does a physical, violent defense of a particular morality (and a violation of that morality in the same stroke) an acceptable answer? After Auschwitz can morality be defended?

Winter
on 12 April 2003, 8.20 am
I bring up rather deep and important philosophical points and arguments here, on a web site, where they seem inappropriate due to the audience or myself because I know that I am unable to compete with any sort of professional philosopher or in any sort of serious environment. I am an amateur and most likely undeserving of any sort of attention. Writing is an attempt to establish some sort o dialog (and thus a connection) with the world at large. This experimentation must be labeled a failure. On the other hand, putting these thoughts into writing and agreeing to post them means that I must fully think them out and consider their ramifications, allowing further development and self examination. This may be a vain and vainglorious goal and this very comment is certainly vain, in either sense of the word.


anon
on 15 March 2004, 9.36 pm
Even though hitler believed what he was doing was right, His actions should never ever be condoned, his reasoning can not come close to being justified- his actions defy the meaning of justice. His actions may have done in his delluded perception of justice- however they contradicted all its principles. And although you may have defended such with thourough thought and articulate language, his murders are wrong for reasons to obvious for description and to attempt to defend such is arrogant and downwright wrong in itself


news-
on 4 August 2004, 7.19 am


news-
on 4 August 2004, 7.21 am


becky
on 28 September 2004, 6.01 am
i want differences btw poetry $ prose


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