Thoughts on Relative Morality

Absolute morality, like all things absolute, does not work in the real world.  It is easily dispelled as soon as you bring up a situation like a gunman in a schoolroom of children killing them off one by one and you are the only one in the room with another gun.  Even the most moral people I know would choose to come to twenty innocent children’s aid even if it means committing a murder.

Relative morality, like all things relative, is very difficult to negotiate because we can never have an objective point of view from which to judge the relativity.  The main problem of morality is this:

Every action that every human being takes is done so out of selfishness.  There is no action that any human being takes that does not benefit him in some way.

Think of the most selfless act that a person can take.  Fill in the blanks of the scenario any way that you choose, but imagine an individual sacrificing his life for another.  On this surface this sounds as unselfish as you can get, but does not the one sacrificing his life gain from the act?

Perhaps it brings the individual happiness to know that the other person will live.  In this case they trade their own life to gain happiness, short-lived as it might be.

Perhaps the individual thinks that such an act will bring happiness to their god.  In this case they trade their own life to please a deity or to gain access to heaven.

Perhaps the individual thinks that such an act will bring him fame longer after his death.  In this case they trade their own life for fame.

There is no scenario where a person will sacrifice their life (or, in fact,  take any action) unless they receive something of equal or greater value in return.

That is not to diminish an act of goodness; recognizing the selfishness of the act does not take away from its moral value.  Making this ultimate sacrifice to save another’s life is truly a rare and incredible act of charity.  Giving to another, improving another’s life, or any act of goodness or charity is admirable, but at the same time we must recognize that it is as self-serving as it is selfless.

The reason to recognize the selfishness of it is to recognize the complexity of relative morality.  We all have an internal moral compass, but the needle can easily be misguided by selfishness.

Let’s say that the gunman in the schoolroom is not picking of the students one at a time; he is just holding them hostage.  In this case it is not clear that killing him with your hidden firearm will save lives.  It may, but the students may also be saved by waiting until the police arrive.  Although, he might shoot a student at any moment (and he’s acting crazy enough that it seems a distinct possibility) which means by not shooting him you will cause the death of one (if not several) children.  Ah!  What to do?!? It’s a tough one, because (much like in the real world) neither outcome is a guarantee, so you just have to take your best guess.

What if we add to the mix that you recognize the gunman as an extortionist that has been shaking down your business for money?  Surely this would encourage you to action, but would it be his identity as a bad person that preys on the innocent that makes you want to act or your desire to protect your business?  Either way could be argued a moral move, but surely protecting another’s life is more moral than protecting your own business.

What if you owed this person a million dollars?  Obviously this wouldn’t make you not want to shoot this man, but can you be certain that the thought of having an unpayable debt forgotten doesn’t make you more likely to take a drastic action?

To go back to a “purely selfless” act, what if you are just trying to be a good person?

What if your desire to be a good person is clouding your judgment to make the right moral choice?

What if your desire to please your god is clouding your judgment to make the right moral choice?

What if your desire to be a hero is clouding your judgment to make the right moral choice?

Again…I’m not saying that it isn’t the right thing to do to save the children’s lives by shooting the gunman, but perhaps your selfish desires (which are present in each one of your actions) is rushing your otherwise sound decision-making processes.

How about a real-world example?

When discussing Just War Theory, the example of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki is often used as an example in its defense.  During World War II approximately 400,000 Asians were dying each month from starvation, deprivation, maltreatment and disease in Japanese-controlled territories. Had the bomb not been dropped and had, as was likely, the war continued beyond August 1945, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of other Asians would have been condemned to an unpleasant death.  Dropping the bomb did indeed kill approximately 175,000 Japanese, but it seems a small price to pay to save a million Asians.

The debate will (and should) continue, but for the sake of this conversation let us assume that this is true: for every life taken in the bombings between 2 and 10 were saved.  This, looked at discretely, can be said to be a moral good, but we must also take into account the inherent selfishness of this act.

Dropping the bomb clearly helped put a swift victory into the hands of America.  Could our leaders’ judgment not have been clouded by this fact?  It is possible that another solution could have been devised to end the death toll, but who can tell how long that would take? It’s was a tough call, and I sincerely think our leaders thought they were making the right decision for the innocent people suffering in Asia, but…

Perhaps our desire of revenge for Pearl Harbor rushed us to a rash decision.

Perhaps our desire to end the war and save American lives made the difficult decision to sacrifice Japanese lives easier.

Perhaps our desire to save lives drove us to action rather than thoughtful reasoning.

It’s tricky.  Like I said I sincerely believe that our leaders thought they were doing a just action, but admitting the fact that there were selfish benefits to the act makes it easier to see the difficulties of acting in a purely altruistic manner.

Even the fact that you feel good about an action tells you that you are serving your own interests, and makes your otherwise selfless actions questionable.

If you can ever do good for the world without benefiting from it in any way including feeling good about it, only then you know that you are acting morally.

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