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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why Moral Language Matters

I don’t speak enough about being confronted with conflicting opinions and resolving those differences in detail, as much as I try to smooth them over. I consider myself a pluralist and not anything of a multiculturalist or hard relativist, especially in an epistemological or metaphysical sense. Some things are true whether we believe they are or not and things exist independently of our minds. But I can’t deny that there is some interaction and relation between what our mind perceives and those things as they are in themselves. And in terms of right and wrong, I don’t deny there should be some flexibility, but not to the detriment of having basic principles that we’d abandon for convenience’s sake or some twisted notion of progress that focuses on creativity over any sense of rationality. Both truth and morality should be high on our list of priorities in life, even if it’s a slow progress.

In order to make the world a better place, even one person at a time, we should go beyond multiculturalism and relative tolerance on the one hand and also beyond sectarian and divisive views of the world on the other and affirm a real pluralism. We can respectfully disagree and also affirm that people can have well thought out belief systems and find common ground even with dissonant foundations elsewhere. People’s beliefs should be taken seriously as to whether they are true or not, since many times, it appears we don’t believe in things because they have credulity, but because of peer pressure, need for social conformity, or even just to make ourselves feel secure. If we actually investigate with a discerning eye and some degree of objectivity, maybe we would gain deeper conviction or perhaps we’d change our beliefs in favor of more convincing ones. I’m not going into a rant about why religious beliefs should be completely dropped, since that’s highly unlikely to happen anyway. I can respect people who believe in God and other supernatural things, but there is a point where I cannot simply let people go their own way. We shouldn’t just accept people’s beliefs when they put others in danger, either through neglect or through excessive interference. If someone thinks they can heal disease by prayer and completely ignores medical treatment, that’s dangerous. If someone thinks they can change someone to be straight through invasive psychotherapy, I can’t accept that as either scientific or moral. This is based on the understanding of liberty that says people’s rights of non interference stop at the point they begin to interfere with other people’s inalienable rights. If you cease to treat people as equal because they don’t share your beliefs or behave in a way you think is immoral, then your religious beliefs don’t deserve automatic respect or serve as justification for otherwise irreprehensible actions. If you happen to believe in God or such and are not intrusive or obnoxious about it, you at least deserve some modicum of tolerance from other people. But at the same time, I don’t think we should give religion any more favor merely because it’s rooted in tradition or socially accepted practices. But we should at least give people liberty to choose within reason amongst the various religious beliefs that generally do not cause excessive harm. One can allow belief systems you don’t agree with to exist if those who believe in them are willing to let them be criticized on the same level as other systems. And the same allowance on your end will create a more peaceful coexistence than before.

It’s ironic when some people say all things are ultimately relative and without any basis for judgment of right or wrong and also judge certain things (slavery, gay rights, genocide) as right or wrong as if it is self evident, which contradicts their claim that all things are relative for ethical judgment. If we qualify that things are epistemologically relative or ontologically relative, there might be a better case for consistency. Things being “epistemologically relative” means we each approach questions with a limited knowledge base. And things being “ontologically relative” means we all classify things in particular ways, though perhaps there are certain things that are more unified in how they are categorized. Not all things are relative in terms of the laws of physics, for example, except perhaps on the quantum level. Regular everyday events and actions are only relative ethically in terms of perspective, similarly to our knowledge; if we don’t consider something’s rightness or wrongness, we don’t respond in that vein to claims of that action being right or wrong. If we argue there are certain things that are objectively and more conclusively true than other things, the difficulty is distinguishing why this is so. Pluralism is a good impetus to this form of soft relativism, as opposed to hard relativism. According to a study by Notre Dame professor Christian Smith, many young adults do not have the vocabulary or even motivation to speak about moral issues. It’s one thing to try to argue that all morals are relative, which is at least some conclusion about the issue, however mistaken it is, but it’s another thing to be apathetic about morals and ethics, which seems to be the case here. The importance of moral language cannot be overstated, since without even some cursory ideas about what right and wrong are in various systems, we can’t even start to consider the basis of those ideas and our own beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of something like Troy Davis’ recent execution even though there was supposedly little conclusive evidence to prove his guilt. If you don’t care about whether an innocent person is killed by the state, or whether an innocent person is killed to begin with, you have your priorities terribly out of shape.

People’s interests only seem to focus on any kind of ultimate truth or being correct when it personally affects them in some way, which usually leads to a misguided sense of moral indignation, or when it affects a group they identify with. Christians who take their religious identity very seriously get up in arms about upholding morals, but many of them seem to use that notion of being Christian as an excuse for doing all sorts of unethical things otherwise and then begging for forgiveness after the fact. The biggest problem that exists in terms of either whether one worldview is the only correct one or whether the death penalty or abortion are ethical/unethical is that people tend to focus too much on a smaller picture of things and miss how their own moralizing and overly zealous attitude is a problem in and of itself or they try to polarize the issue as a whole and paint every person who disagrees in any way as an opponent, even if they unknowingly agree with people on those issues in part. I had a co-worker who was staunchly pro life and listened to conservative radio, but I didn’t have a problem with working alongside them, especially since they only made that a specific part of their life and avocation of “protecting the unborn”. I could understand part of their position, as they’re a parent and possibly find it incredulous that anyone could “destroy a child” for mere “convenience” or “selfishness” As you grow older, you tend to become a bit more set in your ways, since it gives you a sense of stability in an otherwise chaotic world. But the existential nature of life; searching for meaning and building foundations upon insights or institutions; is a shared feature that we all engage with in one way or another. I might not agree with many friends or acquaintances who are strong Christians, but I can nonetheless respect their right to believe it. But, remember, this is only to the extent that they do not give themselves a mistaken sense of entitlement, similarly as I hope people would grant me if I became misguided in what I felt I deserved in life in the future. So, until next time, Namaste, aloha, and let’s all try to get along.

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