It might go without saying that a rational view of morality accepts that morality itself is a social tool, evolved particularly capably in humans. It’s not some randomly occurring spiritual process, neither is it a set of rules written by an imaginary man in the deep blue sky (or grey sky, if you live in Britain). This does not mean that rationality supports the idea of morality as relative, though. Whatever your ethical alignments, I hope to explain this simple issue with some simple words that should make you view morality in a slightly different way.
One doesn’t need to go into the ‘meta-ethics’ of the issue here, however the idea that morality is in some way objective is not alien to us. Very few think that heinous acts like murder, rape or torture can be justified except in extraordinary circumstances, and hence many agree that a great deal of acts are objectively wrong. Indeed, if we all agree that morality is civilly useful (ie, it stops us from killing each other arbitrarily, or for profit) then already we have a meta-ethical position that says, pragmatically speaking, morality should exist and should be objective so as to keep people from attacking us unfairly (because if morality is subjective, then it doesn’t work as people can ignore it and it fails to be a followed morality). There you go, you have a meta-ethical position – you’re already a better philosopher than most people I’ve ever debated with and we’re only two paragraphs in.*
However when it comes to morality as a whole, and putting our views about morality to the test, we can see that in our every day lives we act more like morality is actually relative. We don’t evaluate new moral ideas (such as those that try to outlaw deforestation, animal exploitation, or the tyranny of foreign dictators) from an objective, factual point of view. Instead, we mainly see such issues as a matter of personal or political choice, for which we can all decide individually upon.
Of course, this doesn’t make sense. Unless there is genuinely no evidence, or at least nothing significant (which is a rarity in morality) an act is still either wrong, else acceptable. In essence the point I’m making is that social acceptability doesn’t make something rationally justifiable, or rationally ignorable. This part is largely forgotten in society, as well as in the active sections of most moral movements.
We can point to animal rights as a perfect example. When the notion of ethical vegetarianism or veganism is bought up, it is often viewed as a matter of choice. But if the case is stated as ‘ethical’ then it isn’t just a personal choice, as we believe morality is objective (remember, we have a meta-ethical position!). Either the person who chose to ethically avoid animal products is acting unnecessarily, and is choosing it out of misplaced morality (and thus isn’t an ethical veggie/vegan at all), or else they are responding to a rational idea that animal exploitation is wrong. Only one of those two things is true because an act can’t both be right and wrong if we believe morality is objective. Fascinating – though not particularly complicated – stuff.
It isn’t just in wider society that the issue of relativism takes hold though, just look inside the moral movements themselves. Sticking with the animal rights movement, let’s take the issue of abolitionism. If you aren’t involved in the movement, or studying it, you will likely not know what abolitionism refers to. Briefly put, abolitionism is the position that criticises welfarists tactics, such as the promotion of ‘less cruel’ (supposedly less cruel, anyway) forms of animal use. Abolitionists claim to have reason based arguments, and legal/economic evidence of the problems with welfarism, and yet the majority of animal advocates remain under the impression that ‘all animal advocacy helps’ – including both welfarism and abolitionism under that banner. We can, after the analysis in the previous paragraph, respond by saying “Don’t be silly”. Whether or not we think animals deserve rights, it should be clear that they either do or they don’t. Similarly, whether or not we believe welfarism works, it either does or it doesn’t. Promoting the problems with ‘welfarism’ alongside the abolition of animal exploitation, and also not promoting the problems of welfarism and instead promoting less cruel forms of animal use are not two tactics that can rationally co-exist. If one is correct, the other is wrong. So “don’t be silly.”
As a final note on both of these points, of course it might be the case that the jury is still out on these issues, and that we don’t genuinely know as to which answer is right. Perhaps. But on this issue, like many others, the chances of us not really knowing are tiny. Animal rights isn’t a new area of study, Pythagoras had opinions about it and he’s been dead since about 495 BC. Slightly more recently (1989) Channel Four televised academic debates about it, and there is constant debate in the media about the cruelty of certain methods, or the legitimacy of others, etc. We currently kill in excess of 60 billion animals a year (this is a conservative estimate, as the sheer number of fish alone is probably around the trillion mark), one would think that by now someone would have some significant information on whether it was right or wrong. Similarly, on the nuanced topic of welfarism vs abolitionism, we’ve had welfarist tactics for at least 185 years. Is it likely we are still none the wiser as to whether or not it works? Possibly, but unlikely I would think. Even if the answer was just ‘there is no evidence that it is harmful’, then we would still have an answer.
Examples for good evidence, from top of the head common sense, or a quick google search? Most animal use is for food (there are no massive Bernard Matthews-style factory farms for vivisection, and comparatively few for clothing), Western health boards tend to say that well planned diets with no animal products are perfectly healthy, and furthermore excessive animal use might be causing environmental problems. These are all points that provide ethical evidence, whatever your initial opinions. Similarly, we’ve had animal welfare campaigns for 185+ years, in ever increasing amounts, and we exploit more animals today than ever before – with animal product companies actively volunteering to use ‘welfare’ labels such as ‘free range’ as a method of raising sales; labels for which they each extensively test as fairly as possible so as to examine the profitability in their own interests. Furthermore, the terms ‘cruelty’ and ‘compassion’ (which welfare campaigns are based around) are entirely subjective, and these campaigns themselves work within strict parameters which force any improvements to be incredibly minimal (of course they do, business does not offer profits away without a trade off). Again, these things are all evidence, and I find it strange that a rational analysis could lead to complete uncertainty by finding the exact same level of evidence, on every point, to be present on the other side of the discussion.
Still…it might…I suppose. We can’t do double blind experiments to analyse these things like in other forms of science, however, that doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence and an agreed set of basic morals in society (such as unnecessary suffering being wrong, sentient individuals being the subjects of morality, etc) with which we can expand and analyse in order to find consistent, rational results on new subjects. If nothing else I hope this article helps to persuade you of this, if you initially felt otherwise. So, the next time someone mentions a new moral or ethic that they have taken on board, judge it objectively. After all, so long as there isn’t a God looking down on us with an arbitrary check list of behavioural rules (and there certainly isn’t any evidence for us to believe that there is), then there is nothing subjective about morality.
*It’s a little more complicated than this, of course, but this isn’t the book itself, this is just a blog! In short I won’t go into it here as people don’t read book-length blogs.