Thank you for your answer.
It undercuts a vital point in the absolute/relative morality debate that I've never seen explored in depth. It really is too bad it wasn't brought up and discussed in Battle Royal 2, where Knight and Zakath debated morality oh so long ago.
Anyway, you made an interesting and vital point: Sin, or moral wrong, is defined not by the act itself, but by the intention
behind the act. Guilt, or violation of a moral standard, cannot be established without mens rea
-- a guilty mind; criminal intent. An essential concept in all human justice systems, because without it, an accidental killing in justified self defense cannot be differentiated from a premeditated killing for personal gain.
In the example about the starving orphans, you admit that guilt, or moral violation is not present in the act of stealing food for survival as a last resort, because there is no criminal intent.
Now, you have expressed this concept succinctly, but that is not the only way to express it.
Knight, Clete, and many others here on TOL have expressed, in this thread and others, the same concept by assigning specialized terms to specific moral situations. For example, the term murder
is defined to be an immoral killing -- that is, when we say murder
, we mean "a killing in which criminal intent and motive is present."
Now, lets talk about these specialized terms in the context of absolute morality: In saying "Murder is absolutely wrong", what is really being said is that "Killing in which a criminal intent and motive is present is abolutely wrong." And here is the crux of my argument:
The term murder, by definition, presupposes the presence of moral wrong.
It is equivalent to stating: moral wrong is absolutely morally wrong. It is a tautological statement, with no real meaning, like saying "black is black" and "That car is a car."
What makes killing murder? The circumstances of the killing. Whether or not there was criminal motive and intent. It is situational. It depends on context. I apologize for the redundancy, but I must emphasize the conditional nature of the term murder! This argument can be applied to any of the terms used in debates about morality: perjury, rape, larceny, you name it!
All human morality is ultimately conditional/relative, because we cannot determine the morality of an act without understanding the circumstances in which it occurred. That is, an act, performed twice different mens rea
each time may well have a different moral value.
The average moral absolutist will read this and say: "You have completely missed the point, absolute morality means that we get our moral directives from a single unchanging eternal source and no matter what time and place we are in, we apply those directives as we were told, all the time." Wikipedia has another way of saying this:
In reality, this is not absolute morality, but rather moral universalism
. To understand the difference, consider true absolute morality:
True absolute morality is the view than an act has a moral value devoid of context.
Think about that. Devoid of context.
In this light, the statement "murder is absolutely wrong" is a contradiction in terms, because context is intrinsic to the term murder!
Now, can you think of anything that you would consider to be morally wrong devoid of context?
Moral Universalism comes in many flavors, such as Christianity (God is the source of the moral guidelines we are to apply conditionally), Humanism (The concept of dignity of human beings is the source of moral guidelines are are to apply conditionally) and Utilitarianism (The concept of "greatest good for the most people" is the source of moral guidelines to apply conditionally)
What the heck does any of this have to do with voting for a candidate?? Sure makes things less black and white, doesn't it?