My first encounter with ethical relativism came rather early in life in, of all places, Sunday school. There we were, all of 11 or 12 years of age, discussing good and evil, being very sure that we knew the difference. One of us, and I hope it wasn't me, piped up with the proclamation that we would never steal. Our teacher responded that we should never say there was anything we would never do because we could not know that. She then said that she was absolutely certain that she would steal if it was the only way to feed her children. That certainly gave us pause. I don't know that any of us were less certain of our own correct behavior at that point, but, for me at least, it did make me a bit less judgmental of other people's behavior.
As I got older and saw more of life, I came to the realization that there are very few black and white, good and evil distinctions in this world and that all we can do is decide where on the gray scale to be in any situation. And sometimes that choice will be something that others will neither understand nor approve of. This all came back to me recently when I found myself in a dispute with a young person whose world is very much black and white. There could be no meeting of the minds because, in his view, both of us could not be right and so he had to fight tooth and nail to assert his own correctness. So, while releasing him to his own opinions, I found myself revisiting the issue of right and wrong and what it means in my life.
What is black? Genocide, rape, child abuse, wholesale destruction for profit, all seem to fall into that category for me. But other seemingly black ethical concerns can be slid to the dark gray end of the scale depending on circumstances. For example, ending another human life is an ill that becomes less black in certain cases and even our laws and society acknowledge this fact. A cold blooded murder is not the same thing as killing in self-defense and we all admit as much.
What is white? Love, care for the innocent, peace making, altruistic giving seem to be good in and of themselves. However, these things, no less than their blacker counter parts, can slip into the pale to mid-level gray areas. If unselfish care for another leads to a total abnegation of one's own needs and bitterness ensues, there is no beauty in those acts.
The grays predominate in every life and vary depending on an individual's time, history and circumstances. We like to think ourselves better than that but we might just be perpetuating a comfortable fiction which insulates us from ourselves. My Sunday school teacher was right and I no longer believe that there are things I absolutely would not do, although I sincerely hope that there are some. As much as it shakes my non-violent beliefs, I am certain that there are even some cases in which I would resort to physical violence, all the while hoping that I never have to find that out.
What is to be done with this relativistic life? What does it mean to make moral or ethical choices in such an atmosphere? It seems to require much more of us in the way of self-reflection and in identifying what guiding star we wish to follow. In holding that before us, always ready to adjust our course, perhaps we can steer more truly through whatever waters we may find ourselves in. It requires our constant attention and examination in order to avoid drifting into unwanted channels or crashing on the rocks. And, if at the end of the day, we can honestly say we did our best with what was before us, we can hardly wish for more.
Teacher Voices: Stewart Matthews - Here's another post in my continuing series on teacher voices. I'm interviewing some of my former students who have gone on to become teachers. In this po...
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