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Streit der Fakultäten – Philosophie vs. Jura September 7, 2011

Posted by The Truth in Im Allgemeinen.
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NB: This post has its roots in a discussion with a friend of mine. Thank you, Liesel.

Once upon a time, I posted about the problem of legality vs. morality. A discussion with a law student has reawakened this train of thought, especially enough for me to bring this blog out of dormancy.

The question is: Are morals objective? Is morality as a concept objective?

Many of you will be tempted to say yes. Morals are objective. For without a standard of what is right and wrong, what justifies the choices we make and the actions we do? But, I will attempt to argue that morals are not objective. First, we have to look at the definition of “objective”. What is “objective”?

Objective is something which truth-value does NOT vary under any circumstance. For example, the statement that “all bachelors are single” is objective. For under no circumstances will you find a bachelor that is married.

Now, in a second step, let’s transfer this definition of “objective” to morals. Are morals “objective” in the sense given? Obviously not. Morals are “objective” when they are codified by the law – but what does this mean? Let’s look at a law, e.g. Clause 377A. Is it “objective” that gay sex is immoral? No. Alex Au will testify to that. If gay sex was “objectively” immoral, then many gays would be spit upon on the streets in any society you see. Germany, Switzerland, the USA, the UK, and so on. Because if gay sex was “objectively” immoral, then gay sex is wrong. Period. Under any circumstances.

But one may argue that the West has a decayed set of morals. Is it right to say so? Probably not – for one tends to project his world-view upon the entire world. Things which are wrong in one culture may be accepted in another, and that is what one misses.

So what, then, is morality?

I define morality as “behavioural rules which members of a collective agree upon, in order for the collective to further thrive as such.” In doing so, there is no such thing as “objective morality” per se. The Ancient Greeks believed that you should love those who love you, and harm those which give you trouble (λυποῦντα λύπει καὶ φιλοῦνθ᾽ ὑπερφίλει). Is that still true today? Patently, no. Morality only becomes “objective” when they are codified by laws. Since laws are definitory by nature, and since definitions are per se “objective”, they appear to display “morality” as “objective”. Why do such laws come into effect? Well, one could say that over time, this collective of individuals saw that a particular principle of action seemed to work, and therefore set it in law, to ensure that society further thrives as it was for them.

But wait! the lawyer will say. So do you mean that “convention is that men may incarcerate women, then you would accept that as moral conduct?” Well, here is the clincher: At that point in time and given the particular context, you must say that it was moral for the people then under those circumstances that women be incarcerated. Naturally, no one would say that today. I don’t subscribe to that belief too. But if you want to be descriptive, then you must say that that was moral, given the circumstances then.

Our lawyer could then say that you were immoral to make such statements. But that is an oversimplification (to be precise, secundum quid – the leaving out of qualifications.) Morals are always tied to a certain context. The problem is that we, as humans, are not subjects per se – in a sense we may be, but in our time on this world, we exist always in a given context – what we are, what we believe in are given in a certain context. We think that a particular action is good, which a person 300 years ago would have turned his nose on. Homosexual paedophilia? It was considered good practice in Antiquity! What about ‘eye for an eye’? It’s in the Old Testament!

It should suffice to show that morals are only “objective” when they are codified by law and shown to be universally valid, albeit in a given context. Is it, then, absurd to say that you believe in what is per se moral? Again, the answer is no. I have developed a weaker sense of what it means to be “objective”. As a subject in a given context, you must believe in what is “objectively” moral to even have a sense of direction in your life. If you truly subscribed to the fact that morals are only valid in a given context, then everything collapses into relativism, once the context changes – nothing is moral nor immoral. So what guides you then?

I would, personally, rather face the charge of inconsistency at this point than the possibility of being a totally amoral subject. If I am amoral, what is the meaning of life?

So what is the problem? The problem is that many people tend to equate morality with legality. What is legal is what is moral. Therefore, people who break the law are immoral. Wait a second! Is that true? Is it immoral to drink on the MRT, knowing that you will be caught and be fined? If consistency is so important to the lawyer, then it must be immoral. But what about the sick person who is thirsty? Should he be fined? Yes? No? Maybe?

I’m not disputing that people who break the law are mostly immoral. But the keyword is mostly. Because we grow up in a society, our views of what is moral tend strongly to converge. For example, it is wrong to kill. It is wrong to steal. Because you would not wish that upon yourself. But there are laws which are so banal to be laughable. It may be illegal to stage a demonstration – but is it immoral to? It may be immoral to people of a different age – but is it immoral to people today?

The key to all this is understanding what it means to be a subject within a given context with given values. Law is black and white – either it is right, or it is wrong, and law must assume an “objective” morality, without which it would have no standing. But understanding that this “objectivity” is only given due to the codification of morals, which take place at a certain time under certain circumstances, would help to separate the concepts “legality” and “morality”. What is “moral” may be “illegal”. A well-meaning German in WWII who decided to tell the SS that he didn’t see the Jew living his in cellar was moral, although it was very, very illegal to do so.

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