Right – it’s all rel­a­tive

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - OPENERS -

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.

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