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A Slight Problem with Ethical Relativism

Though the moral character of atheists is neither better nor worse than the moral character of people that believe in God, yet there does seem to be a difference in conviction.  And that is perfectly understandable.  A common conception of God is that he is infinitely wise and good, and in one way or another, through sacred text, revelation, or one’s own conscience, God informs us of what is good and what is evil.  People with strong religious beliefs will tend to be firm in their convictions about right and wrong, owing to their sense that they have the word of God on which to rely.

Others, while still believing in God, are less sure about the reliability of sacred text, the revelations of others, or even their own conscience, which often urges them down one path, only to later reprimand them for not taking another.  They figure there are things commanded or forbidden by God, but they just aren’t sure what they are.  This uncertainty leads to tolerance of other religions, in which one regards them as different expressions of the one God common to all, thereby reinforcing one’s doubts in matters of morality, for different religions command and forbid different things.

Taking this to its ultimate conclusion, those totally lacking in belief are fully aware that they must rely on themselves alone when it comes to morality. Through some combination of instinct, experience, cultural influence, and prudence, they muddle their way through various moral difficulties, hoping that they are doing the right thing.

Not being absolutely sure about what is right and wrong leads naturally to the conclusion that nothing is absolutely right or wrong.  Atheism does not entail ethical relativism, but they tend to go together.  From the fact of cultural relativism, that different cultures have different views as to what is right and wrong, there tends to be an inference to ethical relativism, that what is right or wrong is relative to a particular culture, with no culture having a greater claim on the truth in such matters than any other.

When I was young, ethical relativism was cast in the most reassuring terms. Through such examples as belching Arabs and promiscuous Polynesians, I found the idea of moral relativism to be quite congenial.  Other cultures with their different ways seemed benign, even cute. When I got to college, I eventually majored in philosophy, where I discovered that the issue was far more complicated than I ever imagined.  However, I remember one textbook in ethics that had a chapter on ethical relativism. It posed such questions as to whether it was all right to marry more than one wife, kill a hornet, commit incest, or have slaves, if you treat them well.  The point was that each of these actions were regarded as forbidden in some cultures or religions, while others held such things to be morally permissible.

These issues were a touch more serious than the examples to which I was first exposed, but they were not alarming.  I could imagine living among people who believed differently from me on such issues without too much discomfort, although I might find not being able to kill a threatening hornet somewhat inconvenient.

The past was more problematic, for history is replete with examples of societies that once practiced all sorts of cruelties and atrocities with a clean conscience and even a feeling of righteousness about it all.  But as they were in the past, there seemed to be the sense that they could be safely ignored.  It was only modern cultures that need be considered.

Well, we have come a long way since those halcyon days in which one could accept the tenets of ethical relativism as proof of one’s sophistication and enlightenment.  Nowadays, when one thinks of the differences between one culture and another regarding what is right and wrong, it is things like genital mutilation, child brides, forced adultery, and honor killings that come to mind.  And now, as if we needed one more example, we have the situation of boys being held as sex slaves on military bases by some of our Afghan allies, while our own soldiers are being told to accept such practices as just a cultural issue, in what might be the most perverted application of moral relativism ever embraced by our society.  I find it impossible to say, “Well, in that culture, such things are morally permissible.  We must not be judgmental and presume to impose our values on others.”  Instead, I want to say, “That culture is morally depraved.  And it needs to be crushed!”

How about this for a moral absolute:  It is wrong to chain an eleven-year-old boy to a bed so that he can be repeatedly raped no matter how much he screams.  It is easy enough to agree that this is absolutely wrong, although I have no theoretical justification for such a claim.  At best, all I can say is that it feels like a moral absolute.

As long as I am in my absolutist mode, I am also appalled that relatively little attention has been paid to this story.  On the other hand, there has been an excessive amount of coverage on Pope Francis.  As long he was getting so much coverage, it would have been nice to hear him say a thing or two about boys being kept as sex slaves on our military bases, especially since he could have tied it in with the rape of boys by priests, but he said nothing, alas. Perhaps in the next debate Carly Fiorina might talk about the boys being raped with their legs kicking and hearts beating, but I doubt it.

Of course, unlike fetuses, there are no videos of boys being raped, and we tolerate a lot of things as long as we don’t have to see them.  Logically, there should be no difference between seeing pictures of boys being raped and only hearing stories about them, but such is human nature.  After all, that is why ISIS made pictures of their beheadings instead of merely telling us about them, because they knew it would disturb us more and possibly goad us to war with them.  And that is why the CIA destroyed the images of torture so that our moral outrage would be much less.

But videos do not tell the whole story.  After all, it is not American little boys that are being raped, but only little boys in Afghanistan, who are probably going to grow up to be terrorists anyway.  As Jeb Bush might point out in the next debate, at least President Obama is keeping us safe.

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