Vanity thought #1522. Moral relativism

With only a minute before the end of the short animated summary of the debate about Catholic Church I might finish the whole thing today. There are two big topics packed in there, however, so let’s see how it goes first.

There’s a rant from Stephen Fry about moral relativity and, for a change, this time the accusation is leveled against the Catholic Church rather than the atheists. He said the Church is loose on moral evils and he said that although they try to accuse people like him, who believe in empiricism and enlightenment, of moral relativism, as if it’s some appalling sin, what moral relativism actually means, according to Fry, is “thought”. Audience applauded.

I don’t know how he came up with this definition, I can only speculate, and I guess that “thought” here means intelligent weighing of pros and cons on every moral issue. That might be the case and thinking might be involved but it’s a very weak argument, bordering on dishonest. First come the wants, then justifications, it has always been this way in every human endeavor. Thinking here is always compromised by biases so while “thought” is there, it is not the driving nor the primary factor in decision making.

Take the attitudes to sex, for example. People want it, they want lots of it, they want it in various increasingly sophisticated or titillating forms. Then they think with their dicks, pardon my French, and that’s how they rationalize everything from contraception to threesomes to homosexuality. If they wants it they must get it, and they are going to dismiss any arguments about sin and consequences. They also think about it all the time, so, in a way, Fry is right – it’s “thought”, just not the kind that deserves consideration in a debate.

Fry then turned to examples of moral relativism in the Church itself. He started with slavery, that it was acceptable for a long time and then it wasn’t. This is an interesting point – is slavery absolutely wrong? It’s not in the ten commandments and it has been practiced in many societies both before and after they became Christian. Catholics themselves were not shy from owning slaves even though the debate about slavery has been going for a very long time.

I think the term itself is confusing and not everybody understands it in the same way. These days slavery is a big no no, it’s so loaded that trying to defend it will result in an immediate social sanction. What is wrong with it, though? What exactly is wrong there?

Cruelty was always a very big part of it but cruelty does not equal slavery per se. Many slave owners throughout history would deny being cruel and many slaves would admit that they have been generally treated well. Cruelty is an absolute moral sin but if it’s absent in a particular slave’s situation, is slavery absolutely immoral, too?

Exploitation is another ugly feature of slavery but exploitation can be found everywhere, it’s not unique to slavery. Chinese workers assembling Samsung and Apple products are definitely exploited while butlers and personal servants had rather cushy lives by comparison. There were exploited slaves on plantations, true, but there are also “free” but illegal workers picking tomatoes all day long for below sustenance wages. Should slavery free from cruelty and exploitation be acceptable?

Freedom is probably the main thing cited against slavery today but freedom is never absolute, too. Wives, for example, have never had freedom to travel just as their family slaves. Husbands, who were as free as possible, were constrained by their finances and by the necessity to provide for their dependents, including those same slaves and wives and children and servants and pets and cows and what not.

From the Vedic perspective slaves should never be given freedom anyway, for their own good, because they would surely misuse their independence. Afaik, there was never slavery in India but there were always servants and śūdras. Ideally, the relationship should be symbiotic, with both masters and servants depending on each other and each “outsourcing” service of his particular needs to somebody else. Masters did the thinking, servants did the cleaning, and the entire household worked like a single organism, with no member being mistreated or disrespected.

Śūdras were provided with comfort and safety, and so should have been the slaves in the western world, and brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas took full responsibility for their well-being. There’s nothing morally wrong with this arrangement, unless one would suddenly value career choice over career safety. They, the atheists, can say that choosing your own path in life is very important but this is exactly the kind of moral relativism that religions condemn and decry. You don’t let legs to walk wherever they want, outside of brain’s control, and śūdras are society’s legs. Their intelligence is certifiably weaker, their self control is weaker, and left to themselves they are bound to be mislead by their mind and senses.

In a Vedic society everyone has dharma to follow, freedom is not advocated for anyone, not just for śūdras, we should always remember that.

Next Fry mentioned limbo again, which, as I said yesterday, was presented in a form unrecognizable by Catholics themselves. In any case, I don’t see how the nature of limbo is a moral issue. Yes, it probably caused distress, but distress alone is not enough to call it a moral transgression.

And then Fry subtly changed the subject to discussing the “truth”. Nature of limbo was the case of Catholic Church not knowing the truth. What is the point of Catholic Church, he raved, if they couldn’t know better because no one did. “Then what are you for?”, he emphatically ended his rant and the animation itself.

Once again, reason and logic were sacrificed for the sake of flourish – in the subtle substitute of morality with “truth”. Even so, the Church does claim to know all the answers but not in the absolute degree. They, just like science, just like us, cannot know the absolute truth in full. They keep discovering it all the time, just as we constantly increase our realizations of Kṛṣṇa.

It’s the atheists’ job to reconcile their caricature of religious dogma with progress of religious thought. It’s not an issue for us, it’s not an issue for Catholics, it arises only for atheists because they made their own, wrong models of religion.

A lot of criticism of religions can be traced to this kind of straw arguments. First they misrepresent the actual situation and then find faults, but these are faults in their own models, not in religions themselves.

Coming back to the subject of moral relativism. The fundamental morals of any religion are more or less immutable. Practical application, however, depends on situation and on historical and cultural context. Slavery is a cultural and historical phenomenon, it could have been practiced without breaking any moral codes and it could have been practiced with breaking every Christian precept, too. It does not make religion itself morally relativist.

There’s also the fact that religions are made of people and people are found to commit all sorts of immoral acts, even people in position of religious authority. Does it reflect badly on their religions? Absolutely. Does it make their religions morally relative? No.

Okay, I’ve reached the end, there are two things I still want to discuss – moral relativism in our own society and the role of money in religions. Obviously, not today.


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