"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism

Another alum writes:

“The funny thing is that you've campaigned for years the importance of absolute morality and frowned upon relative morality. However, numerous times when your opinion is asked on something such as homosexuality, abortion,etc. You state that such issues are too complicated to give a yes or no answer to. It's almost as though you are stating that one cannot see the world in black and white but shades of gray. That seems like moral relativism to me. Is there some key subtle point I've missed or am I drawing connections where none exist? Please elucidate.”

With pleasure, though not without difficulty:

You are missing a point, whose degree of subtlety to you depends, I suppose, on how easily you come to recognize it. You have got stuck on false meanings for the words “absolute” and “relative” when applied to morality. “Absolute morality” never meant totally clear black-and-white solutions to all particular moral problems. “Relative morality” never meant recognizing that sometimes the right moral path is not clear.

Belief in absolute morality means belief in certain fundamental principles that are universal and unquestionable, premises that cannot be proven and are not subject to discussion. Example: justice is good. There’s no gray there. Accept this premise, you are a moral absolutist, and then we can discuss how best to achieve justice in this or that situation. Reject it (justice is not good; justice is sometimes useful but may be irrelevant), you are a relativist, and then all discussion about how to behave justly in this or that situation becomes moot; without the shared underlying value, there are no grounds for proving one position superior to another.

Absolute values include justice, mercy, temperance, truth, fidelity, kindness, courage, wisdom, love, patience, humility, and similar universals. A moral absolutist believes these have value in all situations. To be moral is to try to apply each universal value in such a way that no other universal value is breached. This goal defines an ideal, perhaps impossible to achieve, but worth striving for. A moral relativist believes that there are no absolutes of this kind, therefore there is no ideal to strive for, therefore there is no point in arguing about which action would be better than another.

Thus, there is a huge difference between recognizing the complexity in applying the fundamental rules of absolute morality to particular situations and believing that all morality is relative. I am a moral absolutist only in the sense that I believe these universals are always values, no matter the culture or the age or the particular situation. This does not mean that I always live up to these ideals or always know how to do so. Perhaps no one does. But unlike the relativist, the absolutist believes the values exist as qualities toward which to strive.

The challenge of human life is how to apply these universals in particular situations without betraying any of them. This is why we need the Bible and the Talmud and the Summa Theologica and the English Common Law and the U.S. Constitution and the Divine Comedy and Hamlet and school rulebooks and many another human effort at clarification. That the application of the universal values to particular situations is difficult is not a sign that the universals don’t exist.

It is not moral relativism to recognize that one must not punish with identical penalties similar crimes committed by a small child and by a willfully bad adult. It is justice tempered with wisdom. It is not moral relativism to see a difference between helping the poor as best you can and impoverishing yourself and your family to do so. It is kindness tempered with prudence. To make such distinctions is not to say that morality is relative. It is to say that the proper application of universals to particular situations requires every bit of wisdom and knowledge we can muster. The relativist would say that there are no grounds even for using the word “proper” in the previous sentence.

How one may judge a case with both justice and mercy is a moral problem. How a government can courageously defeat its enemies without failing to recognize their humanity is another. If such questions had simple and absolute answers, there would be no need for the human mind to have to make choices, to figure out the right thing to do. And there would be no need for the thousands of years of moral and legal codes and revisions of codes and preserved historical precedents to try to apply absolutes to particular situations in ways consistent with the other absolutes. Absolutism about moral values means believing there is a meaningful difference between the better and the worse way of deciding such questions. It does not mean that finding the best way is always easy or clear.

There may be actual moral relativists who participate in the debates about abortion and about so-called gay marriage. But I would say that most people, on either side of each issue, are arguing for what they believe to be right, about which they would not claim to be relativists. This does not make the debates themselves easy. But it does make them valuable. If the opponents were true relativists, there would be no grounds for arguing at all. But most who support the freedom to choose abortion, like most who oppose them, believe in values: life, justice, and kindness. How to apply those values is the problem—hence the debate.

I personally believe (consistent with rabbinic tradition) that abortion is wrong except in cases where, in the opinion of a competent medical authority, the actual life of the mother is at stake—that is, until the head of the infant crowns during childbirth, whereupon the lives of mother and child are equal and both must be fought for equally. This may seem like a shade of gray. But it is not. Killing an innocent human being is bad in principle; saving a human life is good in principle. There is no argument there. These are absolutes. The question is what happens when the life of the fetus conflicts with the life of the mother? The rabbis’ resolution is an attempt to be true to both values at once. One might reasonably take a different position—arguing that abortion is proper even when only the health of the mother is at stake, or is improper even if her life is at stake—without being a moral relativist. Those positions may be different attempts to apply the same universal values. Even confessing uncertainty about where one ought to stand on the issue is not necessarily relativism. It may be an active embrace of the universal value of humility in the face of a moral problem too difficult for an individual alone to solve. It is people who deny the premises of the debate—the absolute universal value of human life—who are the relativists. With them no discussion is possible, for they reject the very grounds on which any moral argument must be based.

A similar point needs to be made about homosexuality. Rooted in the biblical tradition, in almost universal human cultural practice, and in the natural principle that only through the union of opposites is creation possible, Western civilization has enshrined the value of heterosexual marriage. Acceptance of this value means recognizing that homosexual behavior represents a departure from that ideal. It is not, in other words, a neutral “alternative life choice” of equal value. On the other hand, the same civilization has grown to enshrine individual liberty and equality as essential to justice and holds persecution, particularly for qualities over which an individual has no free choice (skin pigmentation, parentage, etc.) to be unjust. How then in the matter of homosexuality is a society to proceed? And what stand are individuals to take?

The society might try to define sexual orientation as a function of choice and forbid not only homosexual behavior but homosexual feelings; it might accept a person’s homosexual orientation but forbid homosexual behavior; it might countenance both orientation and behavior but forbid proselytizing against heterosexual marriage; or it might give up belief in the superior value of heterosexual marriage altogether (as the Roman aristocracy seems to have done at some point before Rome’s collapse). Individuals may range in behavior from persecution to laissez-faire disengagement.

The moral path here, which I believe is the middle path, is lit by the golden rule. We ought to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. We don’t want others to busy themselves pointing out our failures to live up to moral ideals. Neither do we want them to lie to us by pretending that we have lived up to them when we have not. One must therefore neither persecute one’s neighbor for being homosexual nor pretend that homosexual behavior is morally equivalent to marriage (any more than one ought to pretend that pre- or extra-marital heterosexual behavior is morally equivalent to marriage). One must treat every human being as one wants to be treated, with both kindness and truth as the situation may demand.

I am not a relativist just because I believe in the universal value of heterosexual marriage even while recognizing that many people cannot achieve it. I am not a relativist just because I maintain that gay marriage is not marriage even while accepting, in the name of justice and kindness, the validity of legal domestic partnerships for homosexuals. A relativist would say “Do what you want; it doesn’t matter.” The key here, as in so many modern American dilemmas, is to recognize that equality is not identity, that equal justice under the law cannot abolish nature. There is no good to come of proud condemnations of homosexuality. (Are heterosexuals attracted to the opposite sex because of virtue?) At the same time, a society that has given up on heterosexual marriage by failing to see the essential differences between it and homosexual relationships, like a society that has a 50% divorce rate, like a society that sees children as a time-drain and a cash-drain, like a society that performs millions of abortions each year, like a society that abandons its children to a poisonous entertainment industry or to the culture of the street gang—such a society is in love with death despite the universal moral value that commands us to love life.

I remain a moral absolutist in the sense that I believe in the absolute moral values. But no one in his right mind would claim to know infallibly how to apply those values to all particular situations. The moral life is not easy. We live in shades of gray, believing in the purity of the absolutes, striving to be guided by their light toward the Light.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lit. Crit. and Sexual Morality: Response to a Comment on the Previous Posting by “An Interested Alum”

A reader writes:

”Can you share with your readership the extent and nature of your knowledge of those (presumably academic) "curses" you so despise? I'd like to know exactly who and what you've read, and which pieces you mean to invoke when you denounce "surreptitious Marxism, dehumanized post-modern theorism" and the like.

”Finally, I was wondering if you could share your opinion about scholarship dealing with sexuality. Is it good or bad that scholars have been critiquing the old--what to call it?--Judeo-Christian moral code that in its various guises condemned premarital sex, homosexuality, and masturbation.

—An interested Alum”

Dear Interested Alum: Your request for me to “share the extent and nature of [my] knowledge” about the overwhelming of literature studies by feminist, post-modernist, Freudian, Marxist, and deconstructionist theorists is odd. Do you want to know all the courses I took in graduate school to earn my Ph.D. in English and American literature? All the works I read for my dissertation? Do you want a list of all the sessions at all the Modern Language Association and Shakespeare Association of America conventions I have attended? A précis of every one of Anne Barton’s dark and disintegrating introductions to Shakespeare’s comedies in The Riverside Edition? A transcript of my conversation with Harvard’s Marjorie Garber about Prince John in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (she thought he was a disturbing liar; I said he was a true servant of the right and preserver of the commonwealth; she said, “You must be a happy man”; I replied, “I am when I’m reading Shakespeare”; she went on to make a career for herself writing books on cross-dressing)? Must I recount every job interview I had in which I was told that the department was looking for a feminist perspective on Shakespeare or an expert in the theories of Derrida and Foucault? If you are looking for proof of sufficient authority for me to have an opinion on the subject, what “exactly” would suffice?

Instead of listing “the extent and nature of [my] knowledge” and “exactly who[m] and what [I’ve] read,” I invite you to read Elizabeth Kantor’s wonderful book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, which offers plenty of examples of the nonsense she and I are criticizing, as well as some illuminating literary criticism of the good kind. Or Camille Paglia’s piercing essay called “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf” (in Sex, Art, and American Culture [New York: Vintage, 1992]). Even better, attend an MLA Convention yourself, read its catalogue, and sit through dozens of sessions as I have. Then judge for yourself whether I am right.

The real question about the authority to speak against what is happening in the literature departments of the world is not “exactly . . . what [I’ve] read.” The question is whether my own teaching of Shakespeare and other works of literature has a validity that the faddists of the various literary theories lack. My real credentials lie there if anywhere, not in my degrees or in the record of the number of hours in which I have suppressed boredom and frustration in order to pore over bombastic, convoluted, and politically correct arguments for this or that bizarre approach. I have no interest in impressing you with my resume, and your tone implies that no bibliography, however long, would in any case succeed in doing so. Though there are exceptions, my opinion of the general state of literature-teaching in the colleges and universities of our time stands: it is Kantor, not the various “–ists” that give us hope. If you care to refute that position, go ahead and make your case.

As for the question of whether it is “good or bad that scholars have been critiquing the old—what to call it?—Judeo-Christian moral code that in its various guises condemned premarital sex, homosexuality, and masturbation,” let’s examine the premises on which your question depends.

First, “is it good or bad?” is a falsely narrow question. There is of course likely to be some good in the worst of the offenders as well as some bad in the best of their critics. But that is obvious. The question really implies that I am to reveal myself as either an old-fashioned moralist (hence a condemner of all who engage in premarital sex, homosexual sex, and masturbation) or a critic of the entire Judeo-Christian moral code (hence a defender of the unexceptionable moral status of those three behaviors). Well, I can’t accept the either/or straightjacket. Morality, like life, is complex and challenging. The traditional moral code stands, and I won’t engage in blanket condemnations.

Second, to call the Judeo-Christian moral code “old” implies that it has been supplanted by a newer and presumably a better one. What would that code be and on what grounds does it rest? You yourself are apparently opposed to condemning premarital sex, homosexuality, and masturbation. Fine. On what moral grounds do you stand to defend them? Justice? Kindness? Individual liberty? The rights of man? Which of those is not rooted deeply in the moral codes of the Jewish and Christian traditions? It is not Hobbes or Nietzsche or Marx or even Freud who would defend the sexual behaviors you list, and Darwin the man (though the theory of Darwin the scientist offers no grounds for doing so) would have been upset to hear them defended. If you believe in the sacredness of the freedom of the individual conscience, which are the grounds upon which I assume you stand to overturn the sexual taboos you mention, you too are within the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

Third, “various guises” is a rather cavalier reduction of the vast complexity of the religious traditions of half the world. Why don’t we talk about the particular times and places and cultures in which your three kinds of sexual behavior have been condemned, how, and by whom instead of tarring all of Western religion with the same brush? Certainly you cannot claim that either Judaism or Christianity has in the last 100 years succeeded in constraining very many in America from guiltless premarital sex, homosexuality, or masturbation? Are you talking about particular periods and places characterized by moralistic persecutions? Puritan colonies? Rural small towns? The Scarlet Letter is about adultery, not premarital sex, homosexuality, or masturbation. Did you want to add adultery to the list of unforbidden behaviors?

In the Old Testament, the act of premarital sex with an unmarried female is disapproved of because it directs one’s sexual potential away from marriage, which, except in cases of incest, can itself usually repair the moral damage. Premarital sex with a married female is adultery, and that is severely punished because, among other things, it is a direct attack upon the sacred bond of matrimony. In the New Testament, Jesus protects even a woman taken in adultery from stoning to death and tells her to go and sin no more. By his example we are taught to distinguish between condemnation of the sin and of the sinner. In both testaments much of the moral code exists to protect women from predatory men.

Only a society that has become confused about the meaning and potential of human sexuality, about the differences between the genders, and about the value of sexual restraint as an enhancement of the sexual relation within marriage could even imagine that unregulated premarital sex was morally speaking a good equal to sex within marriage.

In any case, on what grounds but those of the Judeo-Christian moral code would you argue that pre-marital sex is not of lesser moral standing than sex within marriage? On grounds of the sacredness of the individual’s freedom to live as he or she chooses? But that sacredness is as deeply rooted in the biblical religious tradition’s articulation of the brotherhood of man and fatherhood of God as the sexual taboos themselves. In a non-religious, purely natural world, there could be no possible moral grounds not only for asserting a higher meaning to sacramental than to pre-marital sexuality, but also for protecting women from predatory men. Do away with the “old” code, and for every woman freed to engage in sex however and whenever she wants, ten will be forced to engage in sex purely for the man’s pleasure with no protection in sight. For every male enjoying all those freebies, probably two or more children will be forced to grow up without a father. (Why do I put this in the future tense? Isn’t that what is happening now in our most “enlightened” cities?)

Similar things might be said about homosexuality and masturbation, about which the rules given exist to assert the higher moral value of heterosexual sex within the bounds of matrimony, which is also a way of saying to assert the higher value of the human soul in a community-sanctioned relationship than of the body in individual sensual gratification. We may advance in broadmindedness to acknowledging the value of committed and loyal homosexual relationships. But that we recognize such relationships as superior to the multiple-partnered, anonymous, and public sex of the gay so-called community we owe to the Judeo-Christian moral code. And most rabbis are not running around trying to stop bar mitzvah boys from jerking off in private. If responsible rabbis and priests and ministers have anything to say about masturbation, it is likely to be that the ultimate purpose of the gift of the sexual body is the joy of sacramental love and reproduction, and that hormone driven youth ought to know it for future reference.

To abolish the Judeo-Christian moral tradition is to assert that there is no hierarchical relation between soul and body, that nature is as valid an authority as spirit, that pleasure and pain not good and evil are the fundamental terms of human life. Such things can be believed, of course, and many do believe them. But one ought to recognize what one is tossing out in adopting the “new” morality, which, as Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, is not morality at all but impulse in disguise.

“Scholars” have been critiquing the biblical moral tradition for thousands of years. The race/class/gender and Marx/Nietzsche/Freud folks are neither the first nor the wisest of those who have questioned, examined, and enhanced the moral tradition of Judaism and Christianity. But in order to discover the shallowness and folly of the tossers out of the “old Judeo-Christian moral code,” one must make a little effort to see exactly what it is they are tossing out. No one with even minimal awareness of the arguments about sex, love, freedom, marriage, and the human soul in the Talmud, St. Augustine, Maimonides, or St. Thomas Aquinas could possibly be tempted to jettison the Judeo-Christian moral code in the name of justifying premarital sex, homosexuality, and masturbation. And it remains to be seen whether a society that embraces those behaviors untinged with any guilt about human fallibility can provide a better or happier world than did those admittedly fallen and flawed cultures governed by the “old” morality.