Absolute & Relative Morality
Letter to Philosophy Now

Published in Issue 99

Dear Editor,

In Issue 97
Julien Beillard says that the only type of morality that is coherent is absolute morality, and that relative morality is meaningless. He is right to say that disagreement as to what the supposed absolute moral code may be is not a proof that it does not exist.  This is hardly relevant, however, in view of the fact that we are still awaiting any hard evidence that there actually is one.  That it is a logical possibility, or even the fact that the vast majority of people may think that one exists, is obviously not enough.  We used to think that the Earth was the centre of the universe.  Complete confusion over what the rules of absolute morality are hardly helps the cause.  If, however, those asserting the existence of absolute morality cannot even now tell us what its rules are, then surely it is time for us to look for an alternative explanation for our behaviour.

It was only because we feel pressure to act in accordance with some sort of behavioural norms that the idea of a moral code came about in the first place. Even those who do not believe in absolute morality feel pressure to act in certain ways.  Why? I suggest that certain types of behaviour – those commonly associated with the more mainstream moral codes – seem to have survival benefits.  The mechanisms that have evolved to give us our day-to-day moral codes (and so our laws) include our empathetic nature, our desire for fairness, our reciprocal altruism, and peer pressure – all of which also exist in other animal species.  So I would suggest that what we call ‘morality’ is based on the behaviour we find – consciously or unconsciously – to be in our best interests as a group – whether our family, our tribe, or our nation. This behaviour seems to get set in stone and billed as an absolute moral code, until modified under pressure to adapt – rather like the punctuated equilibrium seen in biological evolution.  All absolute moral codes that I am aware of have either been modified in some way over the millennia, or swept aside – which means that our supposed moral rules are simply tools which adapt over time to enable human society to function in a way which promotes its survival.

And so we have laws which, in a democratic society, change as society’s requirements change, but which have for millennia made illegal those things such as murder, rape and stealing which would obviously undermine the trust required for any successful society. I don’t have to feel that these things are morally wrong in order to decide not to do them, although the empathetic nature we have evolved does normally create this feeling. But whether for any particular law I do or do not, it’s still part of the deal with the society in which I live that I should abide by its rules, or suffer the consequences in the here and now.

Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France

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