Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is Morality Too Relativistic?

Back when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out I was talking to a friend about the books and I mentioned that my favorite character had always been Sam. My friend was somewhat taken aback by that and said that Sam was the only thing he didn't like about the books, to the point that Sam's character almost spoiled the books for him. He was bothered by the fact that Sam was presented as a low-class person who voluntarily served as Frodo's servant, called him Master, and so on.

My friend is British, and it dawned on me that during his childhood 40-odd years ago, classism was a big problem that had probably left him sensitive to that form of discrimination - while during my childhood in the US and Canada in the same time period, I became most sensitive to the issues of racism and sexism. Does that mean there was no class discrimination in North America? - Certainly not, but even though there is all kinds of evidence that poverty is self-perpetuating, North Americans still don't talk much about class discrimination.

Likewise, while there's mainstream agreement that racism is an abuse of human rights, my sensitivity to sexism is something that few people seem to share. When I blogged about sexism facing the Hillary Clinton campaign last year, commenters were borderline abusive. One fellow blogger who I generally agree with wrote that I was making a fool of myself by repeatedly writing about sexism. Most denied that there is any serious sexism at all, and some even felt that it's men who are widely discriminated against. It's one thing to disagree with someone and it's another thing to tell them that their sense of right and wrong is invalid, silly and overblown. It seems that others see my moral sense as a pet peeve.

When I lived in Africa I had an eyewitness view of one culture trying to impose a moral code on another. Many Africans were unimpressed - simply because we were so inconsistent. There were massive campaigns to get Africans to wear condoms to slow the spread of AIDS - with all sorts of funding and advertisements; there were other massive campaigns (by Roman Catholics) telling them that they'd go to hell if they used condoms. Many Africans told me that they refused to take the issue of condoms seriously because of the conflicting messages.

Africans I met were also plenty angry about whites moralizing about human rights. As they explained it, not long ago the colonial powers flogged wrong-doers and used capital punishment; now they've changed their minds and decided that both are human rights abuses. If we can change our minds so quickly about weighty moral issues, we cannot expect others to take our sense of right and wrong seriously.

These days, in western cultures, moral issues seem to mostly be about social control. A "good" person is one who is unselfish, generous, helpful, honest, law-abiding, and so on. It doesn't have to be like that. A good person could be someone who is self-reflective, fully realized, creative, open to new ideas. Instead of "do no harm," our preiminent moral imperative could be "know thyself." Social rules could be something that we have to follow because we live together, but that are pragmatic rather than moral issues. In other words, we wouldn't have to teach our kids to feel shame at their natural urges to be selfish or unkind. We could instead instill a deep inner drive to express their souls.

I'm not arguing that we should do that; I'm just trying to create a convincing alternative to our current moral sense. There could be many others. I'm an atheist and not a fan of religion, and I don't see that there's any reason to adopt Christian morality when you don't accept Christian dogma. It would be interesting to learn to drop the shame we learned as children (also known as internalized morality) and to adopt a more rational moral sense.


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