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Morality is relative but not subjective

Photo credit: Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash

Guest post by Samantha Eliza Benten

The Law of Non-Contradiction, as stated by Aristotle: “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”

Often, this is expressed in the formula: A ? ¬A, where “¬A” signifies “not A” or “not having quality A”. (To prevent a common error, understand that it does NOT mean “the subset of everything except A.” For example, to say that “an animal that is a cat cannot be, at the same time, a dog” is NOT an application of the law of non-contradiction. To say that “an animal that is a cat cannot, at the same time, also be a ‘not cat'” IS to apply the law of non-contradiction.)

Worded a bit more clearly: Nothing can both have the quality of A and lack the quality of Aat the same time. Before I get into the significant consequences this law of logic will have on morality, I’d like to begin with numerous examples of it applied to everyday life.

Imagine your kitchen table. Got the image in your head? All right, does it have any black paint on it? Your answer to this must naturally be either yes or no. It cannot both have black paint on it and not have black paint on it, at the same time. Whether or not it also has red paint or silver paint or a wood finish on it is irrelevant. And if you decide to paint it red immediately on arriving home tonight, that also makes no difference. All that matters, as far as the law of non-contradiction is concerned, is that your kitchen table cannot both possess and lack the quality of having black paint on it at any given moment.

This law also applies to certain subatomic behavior. An electron behaves in one of two ways: as a particle or as a wave. The way I understand it (though I’m no quantum physicist), when it is seen as a particle, it has all of characteristics of being a particle and none of being a wave. When it is seen as a wave, it has all of characteristics of being a wave and none of being a particle. However, it cannot both possess and lack the quality of being a particle at the same time. Same goes for its wave form.

Now, sometimes the law of non-contradiction is only as good as the quality of our definitions. For example, the traditional qualities of a mammal (warm-blooded vertebrate having hair-covered skin, bearing live young, and nursing offspring with milk) accurately describe the vast majority of animals categorized this way. But the duck-billed platypus mixes and matches qualities from other animal families (having a duck bill and laying eggs). Given that our definition embodies so many qualities, it’s harder to assert that the platypus is absolutely either a mammal or not a mammal. That creature defies logical law in the face of our definition. Of course, its evolutionary relationship to other animals has placed it solidly within the mammals, despite its not exactly fitting in all respects.

The same goes for a person’s sex. Yes, the traditional definition, based on genetics and on genitalia, works for the vast majority of people. However, there are exceptions. Some people are born with XXY or XXX chromosomes. Some people are born with genitalia of both genders (hermaphrodites). To frame the question as “Is this person male or female?” is to ignore the law of non-contradiction. To break it down into two questions (“Does this person have or lack male characteristics?” and “Does this person have or lack female characteristics?”) is the law of non-contradiction properly applied.

Another example comes from politics. Being conservative on some issues (fiscal policy, national security, etc) in no way prevents someone from holding more liberal views on other issues (gay marriage, for example). The terms liberal and conservative embody a slew of ideas, and there is a continuum of attitudes toward them, from dictator-like conservatism to anarchic liberalism, and everything in between. To say that each individual person must be either a conservative or not a conservative (by the law of excluded middle) is ludicrous, and doesn’t describe life as people live it. Such laws of logic only work when we get into the nitty gritty details of particular instances. For example, it would be easier to say whether or not a person actively supports a conservative decision made by a particular politician. (Of course, even in those instances, people often admit complexity and/or doubt about their beliefs, or simply don’t care.)

Yet, do these failures of definition mean the law of non-contradiction is flawed? Not in the least. All that is necessary to reinstate the legitimacy of the law is to break things down into individual characteristics or a particular example. The platypus cannot both possess and lack the capacity to lay eggs at the same time (whether it is hairy, duck-billed, etc. as well is irrelevant). A human being cannot both possess and lack a penis at the same time (whether said person also has female genitalia or two X chromosomes, is irrelevant). A human being cannot both have and lack a conservative opinion about a particular ruling at the same time (whether they also understand that ruling from the liberal, or other, perspective as well, or have no opinion at all, is irrelevant).

So, what does all this mean for morality? It means, in any given moral dilemma, there can be any number of components which ultimately lead to a more moral, immoral, or amoral judgment. Here’s a standard example: Someone develops a successful treatment for a deadly disease. They patent it, charge an arm and a leg for it, and won’t let anyone develop a generic brand. Many of the people who need it can’t afford it. Someone whose family member is dying of the disease steals the treatment and saves their loved one. Is there an immoral aspect to what this person has done? Yes, they stole from someone who legitimately and lawfully developed and patented a product. Is there a moral aspect to this person’s behavior? Yes, they were trying to save the life of someone they loved. Is there an amoral aspect of this person’s behavior? Yes, many: him or her driving their car to where the cure was held, continuing to breathe in and out as they walked, and many thousands of small, everyday decisions involved in the process of stealing the cure. Is the person’s action ultimately moral, immoral, or amoral? Add up the positives and negatives of their intent and circumstances and see where this ends up on the spectrum of “greatest good” versus “greatest bad.”

Does this mean that there is no rule of law in the world and we cannot be expected to force adherence to any morality at all? Of course not. If I thought that, then I couldn’t have even admitted that stealing was immoral, now could I? All I’m saying, regarding the relativity of morality, is that the rule of non-contradiction proves that it must be viewed as a spectrum concept, NOT with the common “that’s right, that’s wrong, and that’s that” attitude. More importantly, the awareness of moral complexity that this brings must be used diligently to ascertain what moral and immoral aspects of a given act exist, and to recognize that true justice reacts with appropriate severity as a result.

Not coincidentally, that is exactly how the justice system in America works. It’s why accidental manslaughter, second degree murder (done in the heat of a moment), and first degree murder (premeditated homicide) have progressively harsher punishments. The manner and intent of a killing matters. That isn’t to say that our system is perfect; mistakes are often made, but at the very least it must be recognized that our system uses a continuum of morality based on circumstances and intent.

As yet another example, imagine walking a public path finding a wallet on the ground. Your potential reaction includes a wide variety of options: You could ignore the wallet and go on your merry way. You could pick up the wallet and try to find the owner. You could turn it in to a local official, hoping the owner will look for it there. You could steal the wallet and buy yourself a nice speed boat. You could use the driver’s license in the wallet to hunt down the owner and murder their family while they sleep. Every single one of these options lie on a different location of the morality spectrum — some much closer to the end of said lines than the others. I think it can be agreed that turning it in is morally superior to stealing it, and also that personally looking for the owner is morally superior to turning it in. And, to show how circumstances affect the state of an action’s morality, I think it less moral for you to do so yourself if you had some greater responsibility that needed tending to (your child has wandered away, and you’re responsible for ensuring they’re not lost or kidnapped) but even more morally impressive if you inconvenienced yourself to do the kind act (you were eager to get home in time for the newest episode of House, but missed it so that you could ensure the wallet was returned).

Just to make a few parts of my own moral code clear, maliciousness or gratuitous acts of harm are always immoral in nature. Anything apart from that on the black vs. white moral spectrum will have shades of gray, though degrees of darkness and light from the opposing ends may be infinitesimally slight. Ultimately, the intent to do “harm” and acting on the desire to “damage” another living thing is evil. Good involves seeking to help or to do as little harm as possible.

There are two reasons I would bring this up in a blog dedicated to atheism. The first is to point out that in some religions, the argument is made that all “sin” is equally bad because it is all an offense to God, and all wrongs require an equal amount of forgiveness (that idea was said by at least one childhood friend of mine who was religious): this is plain wrong. I don’t feel it’s necessary to illustrate why murder is worse (and harder to forgive) than stealing someone’s TV or spreading a mean rumor. I wanted to mention this issue, however, because I think there’s a tendency when feelings run strong to ignore the complexities which intent and circumstance bring to all human interaction. This makes it far too easy to dismiss completely people for their bad behavior based on prejudices and knee-jerk reactions rather than an honest, thorough investigation of the intent and circumstances. This effect can be mitigated if we use this understanding to engender greater understanding and compassion for others, even those who wrong us gravely.

The second is that nothing said above requires divine mandate to establish moral legitimacy. (In fact, as Adam Lee recently pointed out, there is no such thing as a divine mandate regarding morality. And I would argue that even if an all-powerful deity did dictate a moral code to humanity, it would be no less arbitrary and no more meaningful than if a human did so… But that’s far too extended a topic to get into in an already lengthy post.)

Since many people assume that all non-religious morality must be subjective in nature (in reality it is, of course, religious morality that’s subjective), I want to make a VERY clear distinction between relativism from subjectivism. Relativism is what I’ve described above: admitting that there are degrees of right and wrong determined by intent and circumstance. Subjectivism is “whatever I think is good, that’s what good is.” That’s just plain, self-important nonsense.

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For example, say there’s a mother who thinks that space aliens are coming to wipe out humanity so she decides to “save” her children by killing them before Martians start their invasion. That she thinks her act morally good is utterly irrelevant to its goodness or badness. That she sought to do harm to her children swings her act sharply towards the “morally wrong” end of the spectrum. In a court of law, her insanity might make her ‘not guilty,’ but that still won’t make intentional harm morally good or neutral.

By the same token, if someone were to believe that stepping on blue floor tiles was morally wrong, would that make it wrong, for that person or for anybody else? Nope. Not unless you were seeking, in some way, to do harm by stepping on blue floor tiles — in which case the intent would be immoral, though the lack of any actual harm would mean your perception was a delusion.

Finally, let’s say someone does unintentional harm. In that case the action was a wrong one, but not morally wrong for that person because they did not intend to do harm. The intention to harm is what’s morally bad. Unintentional harm may be a regrettable mistake, but that doesn’t make it morally bad (unless purposeful or lazy negligence were involved). Thinking that an act is good does not make it good. Seeking to help, or at least do as little harm as possible, makes an act morally better than its alternatives.

Finally, “sliding scale objectivism” or “fuzzy logic morality” would be other terms to describe this rather than relativism. For, though relativism is an accurate and useful term, it’s too often confused with subjectivism, which is NOT what I’m arguing here. We may live in a morally relativistic world, but not in a moral void subject to the whims of every sentient entity. And that, as they say, is that. 🙂


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