My wife is in summer school (she is 16, you see — no, not really), and among the classes she’s taking this quarter is an introduction to ethics course, one of those courses where the great moral issues of the day are plopped on the table and everybody goes back and forth on the issue but nothing really gets resolved; not unlike the UN, but somewhat less expensive to participate. The textbook for the class is called Taking Sides, and it features about 20 contentious issues, like “Should Abortions Be Legal?” or “Should Great Apes Be Given Human Rights?” with one essay on the topic arguing for the question, and another, naturally, arguing against. Nowhere present is the third essay, in which the first two essayists are labeled pedantic twits, followed by the suggestion that everyone reading the book should simply go out for cheeseburgers and a round of pool. It’s a real shame it’s not there.
Unsurprisingly, most of the topics that are under consideration in Taking Sides are topics that I already have fairly strong opinions about; perhaps also not surprisingly, it seems that most of the time is not at all like the opinion of the book’s appointed pro and con representatives. This is because in most cases of ethical and moral conundrums, the arguments of those totally for or totally against an issue exist in a rhetorical fantasyland that has no real relationship with the world human beings actual live in. Ethics isn’t mathematics; one can’t take as given certain things in order create an elegant and coherent system. Human beings are messy things, after all. Ethics and morality are and always shall be a messy business.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the first question that Taking Sides posits: “Is Morality Relative to Culture?” The cultural conservative position on this, of course, would be no — there are certain aspects of morality that are independent of one’s culture (and, conveniently, those aspects of morality tend to be those moral aspects which a cultural conservative finds convenient). Cultural liberals, of course, tend to take exception to both the theory and practice of an absolute morality, since those “absolutes” tend to get in the way of whatever activity it is that they’re enjoying and that the conservatives are worried that they are enjoying too much. The only problem with this position is that taken to its extreme it means that you have no right to complain when someone speaks glowingly to the morality of, say, female genital mutilation in they Sudan. Sure, it’s immoral here, but in the Sudan, they’ve been doing it forever. It’s perfectly moral there.
Both positions are fundamentally pretty stupid. The conservative position of an absolute morality has always struck me as weak, because the construction of an absolute morality (which almost always conforms to their morality of choice) is a tacit admission that they can’t sell their lifestyle without divine intervention. All assertions for an absolute morality that I know of eventually lead back to a God of some sort, the existence of which is fundamentally unprovable. There may be someone out there is who is arguing that that there’s a Chomsky-like “deep structure” for morality, which would be independent of an end-point celestial lawgiver, but if there is, I haven’t heard of him or her, and I can’t really imagine any cultural conservative wanting to use Chomsky-ian tools to make a point; it’s just not in them to be agnostic about the provenance of their argument.
On the flip side, it’s difficult to intellectually to support a position on morality whose finally reductive argument leaves room for the aforementioned genital mutilation or shoving little girls back into a burning building to die because their heads aren’t properly covered, as so recently happened in Saudi Arabia. Neither argument satisfies because neither argument has anything to do with the real world.
Here’s an argument that I think works: Yes, morals are relative to culture and independent of any larger, overarching system of morality that all of humanity shares. But if one believes that morals are relative to cultures, it does not therefore follow that one must believe that all cultures are created equal, or that the moralities therein are equivalent. This is an argument that allows you to say: “Your morals are rooted in your culture — but your culture truly sucks.”
I don’t have any problems with this formulation at all. On the one hand, America’s culture owes most of its distinct and durable character to a marvelous act of intellectual manufacture on the part of the founding fathers. They created a political culture almost entirely out of whole cloth, and by doing so helped to create the social and moral culture that supported the aims of the political culture. Neither of these existed anywhere on the planet prior to the founding of the United States, and even attempts within the United States to fight them (the Civil War comes to mind) ended up ultimately strengthening them (mind you, there are still some kinks to work out). There are certainly numerous cultural threads to the social life of the US, but the most important one — the one that ensures personal liberty — was a whole new thing.
Moreover, this created culture and morality is a better one (by and large) than others. Part of this can be seen pragmatically: The US is the most powerful country in the history of the world because the culture and morality of personal liberty has allowed for the creation of a rich, healthy, hard working and (reasonably) intelligent populace. But it’s also evident simply in what it allows, which is for just about everything, once you’re an adult. An open and free society can include, as a subset, and damn fool thing you want to believe in — even a morally restrictive lifestyle (I mean, I live near Amish). The only real restriction on this is that you can’t drag other people down with you if they don’t want to go, but if you can live with that, have at it.
Cultural conservatives believe that having morality dependant on culture ultimately leads to anarchy, but I don’t see that as being the case. Most people are smart enough to see that their freedom to do whatever they want stops when whatever they want unwillingly involves someone else (more accurately, people realize that someone else’s freedom to do what they want stops when it involuntarily involves them). People don’t want anarchy; it cramps their ability to do what they choose to do. Thus we have a society that, with a few reactionary spasms now and then, largely lets us live as we want to.
It’s hard to beat that, and I’ll pit it against any other culture, and any other morality, any day of the week.