My Perspective on Moral Relativism: Reflective Essay
‘Morality – like velocity – is relative. The determination of it depends on what the objects around you are doing. All one can do is measure one’s position in relation to them; never can one measure one’s velocity or morality in terms of absolutes.’ This quotation by novelist David Gerrold highlights the inherent nature of morality as being relative. Moral relativism – the notion that morality persists with respect to cultural circumstances, societal paradigms and historical context – undoubtedly forms the foundational pillars of society as its dynamic characteristics remain parallel with the inconsistency of varying moral systems. I’ve aligned myself with this perspective from a very young age. Moral absolutism, per contra, I’ve neglected, as its quiddity remains rationally fallacious and distant from ideals of the modern milieu. It requires principles that emit no exception as it emphasises that there are only single definitive viewpoints and answers to all ethical questions. Indeed there were times when I questioned the verity of moral relativism but all evidence throughout history and across literature asserts to the perpetuity of relativism. Society is fabricated on morality and with changing time comes the changing conscience of different cultural and religious groups in society. It is this very fluidity in context that alludes to moral relativism as being the central perspective on morality.
Some of you may ponder what is morality, anyway? Perhaps understanding the core characteristics of morality and its quintessential facets will allow you to cognise the relative nature of morality. However, in the words of Joan D. Vinge ‘The contradictions are what make human behaviour so maddening and yet so fascinating, all at the same time’, thus I present to you a compilation of what morality is not.
Morality is not black or white – it remains grey. To say it were black or white you must find definitive standards to which all moral acts can be aligned. By extension, you must consider all morals now to have always been moral. For instance, consider cannibalism – a practice exercised and deemed moral by various communities including the Neanderthal primitives, South American Incas and 18th century Fijian tribes. Studies by anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania show that cannibalism was practiced by 34% of base cultures. If morals were absolute, the relevancy of such an ideal must prevail amongst contemporary cultures and the context of the act must be neglected. However, it isn’t. This analogy fails to persist.
Morality is not an ideal that remains constant – it remains variable with the progression of time. Each era invites a new palette of societal morals that are an amalgamation of previously reigned principles and newer ethics. Namely, morality runs parallel to evolution.
Morality is not divorced from the happenings of its epoch. Notably, history evinces that shifts in epochs govern one’s individual moralities as well as the overarching moral concerns of society. Simply, the relativistic nature of morality is the key ingredient underpinning its ability to transition with time reflecting the very essence of human nature.
Morality is not a universal identity; something apparent in the relativistic representation of morality throughout classical literature and its appropriations.
Because morality is not black and white, not an ideal that remains constant not divorced from the happenings of its epoch and not a universal identity – morality is not absolute. Morality is relative. It is this, which I wish to convey.
It was from the tender age of six that the undeniable poise of moral relativism was brought to my attention. I had seen the The Voyage of Life painting series at the National Gallery of Art. I remember viewing them in awe but then they meant little to me as neither did I appreciate them nor was I able to comprehend their intrinsic significance. Nonetheless, looking at them now the paintings clearly depict our changing personal moral senses as we progress from childhood to old age and hence assert that morals undergo modifications.
It is also crucial to note that morals are a mere reflection of the historical context from which they have stemmed only to be cemented by globalisation. For example, the secular morals of the postmodern era were a reaction to orthodoxical modernist morals. This evidently conveys the inherent dynamic nature of morals as being directly influenced by the traits of their respective generations. Progressing generations too, are marked by shifts in time. This mutual evolutionary link between society and morality highlights their interdependency and confirms concepts of their coexisting character. Thus, it is this very link that verifies morality to exist in relation to historical context. Over a century ago, Charles Darwin supported this claim in his 1871 book The Descent of Man stating, ‘I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.’ His Theory of Evolution proposes that morality is a by-product of evolution and the primary constituent underpinning the progression of periods. It is this undivided nexus between evolution and morality that channels my sentiment to consider morality to be culturally conditioned.
Nevertheless, if morality was absolute then regardless of the context of an act, if it is deemed moral once, it must always be deemed moral. Speaking with reason, I have found this to be profoundly flawed. Evaluate the tradition of foot-binding practiced in Eastern Asia from the 10th to 20th century. Or consider bloodsport, an extreme sport held for entertainment across Roman amphitheatres in the 4th century. Or assess the regulation of leisure driven executions in 7th century Western Europe. Upon their performance, these acts were considered moral. If morality was absolute, then the foundational traits of the acts should be accepted openly in a modern context. However, they are not. This undeniably emphasises the prevalence of moral relativism.
Notably, the evidence for moral relativism extends to literature too. Specifically, the reimagining of William Shakespeare’s 1592 historical play King Richard the Third (KRIII) by Al Pacino in his 1996 docudrama Looking for Richard (LFR) expresses the dissonance and dichotomy between the morals of their respective epochs. Shakespeare caters for his Elizabethan audience by subscribing to their attitudes concerning providentialism and the Great Chain of Being. Contrastingly, Pacino directs LFR with a temporal focus to align with the secular morals of his postmodern-American audience. This variance in the foundation morals presented counters absolutism. Further the following opinion in LFR’s opening vox populi, ‘I’ve read it [KRIII] aloud and it made no sense because there was no connection made.’ is one I personally comply with. It transparently displays the irrelevancy of Elizabethan mores to contemporary cultures and evinces relativism. While Shakespeare explores morals associated with pre-determination, Pacino portrays profane principles. It is through this discrepancy that the certainty of moral relativism arises.
All in all, via a close analysis of morality through history, our evolutionary traits and morality across literature, it becomes most certainly evident that morality is relative. I wish to conclude with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘The time is always right to do what is right’.
Note what he says governs our perception of what it is to do right. Time.
Studying Margaret Atwood’s persuasive speech Spotty-Handed Villainesses has significantly influenced my writing decisions and the style of my persuasive speech ‘Conscience Hath a Thousand Several Tongues’ in which I’ve expressed my perspective on moral relativism. In an attempt to convince her audience of the misrepresentation of women in literature, Atwood opted to write a speech as the primary objective of a speech is to convenience. For the like motive of persuading my audience, of academic demography, to consider morals to be relative I have also written in the form of an esoteric registered speech.
Atwood also uses a range of structural features to communicate her attitude including periodically varying her paragraph and sentence length. For example, ‘So does the novelist. But the critic starts on Day Seven.’ Through reading her text it became evident that the shorter a paragraph or sentence, the greater the emphasis placed on its core concept. I’ve emulated this structural choice across my writing wherever I aimed to make an impactful point. For example, my following truncated sentences, ‘Morality is not absolute. Morality is relative. It is this, which I wish to convey.’ provides relief from the prior dense content and acts to accentuate my thesis.
Furthermore, through her use of hypophora, Atwood is able to effectively reignite the audience’s attention by posing a rhetorical question and then addressing it with her stance. Likewise, to convey my opinion I have implemented hypophora as I ask my responders ‘Some of you may ponder what is morality, anyway?’ My use of inclusive language, ‘you’, explicitly addresses my audience and assists to captures their attention. I’ve then judiciously responded to the rhetorical within the context of relativism. By mirroring Atwood’s use of this technique I am able to stress my subject and encourage responders to evaluate their definition of morality. Moreover, Atwood is able to create controlled emphasis through the application of repetition and anaphora. She specifically applied this technique upon defining a novel and commences multiple paragraphs with ‘Novels are not…’. Via this she had conjured a sense of validity for her points and pathos within her audience. To evoke a similar sense of pathos within my responders I have also utilised anaphora upon defining what morality is whereby I begin several consecutive paragraphs with ‘Morality is not…’. By adopting this technique I have been able to meaningfully direct my audience to consider my justification for moral relativism.
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