Right – it’s all relative
Being good used to be simpler. My grandmother told me that if something made me feel bad or guilty then almost certainly I had done something wrong. As a rule of thumb for a nine-yearold who went reluctantly to Sunday school and had loving but firm parents it probably worked as effectively as anything else.
Now everything is blurrier. It almost seems, with globalisation and high-tech advances, with so many of us worried about everything from climate change to banks to electricity prices, that the world is changing so fast, consciences are still scrambling to find their place.
Will you, for instance, watch the bootleg DVD your friend bought in Thailand? If your telecommunications provider with the rotten customer service and surprise fees makes a billing mistake in your favour, do you tell them?
Then there’s the fashionable avoidance of anything that smacks of judgmentalism. Amazon, the massive online bookseller, took that to new levels recently when it announced piously it would not be withdrawing a how-to guide to paedophilia – – from sale, because “Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable”. Fortunately, that humbug resulted in so much fury and so many threats to boycott the business, that by the end of last week the book had mysteriously vanished from the site. The uproar does tend to support the view that humans, if not corporates, instinctively know what’s right and wrong.
But not so fast. Take the story from last week about the mother shark which was found on the east coast of Australia, dying in agony in the shallows after her fins had been cut off. She had also been slit open so that, authorities presume, the puppies she was carrying could be finned as well.
I thought animal cruelty was another area where people quickly sort right from wrong, but that’s not so, according to Sue Knight, a philosopher in ethics at the University of South Australia. Knight works in the school of education, mostly with trainee teachers, and says, with some despair: “I can tell you exactly what most of my students would say about that scenario. They would say that in Australia it is wrong to do that to a shark because it’s against our laws. But if it happened elsewhere, in a culture that condoned that kind of practice, it would be OK.”
We were both bemoaning the rise of relativism and its influence, especially among the young. “It’s huge,” Knight says. One study she quotes reveals that about 80 per cent of final year student teachers show “relativist reasoning tendencies in the moral domain”. Female circumcision? Gender inequality? Hacking fins off sharks? All fine, apparently, if that’s what a particular person’s culture deems to be OK. Who are we to judge, the argument goes. (Shades of Amazon.) Who are we to impose our own cultural mores? In this reasoning, no culture is “better” than any other. If this is what young trainee teachers believe, that is what they will pass on in the classroom. And so relativism grows. Some might say that’s a good thing.
Knight, though, feels bleak. She puts it plainly, but beautifully: “I’ve spent my whole career trying to get teachers to see the importance of reasoning well about what constitutes a moral society.”
Perhaps things were once simpler because we didn’t flinch from words like moral.