Moral Relativism

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In other places, briefly, I have mentioned this concept, and it is something that returns to me fairly regularly. I have not ''worked out'' any theory on it, and perhaps do not even fully understand what it means. Nevertheless there is sometimes a vibe that can crop up in the broadest interpretation of the esoteric sphere that frequently gives me pause for thought.

Moral relativism is very fashionable now, in all spheres in fact, and determines a good deal of social policy. Social policy determines what kind of society we may live in as we go forward, so moral relativism is worth considering.

What is it?

In simple (and thus perhaps incorrect terms) moral relativism holds that nothing is objectively right or wrong. All morality has been conditioned into us by our culture, tribe, societal systems and beliefs, and no one has the grounds to say what should be considered as a baseline morality.

Now obviously all our societies have been based on conditioned morality thus far. Most western societies have a Christian ethos. The Buddhist or Hindu ethos has conditioned morality in India, China, and many parts of Asia. The Islamic ethos has conditioned morality in the Middle East. Political ideologies such as Marxism and Stalinism conditioned morality in large parts of the world previously. Shamanic ideas have conditioned morality in the past, and in some places still do. You get the idea. We did not any of us have to invent an idea of what is moral - we were born variously into differently conditioned systems. And these conditions change and have changed and are changing.

There have been very obvious problems with the culturally conditioned moral norms in place variously over the aeons - that's easy to see. For example, the rich/elite were seen as essentially good, their ideas were acceptable, sanctioned by God or the gods and to be accepted, likewise the powerful, the martial, the dog with the fiercest teeth, the pirate with the biggest hoard. The moral basis we have accepted in various ways is open to challenge.

But that's not really the point here. Of course we have been making a mess of things - that is our nature as humans. But should we burn the place down to try and find something better in the ashes?

The thing with moral relativity is that it is a movement away from loyalty to any moral basis. Moral relativists would not, for example, generally hold with the idea that there is a natural, intrinsic law of good or truth. This has been debated in philosophy for thousands of years, and longer. Is there a self-existing cosmic order, a foundation which cannot be uprooted?

To the moral relativist, there is not, and by extrapolation, anything goes. Or at least it should, because who am I to judge you? Or anyone?

We see this happening in our political and social spheres nowadays ever more, and it is also there in the new forms of spirituality, or rather the new interpretations of old traditions. For example - Nothing is real. It is all good, It is all illusory. It is all passing. Nothing is either good or bad, it simply is. And so on.

This is a very common modern interpretation of eastern mysticism such as Zen, Advaita, etc. From my understanding of these traditions, however, and in spite of scriptures that call for omnipresent detachment, these traditions are all rooted very deeply in strongly pre-existing moral cultures. The moral conditioning of the seeker, one that in the native has been subconsciously embedded from birth,  is a reserve pool of natural law that ensures against moral relativism if and when the practitioner casts off social, political, religious etc. limitations.

I say this as a long time friend of the eastern esoteric paths. To cast off from the world into a detached moral relativism does not seem authentic to me, nor does it seem rooted in the soil from which these and other traditions emerged. What I saw in regular, domestic, natural Hindu and Buddhist esoteric circles in their native homes were ordinary people who were naturally and unshakably moral, and committed to and engaged in the world outside themselves. An idea of a basic intrinsic moral right or wrong was unquestionable. There was never a hint of apathy towards questions of morality.

(Yes, yes, there are the blackguards and the charlatans and the fundamentalist misanthropes  - but I am speaking of the ordinary/extraordinary every day man and woman.)

One example of this bedrock of moral preparation prior to spiritual practice is in the Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga, or in the 8 fold path of Buddhism, where basic fundamental practices of human morality such as non-stealing, non-lying, non-violence, etc are outlined clearly. These moral preparations are held to be necessary and must be firmly established before mystical enquiry is pursued.. Even if we look at a very radical person like Milarepa, who was a black magician, we see that he had to work off his bad deeds (make a moral reckoning) by building endless towers for Marpa, which Marpa would demolish again and again, in order that his student be made a fit vessel. Marpa did not shrug and said ''it's okay, my boy, nothing is real anyway.''

Without this pre existing natural morality the seeker who prematurely decides ''all is perfect'', ''make no flicker of preference between good and bad,'' and so on, is diving into what is essentially nihilism.

This is just a present view I hold tentatively. I am not saying it is correct and am as always open to discussion. I am simply saying I see danger here. Everywhere with modern spirituality, in its dreamy sloganising, its meta-culture of assiduous self care and motivational psychology, its unthinking acceptance of whatever happens in the ''illusory'' real world as some fatalistic unfolding that means nothing to the personal soul, I see moral relativism. The human species is not a tabula rasa - in endless years of development, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, we have uncovered truths. Truths we have plucked with hard labour out of the soil of our lower selves. To deny this now - to say things are neither true nor false, to be non-committal - is to secede ground gained over the millennia of the human struggle.

Postscript ~ I came across this young man's video while looking up some ideas related to moral relativism. He speaks of the ''illusory escapism from the harshness of the world'' that is common now in spirituality. I can identify with many of his points of view expressed here. His ''argument is that moral relativism is a tool for control and containment of the disillusioned masses.''

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  • This reply was deleted.
    • Yes, that's exactly it, there is no theory of everything regarding how to be a righteous human being, and that is one of the main things besides cosmogonies that philosophers, lovers of wisdom, have been concerning themselves with since forever. and that is what I think we should continue doing.

      EDIT - just to clarify what i mean by this, i don;t mean evolving a t.o.e., but rather considering aspects, like ...hmmm...what does it mean to be human?, or are there basic incontrovertible human rights? that kind of thing...not a complete theory that everybody must sign up for. The opposite though is a beige 'moral relativism' where there is no theory or philosophy behind anything. Hmmm, I need to sort out my thoughts on that so i can express it more clearly.

      Recently my daughter and i had (another!) debate (I honestly cannot remember what it was right now) and she said to me ''But Mammy, he is trying to make a theory of everything...'' (You sure you guys don't plot/skpe behind my back!?)..and i said ''I don't is just so damn nice to see a theory of ANYTHING, these days, when there are no bloody original theories or philosophies any more, just one big monolithic political correctness that we are all supposed to agree with.'' And that political correctness is often completely embedded in moral relativism. So, agreed, there can be no theory of everything. did actually feel the same re the guy and his specialness, but I put it down to him still being quite young (and ridiculously goodlooking, so he probably does think he is somehow special). Hahah. Life has not kicked him hard enough and often enough in the backside yet to let him know he is a (Divine) pleb like the rest of us.

      ''We are all Tragically human'' - God, that's the first line from a poem you should write. It's beautiful.

      All of it is difficult. All the figuring out. All the being wrong. I just think that is what philosophers in the original sense of the word should risk. We should value and maintain the old tradition of being philosophers in our own small ways. Working consciously, full of error, full of hope (and yes, tragically) through the debris of a crazy world and crazy lives to salvage some meaning and wisdom.

      Another edit - my addled brain remembered what my daughter and I were discussing. I was telling her about Dr Gus from this article.... ...and that's when she protested about him having a theory of everything. I mean, it's true. We all do cling onto our own world view, in various ways subtle and strong.

      The Ecology of War
      This is a long discussion which ''took place in Beirut, Lebanon, in Cafe Younes, on April 25, 2017'' between a surgeon named ''Dr. Gus Abu-Sitta (who…
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    • The idea of a global day per year when everyone on the planet openly acknowledges their tragic, flawed humanity is a genius one. A shared open catharsis of our mutual drink allowed to help with the pain of the whipping..haha. It kind of reminds me of the idea of the sacred clown in a village mimicking and exaggerating people's flaws and imperfections so that they stay grounded. Anyways, how about re-purposing April Fool's Day. Instead of playing pranks we all display our grossness. Do it Noct, start the global campaign, make it viral! Sacred Fools / Albino Monk Day....I think it's a great idea. Ideas like that could save the world. Honestly.

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    • Your comment makes me realise I expressed myself inadequately.

      In a way I think we are talking about slightly different things and I just cannot pick them apart properly right now to see what the difference in subject exactly is, but If I let it sit I might be able to be more clear.

      Using ''Truths'' was the wrong word, perhaps I should have used ''Enquiries''. Truths implies that my opinions (or anyones) are correct, and I do not believe that. I have never felt like I have arrived at the definitive about anything. Nor, in truth, have I felt anyone has. But their enquiries is something else. It goes to the heart of philosophy, of ''Who Am I?''

      So in general I completely agree with what you say that the act of one person trying to make everyone believe or feel their ''box'' or reality tunnel is the only correct view is an act of violence.

      And that we are all completely subjective about what are ''truths'' in general.

      And that the small ''truths'' are movable feasts, change as society changes, change according to peoples life stories etc..

      though ultimately I do feel that there is a single big Truth, no matter how we individually express it. I think you expressed that earlier as knowing ''All is One''. That is the Truth I mean in that context, with a capital T.

      So, in general I am referring to smaller (though still important) truths, and I think that might be kind of the difference in the subjects we are addressing. I think you mean Truth.

      What I mean by moral relativism is the denial of the worth of enquiring at all. Enquiry is something the species has been doing for a very long time. 

      Robert Anton Wilson, for example, was correct in saying that most of us arrive at a basic theory of life (Tunnel) and hole up there,  but it was his act of Enquiry, his constant acts of enquiry throughout his life, that made him a philosopher. He may not have been arguing with others (I don't know) but he was wrestling back and forth within himself to understand, to glimpse. If he had thought nothing matters, everything is equally true and false, he would never have enquired as there would be no point.

      It's hard to find the words.

      Going out on  a limb here, I do think that there are levels where one cannot say everything is equally false and true, or that the opposite of what we hold to be true must also be embraced. This is kind of at the crux of it.

      On an absolutely macro cosmic level, that could be said.  Yes. There is total union there, no opposites. So, in that sense I agree completely.

      But here in ordinary human life if we do not decide some things are true or false then it could be moral relativism. And we also do hand over the responsibility then to others to do that for us. I mean on the ordinary civil society level. We let others decide if 6 year old children should have puberty-halting hormones, we let others decide if euthanasia is suitable for people with certain illnesses, we let others decide how pedophiles should be legislated for  and dealt with.

      And we might think, oh that is their thing, they chose to do that in this life, but actually by being part of a society we agree to be part of someone doing these things, and why should it be some one else? Should we not enquire about the nature of goodness ourselves? About everything in fact? Should that go in the water? Should that be in my food? Should children be taught that? Should these people be paid that much for their labour?  Everything.

      So when I speak about moral relativism and philosophy and the long time struggle humans have wrestled with, I mean in terms of enquiry. What is it to be human? What is the nature of good and evil? What is my social burden to other beings? What are mine and your basic fundamental rights as a human being? At what point of existence do those rights begin, or end, pre natal, post severe illness, etc? And on and on. Philosophers have come up with various ''truths'' to answer these kind of questions over a long time and their journeys can inform our enquiries, though we do not have to get into their boxes.

      These points of enquiry may seem pointless, but they intersect with every single facet of human life, and to feel there is no absolute right or wrong would give rise to tricky situations. If some big guy pushes the old lady out of her seat on the bus, it is wrong. It is not correct to feel that because he may find it justified in his inner reality then we should feel no judgement, because as  a human being we should. We should decide whether this is right or wrong. Is it true or false that this big guys feelings trump the old ladies feelings? Can that be morally relative? 

      This extends infinitely. If people say look it is not my business to decide how Mrs Smith's children should be treated and if she decides her child should have surgery to change their gender then that is entirely up to them, this is moral relativism and it has consequences. Maybe not now, or personally, but it has consequences at some point and for some one.  

      It is not to say that one has to believe what Socrates or Plato or Lao Tzu or Jesus or anyone else in the whole of existence has said about matters they enquired into. One does not have to buy into anyone elses story, philosophy or box. But the actual process of enquiry has some intrinsic value, importance and relevance. And if we say ''nothing matters'', or ''everything is the same'' then it is not useful on the ordinary level of life at least. One could even say we do it automatically, and subtly, or naturally, and thus it is a natural human function.

      Yes, it may absolutely be true from an ultimate cosmic perspective that there are no'' relativities'' (is that even a word?), and I think that is the sense in which you mean it in your comment. And I agree with that.

      Sorry, I might have to rethink some things I have written here as it is hard to be absolutely definite about what I am saying. So, I am not saying ''this is so''.

      Later Edit - By the way I wanted to say that i appreciate the engagement, the talking with you, as it helps me to stay more fluid. In this time, when there seems to be so much changing and the ground beneath our feet seems shakier than normal, I have noticed in myself a tendency to be more conservative, more judgmental even maybe, less fluid. I am not deciding that is good or bad per se - maybe there is a need in this time for more respect for Tradition, etc. - but i do like to be challenged and encouraged not to just settle on one result of any contemplation. And sometimes it takes time for things to sit with me for there to be a change, if any is needed.

  • Was thinking a bit more in or around this. It's a big area and my thoughts on it are fragmented and unsettled. And I still think there are different levels - like big Truth, small truth, external decisions on morality or ethics vs naturally arising innate goodness etc

    It's really difficult sometimes coming to a moral or ethical decision on some things. Often, especially nowadays with all the insanity, I would prefer to look the other way.

    Like for example on immigration. I find that one really tough. My daughter believes there should be open borders planet wide and everyone should go where they want and I remember when i was her age feeling the same. But now I have reservations. Too complicated to outline here at the minute, but it means having any position on it can make me feel lousy. But I really do not believe i am a xenophobe or such, for contemplating a certain opinion. And I can see the good points in others opinions, and change mine if persuaded. That is just an example.

    And the temptation can be strong not to have an opinion - to let it all go. To just get on with my own garden and little adventures.

    And yet not having a moral view on things means like i said elsewhere that we are handing that over to others to do for us, to decide what is right and wrong, because it will be done anyway, and we will live in a  world which proceeds from decisions others have made on how things should be. That will affect us more than we might possibly imagine right now, and then it might be too late.

    And there are even trickier things, like how about for example if that bus example i gave yesterday involved a couple of people with guns deciding to rape or torture another passenger. A young girl or child maybe?  What is one going to do? The threat of ultra violence makes me feel hesitant, makes me want to look away, to save my skin. It means I could die if I object. If no one else objects I will be alone reacting against evil. Even if everyone reacts together someone innocent  might get killed.

    And to imagine this scenario is not realistic is not so, as it has played out again and again in history, and even now for say Yadzidi communities at the hands of ISIS it plays out everyday. It played out in small communities of former neighbours in  Rwanda, Yugoslavia, the Holocaust, the Gulags, It plays out loads of places all the time. It is in fact pretty common..

    And in  a way it can be a feeling of ones utter powerlessness against the magnitude of evil that makes us withdraw from making moral judgments. That can be one reason. We can say no matter what i think or feel things are going to go the way they will go, and so we withdraw. There are likely many other reasons, but these are some. Maybe

    But should we? Are we really truly powerless? Has not the human being come through unimaginable things and yet generally as individuals chosen to inculcate optimistic virtues in our off spring - love, charity, hope, trust and so on. Are we not all connected...mothers, aunts, siblings, friends, and therefore we have to be part of the world for the sake of others. We have to decide on questions of good and evil, on human purpose and future, on what may be true and false, even on a tiny daily scale in ordinary lives.

    And I admit I am very attracted to the 'let it all go' philosophies. I think they are vital to our well-being, they give me a feeling of spirit soaring. The poetry of it all, to dwell in the macro-cosmic, to let go completely of the savage world below. I love the avadhoot idea, the withdrawal, the detachment. Dattatreya's style, or so on, in various cultures. They knew it was a savage world, and it is! They said let it go. They have a very good point. I often see/know/truly feel that none of it matters, that death, life, does not matter, it is all passing, an ephemera. 

    And yet i also see that many great sages of the past also advised kings, involved themselves in moral questions of the realm, sought to help rulers work out what is good and evil and how to balance the society so that suffering would be generally lessened. Bodhidharma, LaoTzu - they both are supposed to have spent time working in or visiting royal courts, for example. There are lots more. Kings often had philosophers, priests to advise them. Plato had the idea of philosopher kings - people to rule who also thought wisely and deeply. Asoka, Akbar, Marcus Aurelius are sometimes cited as examples of this. People who loved God above all, who were united with the Divine, often worked out moral or ethical guidelines to try ameliorate human suffering. Manu. Jesus. Buddha. Lao Tzu Etc Etc. 

    This means they were not morally relative. They might have called it something else like ''Virtue'' or ''Ethics'', but at some point they came down on a line between right and wrong.  They took a position. That position was necessary to have for general ordinary situations where not everyone would automatically be living from a place of natural virtue having realised their true nature.

    I came across this discussion on the dao might be relevant. I am reading it. It has some interesting points

    (I might be back!)

    Taoism and Moral Relativism: Are they mutually inclusive? - General Discussion
    Page 1 of 4 - Taoism and Moral Relativism: Are they mutually inclusive? - posted in General Discussion: So I've been reading a book that was given to…
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      • Yes, the whole response without thought, immediate's an interesting one to wonder how we would respond.

        My Dad was a big example for me, he would never hesitate to wade in if someone was attacking another, even though he ended up hurt sometimes. I remember as a teenager seeing him rush out of the house in the dark - we lived deep in the country - as there was a man in a car parked near our field and he was beating up a woman inside the car and my Dad just rushed out the gate and opened the door of the car and dragged out the guy to stop him attacking the woman. This is the way he was, even though he was kind of a short guy, and not trained in fighting or anything, and my three brothers are like that too. That gave me an example. I think it's why i am often concerned about how to fix things in the world...hahha its also an INFJ thing i guess.

        The immigration thing is a big one to cover. So, I'll just skirt it. It's not about the melting pot idea, which is an inspiration, like NYC is; it's more about European social and political systems and our ethos that we have spent hundreds of years developing perhaps experiencing strain or collapse as a result of giving unlimited social supports to very large numbers of people, and especially if those people have ideologies which are actively disapproving of the general European ethos of liberty and equality, and they do not wish to integrate. That is a big difference in America, the people in NYC want to be New Yorkers, they want to be the new Americans, it is an ideal,  but there are Mosques here in European cities where clerics preach hatred towards the culture around them, and this is not a small issue but quite big. There are places in Europe where people live in enclaves and want Sharia law and modesty police and so on and I do think it is worth saying that the advances we made in our societies are worth preserving.

        I think it would be better if we worked to first of all stop the western coalition aggression against other countries, and stopped western corporate ravaging of poorer countries, worked very hard to rapidly equalise living conditions in all parts of the world, eliminating poverty, war, disease and so on. This could all be done, it should be the main focus of our politics at the moment. Because if Europe declines suddenly due to being financially overwhelmed trying to fix the problems then there would be no economic engine to drive any social change globally. If Europe devolves into hate politics and cultural warfare we would be stepping back so far in our history and it would be devastating. For everyone, European and immigrant alike.  

        It is such a huge problem, so multi faceted, so nuanced, so many good people caught up in the forces of sudden unexpected history, and i really cannot say what should or could happen. And most people are afraid to say anything at all in case hey are called racist. I don't know what to say on it really. It is hard on the immigrants who want a better life and it is hard on the local people who cannot go safely into parts of their towns and cities any more because the people there have been taught to feel contempt for them in the mosques and madrasas. it is also really hard not to react emotionally to some of the incredibly violent stories one hears about sex attacks and so on. I know they are only a tiny percentage but some of the behaviour can be very emotionally and psychologically disturbing. I have been surprised at my own gut reaction - to have children or young girls attacked by someone who has been given charitable refuge has made me feel enraged and powerless. Yes, of course it happened here before and 'native' people can be monsters,but somehow the idea that someone who has been offered every help and refuge can turn on a child at a swimming pool, or  on a young girl working in an immigrant hostel and savage them, is just very hard to hear.  It brings up strong visceral reactions. I think it is different here than the NY experience, it is a different scenario.

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