Does Absolute Morality Exist?
- Zakath's 3rd post
I'd like to thank Knight and the readers for his and their forbearance on my previous post. I did post in a bit of a rush and did not read his question thoroughly. I did indeed mean what Knight finally divined:The appropriate thing to say at this point is: Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! (If you don't know what it means, ask a Roman Catholic older than 40...)So Zakath believes that some things are wrong.
Now, let's reply to the remainder of Knight's second post. He wrote:
This is appears to be a misrepresentation of my position as presented in this debate.In this debate Zakath is arguing that what is right and what is wrong is relative to the individual, society or government, yet Zakath claims that some actions and behaviors are wrong even if the individual, society or government have accepted them as right! Apparently Zakath does not adhere to the standard of morality he is debating!
To clarify, my position is that absolute morality does not exist. The existence or non-existence of any other standard of morality than "absolute morality" is not at issue in this debate. All I have done so far, is indicate that I believe in a relativistic (i.e., non-absolute) morality. The burden of proof is on Knight to demonstrate the existence of absolute morality, according to his definition.
Each normally developed adult human being has within them a set of moral standards to which they adhere. (I specified “normally-developed” to exclude extreme fringes of the population with mental pathologies that inhibit with the development of or interfere with the functional use of a set of moral standards.) For many of us such standards are an amalgamation of those we absorbed during our upbringing; those we studied along the path of our life to the present moment. We each take that mass of sometimes-conflicting information, internalize it, and construct a set of moral standards by which we judge right from wrong and attempt to live our lives.FOLLOW-UP QUESTION FOR ZAKATH:
In light of your answer that you believe some actions and behaviors are wrong even if the action or behavior happens to be accepted by any given society, government or individual on what basis or standard can you determine that such an action or behavior is wrong?
For most adults, these moral standards are generally reflective of the society in which they live but may be at variance in individual cases. In the U.S. for example, we have a number of activities that are considered morally wrong by some (or even many) individuals but are not considered illegal by society. Examples might include prostitution and casino gambling, both of which are legal in some places but not others. I’d like to consider, two other examples that are more universal and may be more troubling to the moral absolutist.
Recently the news media has held forth at great length on issues dealing with accounting by large corporations such as Enron and WorldCom. While much (maybe most) of the behavior their leadership engaged in was not strictly illegal, the general feeling among the populace is that it is considered morally wrong to handle corporate finances in ways that produce inaccurate messages for auditors and investors. Public outcry is so intense that Congress is currently in the process of considering new legislation to force more clarity in those kinds of situations. While there may not be specific laws criminalizing such practices, they are definitely considered wrong by many people. Thus, these individuals who believe these executives were wrong to do what they did are morally at odds with the government's view of law.
An older historic example might be the keeping, purchasing, and sale of human beings as slaves. For hundreds of years, Americans (both religionists and non-religionists) kept humans as slaves. Such a practice was legal, yet to some number of people slavery was immoral. In spite of thundering assertions of the morality slavery and the deity’s support of it from hundreds of church pulpits, the numbers believing the practice to be immoral grew with passing generations until the society generally recognized the issue as immoral. The ownership of human slaves in the United States and its territories was eventually criminalized. Ask most U.S. citizens today and you will be told that human slavery is immoral as well as illegal.
These are only two examples of situations where individuals’ concepts of right and wrong were at odds with institutional ideas of right and wrong. The individuals who were out-of-synch with society based their activities and beliefs on their own internal system of beliefs about right and wrong.. In these cases, the institutions were lagging behind the developing "conscience" of the people and eventually came to parity.
Using those issues to provide background, my answer to Knight's question is this: In some cases, individuals looked beyond the current laws and regulations to see the potential (and actual) injury to their fellow human beings caused by misuse of power. This perceived injury offended their internal moral standards and was perceived by them as wrong. Their love and concern for their fellows (or themselves in some cases) provided the primary motivators for their actions of protest, petition, and even (in the case of slavery) civil disobedience, resulting in the eventual change of the laws to reflect the evolved moral sense of the people.
- Were they appealing to something that moved them as individuals? Yes
Something that made some of them willing to risk their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor"? Yes.
Were they appealing to an absolute? There is little evidence that were appealing to anything other than their internal moral standards.
As human beings, we must each determine what is right and wrong based upon our own combination of logic, training, and life experience. This makes the standard subjective, not objective or absolute. Sometimes this internal standard agrees with the laws of our social group, our religious group, or our government, sometimes not.
People's views change over time. This moral “evolution” presents a significant difficultly in using Knight’s definition of “absolute morality”. By making “absolute” dependent upon dynamic human morality, there is no basis for humans to assess what “absolute” actually means. History demonstrates that what is considered wrong today may be viewed as right tomorrow. “One man’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter.” The period of change may be months, years, or even lifetimes. Not many reading these words are old enough to remember Menachem Begin, the terrorist who masterminded the 1946 bombing of the British Army headquarters in Jerusalem (killing 86 people) yet thirty-two years later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a different role with a different enemy. On a note closer to home, the same patriots who revolted against their king and country to found the U.S. made those very activities against the government they created punishable by hanging. Such was their belief in the applicability of moral absolutes...
All Knight’s definition does is claim there is “something better” than the best mankind has at a given moment.
Now that I have endeavored to answer Knight's question, it's his turn...
For clarity, let's reword the primary question of the debate by using Knight's definition of absolute morality. Does absolute morality exist? now reads this way:
Does "a standard of right and wrong that supercedes - or is greater than - man's standard of right and wrong" exist?
I am waiting to see Knight address this issue and unveil this “something better”. Can he provide one or more examples for us to discuss? With that in mind, my question for Knight is:
Knight, can you provide some instances or examples of what you consider to be "a standard of right and wrong that supercedes - or is greater than - man's standard of right and wrong"?
After all, that is what we're here to discuss...
Awaiting your reply…