Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Morality: who’s right, who’s wrong?

In the marketplace of ideas, political and religious discourse in particular, morality is a perennial topic of discussion, if not an elusive ideal. Nowhere is this more so than in American partisan politics. With the prize being inordinate power over the lives (and wallets) of “ordinary” citizens, it’s all the more imperative to persuade the populace that your side is morally superior, while the other side is morally bankrupt…and so it goes.

Even for those that only follow politics casually, it’s evident that the “conservative” side of the aisle has put morality front and center. From the “moral majority” of the 80s to the “save Terri” campaign of last Spring, a large contingent of Republicans has worked tirelessly to link “traditional values” to morality. But what about the Left? Well, leading lefty: Kos, has sought to turn the tables here and here. The money quote:
The reasons we hate the American Taliban are the same reasons we hate fundamentalists of all stripes -- they seek to impose their own moral code on the rest of society, and do so with the zeal and moral absolutism possible only from those who believe they are doing "God's work".
While “hate” is a few shades too extreme, I’m more than a little uneasy about religious zealotry. Not all religious zeal mind you, just that which moves beyond the place of worship and into the affairs of my life. Conversely, however, Dada Head thinks that it’s perfectly justifiable to insist upon moral conformity, as long as the “norm” is of a “progressive” nature.
Indeed, imposing our moral code on others is precisely what progressives want to do. It is the motivation behind things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Universality has been a fundamental feature of moral reasoning for centuries, and was codified perhaps most convincingly by Kant, who correctly argued that any moral imperative necessarily commands universally (categorically). Non-universal norms are not moral norms.

Of course, it is not always okay to impose one's moral code on others. For instance: I might believe that everyone has a moral duty to take care of their health, but that doesn't mean I should try to pass a law against smoking or eating Twinkies.
Is this not the same as the one-size-fits-all moral code that is propagated by the “religious right”, only in reverse? Are the two political poles not merely interested in subjugating their philosophical foe for the purpose of societal homogeneity? Dada Head rationalizes this way:
The reason that fundamentalism is reprehensible is not that it tries to impose its moral code on the rest of the society; it is reprehensible because the moral code itself is reprehensible. The 'moral' principles of Osama bin Laden - and of James Dobson - are irrational, misogynistic, backwards, and cruel, and so we rightfully resist their attempts to impose them on the rest of us - not because of the fact that they are trying to impose them, but because the principles themselves are evil and idiotic.
OK, all of this begs the question: what does one mean by “morality”? Now, it ought to be quite obvious that many meanings are poured into the concept of “morality”. So, a few definitions are in order:

Moral Equivalence: the position that, in a conflict, there can be no “hierarchy” with respect to the ethical nature of the actions of the parties involved.
Moral Relativism: the position that there are “no absolutes” with respect to moral propositions and that all moral codes are “relative” to specific cultures and customs.
Moral Absolutism: the position that there are, in fact, “absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged”.
Moral Objectivism: “the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion.” (ala Ayn Rand)
Rational Morality: the position that “it is possible to rationally conceive of our view of right and wrong, and that this is extremely necessary because our choices and actions have larger consequences than we often imagine.” (ala Chris Wilson, the Enlightened Caveman)

The moral concepts above are only a few examples of the ways in which concept of morality diverge. So how does one divine the correct position, if indeed one is correct? To find out, a bit of deduction is in order. Considering that, at the root of morality, there lay two very specific and mutually exclusive ideas: right and wrong, it's only reasonable that they should have a concrete and discernable meaning. If so, then it follows that Moral Equivalence and Moral Relativism are empty and meaningless concepts, in that they are both open-ended and ultimately subjective. Therefore “right and wrong”, if they are to be defined, would fall outside the scope of “morality” as such.

On the other hand, if “right and wrong” does exist (e.g. an absolute, objective standard), then the remaining propositions apply, but another question arises: what is the standard? It seems to me that, for a standard to be truly objective, it must necessarily by universally applicable. Without question, such a standard cannot be specific to this faction or that. Therefore, political parties, religious sects and all manner of “interest groups” are precluded from tailoring the standard to their tastes.

If the aforementioned premises hold, the only conclusion to be drawn is one that my fellow Classical Liberals and I subscribe to. Specifically, the proposition that a right to life, liberty and property is inherent, natural and unalienable, and as such are not granted or sanctioned by another, nor do they need to be recognized by others in order to be realized. Therefore, since everyone, regardless of status, possesses these rights by virtue of existence, the only reasonable measure of morality is found in a supreme respect for the sanctity of individual rights. All other concerns (partisan politics, religious beliefs, ideological particulars, etc.) are altogether distinct from authentic morality, inasmuch as there are innumerable possibilities of sets and subsets of each.