Columns

Society's ethical dilemma — Part 2

BY CLINTON CHISHOLM

Wednesday, June 25, 2014    

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WE had said previously that ethical relativism is the belief that, since no absolute moral code exists, the rightness or wrongness of an act or intention is relative to the situation, circumstance or context surrounding that act or intention.

If ethical relativism is defensible, then the consistent relativist could not instinctively or belatedly experience or express outrage at any so-called 'wrong' because it could be right owing to the context in which it happened.

Rob the relativist, swindle him in business, rape or seduce his wife, bugger his son, lie on him in court, etc and he would be forced to grin and bear it because any such act could be right.

There are negative societal spin-offs of ethical relativism. There is no easy way of seeing how ethical relativism can curb human desires that are/or could be detrimental to a business or a community. Nor is it conceivable that ethical relativism could inculcate a sense of ethical duty or the sense of 'ought' in anyone.

Even relativists recognise and admit to this defect in ethical relativism. Humanist and ethical relativist, Paul Kurtz writes, "...the humanist is faced with a crucial ethical problem: Insofar as he has defended an ethic of freedom, can he develop a basis for moral responsibility? Regretfully, merely to liberate individuals from authoritarian social institutions, whether church or state, is no guarantee that they will be aware of their moral responsibility to others. The contrary is often the case. (in Humanist Ethics, edited by Morris B Stoner, 1980, p 15)

What then might one say concerning ethical absolutism, the other broad approach to the determination of ethical principles?

Ethical absolutism is the view that, though the ethical status of some acts or intentions may depend on situation or context there are others that are either always right or always wrong irrespective of situation or context.

What does this ethical absolutism mean in practice as we try to decide on a multitude of issues?

Basically, it means that one does begin by knowing that some acts or intentions to act are intrinsically right or wrong irrespective of situation or context. Some things are always right and some other things always wrong. These are absolutes.

There is a certain ethical rigidity and lack of flexibility about ethical absolutism which tends to run counter to our basic desire for ethical autonomy. Additionally, the notion of ethical obligation that comes with absolutism creates, sustains and heightens the sense of ethical accountability or 'answerableness'.

Ethical absolutism, as a principle of determining rightness and wrongness, is not appealing but it can provide benefits on the individual and societal fronts. There is an uncomfortable reality though that all absolutists know about but may not readily admit in public.

At the level of ethical practice, ethical absolutism is delightful to live with but very demanding to live on.

If everyone lived consistently on wholesome principles that would be glory,

but forging the strength to do so, well, that's a different story!

In light of the practical demands of absolutism I now raise some awkward questions for absolutists.

Why should one strive for an 'ought' when conduct (what is and is beneficial) is radically different? Should (proper) ethical behaviour be idealistic or realistic in essence? Does one begin to operate from the realm of practice or the ideals of principle and why either way?

These are by no means unanswerable questions. The absolutist may respond by saying that noble principles or ideals plus efforts at living out such ideals or principles are necessary in the cultivation of a mature ethical self or society.

At the level of principles there is a recognised chasm separating the relativist from the absolutist. The meeting of the ways happens at the level of practice. There is a rub here because the double-edged sword cuts everybody.

The relativist will find it difficult, if not impossible, in principle to live consistently on/or practice relativism. The absolutist will find it difficult, even if not impossible, in practice to live consistently on/or practice absolutism.

It may be cold comfort for humans in community but it would seem that, though absolutists, like relativists, will fail in practice, a society or a business is better off with a bunch of absolutists than with a bunch of relativists. How so?

To modify Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, the relativist is bereft of any objective point of reference for predictably wholesome behaviour and any relativist who happens to live an ethically commendable life lives better than his or her philosophy warrants. (See his Can Man Live Without God, 1994, p 32)

The absolutist, especially if Christian, has an objective point of reference in the Bible for predictably wholesome behaviour and even after failure can, through confession and especially repentance, resume by God's grace, an ethically wholesome life.

The restoration of commendable ethics that our society needs and lacks will not happen until most, if not all, of us can be relied on to display integrity, ie wholehearted, abiding fidelity to wholesome abiding principles.

That cannot, in principle or in practice, result from ethical relativism but is a natural outflow from ethical absolutism.

— clintchis@yahoo.com

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