Friday, June 19, 2009

Moral Relativism and Human Freedom

All moral theory is of two types. On the first, at least one thing is good simpliciter, good in its own right, good not merely in relation to this or that but good in itself. On the second, anything that is good is good for or good to something outside itself.

A wasp stings a caterpillar. The caterpillar is paralyzed. The wasp then lays an egg in the caterpillar, an egg that will later hatch and consume the caterpillar. Here we have something good and something evil. For the caterpillar, to be consumed by the wasp is an evil. For the wasp, to make possible the continuation of its kind is a good. But these of course are a good and an evil of a relative sort. The good is a good for and the evil an evil for. Neither is a good or an evil in its own right. Each is, if you like, what it is only from a certain, partial point of view. Change that point of view, and the quality of the event too must change.

When I think of such events as this, I am tempted to place them beyond good and evil. Yes, in a way we have a good, and in a way we have an evil. But when one simply observes such an event - when, that is, one does not take the point of view of either caterpillar or wasp but simply watches and contemplates - it seems that the event simply is. The caterpillar dies. The wasp grows. This is simply the way the world is, and nothing in it is good simpliciter or evil simpliciter. I attempt to inculcate this attitude in my children, and it is, I think, the attitude of the scientist. The wasp is in no sense evil or corrupt for what it does. Nature is in no sense evil or corrupt because such things happen in it. It just is. The event is beyond good and evil and its occurrence implies no imperfection in the world.

On the second sort of moral theory defined above ("moral relativism" I called it), all events are like the one described. If one raises oneself outside an event (even if this is only possible in imagination), one recognizes that the most one can say about it is that it simply is. It might well involve great harm to some being, and thus if one adopts its point of view, one will say that it is evil. It might involve benefit to some being, and thus from its point of view, it is good. But this is the only sort of good and evil within it. The sole good that it possesses is a good for. The sole evil that it possesses is an evil for. But in itself - or equivalently, from the point of view of a being not part of the event and in no way effected by it - it is neither good nor evil. It is rather beyond them.

On relativism, all moral judgments are judgments from a certain point of view. In particular, it is the view that "x is good" means "x is good for or to y" and that "x is evil" means "x is evil for or to y". Relativism attaches no sense to the predicate "x is good". It thinks such a predicate incomplete.

Moral relativism seems precisely the right sort of view to hold if one limits one's attention to non-human forms of life. If one adopts their point of view, one finds much that is good or evil to them. But this means no more than that much is helpful and harmful to them. But if one lifts oneself outside their point of view and, as it were, takes in the whole of nature (humans perhaps excluded - more on this in a moment) in a glimpse, that good and evil are revealed to be partial; and from that point of view outside, nature as a whole - nature in which we consider not merely this or that creature but all in their myriad of relations - has none of the good or evil we found in the individuals within it. It is beyond all that.

Moreover, this sort of moral relativism seems equally applicable to us human beings if we are not free. If not free, we act under compulsion, compulsion to pursue that which seems good for us and avoid that which seems evil to us. If not free, then, we are precisely similar to all other forms of life. We have our perceived goods and we pursue them of necessity; we have our perceived evils, and we flee them of necessity. But the only goods are of the perceived, that is of the relative, sort. To a being able to take in the whole of nature at a glance, we are just like all other creatures within it. Our goods are not good simpliciter. Our evils are not evil simpliciter. They are simply what we of necessity pursue or flee in the attempt to flourish.

But what if we are free? What if there is no iron necessity to our pursuit of that which appears good to us? If we are free, there comes the possibility that we are responsible for our acts in a way that no creature that acts under compulsion can be. If we are free, there comes the possibility that we will act not only on the shabby little desire to benefit only ourselves. Free creatures can reject what is good for themselves and act on a greater or a higher good. Free creatures can lift themselves up out of the point of view of the individual and consider what is good for the whole; and maybe, just maybe, then can act on what is best not for the individual but for the whole. Thus the relative good gives way to the absolute good. The relative is partial and considers only what is good for this or that individual. The absolute considers the good for all, and freedom makes action in accordance with a conception of the absolute good possible.

2 comments:

David B. Ellis said...


A wasp stings a caterpillar. The caterpillar is paralyzed. The wasp then lays an egg in the caterpillar, an egg that will later hatch and consume the caterpillar.


This bring to mind a thought experiment regarding ethics.

Suppose instead of wasps and caterpillars we have two intelligent species in the same circumstances.

What ethical judgments can validly be made concerning these two?

Is the wasp justified in treating the caterpillar this way since its necessary for his survival?

Is the caterpillar species justified in trying to exterminate the other species to prevent any more of its members from being subjected to this terrible death?

Hmmm. If I was a competent writer I'd write a novel starting with that scenario.

Franklin Mason said...

I've thought about such a scenario, too. No doubt some have encountered such a dilemma (not precisely this one, to be sure, but others analogous to it). What if, to save my life, I had to take the life of an innocent? Perhaps if I am to avoid a fall off a cliff, I must steer my car at a man asleep on the edge. Am I morally permitted to do this? My gut says no. What if I had my family in the car with me? My gut says kill the one to save the four.

I wonder, then, it is number alone that dictates the proper response? Perhaps, but I don't feel at ease with that response.

I'll continue to chew it over.