Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Universe Stripped of its Ethics

Ethics and moral relativism, or more poignantly put, moral absolutism and moral relativism are competing with each other for a spot in civilization’s top one hundred. Before we go on, let us attempt to define each of these things. In a nutshell, moral absolutism is grounded on the notion that there is an identifiable right and wrong in this world of ours, and that some things are absolutely wrong and some are absolutely right. However, the phrase “absolutely anything” suggests itself to extremism because of the way it is used in speech; consider hearing somebody say, “That is absolutely incorrect,” has a tinge of extremism to it doesn’t it? The definition of the word “absolute,” however, yields a different connotation. The applicable Marriem-Webster’s definitions for “absolute” are:

1b : free or relatively free from mixture : PURE

6a : independent of arbitrary standards of measurement

It is absolutely true that “absolute” has many definitions, but for the sake of this point, I’ll choose the two that do the job; and they are 1b and 6a. The word "absolute" signifies degree, if something has an absolute definition, the degree of whatever is being discussed is carried out to its fullest. For example, absolute darkness means a type of darkness in which there is no light, and absolute light would mean the opposite. In some cases, “absolute” has tyrannical connotations, as in the cases of governments for example, but the word also has a neutral meaning, in the case, for example, that murdering a person is wrong in an absolute sense, or in other words, absolutely wrong. Consider society’s positive use of the word “absolution,” equitable with closure, as when a person dies the relatives seek absolution, contrasted to society’s use of the word “absolutist,” such as an absolutist government, in which decisions are made without any leeway. What if we were to say that the strict government wanted absolution and that the people who wanted closure were absolutists?

“Relativism” is defined as:

1 a : a theory that knowledge is
relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing

b : a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them

If and when absolute value is applied absolutely, not taking unpredictable circumstances into account, then it becomes a suffocating force – a measure of degree is necessary. Likewise, when relativism is carried to the absolute degree, the measuring stick of society becomes inoperable and right and wrong become figments of the imagination. Absolute relativism becomes a dangerous scenario, threatening societal disintegration, while absolute absolutism threatens society with a high pressure situation that tends to lead to retaliation or silence. So it’s not that the words “absolutism” or “relativism” are bad, a degree of each is necessary, it’s when each of the concepts is carried to an absolute degree that each become horribly damaging. To contrast, the phrase “relative absolutism” is used to compare one society to another and to say that, compared to their society, we live in absolutism, meaning that their society is freer than ours. “Relative relativism” is used in the same way; if we live in relative relativism to another society, then compared to them, we are more relativist and they are more absolutist.

So after all this mindless chatter, how can we define “moral absolutism” and “moral relativism?” Moral absolutism would have to connote a system that focuses, or at least recognizes, the absolute value of morals, meaning that it does not “fudge” the definition of, for example, murder, which is always wrong, always immoral. However, it is up to that society to establish the definition of the word “murder,” and it would find that specific meaning in a definition that leans strongly towards applying a consistent definition in any circumstance. It goes to say that over time and due to particular circumstances, the very word can go through a conceptual development, but generally stays within the bounds of the absolute intent of the purpose of defining it in the first place, which is to prevent people from murdering.

Moral relativism is a system in which definitions of morality are considered to be alterable according to the preferences, not needs, of the society. As we see, in the system of moral absolutism, the definition of a term can change to fit the needs of the society, but does not pass over the boundaries of the initial intent of the word, commonly referred to as “the spirit of the law.” Since a system of moral relativism tends to want to reject the notion that a mere law can carry with it a spirit, such a system desires only to have spirit and no law. It is not anchored by a definition of murder, to stay with the example, and therefore there is no proper or conceptual model by which to define what murder actually is. In societies that possess such a trend, murder is open-ended; anything can be considered murder, but usually either everything is considered murder or nothing is. Sometimes, the definition of murder becomes inconsistent, being applied to one degree in a particular situation and to another in a different situation, with no attempt to tie one scenario to another. Every once in a while, a relativist system actually produces a form of absolutism, where either everything is allowable or nothing is allowable. We can take “political correctness” for example; sometimes to be politically correct means to be completely silent about a matter, and to break the silence means to be intolerant, while on the other hand, it is deemed perfectly acceptable and even encouraged to express every opinion on a different matter in an unbridled fashion. Most of the time, however, such a trend produces confusion that leaves words and concepts undefined, or defined only in ways that are practical and convenient, and usually differ from individual to individual.

So how does this have to do with the universe? Quite a bit actually; as our knowledge of the world and universe grows, along with our desire to know, we begin to perceive that we are changing in two ways simultaneously. On one hand, we are growing exponentially in accordance with our growing abilities, and on the other hand, we are shrinking quickly because our abilities allow us to contact each other with amazing speed and accuracy, making the world, and us, a smaller place. Soon, we will grow accustomed, or maybe even bored with the “smallness” of this world, and because we have the ability to reach out and potentially leave it, a sign of our greatness, we will do so. As we are better able to (supposedly) navigate our world, we will feel less and less contained by it, and subsequently, by the same values and morals that make up the spiritual, philosophical, and ethical pillars of our world.

Here is the irony of this scenario; this grandeur is an illusion. Until we are able to actually take off Star Trek style or communicate with other intelligent civilizations while comfortably seated on our Earth, we are contained both physically by our planet and civilization-wise by our established values and morals. The pressure will take a sharp increase because, theoretically, we should already be able to leave this world more efficiently than we currently can, causing us to act as if the values and morals that we have in place are “ancient” and based on scientific infancy, which will lead to a desperate embrace of relativist thought. We will begin to show (and have for some time now) angst, caused by our itching desire to explore the final frontier and our recognition that we should be at that level by now, challenged by the fact that simply taking human beings out of our atmosphere is quite complicated (and very expensive). This will cause a struggle, even a clash, between the civilizations of moral absolutism and moral relativism

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