Absolute and Relative Moral Principles

Morality is the set of behaviour-regulating principles that guide our activities within our communities. We can think of these communities as a web of relationships. For most of us the focus is on the immediate community, but this local web is inevitably part of other, larger webs, and it is the interaction with other parts of the web that often forces us to modify our localized moral principles.

Morality, according to this view, is inherently social. Moral principles are developed within the context of a specific community, often unconsciously, and handed down from generation to generation. In the quasi-biological language of Richard Dawkins these principles are “memes”.

Not to get too lyrical or metaphorical, these principles – these memes – inform individuals within the community, but have a life independent of the individuals. They are not handed to the community on tablets from on high, as if they somehow existed apart from life in the community. They are developed over generations as a response to the needs and beliefs of that community.

Diversity, Tolerance and Pluralism

The social nature of moral values becomes clearer as we explore this idea of the web within a web – a community of communities. Each society develops its own rules and there will inevitably be differences from community to community. As communities come into contact with one another the inevitable outcome is modification towards homogeneity where clashing values are moderated and relatively mild differences of opinion and behaviour are tolerated.

In other words, the particular rules developed within relatively closed communities are tested and broadened when they come in contact with other communities. Mormon views on polygamy are a good example. Within the confined community they may have worked. But in the broader world they had to be changed.

Three possible outcomes can be imagined in cases of conflicting community values. First, they may simply agree to live apart. In its mildest form this would take the form of segregation. Second, where one cultural community dominates others, a system of apartheid might develop. In real life situations this sort of dominance inevitably becomes subservience of one culture to another dominant one.

The third possibility is pluralism where members of all communities within the society agree to tolerate minor differences of opinion and mildly differing behaviour. What is happening in such a society is that everyone, at least in theory, accepts the basic principles of tolerance and the sanctity of the individual. Less basic moral principles – say, rules about religious observance, diet or appearance will vary from community to community within the larger group.

In many cases moral principles will be constraints – like for instance, the rule against theft. In other cases they may specify positive duties, like for instance the principle that if you should come upon someone lost in a snowstorm who is likely to die if not helped, you should help them. Or they may be relatively arbitrary administrative rules like rules of the road. But they have all been developed – often over generations – to respond to and regulate the life of the community.

Basic Principles and Not-So-Basic Principles

On the view being put forward here, we cannot understand morality apart from the web of relationships we find ourselves in, and therefore it is inherently variable and relative. Why? Because each of us occupies a unique position within the web.

It might be useful to think of a particular person’s web of relationships – that person’s community of communities – as analogous to a solar system or galaxy within a much larger universe of billions of galaxies.

When we stand back from this universe of relationships and try to look at it from an “objective” point of view there will be general principles that apply to all relationships within it. These are what we might call basic moral rules or categorical principles. They will be general enough that they will apply to all situations and have rules for exceptions built right into them.

They are therefore “absolute” in the sense that they always apply. But they are also “relative” in the sense that they arise from the larger community and can occasionally admit to exceptions based on particular circumstances. An obvious basic principle is the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would be done by them, all things being equal.

This condition, “all things being equal” may seem redundant. You may think it is already contained in the general principle, but adding it in our formulation makes it clear that there may be exceptions.

It is in the details of the arrangements within the web of relationships where the exceptions will be found. These exceptions may arise as the result of the necessity of applying more specific, less general principles to unique arrangements.

For instance, the general rule of behavior (Golden Rule) may be modified in the case of a parent/child or teacher/student relationship. The parent is guided by what might be thought of as a lower order principle or rule: discipline may be good even if it is not the easiest or most comfortable option.

In a simplistic sense this sort of thing represents an exception to the general rule, and it is therefore “relative” to the particular circumstances. But in another obvious sense it isn’t an exception, because put in the position of the child or student this is how you would like to be treated, so it just looks like an exception.

Justifying Moral Rules

Of course the moral skeptic along with the moral absolutist will want to know why any rules arising from such an undefined and uncontrollable source as the community should be followed – How can they be justified?

Ultimately all we can say is that it is the reasonable thing to do, given the beliefs of the community. Who says so? The community does! It – the community – has determined that following this set of principles will result in the best of all possible worlds from both the individual’s viewpoint and that of everyone else. If you don’t believe it, all that can be said is “Go ahead and try an alternative path. You can try stealing from your neighbours, but if you do, you’d better be prepared for the consequences.”