vrijdag 1 augustus 2008

Moral relativism

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

John 8: 1-11

Reconstructionists provide the most enthusiastic constituency for stoning since the Taliban seized Kabul. "Why stoning?" asks North. "There are many reasons. First, the implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost." Thrift and ubiquity aside, "executions are community projects--not with spectators who watch a professional executioner do `his' duty, but rather with actual participants." You might even say that like square dances or quilting bees, they represent the kind of hands-on neighborliness so often missed in this impersonal era. "That modern Christians never consider the possibility of the reintroduction of stoning for capital crimes," North continues, "indicates how thoroughly humanistic concepts of punishment have influenced the thinking of Christians." And he may be right about that last point, you know.
Invitation to a Stoning, Reason Magazine, November 1998.

1. Humans universally have some innate intuition of what is morally right and wrong.
2. The normative (such as morality) cannot be reduced to the material, on pain of committing the naturalistic fallacy. One cannot get an 'ought' from an 'is'.
3. Therefore, the best account of universal morality is grounding it into a perfectly moral Being; we have an innate sense of the good because there is an absolute Good, which is God's essence.

It's a good argument, probably one of our better ones. Which is why I am going to attack it. Not interested in the Euthrypho dilemma at the moment. Instead, I'm going to argue, in my trademark sloppy and tentative manner, that the first premiss is wrong and some form of moral relativism is correct; and that this is eminently compatible with Christianity. Please, don't take the below argument too seriously; I'm running far ahead of myself here in that I'm not terribly good at ethics, and I'm mainly interested in seeing where the argument leads.

As it is, we have good examples of relative normative systems. Language is one of them. The previous sentence is correct in the linguistic system of English, and wrong in the system of Finnish. You cannot escape being part of one of such a conventional, socially situated normative system - Wittgenstein famously dismissed the possibility of 'private languages' by pointing out the user of such a private language would need the social input of actual communication in order for the language to become an actually normative system to him. I've toyed with fantasized languages or 'conlangs' for a bit: actually using such a language is virtually impossible since you can change the rules on a whim.

The main alternatives for 'grounding' languages seem to be a Platonic one, defended by Jerrold Katz, and an emergentist one, proposed by Paul Hopper in the eighties but going back much longer. The drawback of the Platonic one is that we have to assume that not all actually existing, but also all possible, potentially existing grammars exist as Platonic forms. The emergentist alternative tends to err in believing it can 'explain' the normativity of grammar with reference to some more basic, individual plane, cognition for example. Nonetheless, I think some version of emergentism may be correct if we regard some intentional and valuating level as basic, but this doesn't go far beyond a hunch at the moment.

Logic and mathematics are other examples of normative systems. I'm not sure of their relativity. This said, there seem to be alternative versions of logic such as the traditional one and the dialetheist one which allows contradictions to be valid in some cases; and a variety of mathematical systems have been proposed. My understanding of mathematics is minimal; I'm aware that a lot of mathematicians are Platonists.

Then there's morality. Let's define moral relativism as the notion that the moral correctness of an action is relative to the system of moral rules transmitted/embodied by a particular society with a particular culture. Moral rules as any norms are ultimately social: it is not possible for an individual to determine one's own, particular kind of morality (though it is possible for an individual to shift to the morality of a different society or culture).

Take a suitably abhorrent kind of cultural practice, such as the stoning of women for adultery as still practiced in some places.

A secular humanist who is a moral absolutist would roundly and vigorously condemn the practice on the basis of a given set of moral precepts regarded as universal: Enlightenment values of individual autonomy and universal rights; opposition to the death penalty, etc. One can charge the secular humanist with explaining the grounding of the moral principles as per the argument above, but I think that in fact the secular humanist might be justified in stonewalling the charge and arguing that the set of moral principles simply must be regarded as absolute, and that the question of its particular grounding is unanswerable. This would mean there are loose threads in his/her philosophy, but I think that so there are in anyone's.

The vast majority of Christians who are moral absolutists would equally condemn the practice on the basis of arguments perhaps not too dissimilar from the secular humanist's, but grounded in a specifically Christian system of values. Unfortunately enough, a small minority of Christians would greet the spectacle with enthusiasm and pick up stones to join in.

A moral relativist, of course, would argue that, abhorrent as the practice is from his/her particular perspective, the stoning is morally correct in the particular system of the society in which it takes place.

My argument, in a nutshell:
1. The moral relativist is correct; there are no universal moral standards by which to evaluate the different moral systems embedded in different cultures. An action may be right or horribly wrong depending on the cultural perspective one takes.
2. There are, however, a few absolutes which transcend morality. The absolute worth of the other; absolute duty towards God; the commandmend of Love. These may inform but not replace morality. Morality being an abstract system of rules, bound up with a culture or a society, neighbourly and divine Love are always individual and concrete.
3. We cannot, by our own devices, hope to escape the imperfect and 'fallen' moral systems which we, as social beings, participate in and reach the Kingdom of God. This does not mean one cannot or should not be involved in movement in social change including change in the moral valuation of certain actions; but Christians, progressive or conservative, better not confuse this with some kind of establishment of 'Christian values'.

C.S. Lewis at some point argues inductively to the absoluteness of some moral values. In other words, most any tribes throughout history have maintained that random murder is wrong; that rape is wrong, etc. But I am not sure whether one can inductively reach a moral absolute in this fashion. One could easily argue that it is a contingent matter that no cultures have held wanton murder as a moral good, that perhaps such cultures, if they have existed, were wiped out by (amoral) Darwinian principles, etc. More importantly, universal agreement on the wrongness of murder has not led to universal agreement on the wrongness of honour killings, burning witches, necklacing police informers, executing the Kulaks, etc. etc. More specifically, it may be wrong to wantonly kill humans - but who is a human? Societies have regarded whole classes of human beings as mere property in the past - women, slaves. Currently debate on the humanity of the unborn and the moral obligations we have towards them is still raging.

I am sidestepping here for a moment the question of Divinely ordained moral principles in the Old Testament. I hold that they were rooted in Divine commands; yet at the same time most Christians hold they were superseded by a New Covenant, and even the Old Covenant was culture-specific. I do not believe that it is possible to argue against a moral relativist position on their basis.

There are, however, Biblical principles which one could hold to be absolutely valid. The notion of humans as created in the image of God, and the commandment to love God and love one's neighbour. I do not believe, however, that this commandment is moral in nature, much less that it easily translates to the moral systems we are condemned to live with.

Back to John 8: 1-11.

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."


Note the following:

Jesus is not, in fact, proposing to replace the morality enshrined by the Old Testament laws with a different morality. To replace the abstract system of principles according to which adultery is wrong, and stoning a just punishment, with another abstract system according to which adultery is either not wrong, or stoning is an unjust punishment. What Jesus is doing is causing the would-be executioners to see their own sinfulness, and their own unjustifiedness and impossibility before God - crushing the selfrighteousness which made them desiring to throw stones at a fellow sinner. Jesus himself refuses to condemn the adulterous woman, and in that he transcends, rather than negates or affirms, morality.

In that sense, distasteful as it is, there is no contradiction between the Gospel and the enthusiasm for stoning sinners exhibited by the Reconstructionists as quoted at the beginning of this post. And to be sure, the nominally christian Kingdom of Sweden in the 15th century condemned adulterous women to be buried alive (in a paragraph significantly placed under the chapter of "Thievery" since adultery was a crime against property). One may argue whether this is more moral, or more Christian, than throwing stones at them.

However, stoning people for adultery is very clearly and very absolutely sinful. Because few actions symbolize hatred so much as collectively throwing stones at a helpless and defenseless person. A hatred which is in absolute conflict with and absolutely offends against God's nature of love, and the Christian commandment to "Love God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself" - and let's not forget precisely whom Jesus pointed as neighbours: the marginalized, the lame and crippled, the prostitutes and publicans, the sinners who knew they sinned. Sin is not an offense at any given moral law, or any given immoral action, but a turning away from God whose nature is Love; as Kierkegaard somewhere puts it, the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith.

Love, mercy, forgiveness transcend morality: they do not and cannot replace morality. They are irreducibly particular. One cannot elevate love, mercy or forgiveness to abstract moral rules (which, incidentally, I think is a problem with liberal and progressive critiques of the penal system and the death penalty which incorporate such notions. Forgiveness is up to individuals; forgiveness of sins is up to God, but the State, and abstract entity, is not in the business of mercy or forgiveness lest the notion become meaningless. I am an opponent of the death penalty, but on different grounds).

As I understand it, Situational Ethics is a Christian ethical system which does indeed seek to replace morality with Love. Sympathetic as it appears to me, such a system of ethics would, in my case, be tantamount to placing Dracula in charge of a blood bank. Adultery and lying may be immoral, and yet it may be able to encounter situations in which love would require both - but if you allow me to run with such a notion, I'd end up creating some kind of a catastrophe. I am, after all, a sinner. And I need my moral precepts. Situational Ethics seems to me to try and bring a kind of ethic appropriate to the Kingdom of God to the here and now.

In some ways, the logic of love, forgiveness and mercy may appear profoundly amoral. It is pretty basic to our moral intuitions that one should get what one deserves, and that if one transgresses some moral precepts, one deserves punishment in a proportional fashion. The Christian message, however, to me says that we deserve nothing and may be forgiven for our sins in an utterly disproportional manner: God's love is gratuitous.

In other words, based on the argument above, it is possible for an action to be moral (relative to the culture and society that the particular morality is embedded in) and sinful at the same time. As the hypothetical stoning of the adulterous woman in John 8 would have been. Love, in the shape of Jesus, transcends the moral precepts of society.

As I said, I'm following an argument here to see where it leads. The notion of actions that are (relatively) morally right and (absolutely) sinful and offensive towards God, and the accompanying possibility of actions that are (relatively) morally wrong and (absolutely) pleasing God (see the previous post!) is counterintuitive. But I think there are some advantages.

We cannot escape being part of a normative, moral system transmitted by and embedded in our specific society and culture. At the same time, I am not aware of a society or culture which did not in some way incorporate unequal relationships of power, exploitation or oppression at its very roots. Humans being what they are. And this will invariably reflect upon the moral precepts shared by society as a whole.

In the modern West, adultery is regarded as a private matter. Immoral, to be sure - but an immoral act restricted to a private sphere from which society and the punitive powers of the state have withdrawn. I do not disagree here - the general moral ideology of modern Western Europe is one that I share with perhaps a minor deviation here or there. But it is not hard to see that, for a 15th century Swedish peasant, things were a bit different. It was not for nothing that a woman was classified as property. The well-being of a household depended on the presence of a woman, and, marginal and being at the mercy of the harvest as he was, he was in very serious trouble if the woman chose to run away with another. The penalty - hanging for a male adulterer, and burying alive for the woman if her husband chose not to forgive her - seems disproportionally severe to our own modern eyes, but not to medieval Swedish eyes.

In the Bible, the dependence on the whims of nature that people have felt for generations, the raw necessities of survival, and, indeed, the alienating relationships of power which still exist between men and women, are clearly connected with the fall from grace:

To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
Genesis 3: 16-19.

In these circumstances, any moral system, any conventional, socially shared system of moral rules and precepts, is tainted with sin.

As exemplified by Jesus' encounter with the adulterous woman, neighbourly and Divine love, mercy, and forgiveness do exist as absolutes which may transcend morality - but they exist in the particular, in the concrete situation. They cannot be generalized to abstract rules and systems.

Maybe, analogously to language, morality may be said to 'emerge' from the concrete, the particular, where Love dwells; but unfortunately for us, Love is not alone there. The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom that we can build.

And, facing the dreadful version of the Kingdom favoured by the Reconstructionists, perhaps this is for the best.

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