Sunday, March 27, 2005

Morality, Religion, and Society.

I have recently been troubled by the question of moral relativism. As humans we naturally strive to discern “universal truths” on which we may base our behavior. But as we attempt to define these a priori tenets we find that we must often become so specific in our assessment that the “laws” derived from these truths become meaningless (For example, taking life is wrong, except if it is in self-defense, defense of another, in a just war, euthanasia, etc..). I would like to believe that through the process of rational thought we can arrive at moral standards which can be agreed upon by everyone. Unfortunately I do not believe that the process of "logic" or "rationality" consistently results in situations in which two people, when confronted with the same problem, would either come to the same conclusion or would be rationally errant. I often find a great deal of difficulty in rebutting Peter Singer's argument that infanticide is an ethically acceptable practice as his logical mode of deduction is formidable. Perhaps it is the case that a logically coherent answer does exist in all of these situations yet we are somehow unable to "grasp" that solution? That answer would certainly preserve the process of rationality for determining ethical or moral dilemmas but it somehow does not sufficiently address the very real problem of oppositional yet rationally supported views present in certain dialectics. Can we fundamentally solve moral problems by moving past preconceptions and visceral reactions via reason or does morality itself change?

Can morality evolve or is it only possible for our understanding of morality to change? The former proposition would have us teetering on the dangerous ground of relativism while the latter may strap us into the rigid bounds of the past where logical argument dictated, for example, that newborn female babies be thrown in a heap outside of town. More importantly, is the answer somewhere in between and how would we know when an action was morally acceptable if it might not remain so in perpetuity? For example, should marriage rights be endowed to gay couples? There are nuanced arguments on both sides of this debate but an interesting (although somewhat sophistic) argument relates the evolving extension of rights to African-Americans in many societies to homosexual marriage. We can all agree that it was always immoral to deprive a person of individual rights based on their race or gender. This implies that our understanding of morality in the past was simply inadequate and logical arguments put forth in defense of such policies were fallacious. Could this be the case with gay marriage, abortion, assisted suicide, infanticide, or the death penalty? How will we differentiate between a "better understanding" of moral argument versus an "evolution"? I suppose the answer would be to review the logical arguments upon which the previous decisions were made but I am unsure that even with a completely rational review we could find time and context independent errors which would vindicate our new, more enlightened, view point.

This question is particularly relevant to the area of religion as it provides a somewhat unyielding guide to moral behavior. Religion, however, is not immune to the apparent vicissitudes of moral theory (e.g. The Reformation, the Crusades, and many of the actions of the papacy from the 500 - 1500 were justified on religious, if not scriptural, bounds.) although its teachings are commonly identified as continually "better understandings" of the moral truths offered by God in the revealed text. I do believe the teachings found in the bible, in particular the Beatitudes; provide the necessary context for moral decision-making (And believe that these same moral propositions could be arrived at independent of religious belief). The church also serves as a repository of moral thought on which the general population, being generally unversed in the nuances of morality, may rely. In the instance in which moral theory is left to individual rational thought we may suffer the belief among some that their actions, for the moment, are indeed moral. The church offers a guided, albeit sometimes imperfect, interpretation of moral authority which resists change for the reason that all of its actions must be necessarily deliberate. I suppose it is a choice between the tyrannies of authority versus the tyrannies of the individual. Although there are many actions based on the tenets of religion which I disdain, I personally would prefer that the majority obtain moral guidance from an individual such as the pope than base their actions on what they believe to be "rational" behavior. Is it possible for a person to be ethical or moral in the absence of religious belief? I believe it is but it is a difficult path which requires a high degree of knowledge and which, ultimately, rests on what may be fundamentally ephemeral tenets.

So, I still question, are morals relative? I don’t have a good answer to that question now but I encourage all of you to think about the implications. I would submit that there are certainly some actions which are universally immoral but they are much fewer in number than most would believe.

Post Script:

I realize the proposition of religion as a useful moral basis for a functioning society may smack of Marx’s theory of religion as “the opiate of the masses” or, even worse, of Plato’s tripartite society. I honestly believe that a moral theory based upon an evolved Christianity is preferable to leaving the complexities of moral reasoning to an individual ill-equipped to make the enlightened choice. By making this argument I admit that there will be endless attempts to impose upon society religious tenets (e.g. anti-abortion, anti-contraception, etc..) promoted by these very people. These fights will be real and potentially costly but I remain faithful that our legislators and judiciary will see through those arguments and make decisions based not upon religious zealotry, but on the good of society as a whole. We must also consider that simply because some of these arguments are made from a religious viewpoint (The Pope’s concern about the “culture of death” comes to mind) they are not ipso facto fallacious.


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