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Human Relativism

Human Relativism

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When it comes to the debate between being either morally objective or subjective, I choose human relativism instead.

It can be intellectually fashionable, if not downright encouraged, to support moral relativism. Especially if you consider yourself a compassionate, liberal human being, staying open to all creeds and beliefs is supposed to be a good thing.

I’ve never been a moral relativist myself, and possibly for the very simple reason that long ago, I was put into a position where I had to take a relativist stance on the subject that cut closest of all: my own psyche.

To live a double life of the soul, you need only be at odds with the pressures that surround you, and fear to resist. Depression is statistically on the rise in the Western world. Job dissatisfaction and multiple changes of career are more the rule than the exception. Marriage is on the decline while divorce rates stay pretty much steady. All of these trends seem to have a boogeyman in common: freedom.

What do I mean by this? Moral relativism, the idea that there are no absolutes and personal belief systems trump a universal moral code when it comes to right and wrong, is seen as only possible where everyone is free to believe what they want. Ironically, it exists also where people are more educated and aware of beliefs that are different from their own. Instead of digging in and saying, this is the only way that is correct, moral relativists back down from judgement and claim the only sin is to believe that anyone at all can commit a sin, if it is in line with his or her own philosophy.

Me, I’m more comfortable on the absolute end of the moral scale. I believe that certain actions are inherently good and others inherently bad. Maybe I tend more to the, yes, problematic view that acts are good and bad but the actor is neither. This has the added bonus of leaving any action open to forgiveness, which has long been a bonus for religions.

Can you define “right” without “good?”

But I don’t particularly subscribe to the notions of good and evil either, because in all my days, I have never discovered a person who is truly one or the other, and because those high concepts are almost too lofty and alien to ascribe to individuals or actions in any case. They also defy close scrutiny. When you look closely enough at an individual or an act, there is always a reason for it that makes more sense of it than a rarefied sort of ultimate judgment. To deem something either holy or profane is to take its humanity away, and stops us from having to aspire to something simpler: choose the right thing to do over the wrong one.

By subscribing to moral relativism, you give yourself a break. You allow yourself the freedom to not make a choice – and, as I’m fond of quoting probably a little too often for anyone who isn’t a Rush fan, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” To be a moral relativist, you can avoid taking a stance in favour of live and let live. To be a moral relativist, you remove the responsibility I believe you have as a member of society: to understand that certain actions have consequences; that those consequences can lead to marginalizing people, letting them fall through the cracks of whatever social safety net exists where you live; and allowing people who make wrong decisions to hold power over those who try to be “good.”

Having experienced the wrong end of wrong decisions, I am all too aware of how easy it is to end up far, far down a hostile road with nothing familiar around you while also believing that you’ve done everything within your power to make good choices. I was born with everything a person could want: basic health; a solvent, middle class family with good jobs and no addiction issues; a good intellect; and a certain flair for one thing: writing.

None of it was enough to stop me from sinking year after year into increasing and debilitating depression. None of it was enough for anyone to take my decline seriously enough to reach out to arrest it. And none of it was enough for me to be smart enough or strong enough or brave enough to get out of it on my own.

Relative aid and comfort

Human relativism is the name I give to what I required, what I couldn’t give myself. There’s really only one rule of morality that you have to understand: it’s that every person needs the same things, if you can look past how they may frame those needs in very different, even alien iterations. We need air to breathe, food and water to consume, shelter from extreme elements, the belief that we’re loved, and something to make us feel valued and valuable.

Where human relativism comes in, and what makes having an absolutely moral code far more difficult than preaching relativism, is that every human being is unique in how those needs I outlined above can be met successfully. Air and physical sustenance are fairly universal, but the last two needs are hard to meet. They’re hard to meet in ourselves, and they’re hard to meet in others and yet, if those two concepts (the need to feel loved and the need to feel useful) can be seen as essential to all human brains, it follows that they are absolute needs. As such, we do the right thing when we contribute to meeting those needs in ourselves and others, and the wrong one when we don’t.

If your moral beliefs destroy even one of those things in another person, you are not a moral person. I am comfortable to call foul on your morality if you are okay with deliberately hampering the ability to thrive in other people.

If, however, your moral code honours others – and I mean all others, not just those you share beliefs with – and if you are dedicated to allowing or even helping others to thrive, you are a moral person.

If you take the time to communicate with others about their needs, and their hang-ups about achieving both the feeling that they are loved and doing something that matters, you’ll find an infinity of ways in which those needs can be met. If you are a loving person yourself, you’ll learn where you can help meet the needs of others and hopefully have yours met as well, if not in return.

Humans bruise easily and stay bruised for a long time if they are subject to moral relativism, where human needs are not included in the equation. Moral absolutism presupposes that human actions need curbing, that we will do the wrong thing unless someone leads the way with a strict series of rules. Moral relativism assumes that all such rules are equal.

But human relativism is grounded in the simple idea that all people need air, food, water, love, and purpose, and avoids the pitfall of picking and choosing from the moral codes available for consumption or rejection. It redefines “tolerance,” because you don’t have to tolerate other people’s differences; you can embrace them. To be a human relativist, you can no longer preach a “one size fits all” solution to moral quandaries. You are obligated to look at the effect the beliefs have on those who follow them, and ask questions about how those beliefs affect their lives. Only then will you know if their lives are enriched or stifled by that code, and only then are you qualified to decide whether you agree or disagree. Otherwise, you have an obligation to not do the wrong thing, by at least not interfering where you don’t know right from wrong.

It’s a simple prescription for treating others better – and if that’s not your idea of a moral code, I need to ask: what is?

The Empowerment Dilemma

Empowerment is the big buzz word for women, whether she considers herself a feminist, a traditionalist, or “other.” But just like everything else in the world, enough people are working to cash in on the concept that it would probably benefit you to think a little bit about what exactly that word means.

“Empowerment” is an interesting word. Not the least because we could be using it a little narrowly.

The Brass Tacks: Defining Empowerment

Empowerment has come to primarily mean having more agency yourself, the ability to control your own life and circumstances, but the usage can also extend to giving someone else that power, often power to act on your behalf. The question you must ask yourself is, “Am I more in control of my life and living it as I desire, or am I ceding responsibility for those choices to others?”

Why is this important? Because empowerment requires an increasing self-knowledge, and a sense of responsibility toward others. When you work to empower yourself, it’s perfectly possible that you are either disempowering others, or giving away certain rights and responsibilities in order to make a quick, mostly superficial gain.

When the women’s movement picked up steam in the 60s and into the 70s, there was the kind of conflict we see now between women who, quite naturally, wanted different results from their empowerment. But by the 80s, we were witnessing women holding a sense of entitlement and, yes, empowerment never seen before in history. It’s easy to forget in the flurry of shoulder pads and novelty pop songs that women in the 80s were working more diverse jobs, holding more responsibility, making more money, and were more prominent in many of the arts than at any previous time in history. In the media, we were treated to more diversity in ethnicity, age, and look.  The badass women of the 70s made it okay to have a voice, and by the 80s, most women were trying it out for themselves.

And then the world struck back. By the end of the 80s, I saw the death of the women’s movement, the trivialization of feminism, and a return to the idea that a woman’s only worth came from her youth, good looks, and compliance.

We have the chance now to continue on the path set in the 80s, before the return to darkness, but only if we understand what empowerment means, and what it DOESN’T mean.

What Empowerment Isn’t

Empowerment is not the ability to use the existing system to manipulate others. It is not the ability to work out, use lots of makeup, and make people do things for you because of how you look. It is not the ability to commodify yourself for the sake of material gain or positive response by molding yourself into the image that an exploitative system suggests.

Empowerment is substance, not surface.

I read a post today about a woman who wanted to know how to stop her daughter from sending nude selfies to boys when, as she put it, “Kim Kardashian does it.”

It broke my heart, and even more to read the responses that put a huge amount of guilt and blame on the mother for not being a good parent. If anyone understands the enormous pressure to commodify one’s self for the sake of popularity or other gain, it’s kids growing up in the age of pervasive social media.

Posting a nude selfie is an automatic way to get noticed, and liked, and any number of seemingly positive responses. It’s also meaningless if what you’re looking for is empowerment.

To empower yourself, you must know what YOU want, and that should eventually, hopefully, go beyond combating your own insecurity with superficial responses to a superficial offering.

To empower yourself means to look at yourself as a whole person. If you can’t, how do you expect anyone else to? I divide the human experience of growth into four parts that function kind of like a three-legged stool: three legs and a seat. If you want to be empowered enough to sit down at the end of the day, or stand up on the seat to get a look at what’s next, you need to think about balancing the aspects of your parts to make a harmonious whole.

Me, I was an intellectual kid, older than my years in comprehension and understanding. Spiritually, I ran deep too, thinking about others, about world events, trying to make a difference around me. I also wrote letters to the editor of my local paper about injustices I’d seen, and what I’d tried to do to make things better.

Physically, I was active until my early teens when the stunted nature of my emotions began to take me down a dark road into depression. I repressed what had become a seething, irrational, constant anger and stopped being able to feel much of anything. My energy drained away and a few years in, I stopped leaving the house.

If you look at the three-legged stool, I was so unbalanced I was never at rest, never at home, and never content. I was never happy except when I was nearly hysterical, and never felt good without it immediately turning into bludgeoning pain.

This is how I picture the three-legged stool: it’s made up of three legs, emotional, intellectual, and physical. All of those are necessary functions of the human psyche. We need to think, feel, and move to be happy. I had neglected one leg and let a second atrophy. My intellect was strong, but all its strength did was make me more unbalanced.

The seat on top of the stool is your spiritual component, whatever brings your parts together into a harmonious whole. Here too I felt reasonably confident I was doing okay. I was compassionate, empathetic, and had a “big picture” of the world where everyone mattered, or no one did, in the words of Michael Connolly’s detective Harry Bosch. But with that one spindly leg trying to hold it up? With no physical strength to live my convictions or the emotional maturity to be the person I needed to be? I was on tippy ground.

This is why you need to check your empowerment as much as your entitlement. Not because you should be less than you are, but because you deserve to be more.

What Empowerment Is

If you can balance out those three legs, and attach them to some kind of concept of higher purpose, you can truly become empowered to be yourself, and to make the world a better place around you.

Kim Kardashian has worked a lot on her physical appearance, and has used the system in place that allows women to make money out of superficiality. That’s all I know about her. I don’t consider her empowered. I consider her entitled, and entirely unchecked in that entitlement.

Her entitlement makes others forget about empowering themselves, in favour of working on one leg of that three-legged stool to the detriment of the others. That’s my answer to the mother who worried about her underage daughter sending nude pictures to boys. Empower your daughter for real. If she understands how brittle success is when it’s built entirely on external appearance, she won’t be susceptible to the things boys say when they want her to send them. When a boy says, “I won’t go out with you unless you do,” she’ll tell him, “If that’s all you want, you’re not good enough for me.” That’s empowerment.

So when you consider the women’s movement, or feminism, or racism, or systemic poverty, and it all seems too big to tackle, here’s the cure. Remember that three-legged stool, and how it can lead you to empower yourself. When you’re entitled, you steal empowerment from all the spaces you inhabit. When you are empowered, you empower others.

Also, you have a nifty place to sit down whenever you get tired.

Lots of love & strength, to learn and grow and live.

Jade English has some good thoughts on empowerment and social media