Is morality absolute or relative? Find out in this little essay. There is even a little story in it!
Will you be kind enough to allow me to narrate a short little story which, if nothing else, I am hopeful will make interesting reading? I will state in all honesty that this story that I am about to recite is rather melancholy in nature, and it is certain to tug at the heart strings of a few readers; perhaps even bring a tear or two to the eye of the more emotional among us. There is even a moral at the end of the story. I think. Would that entice you to keep reading? Even if it has all the appearances of being an ordinary story narrated by a highly unskilled writer, please allow me to prevail upon you to not abandon the pursuit of reading this narrative, but to persevere till the end. If nothing else, it will perhaps strengthen your resolve to not read any of my future narratives. Now shall we proceed?
There was this very lovely and prosperous country whose citizens had every thing that they could wish for – peace, harmony and prosperity. Everyone had health insurance and no child was left behind. This prosperous country even had a black president - a woman, no less. There were no illegal immigrants either – an incredibly tall fence around the entire country, monitored by an array of laser beam shooting satellites and a number of paranoid vigilante groups, ensured this. Wait, there is more. There was so much social security surplus that people continued to receive checks long after they had hung up their hats and departed this world. And most of these happy people lived to be well over 100 years old and never had to pay for any of their prescription medications – the benevolent government paid for every pill that these geriatrics popped. The ozone layer, rather inexplicably, remained intact over this remarkable country, and global warming affected all countries in the world but this one. In short, one would be hard pressed to find a better place to live in this entire world.
Then one fine day – every single day in the last several hundred years had been nothing short of fine - it stopped being a fine day. In fact, there were no more fine days after that last fine day. The sun still shone in the sky, but there was no warmth. The birds still chirped, but they sounded a little off key. Summers got hotter and winters all but disappeared. A large hole appeared in the ozone layer right over the country, and there were rumors that the government was considering acknowledging the existence of the global warming phenomenon. Some went so far as to even say that discussions were underway at the highest levels of the government to accept the much discredited and maligned theory of evolution. In reality, however, the government was considering endorsing a new theory which married the theory of evolution with intelligent design to create a new hybrid theory called the theory of intelligent evolution. No one was exactly sure what this theory represented because several chapters had been blanked out by the government claiming that they had done so in the interest of national security. What’s worse, people were still living to be a 100 years old, but they could hardly afford the price of prescription drugs anymore. Old people could be seen on street corners hawking their dentures and walking sticks to pay for their prescription drugs. On the bright side, the pharmaceutical companies were reporting phenomenal earnings.
As the old saying goes, when it rains it pours. War, famine and pestilence broken out, and tornados, hurricanes and storms beat down relentlessly and mercilessly on this stricken country. Under these distressing conditions, a father finds himself under the direst of circumstances in which he is unable to find any means to earn a livelihood, thus leaving him unable to provide even the bare essentials for his ailing toddler. Rest assured that this inability on his part stems not from his ineptitude to secure a profitable vocation or any other shortcomings on his part, but from the misfortune of finding himself in a country ravaged by war, strife, hunger, famine and disease. Before any of the less sensitive readers are tempted to state that there are thousands people around the world who find themselves in similar situations everyday, it should be stated that this unfortunate person had already seen his much loved wife and another deeply adored child die from starvation. Hmm, you say there are still thousands of people that face identical situation everyday? That is indeed deeply distressing. No matter, pray allow me to continue with the story. Now, weak and enfeebled as he found himself to be, and completely mindless of his own murderous hunger and debilitating weakness, he was sustained by a single minded pursuit of finding some nourishment for his only surviving child, thus preventing it from meeting the same fate as its departed mother and sibling, both of who perished from hunger and thirst.
This hapless father happened upon another more fortunate individual carrying several bottles of the precious life preserving water and some bread of very questionable quality. As much as the wretched father pleaded with the owner of these precious commodities, explaining the precarious condition of his helpless little child, he was unable to convince the greedy owner to part with even one bottle of water or a small piece of that very stale bread. The father's offer of what little money he has left with him as well as the clothes on his back for this precious little ration was rebuffed. Times are hard and the commodities on sale precious, the greedy one explained, thus driving up the price of such simple rations, and that if the miserable father is unable to pay the price being asked, then there will surely be others who will be willing to pay that, if not more. It was a simple matter of supply and demand, explained the resourceful businessman to the hapless father. It should be stated that the price being asked was nothing short of a king’s ransom, and under the present debilitating circumstances, even a king would have been hard pressed to come up with that kind of ransom. Such were the state of affairs.
Now the hapless father was not about to be discouraged by such rebuffs. Altruism is a strange and inexplicable phenomenon, and anyone under its influence is bound to perform acts of great heroism and courage which the same person, if not under its influence, would not even dream of dreaming. Even the most perceptive among us would find great difficulty, given a person's inexplicable actions, in determining whether they were performed under the influence of altruism or alcohol. So irrational and inexplicable are the acts of those under the influence of altruism. Now our altruistic parent decided to take matters into his own hands, and without so much as a passing thought to the integrity of his actions or fearing for his own safety, he confiscated a bottle of that precious life saving fluid and some of that bread, the life saving ability of which was highly questionable, and made off in the direction of his starving and parched child with the much outraged merchant in hot pursuit.
I fear the story ends here and there is not much detail concerning the whereabouts of the child, the father or that industrious merchant. One romantic version of the story states that the father and child survived the encounter and led long and fruitful lives while the vile merchant died a lingering death. Another version of the story, a realistic one, attests to the demise of the father and child and to the meteoric rise of the resourceful merchant into a very successful man of wealth and industry. Which version of the story do you believe?
Regardless of which version of the story you subscribe to, dear reader, the question that I would like to pose to you is this: was the father morally right in stealing the water and bread, as stale as the latter may have been - freshness of the bread has no bearing on this story - or was he not? While some readers may express great righteous indignation and find the father’s act morally reprehensible, such readers do exist I am told, I would hardly be wrong in assuming that most of the others would hardly find it to be so. Most parents, I suspect, would do nothing different should they find themselves in the same predicament as the desolate father in the narrative above. There are a million other examples and thought experiments that one can think up under which what previously appeared to be clear moral rights and wrongs will not seem so straight forward anymore. What about the morality that prevents us from taking another’s life? Does this not break down and crumble when people and nations sanction death penalty? Does legalizing the act of taking a human life alter the morality of the action itself? I should hardly think so. How about acts of wars against nations that are perceived threats to other? While the declaration of war itself may be morally acceptable, under certain circumstances, how does one reconcile the deaths of hundreds and thousands of innocent men, women and children? Does labeling it collateral damage, a very innocuous term to be sure, absolve a nation and all those that supported the aggression of all these misdeeds?
I submit to you, dear suffering reader, that absolute morality is a practical impossibility; it is nothing short of drivel, pure tripe, and undiluted rubbish. Absolute morality can be nothing more than an ideal. Like all other ideals, it is quite unattainable. While it is not wrong to aspire for an ideal, in fact one is encouraged to do so, it is inexcusable for anyone to believe that the world, nations or societies should be governed by it. If absolute morality were so easy to define and follow, then why do you think all democracies have a jury system to determine the guilt of an individual? Could not a simple human or a computer make that determination? Input: man committed murdered, stating self defense as reason. Output: fire up the old electric chair. Reason: it is morally unacceptable for one to take another’s life. Is this the kind of justice anyone wants?
In conclusion, it can be stated, in plain and unambiguous terms, that morality is definitely subjective and hardly absolute. Morality can be absolute if and only if any particular question regarding the morality of any thought or action can be unequivocally answered with an explicit right or wrong. If there is no such black and white answer that one can aver with unmitigated confidence, then morality is indeed not absolute. It also means that morality is subjective since it depends on an individual's or a society's interpretation of what is morally right and wrong. That should about wrap it up. No? I promised a moral to this story you say? Right, I forget. Forgetfulness is the curse of advancing years. Let me see, there is a moral in there somewhere. I am quite sure of it. Ah, yes, I have it – everyone ought to believe in evolution. If you don’t, then don’t worry – you will become extinct soon enough.