Moral Relativism and the Parchment Debate

Posted on 2013 July 22


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A lot of people fear that if there’s no God-given piece of parchment floating in space, emblazoned with a set of rules we must obey, then society will collapse into chaos. It’s as if religion alone can hold back the tide of wantonness.

In fact, today most people in Western countries pretty much ignore the old-fashioned religious strictures in ways that would make their ancestors cringe, and yet they manage for the most part to mind their own business, show up for work, and tuck their kids in at night. People aren’t continuously rioting in the streets — even the traditional sports championship violence only lasts one night — nor are masses of people committing wholesale burglaries or murders, despite how it looks on the news. Crime has dropped greatly over the decades, and not because everyone’s suddenly attending services.

We get along with each other because that works well, whereas getting into conflicts turns out poorly. In moments of personal crisis and self-doubt, we’re tempted to join a religion or other ethical system that offers ground rules so we feel tethered to the Earth. The rest of the time we’re okay and can take care of the various daily moral challenges without much trouble.

This isn’t to say religions don’t have a place in society. They speak to a hunger for spirituality that goes unanswered by science. But their offer — their “pitch” — amounts to a spiritual protection racket where they threaten you with their god’s wrath and then sell you immunity. Meanwhile, their moral solutions can fail altogether to fix our daily problems because of rules that often contradict each other. Those who accuse humanists of “moral relativism” must themselves make ethical judgments outside the rules, such as when they’re required to punish the wicked and also honor their parents but it turns out Dad is abusing Mom or robbing clients or driving drunk on Saturdays. Now what?

Every system of thought — even arithmetic — contains dilemmas, per Godel’s Theorem, and, by extension, this applies to ethical and religious systems, too. Some people get holier-than-thou about virtue but then must explain why their god’s contradictory dictates seem poorly thought out. (Or maybe their god left holes in the rules deliberately, so that we might grow in spirit as we wrestle with these conundrums. But I’m being charitable.)

Finally, Occam’s Razor requires us to use the simplest explanation for the phenomena we’re trying to describe. It’s much easier to find the source of morality in the natural unfolding of our daily lives — within our struggles to resolve dilemmas and conflicts and quandaries — than to impute the moral source to a divine being whose nature, qualities, and very existence are subject to debate. Research suggests, instead, that our ethical decisions are intuitive and influenced by personality traits.

So we end up ad-libbing our ethics, regardless of their source. If we’re honest with ourselves, we realize there’s no ultimate moral ground under our feet, no matter how we twist and dance. The challenge is to be willing to float through the empty spaces of moral uncertainty, powered by a jet of openmindedness and the thrust of our natural inclination to get along with others.

We’re moral beings whether we like it or not, whether we source it in our religions or our inclinations. Instead of arguing about who has the valid source of ethics (“My god’s parchment of laws is better than yours!”), we can use our ingenuity and heartfelt energies to help each other resolve the ethical dilemmas that arise in daily life despite our beliefs, so that everyone involved ends up better off.

After all, when everybody’s pleased, the ethical debate tends to disappear.