Longtime readers (both of you!) may recall a discussion here of moral relativism, originally prompted by a post from the thoughtful and articulate christeos_pir. As I recall, I laid out the major problems with a moral absolutist stance (briefly, whose morality do you pick?, since very fine people can strongly disagree on same -- hence the many sects within any given religion, and the many religions of humanity)...but also tried to articulate my own gut feelings -- quite possibly merely prejudices, though I don't think so -- that (a) Some human conduct is so nearly universally condemned by humans (I picked the compelling, if easy, example of harming children) that it might qualify as "evil" under something like a biological imperative; and that (b) Not least from having worked with criminals many years ago (my dad was a defense attorney), I believe I have felt something -- rarely, but occasionally -- almost like the "evil energy" of nineteenth century fiction (or Wilhelm Reich's "deadly orgone radiation"?)...that is, a mental atmosphere I associate with those who commit particularly heinous crimes, and which I do not believe to be merely my own disgust with the crimes, and criminals, themselves. I might even have brought in Eric Berne's useful (to me) alternative notions (for the morally weighted dichotomy good and evil): "libido" and "mortido" (love energy, death energy).
Those interested in this kinda stuff, clicka-da-click. :)
In the months since, I have thought about this a lot: about whether there's a defensible, reasonably objective definition possible of good and bad in human affairs. Understand, I have no problem whatever being a snotty moralist myself, and (as you'll no doubt have noticed) very much am so: I simply note each time the context for my remarks, most often by simply describing them as personal prejudices. Some of them really are personal prejudices, I think (hence I don't tend to post about them): e.g., in a world with a lot of starving people in it, the notion of food-eating contests turns my stomach, but I see (on tha teevee) more or less decent-seeming people attending such events, hence don't bother thinking of them as "evil" -- just disgusting to me. A lot of stuff being disgusting to me, I don't mind saying so, as long as I identify my opinions clearly as, y'know, opinions. But (at long last nearing my point) I continue to wonder whether there isn't some useful, objective way to discuss the conduct that -- however widespread, and boy howdy is it -- is condemned, at least theoretically, by pretty much all societies: murder, theft,
A lot of this is dismissed by (hmm) "absolutist moral relativists" (LOL), in part (I think) by a sort of verbal trick: if one can find any circumstance in which a given "bad" conduct is clearly a "good," then the terms good and bad are argued to be meaningless. I guess that's why I've found Berne's mortido/libido formulation (modified from Freud) useful: it brings motive into the picture (e.g., covers stealing bandages from a closed shop to stop someone's bleeding, with every intention of paying for the bandages and broken window afterwards; the law's "defense of necessity"). But that said, why do we, including thieves themselves, have a nearly universal revulsion against theft?, and ditto for murder, victimization of the helpless, and so forth? Is it all just personal prejudice?...and if so, why do kids all arrive with an inherent sense of "fairness" or "justice" or something, even though they also arrive prone to disregard it now 'n' again in their own interests, until taught otherwise? As well as I understand the arguments for moral relativism, is it really just socially-inculcated rules that account for our desire to protect puppies, kittens, kids?
Maybe it is -- after all, some kids delight in harming puppies, kittens, and kids, and I don't know whether that attitude always has to be preceded by the victimizers having been victims themselves. What do you guys think?
I had originally intended to talk about another specific attempt -- interesting, though ultimately flawed, I think -- to objectivize these issues: the late Alice Sheldon (SF writer "James Tiptree, Jr.")'s notion of universal entropy versus human "negentropy"...but that'll have to wait for another post. In the meantime (and with full understanding that ethics and aesthetics are so difficult to objectivize that the enterprise may prove impossible), do any of you have opinions you want to share?, 'cause I'd be interested to hear 'em. Are "right" and "wrong" completely imaginary states*, or can some useful description of some such states be reached?
93 93/93 -- AJ
* Again, taking motive into account doesn't necessarily (I believe) make the terms meaningless. The toughest-minded religious moralist on the planet would tend to support our bandages example above; that doesn't mean he wouldn't consider stealing absent such justification an "evil"...or (my point) that one can't possibly associate an objective mental state, repugnant to most people, with unjustified theft, and the like. I should add that I have no problem condemning and punishing crime based on societal definitions alone; I'm just wondering whether there might not possibly be more to it than that. :)
In fact, to take one final stab, why do we feel badly (those of us who do) about "criminals the law can't touch"? Why does such a category make sense to us at all, if "crime" is defined only by the state of the law?