By Selwyn Duke
Do not judge lest you be judged...it's a phrase that's so frequently misused nowadays. It's often uttered in an attempt to immunize oneself against value judgments about one's behavior. After all, few people brook criticism very well, and many of us fear the re-emergence of a dominant moral code that might cast a pall over the libertine lifestyle that modern man holds so dear. So, the aforementioned misused Bible quote and other fashionable mantras are trotted out and used as a firewall against the bearers of bad news. You may hear, "Don't impose your values on me!" or "Who's to say what right and wrong are" or "That may be right for you, but that doesn't mean it's right for others." We've all heard these refrains in one form or another and many of us have used them ourselves. It seems as if civilization's moral compass is adrift in a Bermuda triangle of moral confusion - there no longer is a consensus among people about what's right or wrong. So, we feel we have the latitude to deflect inconvenient value judgments with these convenient little clichés - we pay homage to the notion that what's right is negotiable. But do we really believe this? And what, if anything, is wrong with the prevailing conception of right and wrong in our society? To answer these questions one has to examine the nature of right and wrong; so, I'm going to delve into this matter and boil it down to its bare essence.
I mentioned that oft-uttered phrase "Who's to say what right and wrong are?" And that really is the first question that must be asked: who IS to say what right and wrong are? Well, there are only two possibilities: either man does or something outside man does. The idea that man determines right and wrong is known as "moral relativism"; this means that morals are relative to the time, place and people. The idea that right and wrong are determined by something outside of man is known as "Absolute Truth." How society answers this question has serious implications, because embracing one belief or the other will determine which path mankind takes. They are diverging roads that lead to places that are as different as Heaven and Hell.
It's important to realize that the question being asked here is nothing less than whether or not morality actually exists - whether it's a fantasy or a reality. For instance, Mars exists, but not because people believe it does but because it actually does - it is a physical truth. Twenty thousand years ago people weren't aware of its existence, but that had no bearing on the fact that it did exist. And, even if every soul on this planet were in the grip of the delusion that it wasn't there and insisted to the ends of the earth he was right, that orb would still be present. Conversely, a fictional planet in a movie only exists in the imagination, and even if everyone insisted that it was real it wouldn't make it so - its existence isn't a physical truth. But, of course, physical truths can eventually be verified scientifically given enough research. But what about right and wrong? Does man's beliefs about it have equally little bearing on its nature and existence? Is there moral truth just as there is physical truth?
Needless to say, moral-relativism answers these questions with a resounding "no." Once again, it states that morality is determined by man; what is rarely recognized though, is that if that is so then there is no right and wrong, objectively speaking. Think about it: if 90% of humanity said it preferred chocolate ice cream over vanilla, it wouldn't mean that chocolate was "right" and vanilla "wrong." Nor would it mean that chocolate was better in any objective sense - it would simply mean that people happened to LIKE chocolate better. It's illogical to say otherwise. But, would it be any more logical to say that murder was wrong for no other reason than the fact that 90% of all people preferred that others not kill in a way that we call unjust? Of course not. But if the idea that murder is wrong is simply a function of man's collective preference, it then falls into the exact same realm as the collective preference for a type of ice cream: the realm of taste.
Now, let's think about what this implies. Firstly, it means that Hilter's heinous acts weren't wrong; it means that rape, murder and all the acts and ideas that you find to be most abhorrent aren't wrong. It means that killing your most cherished loved one wouldn't be wrong. All we could then honestly say about these things is that we don't happen to like them - right and wrong simply wouldn't be in the equation. After all, if "right and wrong" is synonymous with "opinion," then the former is an unnecessary phrase that just serves to obscure the issue and confuse the mind.
Now, even if someone claims that relativism rules the day, he still no doubt will instinctively act as if certain things are very wrong. He may become very passionate about certain issues and various things may offend him - but why? Why the cognitive dissonance [the holding of two contradictory ideas in one's mind at the same time]? It's very simple: while his intellect is telling him that there's no Truth, his feelings betray him. He "feels" as if certain things are very wrong. This brings me to the second implication of relativism: if morals are relative, then all his "feelings" about right and wrong are just that - feelings - they have no basis in reality. And this means that he's out of TOUCH with reality, which some would call being crazy. But if we're crazy because we wrongly [in the estimation of the relativists] feel and act as if there's right and wrong, then who are the sane ones? Well, they would be those who recognize reality and behave accordingly - that reality being that right and wrong don't exist. And who would these people be? They would be the true sociopaths: people who have no consciences whatsoever and who consequently have no negative emotional reactions at all to what we would consider to be evil. Some of these people might be Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
The last implication of relativism that I'd like to mention concerns the matter of debating about morality. And bear in mind that the majority of debates and virtually all of the most rancorous ones do have to do with it; why, even a debate about welfare policy concerns morality. After all, regardless of your opinion on the subject, the fact is that if determining which policy is best is truly an imperative, it's only because it's "right" to help the poor. But, consider this: if there's no Truth there's no point in engaging me in a sincere debate [one that is not for sheer entertainment, ego satisfaction or simply helping you get what you want] about right and wrong. This is because if there's no Truth there is no right or wrong, in which case you couldn't be any more wrong or right than I could be. And then, since the only purpose of a sincere debate is to determine what the correct stance [the Truth] on the issue at hand is, there wouldn't be any point engaging me in it. Therefore, when you engage someone in sincere debate you are tacitly acknowledging that Truth exists.
These are the unarguable implications of moral-relativism. To entertain moral-relativism is to entertain the idea that nothing, not genocide, nor cannibalism, nor child-molestation nor the darkest transgression conjured up by the most deviant mind is any worse than swatting a fly. It's to entertain the notion that you are in fact crazy and those bereft of a conscience are the sane ones. It's to entertain the idea that every debate you engage in is a pointless exercise, which, if not pursued solely for pleasure, only serves to confirm your dislocation from reality. Do you really believe these things? Because you'll have to if you want to be true to moral-relativism; there's no middle ground - either Truth exists or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then relativism does carry the day. Sure, you could choose to live in a fantasy world wherein you pretended as if certain things were meaningful and important in order to make existence more tolerable. Relativism gives you that luxury - it dictates that living a lie isn't wrong, you see. But make no mistake about it - it would be a fantasy world.
And what are the implications of the existence of Absolute Truth? Well, for one thing it means that we aren't the authors of right and wrong - something above us is. It means that we are all subject to the same standard of morality, one that won't bend to suit our whims, justify our sins or ease our consciences. This frightens many people because it threatens their rationalizations - I saw a well-known and quite effete social commentator on television who said "The idea of Absolute Truth scares me." I'm sure it does, but there's something that such people should find even scarier: a civilization that denies Truth's existence. This is because if people conclude en masse that there's no absolute, immutable and universal standard of right and wrong, then you'll have no luck in convincing them they should be civilized. For, you'll only be able to refer to your and your philosophical soul mates' opinions when trying to convince them to act rightly. All you can say is, "Do this because it is what I would have you do - do it because it's my will." They will then simply say that they are people just like you with opinions, desires and a will of their own - they'll ask you why yours should take precedence. And what could you say? It would be fruitless - you might as well try to convince them that there's some overriding reason why they should prefer your flavor of ice cream.
When society has degenerated to this state, its members can justify anything they might want to do. If it pleases them emotionally to kill, rape or steal, many will see no reason not to. After all, who's to say it's wrong? You shouldn't impose your values on others, and, my truth might be different than yours...Every time we let these justifications pass our lips we are contributing to an atmosphere in which every person is his own author of right and wrong. And, if we persist in this, it will eventually make us the publishers of some of the darker chapters in the annals of human history.