Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Moral Relativism

There is a big debate in our society between people who believe in
moral absolutes and those who believe in moral relativism. The former
argue that certain laws and codes of conduct will always be true,
regardless of the situation, and the latter believe that different
societies can and should have different rules of conduct. In the
political language of the United States, moral relativism is
associated with 'liberal' thought and moral absolutes are associated
with 'conservative' thought.

However, it is somewhat ironic that the people who profess to believe
in the universal applicability of "Thou shalt not kill" are often the
same people who believe in the right of homeowners to use lethal force
to protect themselves and their families. If a homeowner shoots and
kills someone who has broken into the house, then conservatives will
usually take the side of the homeowner and liberals will usually take
the side of the intruder. This is a generalization, and it may be an
accidental effect of the political divisions in our society, but I
believe that it is a useful thing to think about.

I take the side of the homeowner. If a strange person breaks into
your house, you have a right to assume that you are being threatened
and respond accoringly. The law should not require the homeowner to
give a warning; an armed criminal can overpower an inexperienced
civilian in seconds and surprise is often the only weapon that people
have to defend their families. The homeowner has a right of
self-defense, even if the intruder is not obviously threatening them
or brandishing a weapon. The safest thing for the homeowner to do is
assume that the intruder is armed, and capable of acting with speed,
desperation, and cunning. If you are the victim of a home invasion,
you should shoot first, and ask questions later.

In essence, I believe that it is right and proper for homeowners to
administer the death penalty for trespassing. This is because of the
world we live in. A home invasion is a very real threat to life and
health, and the probability is high that a strange man breaking into
your house intends to harm you or your family.

Of course, there are many good people who would disagree. They have a
right to disagree, and they have evidence to support their beliefs.
They would say that the homeowner has committed murder. But my
position is that the 'murder' is justified by the situation and the
conditions of society. Of course, if the facts of society were
different, if the threat of home invasions was not so large, then it
would indeed be wrong to kill someone for trespassing on your
property. A consideration of the circumstances is more important than
the simple moral rule of 'don't kill'.

This makes me something of a moral relativist. Given the facts of our
world, people have the right to kill in certain circumstances. If the
world were different, they would not have this right. The definition
of 'murder' depends on the situation.

Of course, in this case it is possible to defend my 'moral relativism'
by an appeal to the absolute rule of 'protect life'. I believe that
there would be more death, in the long run, if society did not allow
citizens to kill in self-defense. To give another, more concrete and
extreme, example, I believe that dropping atomic weapons on Japan was
a justifiable way to end World War 2. I believe that this action
saved more lives than it destroyed, and therefore was the right thing
to do.

A short-sighted insistence on absolute moral values can easily result
in those same values suffering greatly in the long run. I believe
that the difference between moral relativism and moral absolutes can
be seen primarily as a difference in the scope of one's thinking. And
the more that I think about it, the more I believe that many 'liberal'
beliefs are the result of thinking in terms of simple moral absolutes
while many 'conservative' beliefs are the result of a thorough
consideration of the situation. Examples of these kinds of issues are
the actions of our military, the amount of realpolitik in our
diplomacy, the conditions of third world factories, the actions of
Israel, environmental damage, and income inequalities. And yet, for
some reason, it is the 'conservatives' who philosophically reject
moral relativism, and the 'liberals' who philosophically embrace it.

Of course, any acceptance of moral relativism is very dangerous. If
you start questioning the values that have stabilized society for
centuries, you risk doing serious harm. Sometimes we do not know why
moral rules work, but we must assume that they exist for a very good
reason, and we must be humble about the abilities of our logic. But
in the end, any organism that fails to confront the facts of reality
risks going extinct. A rational analysis of the situation must always
prevail over any philosophical construct.

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