Sunday, October 28, 2007


Yesterday I gave a presentation at the Chicago gathering of the MENSA. What a great group of people and what a great time. The topic I choose this year was “Morality—Is it Relative or Absolute?” I spoke for forty-five minutes, and then followed up the lecture with an extended time of Q&A.

The talk was an attempt to lay out the moral systems of realism and anti-realism, respectively. It was easy to demonstrate—and everyone quickly agreed—that absolutist constructs of morality can easily turn totalitarian (witness militant Islam). The more challenging part was getting many to see that relativist paradigms can just as easily turn totalitarian (witness Hitler and Stalin).

I argued—and every agreed—that each culture must, by necessity, impose some form of morality upon its members. Failure to do so leads to anarchy. This begs the question of which moral vision is best to impose on society. Far and away, the group wanted to impose the moral vision of “do no harm.” Given that the stated goal of MENA is to "create a society that is non-political and free from all racial or religious distinctions" this was not surprising. But here’s the problem with such an approach.

First, the moral mandate of “do no harm” is itself a totalizing narrative. On what basis can I rightfully impose my totalizing narrative of “do no harm” on others? The very thing postmodern theorists have attempted to avoid—a metanarrative—is used to impose a totalizing moral system upon humanity. That won’t do.

Secondly, “do no harm to whom?” The issue of personhood must be addressed and that’s quite a sticky wicket. Is a black person in the south 150 years ago a person? What about a fetus in the womb? If one comes from a Hindu perspective, what about sheep and cattle and mice? If we can’t come to agreement on what constitutes personhood, the whole moral narrative begins to crumble.

Thirdly, what happens when two mutually exclusive moral visions smack up against each other? My moral vision opposes that of a child-rapist’s. Certainly I am morally justified in harming a child rapist if harming him is the only means possible of preventing him from fulfilling his moral vision. So “do no harm” has its limits. The fact of the matter is we expect our law enforcement officers to routinely “harm” those who are out of synch with our society’s moral vision. But now look what’s happened. We’ve just affirmed a situation in which we think it is right to impose our moral vision upon others, even when if this requires us to harm those who are of another moral vision. How totalitarian of us.

At this point I suggested that maybe we can get around this problem by invoking an exception clause. It would work like this: We are all under the protection of the one totalizing moral principle of “do no harm” right up until we harm someone. Once we break this moral principle, we come out from beneath its protection; it is now morally permissible for others to harm us in order to get us to us to fall back in line with the “do no harm” ethic. Similar perhaps, to how many Christians view the relationship between “do not kill” and the Scriptural mandate for capital punishment.

But we’ve still got a problem. In order to invoke the exception clause, we must establish what constitutes “first harm.” The militant Muslim perceives that American infidels have already committed first harm in that we have spurned the decrees of Allah and profaned human society. Thus according to their moral vision, we have moved out from under the protection of the totalizing principle “do no harm.” They are justified in beheading us. And so the whole thing breaks down. Everyone thinks everyone else started it.

In the end, we're going to have to impose a moral vision on society, even to the point of being willing to harm others who disagree with our moral vision. We are left with two basic choices--either make up our own moral vision, or embrace a transcendent one. I opt for a transcendent one. Not all realist constructions need result in militant Islam or the KKK. As I pointed out in the lecture, militant Islam is realism with rabies. There are, thankfully, other options.

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