The Great War of Dawn and Lysol
One of my unspoken pet peeves is how seemingly every antibacterial wipe, laundry detergent, and dish soap claims to be the best on the market.
Of course, not every single brand can offer the best product. Except, all of them can be right in their own heads according to the warped calculus they’re using.
If you defined “best” as the greatest disinfecting potential, Dawn might win (totally made up). On the other hand, if you think great dish soap should also benefit the environment, perhaps you’d end up with a more niche, sustainable brand with a picture of a cute duckie on it.
That might be great for PR, but it’s terribly frustrating. All I wanted was a simple answer to what dish soap I should buy, and I’m left more confused than I started.
Now that I’m dabbling more and more in ethics, the idea of moral subjectivism reminds me so much about the great war of dish soaps.
If two people started off with an identical value set, they would naturally arrive at the same morals.
If everyone had the same values, we would all have the same morals, and we wouldn’t disagree nearly as much as we do. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
But people have different values and morals. Because if we can disagree on the factors that make dish soap good, we can definitely disagree on what constitutes a good life.
In a hypothetical vacuum where everyone could act as they wished and the consequences of their actions would never affect anyone else, this would be a perfectly fine way to live.
Except, humans are social animals. We insist on sticking together, uncomfortable as it may be to live with neighbours we don’t always agree with.
But in societies, we have to make sure one person’s ethics don’t infringe on another’s well-being. Which is why we come up with boundaries to prevent that from happening.
You may have heard these boundaries being alternately called laws.
And laws simply say that people can’t murder each other just because they want to. They can’t defraud each other for the fun of it.
(Well…they technically can. But this is why laws are enforced. The consequence of breaking the law is usually strong enough to deter most people from even thinking about it).
The issue with subjectivism is that if we hold everyone’s values in equal value, the virtue of killing would be indistinguishable from the virtue of generosity.
When anything goes, things quickly devolve into chaos (if you still question that, you can take the next few nights to watch The Purge. Or keep reading).
As warm and fuzzy as it feels to say we have no right to deny murderers their opinions, this theory fails in practice.
Most people don’t want murderers roaming the streets. Maybe the murderers do, but we need to draw the line somewhere. Even if it means earning the disagreement of some people.
On Wanting the Best for Others
But are morals and laws the same?
We like to think of them as such. On one hand, laws approximately reflect the morals of the people they protect (at least in democratic societies).
But, as Martin Luther King pointed out in Letter from Birmingham Jail
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
We also can’t forget that few people commit atrocities on purpose. Even Hitler, unfortunately, believed he was saving the world by exterminating the Jews.
The fact that we’re all equally convinced of our justness, despite holding such a diversity of moral stances, serves as an interesting counterpoint to intentionality ethics.
In some ways, it’s compelling to believe that the goodness or badness of an action purely depends on the intention of the person performing them.
Let’s say your friend prepared a nicely wrapped present for your birthday, but accidentally dropped it into a puddle on the way to your house.
Even though you never got to enjoy the outcome, you would likely appreciate the gesture.
It becomes harder to account for intentionality when people overstep the boundaries of autonomy, forcing what they think is right on others.
Consider the ongoing practice of honour killing, where parents murder their own children (often their daughters) for marrying outside their religion or caste. Oftentimes, these parents genuinely believe they are doing their children a mercy.
When the ends far outweigh the means, good intentions alone become less excusable. Not to mention, nearly impossible to verify.
Morality in 0s and 1s
On the topic of verification, moral absolutism claims that it isn’t always necessary. Absolutists believe there are static, objective truths about how we should behave. No second-guessing necessary.
Supernaturalist absolutists state that moral truths trace their way directly back to God(s). Kantian absolutists do away with the religious part, instead relying on pure reason to arrive at non-negotiable rights and wrongs. The flavours of absolutism probably put ice cream to shame.
To some, absolutism might read like those dish soap companies telling you they’re indisputably the best. And that would be a valid argument to make.
But absolutism has something going for it that subjectivism clearly doesn’t: it makes morality explicit. Instead of seeing all moral stances as true by default, there is a clear boundary between right and wrong. We at least have a direction.
Flipping through the pages of history, we’ve never seen a lasting society that wasn’t built on some religious backbone or at least grounded its rules in something firm. There appears to be a strong correlation between having rules and having a half-decent civilization.
Complications begin appearing when we pit absolutes against each other.
According to a survey conducted back in 1999, there are at least 4,200 recognized religions and denominations. Of course, many of them share a surprising degree of similarity, but no two are identical, truth for truth.
Then we begin thinking about how we can — or even if we can — ever hope to reconcile the many supposed truths that contradict each other.
With this logic, it doesn’t matter who’s right — it would mean everyone else (or most people) believes in fake moral absolutes.
The bottom line is that they can’t all be right at once. Who’s the impostor?
Further, if I decided to fabricate a religion of my own tomorrow (cough, cough…Pastafarianism), the commandments I lay out as universal facts would bear no more weight than anything anyone decides to write on a piece of paper with an orange Crayola.
TLDR; This article was a roundabout way of bringing us exactly where we began.
But the point wasn’t to jade you on moral dilemmas. Nor was it to make a case for one doctrine over another.
It was to demonstrate that even the most airtight ethical principles have their gaps. If an all-around perfect solution to morality does exist, we don’t seem to have found it yet.
Beyond that, all ethics rest on a foundation of assumptions. Assumptions about the world. Assumptions about the human condition. Assumptions about the paths that lead to a better life.
To the subjectivist, those assumptions might be fluid. To the absolutist, they might be as unshakable as the laws of physics. But it goes without saying that the quality of the assumptions we make will ultimately define our collective ethics — and our fate.
The way we see the world today bears almost no similarity to how we saw it last century — let alone ten thousand years ago. And the zeitgeist of things will keep changing as we drop bad habits and pick up new — hopefully better — ones. We’re part of a neverending experiment that’s been getting better since it started.
We’re not perfect. If we were, it would indirectly mean that we’ve grown all we can — that there’s nothing better than this. But there’s definitely better than this. Different perspectives aren’t just unavoidable in that journey — they’ll help us arrive at better answers quicker.
Till then, let’s keep browsing the endless aisles of Moralitymart, and be patient enough to let everyone else do the same.