Rights and Rights
A person asserting, "I have rights!" when faced with someone bigger, stronger, more aggressive, and disinclined to agree with that assertion may call to the minds of some that saying amongst motorcyclists: "'I had the right of way!' looks great on your tombstone." Unfortunately, this is what leads some to the philosophy of moral relativism. In their minds, the very fact that any type of might - if sufficient in amount and appropriate to a given set of circumstances - appears to make right is evidence that morality has no value beyond the moment or beyond culture. As evidence, they may cite any number of differences in moral values from one society to the next or from one part of history to another. Their point should not be ignored, else how confident are we that any distinction between right and wrong is real and that there is such a thing as true human rights?
Those arguing for moral relativism do so with an interest in personal freedom and with fulfillment of human potential in mind. They wish to see unfettered self-expression and tend to view law and moral judgments as heavy-handed, unnecessary impediments. They envision a world lacking the stifling constraints of prudery, place a high premium on individual achievement, and find no value in the burden of guilty feelings. To them, one should be able to go as far as one can in life, whatever that takes. When the ride is over, it is simply someone else's turn. In this view, a person's value, indeed the value of all humanity, is self-referential and ends with the ending of human life.
Obviously, as with just about any worldview, there is some worth and sense to the position of moral relativism. Where the first apparent tangles occur are in the moments when either the clashing interests of different people become the impediment or circumstances insurmountable by one person alone become the constraint. "I win because I am stronger," and "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" are all fine and good until you are the weaker , you get ganged up on, you get stuck in the mud up to your knees, or your bootstraps break. In all fairness, moral relativity demands that you take your licks just as you have doled them out. Fair enough. But is this how humanity has developed?
Every person who has appeared to go it alone, everyone who has achieved some great success seemingly by nothing but their own wit and determination, has had unseen help at some point along the way. Others somewhere, at some time, have given them at least some encouragement or hope; been willing to listen or allow them a chance; shown them kindness; provided, by gift or loan, some needed resource; allowed advantage to be taken of a good reputation or friendship; shared the workload; discussed ideas so they could better develop; shielded them from some kind of blow (or not shielded them when that was the best thing to do); contributed information or taught a lesson; clued them in that there were options and choices to be had; pushed them out the door when they were ready, even if they didn't feel that way themselves; or done some other thing that was helpful in just the right way, at just the right time. We live by mutual aid and cooperation. Everything humanity has accomplished - all that we have become - has been made possible by our joining each other in one way or another for the sake not only of achievement but also simple mutual social support. And we cannot come together in this way through the pure self-interest, isolationism, and eventual animosity implied in moral relativism. We are designed, on a deep, personal level, to interlace with others - and our collective existence, across the globe, reflects this. Look around you. Everything you see is at least as much the result of cooperation as of competitiveness. Only so much can be accomplished by a group so entirely individualistically oriented that they all lack any concern whatsoever for each other. Even as we acknowledge that human beings do exhibit a fair measure of self-centeredness, we must also admit that, without a sufficient degree of mutual interest and caring amongst a majority of people, we would simply not be able to bring ourselves to be near enough to each other long enough to accomplish anything.
The simple fact of our needing each other is a good enough argument for at least taking some kind of moral stance so that we do not selfishly annihilate each other before we can get anything done. This conscientious approach then shapes the way in which caring people can work together and express their social support, encourages those who might not otherwise think about what they are doing, and addresses the fact that not everyone is interested in being so supportive. After all, why allow the actions of a few to destroy what everyone else might enjoy? But does that make morality intrinsic? Given how we keep changing our minds, might it still be arbitrary at its root? At this point, we are not discussing how to determine whether a specific point of morality applies across the board or only locally. Nor are we dealing with whether or not any great spiritual being who cares about our activities might desire other types of behavior from us, such as some kind of worship. We are merely considering whether or not morality itself is a convention constructed to suit the needs of a particular time and place and nothing more. In other words, when we debate whether or not something is immoral even if nobody who is present seems to mind, is this something like arguing over whether or not a tree falling in the woods makes a sound even when there is no one there to hear it?
Is a murder of one person by another immoral if they are stranded on an island alone together, no one else knows they exist, and the murderer feels no remorse? Can an act that harms a creature incapable of understanding the concept of morality be immoral if no one else cares about that creature? Can morality be intrinsic regardless of whether or not God exists?
These are sticky questions, given just how very different people's value systems can be. We can sit across the world from each other and each be appalled by what the other allows. At home, we can insist on recognition of rights that those immediately around us persistently deny. And then we have the upheaval of successful social movements and the shifting sands of evolving social roles. What can we do? How can we know what is right? Religions disagree on many points, but lack of religion seems to serve us no better. No one can make everyone adopt either the same religious view or the same nonreligious philosophy. How can we resolve this quandary?
It seems there is only one way: We must begin with the belief that there is at least some kind of foundation for us to build on, while at the same time acknowledging that we are imperfect and may not be able to see all relevant information at all times. Without a foundation, we can only flail uselessly about or be immobilized in our muddlement. As human beings, we rely on at least some measure of stability so that we can step outside our doors with the confidence to face the world and perhaps some kind of a plan for how to face it. How can we find that stability if we have no conscious concept of our values at all, apply our values unevenly and change them at the drop of a hat, or have insufficient strength and conviction to really stand up for anything when conflict comes? If someone does another person harm, for example, we hope to at least have some idea of how to take it and what might or might not be appropriate to do about it - even if the situation is purely hypothetical. Without such a concept, we really are all at the mercy of those who have no mercy - as well as anyone who might simply not be thinking when they act. We are also at the mercy of our own lack of mercy if we cannot judge, not fully realizing what we become by way of what we do. And there is where self-interest is most directly and intimately served by morality. We change who is going out that door and facing that world. At the same time, we must be willing to learn and revise our judgments when necessary, so that we are not locked into any reactions and behaviors that, at some point, clearly have been shown to be mistaken.
Because we are each unique and because we must all learn and grow, it is not a surprise if some of our value judgments are like those of others and some are quite different. But the need to have values to begin with seems clear. And then it is not so much that morality is relative but that we must learn about the aspects of it that may be fixed and that we will have to adjust as we engage in our education. Where we disagree with each other, we must simply do our best to handle it maturely.
So, all this tells us of the reality of morals and suggests the idea of there being some kind of fixed truth within human existence, at least. Outside of this context, whether there is such a thing as morality absent of or neighboring human existence is a question that has to do with whether we think we are the ultimate authority, perhaps the highest consciousness in the universe - maybe even the only beings anywhere that are sentient at all - and whether we think the way in which we interrelate with anything other than humans, sentient or not, affects who we are and how we exist. Whether or not we think we are the "ultimate" or the "only" is a matter of faith at this point. For how we relate to nonhumans and whether or not we have some obligations beyond our global race, we may best begin with our understanding of being with each other for some clues.
And what of the aforementioned view that when the ride is over, it is simply someone else's turn? This is not necessarily an inherently immoral notion. Why not cast the cooling shade of compassion upon the heat and glare of this idea, letting it prompt us to develop the willingness to face the sacrifice of service to our own aims in favor of giving someone else a chance?
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