Speaking of North and South, here is another fascinating possibility to ponder. What would have happened today if the American Civil War ended in victory by the Confederation? Would it have looked something like this?:
As you were watching this, you were (hopefully) cringing at the blatant disregard for the humanity of the blacks, treating them as mere goods to bid on. (“As with all SSN products, we can either break up Jupiter’s family for you, or, you can have them as a set!”) Now, let me ask you a question:
If the whole world came to believe that slavery is right, would it really be right?
The Can Down the Road
In my last post, I discussed moral subjectivism, the idea that morality is up to each individual. I know of very few people who would affirm this idea. Instead, people often appeal to group-preference morality.1In philosophy, this is called “Conventionalism” or “Cultural Relativism.” This way, the individual is held accountable to something greater than, and outside of, him/herself. Typically, people will look to the culture as being the sovereign authority over issues of ethics.
But this is problematic in so many ways.
All we did there is just kick the can further down the road. Everything that applied to personal-preference morality applies to group–preference morality – and then some.
First, what happens if two groups disagree? How would we determine who is in the right or who is in the wrong? In the case of the American Civil War, it’s just that the Union happened to value human equality and the Confederate states happened to value slavery.
That is the trouble with any relativistic system of ethics. On relativistic system of ethics, you can’t rise above the moral disagreement. If preference is the basis for right and wrong, all the preferences are equal in value, no matter what the preference may be. If a culture says black people are non-persons who are to be treated as property, that’s “right”. But we all know this is wrong, even if the Confederation had won the Civil War and brainwashed everyone to think otherwise.
Second, in group-preference morality, like personal-preference morality, objective morality is not only boiled down but evaporated altogether.2This should be obvious, because this is still a “preference” kind of morality.
Third, a culture is not a monolithic thing. What about the subcultures within a larger culture? Which of them gets to call the shots if they differ on ethics? (Say, on the issue of abortion?) Often the shots called by the ruling elites are contrary to the ‘will of the people,’ so to speak. Furthermore, how many people do we need in order to have a culture? Two million? Two hundred? Two? What stops us from going all the way and have just one person? In other words, group-preference morality ultimately collapses into personal-preference morality.
Fourth — unique to group-preference morality as opposed to personal-preference morality — cultural relativism boils morality down to law. But, surely, legal does not necessarily equal moral. Law is only moral insofar as it conforms to what is moral. In other words, we understand that morality is even more fundamental than law, that law is not the same thing as (objective) morality. Simply because slavery was legal in antebellum South, surely it doesn’t mean that it was moral.
Fifth, also unique to the group-preference morality, if whatever the culture decides is moral, whoever goes against it is by definition immoral. In other words, cultural relativism does not allow for social reformers. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce – these are all immoral people for resisting the established order. Obviously, this is absurd.
At the end of the day, group-preference morality tells us that, had the Confederate states won the Civil War, slavery would have been the moral thing in our day and time. Clearly, group-preference is deficient in providing us with any objective kind of morality.
Then, what other options do we have? Another popular – and related – conception of ethics is the social contract theory. That is what we will turn to in my next post.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||In philosophy, this is called “Conventionalism” or “Cultural Relativism.”|
|2.||↑||This should be obvious, because this is still a “preference” kind of morality.|