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?