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.