Post No.: 0381
Most Christians didn’t see slavery as something that was immoral at one time. A minority of Muslims don’t consider suicide bombings immoral today. Murder can be seen as immoral, yet the extra-judicial killing of a terrorist leader can be seen as a moral and just, rather than cowardly, retribution. Some people within almost every country in the world see homosexuality as immoral, while others see it as morally acceptable. Both political liberals and conservatives likely find consenting cannibalism as immoral, but some libertarians would disagree due to the consent.
Is morality down to the character of a person (‘virtue ethics’) or his/her actions? Drug addiction used to be viewed as more of a personal failing than a disease, ‘tramps’ are now the ‘homeless’ and are viewed with more compassion, and divorce is seen as more acceptable nowadays. Meanwhile, smoking in public has become uncool in many countries, consuming meat is increasingly being seen as unethical, and the exploitation of private data by corporations has been deemed more and more questionable rather than always justifiable as a trade for services. Our conceptions of what are regarded as ‘extreme’ appear subjective (e.g. swimwear that revealed women’s bare shoulders was considered too racy at one time) – so what’s considered extreme in one time and/or place can be considered normal or even tame at another time and/or place.
So how do we determine what’s moral if it doesn’t seem to be an objective issue? Civilisational evolution isn’t always linear or even inevitably follows one direction, whether for the better or worse. Morality can change over time, and is different between different groups/cultures. This may be down to simple cultural shifts but it may also be down to actual progress, which may be bumpy (e.g. nationalistic resurgences in some places and some countries leaving international treaties that foster cooperation) but is generally heading somewhere (overall, more countries are becoming more open-bordered and are aiming to globally cooperate with other countries on important issues).
If we accept that progress is overall and gradually being made over time then this perhaps suggests that there are at least some absolute rights and wrongs? For instance, attitudes towards slavery have changed over time and are staying changed it seems – it doesn’t fluctuate between pro-slavery and anti-slavery attitudes but has only generally trended towards anti-slavery; and the vast majority of us hope one day there’ll be zero slavery across the world. Similar trends are occurring regarding issues like women’s rights, mental health care, and capital and corporal punishment, for instance. There’s evidence of ever lower and lower incidents of violence in general per 100,000 people on the planet (the world has been gradually getting less violent per capita over time, bar a couple of blips, despite some of our perceptions).
Then again, not everything seems to have progressed in a positive direction. For example, a fast-fashion and disposable-goods culture, people constantly staring at their phones and ignoring the people around them, increased vanity, over-consumption and more sedentary lifestyles (i.e. pride, gluttony and sloth!) Having said that, few are really saying that these trends are desirable in a moral sense – just growing problems in modern times – albeit problems that many people shrug as not problems and therefore not immoral at all. Yet the environmental sciences increasingly suggest that people, in affluent parts of the world in particular, really need to start consuming sustainably, which in many cases will mean consuming less and cutting down on lazy wastefulness again – like how people many generations ago generally lived – despite the success of industrialisation, capitalism and the development of modern conveniences in our lifestyles.
Since morality has shifted over time, can/should we therefore be understanding, forgiving and accept that something considered immoral today but wasn’t in the past was just a reflection of historical times? This would be considered a ‘cultural relativism’ stance. The question to answer first in order to answer that is whether people today are willing to be judged by the unforeseeable cultures and standards of tomorrow?
Perhaps the ‘petrol heads’ or meat-eaters of today will be viewed with disgust like the slave traders or child labour-exploiters of the past? Perhaps people in the future will wonder ‘what the hell were they thinking?’ about those of us today who merely own a petrol or diesel car, especially after learning and knowing about their negative externalities? Maybe some future scientific research will reveal a truth that’ll render completely immoral something currently unexpected by everyone today? Maybe it’ll be some future technology that’ll change minds? Perhaps if synthesised food one day becomes the norm then even eating plants, for still being living organisms, will be considered diabolical? Individual and collective moral beliefs are cultural memes that compete for survival and dominance, and evolve or progress due to increased levels of debate and reason (although not always!) – yet, like genes and other memes, they’re not evolving towards some predetermined goal and there’ll be no objectively ‘ultimate state’. They’ll just evolve according to the variation and mutation of ideas, their transmissibility and the selection pressures of the current and future societal environments.
Alternatively, moral beliefs are more similar to scientific facts and theories, where these can be objective? Now some people may still deny them, like some people today deny that the Earth is spherical – but that’s an issue of accepting and obeying what is, rather than an issue of determining what is.
So the question is whether moral attitudes or philosophies are more like clothes tastes and trends, or more like scientific facts and theories?
We do all have some commonalities when it comes to morality, which suggests there could be scope for morally absolutist rather than relativist positions, at least in some cases. For a start, all cultures care. The details may differ but they care about some issues in common. These broad universals are often grouped into 5 cases that relate to harm (especially intentional), fairness and reciprocity (sharing, cooperation, not cheating or free-riding), the community and ingroup loyalty (trust and loyalty), authority and hierarchy (respect and deference) and purity, disgust, obscenity, sanctity, divinity and honour (physical or spiritual contamination). However, these aren’t completely universal otherwise people wouldn’t have fierce disagreements over them! The details are shaped by culture, or more accurately a gene-culture co-evolution. Our moral beliefs are partly shaped by genetics and partly (perhaps more significantly?) shaped by the present environment.
Different things make different people or cultures happy (e.g. some cultures find happiness in more collective pursuits whilst others find it in more individualist pursuits). But there are universals, such as wanting our innate needs met for food, shelter, cleaner air and the like. Descriptive and normative factors frequently align, such as a thing that literally risks causing physical harm to others, and also finding that thing disgusting, which again suggests that there could be universal or objective morals out there.
Then again, virtually all humans have common taste receptors yet we don’t suggest there’s an absolute dish that every person in the world will objectively agree is, or should be, their favourite dish, and if anyone disagrees with that then they’re objectively wrong or misguided(!) We can broadly understand that we’d all favour something sweet as opposed to bitter but to create a universally-loved specific dish, or specific moral law, is more difficult. This could be due to competing interests, such as punishing wrongdoers versus reducing harm, and whether to prioritise a certain short-term or a more uncertain long-term outcome and/or the individually/nationalistically small picture or the collectively/globally big picture.
Maybe, sticking with this food analogy, there are cases where something can be agreed to be clearly wrong (e.g. even though those with the eating disorder pica chew and swallow all sorts of non-food objects like mud, hair or paper, no one thinks it’s good just because these people have an urge to do so), even though there are many cases where it’s not clear whether something is the only possible right answer (e.g. Pikachu can’t get enough of ketchup and it’s more debateable whether this obsession is okay or bad, or it’s debateable whether a pizza or pie is better)?
‘Moral relativism’ was first mentioned in Post No.: 0113, but most of us don’t subscribe to morals being relativistic or subjective because we find the notion itself abominable. Most of us don’t accept that what’s considered moral or immoral only depends on what we’re using as our baselines for comparison (e.g. that killing ‘only’ one person is morally fine within a present environment where most other people are routinely killing far more – although of course, such a culture would soon wipe itself out hence this meme would die off along with the people who followed it!) So our intuitions are more likely to believe that there’s ‘moral universalism/objectivism’. But just because we may want to believe that something is true, it may not be; although on the other paw it may be healthy or good for societies to believe them to be true regardless?
We tend to believe that there are perceptions of ours that are absolute or objective, despite much research in psychology suggesting otherwise (e.g. the value of something is always relative and depends on what we’re comparing it to and what influences are in our immediate environment; but if moral values aren’t absolute or objective then this would suggest that morals are malleable too).
…I’ve got more to ponder about this topic but I’m actually going to pause here so that we can think about these questions a little bit more. If anyone has any furry thoughts on these tough philosophical questions or quandaries then I’d love to hear from you. Please share them with us by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below.