There are some notions, ideas and arguments, that no matter how often they are exposed as fallacious, are rebutted and refuted, seem to recur again and again. Moral relativism is one of them. Put simply, this is the view that one’s moral judgments are delimited by the culture or period in which one lives, so that it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about other times and places, since they had or have criteria for what is good or bad that may be quite different from one’s own. It seems to be stuck on ‘repeat’. The perennial nature of such ideas ought itself to make us pause before we repeat the ritual of refutation. We need to ask, what, exactly, the attraction is– what is it about the idea that seems to make it so irresistibly attractive and inevitable? Rather than an error to be corrected by better reasoning, it looks more like a symptom. Moral relativism never seems to go away, no matter how often philosophers try to swat it. The same is true of a related notion – ethical subjectivism (the view thatmoral judgments rest on personal taste, or emotions and nothing more). So rather than just show for the umpteenth time why the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, it would be better to go on to ask why they have this quality of eternal recurrence. There is an insight at the bottom of the idea that has got twisted, and its ‘symptomatic’ aspect has something to do with the nature of alienation in modern society. Read more »
There are times when customary evils become outlandish and intolerable. Then there is a call for irreversible ethical change, a transformation of more than the way we judge this or that, times in which which old laws are struck down and new ones framed. I want to suggest that a change in the structure of feeling occurs, when the ethical substance of our lives is transformed. This can happen at a glacial pace, or – as now -very quickly indeed. In Lenin’s famous remark ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’.
In such a time as this, people are mobilised in new ways; symbols like statues and flags that might once have been barely registered take on the significance of exemplars. And an act of cruelty that might once have been part of the drab monotony of unchangeable oppression takes on a paradigmatic, mobilising force. Then everything seems to be moving. Of course, one can see change as merely exchanging one kind of ethical outlook for another, with no way of choosing which is best, the view of the moral relativist. ’They thought X was OK back then, and we don’t. Whose to say who is right?’This is quite mistaken. For a start there were people ‘back then’ who condemned slavery, the subordination of women, empire and much more. The society of the past, as now, did not speak with one voice: it had dissidents, reformers and heretics. Nor is the past hermetically sealed off from the present: we are what they became.Read more »
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. —Gramsci
Does a crisis show us what we are ‘really like’? Whether it does or not, it has already been instructive to experience this one, in which our institutions are being stress tested, perhaps to destruction. As many have noted, COVID-19 is a political and economic crisis as well as a medical one. Its size and complexity can leave us groping around for the right interpretive and predictive tools. There are a number of models that we can turn to to help us understand how we react, or might react, and these often rest on assumptions about ‘human nature’. The problem is that they don’t agree on some basics, and thus can’t all be right. So which is the best one to turn to in a crisis?
Two Views of Human Nature
The view of humans and their social arrangements associated with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is a bleak one: the human animal in the ‘state of nature’ – that is, without government or law – is in a state of constant war, or preparation for war, since no one can be sure of their own security. In the state of nature, life is ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, chapter XIII, 1651).Only a strong sovereign power can ensure peace by imposing it through force, or the threat of force. If the civil and political bonds of such a peace are broken, we can expect people to revert to type as self interested individuals, with “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes ): a return to the state of nature triggered by the breakdown of the central authority, driven by fear of the other and only restored by force or the threat of force. Read more »