Why is morality relative?

The Ten Commandments by Gerry DIncher

The Ten Commandments by Gerry DIncher Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)

God gave the Israelites some pretty clear rules for how to live their lives. “Thou shalt not kill,” comes in at number six, and seems pretty clear cut. “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” is also very straightforward, and is at number seven. Yet Leviticus states, “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

So what’s going on here? Is morality not as clear as we first thought? And if so, why not?

There are two schools of thoughts on morality. The first is consequentialism. A person who is a consequentialist looks at the actions available and decides which one to take based on its outcome. In other words, the right choice is the one that results in the best outcome – the most good, or least harm.

That seems like a good, pragmatic principle to follow. We all make decisions just like this in our everyday lives. But wait. There’s another competing principle that’s just as compelling.

The principle of deontological ethics puts rules first and foremost, just like the Ten Commandments. “Don’t kill,” seems like a good rule to follow, and one that I hope all my neighbours will agree on. In fact, our entire legal system is based on rules, and without the rule of law, we’d probably degenerate into chaos.

One clear advantage of rules is that they are simple to follow. In a complex world, it’s often very hard to know whether one course of action will produce better results than another. A rule overcomes limitations of partial knowledge. So rules, or general principles, seem like a good way to approach morality too. Good rules are designed to produce good outcomes, and are easy to remember.

The problem is that good rules aren’t guaranteed to produce a good outcome, and the best outcome might sometimes require a breaking of rules.

For instance, “Don’t kill” is a very simple rule, and a good one to follow in most circumstances, but there are situations where we might want to break it. We might think that it’s acceptable to kill in self-defence, or to protect an innocent bystander from an attacker. We might want the police to kill a terrorist to stop him carrying out a mass shooting. We might even endorse Leviticus and its decision to seemingly second-guess God and put commandment number 7 above number 6.

So questions about issues like the death penalty, euthanasia and abortion are fraught with difficulty. Do we prioritise the rule or the outcome? People argue passionately on both sides.

What about lying? Should we never lie, or is a white lie sometimes better than saying something hurtful?

Should we treat women the same as men in the workplace, and black people the same as white, or is it right to apply favourable treatment to members of a disadvantaged group who suffer from discrimination?

There isn’t a correct answer to any of these thorny problems. In any tricky moral situation, there will always be two ways of approaching the issue, with opposite actions required. You can argue the consequentialist (best outcome) position, or the deontological (rule-based) principle. Both are equally valid moral standpoints. Both are fair, but in different ways. The same person will choose to reduce harm in some circumstances, and to follow a general principle in others.

So that’s why morality is relative. It can’t be otherwise. The shifting of the moral sands through the ages reflects ongoing debates and changing priorities in society.

Morality may be relative, but that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed, or ignored. Moral arguments go to the heart of every matter, and are essential to living a good life. And everyone wants to live a good life, even those who appear not to.

The problem is that we just don’t know – can’t know – what’s right in any given situation. As if life wasn’t already hard enough.


22 responses to “Why is morality relative?

  1. Very enlightening, Steve. I might push a little and say that you haven’t shown that “morality is relative,” but that it is somewhat relative or that there are relative components. I.e., in common debates these days, “morality is relative” is used to mean “anything goes,” but that’s not your point. There may be an absolutely right thing to do in a given situation, but it may not apply in all situations. I guess that’s my way of clarifying in my own mind your penultimate paragraph 🙂

  2. I think the issue, when you get right down to it, is that morality is about how we should live, and people and cultures are never going to be in full agreement on the answer. History shows just how diverse the answers can be.

    Yet, we all have to life together, which forces us to do the hard work of hammering out a consensus that the majority of us can live with. No society can endure with completely letting everyone do whatever they want, but no one wants to live in an overly regimented fascist type society either. (Well, except those who might imagine themselves as privileged in such a society.) Ultimately we have to find consensus on where the sweet point lies. And recognize that the consensus will change over time.

    As to philosophical moral systems like deontology and consequentialism, they can sometimes be useful for clarifying our thoughts, but we tend to use them to justify our pre-existing intuitive conclusions. Unfortunately, morality, because it is about how to live, is unavoidably complicated, and can’t be reduced to any one single logical axiom, as much as we wish it could.

    • You’re right in that there are two kinds of morality – a personal morality which guides our decisions, and a consensus that enables us to live together as a group. Personal morality can deviate greatly from the consensus, and the consensus certainly moves around over time.

  3. You’re right, It’s not black and white. But usually my conscience lets me know… especially if I’ve made the wrong choice… ❤
    Diana xo

  4. Have you read Jonathan Haidt? He proposes 6 foundations of morality:

    Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm.
    Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating.
    Liberty: the loathing of tyranny; opposite of oppression.
    Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal.
    Authority or respect: obeying tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion.
    Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation.

    So, when people have different views on the same moral issue, their morals are likely to have a different foundation. E.g. for people who value loyalty above all, protecting others, especially people outside their group, is not so important. People who value liberty would make different choices than people who value authority.

    These divides are very obvious in today’s society. E.g. Ukrainians who value liberty and fairness are at war with Russians who value loyalty and authority (at least, their leaders do). Opposition to same-sex marriages is often based on disgust to homosexuality and respect for tradition whereas the proponents argue from positions of care and liberty.

  5. I have been wrestling with the idea of morality for a while. My problem is that I tend to overthink and end up without a clear argument for either side. Turns out there is more than one “right” answer. It’s maddening.

    So, I tend to play devil’s advocate and end up pissing off both sides.

    Bottom line?

    Try to treat others with dignity and respect. Unless you don’t want to- then try to find like-minded folks to hang out with. It makes you seem righteous. Oh, no. Wait. That’s not right.

    Ugh. It’s hard to avoid the trap of being an ass most of the time.

  6. Whenever I hear someone complaining about moral relativism, it comes across to me as if they’re saying, “My morals are right and how dare you disagree with me!” It strikes me as a way to shut down discussions of morality and nothing more.

  7. The 10 commandments are a reflection of the time. ‘Thou shall have no other God before” me?’ That’s a recipe for intolerance and future disaster. A vengeful and vindictive god. I cannot remember where I read it, that we say that ‘God created man in its image’, while in fact the opposite is true. Men create gods in their image and it’s easy to read the culture of the time by looking at the “god” they created.

    • Very much agreed. I think that the benefit of constructing our own moral rules is that they can change (for the better) over time. I wonder what ten commandments our culture would choose in 2016?

  8. Good post. I think people like the idea of being relativists more than the reality of actually taking up a relativist point of view; when confronted with purely subjective egoism, would-be relativists often recoil back toward a stronger more objective sense of morality. But then, when they confront the possibility of pure Kantianism, would-be deontologists recoil in fear of the potential abuses. The hard part is figuring out where this leaves us. The most time I spend in the field of Ethics, the less I feel comfortable with any answers I come to.

    • Thank you Michelle. Most people seem to have an intuitive belief that natural justice exists, but when you try to pin them down on specifics, any neat rules they believe they hold begin to fray at the edges. I think that ethics will always be a murky field, but hopefully we will not abandon it entirely!

  9. I believe in some form of natural justice myself, but I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute, rule-bound justice. One reason I think there’s something like natural justice is in the way we use counter-examples to argue against a particular form of ethics without actually proving the form wrong or invalid (the Nazi example for Kant’s categorical imperative is a sort of archetype here.) These examples just bring to mind a scenario that we find repugnant. Intuition is certainly at play, yet these intuitions have a forceful quality, sometimes nearing universal, especially as more details of the scenario unfold.

    That said, I’d agree that this natural justice is murky, never neat, never rule-bound, relatively relative. 🙂

    • The trouble is, everyone says they are in favour of justice, and fairness, and doing the right thing. But under scrutiny it turns out we have different definitions of those things. The problem is compounded when one group starts hurling insults at the other for being “against justice” or “unfair” or “doing the wrong thing” without recognizing that it was merely a case of different definitions. This is what seems to happen in politics every day.

      • Yeah, it’s the vagueness of justice as well as the way we talk about it that causes us so much trouble. Political talk is often meant to cause trouble, to divide people, not to get at the truth. But even amongst those who do want to find solutions, problems arise when they try to find that definition or law that applies in every case. Yet when they have a very detailed account of a specific situation, they’re more likely to come to agreement.

        A loose analogy would be critiquing writing. When you have a group of people who don’t know how to critique, they often end up saying really general and useless things like, “I liked it,” or “This story didn’t grab me.” When you have experienced people giving critiques, their comments are usually very specific, loaded with examples from what they’ve read. These very detailed and specific critiques are less likely to cause the writer to get defensive, because they aren’t built on platitudes or people waxing philosophical about good vs. bad writing. I notice that if you have a small group of people discussing in earnest—even people who come to the table not quite in accord with each other—when they work with specific scenarios, there’s usually less conflict, more consensus (excepting those thought experiment scenarios involving fat guys and trains.)

        We want justice to be easy, to fit into a neat little box. We want to be able to articulate it in a way that will work for every situation, but we can’t. Laws reflect this challenge. We need laws of course, but we also recognize they’re not perfect and so, ideally, they’re subject to change as new circumstances and new scenarios arise. After all, we can’t have laws about things (like technologies) that don’t yet exist. But the changeability of laws doesn’t prove that justice is entirely relative, only that whatever justice is, it can’t be realized without a context.

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