Morality: The Good, The Bad, and The Joker
by Si Hing Arthur Boyer
I’ll begin by describing the polar opposites of the issue of morality, for those who may be unfamiliar with them. First, there is what is called moral universalism, which is described by Wikipedia in the following way:
“[T]he meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other distinguishing feature. Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism.”
Most who claim the position of moral universalism believe that morality is absolute, in other words, actions can be determined to be right or wrong regardless of one’s personal preferences, predispositions or any of the above mentioned factors that could potentially shape a person’s values and beliefs. For example: torturing innocent children is wrong. Absolutely and unequivocally wrong, no matter who you are or what you believe, the action is still immoral. It is wrong whether you personally believe it is wrong or not. So if you are a sick sociopath who, for some reason, gains satisfaction from the idea or torturing children, it makes no difference. Sounds about right, right? The idea of a universal, or absolute, morality, which exists independent of our own preferences, sounds completely logical.
On the other end of the moral spectrum, as quoted above, is moral relativism. The moral relativist claims just the opposite of the absolutist. Moral relativism is defined as:
Now, Wikipedia explains three different types of positions the moral relativist might take. Note that one does not necessarily exclude the other two:
- Descriptive relativism is merely the positive or descriptive position that there exist, in fact, fundamental disagreements about the right course of action even when the same facts obtain and the same consequences seem likely to arise.
- Meta-ethical relativism, on the other hand, is the semantic and epistemic position that all moral judgments have their origins either in societal or in individual standards, and that no single objective standard exists by which one can assess the truth of a moral proposition.
- Normative relativism, further still, is the prescriptive or normative position that as there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.
Of these three, the one I’m going to be focusing on is the position of meta-ethical relativism, because this is the position that is in direct opposition to the claims of moral absolutists. “Descriptive” relativists merely observe that there a certain differences in ethical values between different people and cultures around the world. Here in the west, we typically frown upon suicide, especially the religious, since for Christianity suicide earns you a one-way ticket to hell. But in Feudal Japan during the time of the samurai, the practice of ritualistic suicide, called “hara-kiri,” was viewed as an honorable way to go if the samurai committing the act had brought shame upon himself, his family, his clan, or his lord in any way. According to their code of Bushido, which was an ethical code above anything else, it was the right thing to do. An anonymous samurai once wrote in his diary: “When honor’s lost, ‘tis a relief to die. Death is but a sure retreat from infamy.” Now this may not seem ethical to you, but it doesn’t matter, it was ethical to them. The descriptive relativist simply observes this fact, but they do not necessarily make any relativistic claims based on it. A descriptive relativist, in other words, might still believe in absolute morality. Other cultures might have just gotten it “wrong.”
According to meta-ethical relativism, however, absolute morality doesn’t exist at all. The proponents of this position go beyond descriptive relativism and claim that not only do ethical differences exist among different people, but there is no absolute standard for morality by which to judge other morals at all. Now this sounds like an absurd proposition to most people at first, and why not? After all, since there is no absolute standard, there is no objective standard—which would mean that what morality really comes down to is a matter of preference. Obviously, this sounds a bit ludicrous. Many undesirable implications follow from this claim. For example, if morality is ultimately subjective and not objective that would mean that I could steal your car and claim that I was morally “right” in doing so because the action was in accordance with MY morality. You could not rightly claim that I was wrong in stealing your car, because after all, how can you judge me to be wrong when an absolute standard for what is “right” ethical behavior does not even exist? Even the most violent actions, like torture or murder, could be morally justified if we follow this reasoning. The issue with moral relativism, evidently, is that it is no way practical or functional—at least not in our society as it is currently. Even if it were true, the absolutist might claim, we certainly could not live by it nor could we base our justice system upon it. For who could ever be judged as wrong, immoral, or criminal if no one in the world acknowledged some sort of objective standard that does not depend on the preferences, opinions or beliefs of man?
So the ultimate question is this: Does objective morality exist or does it all depend on subjective judgment? We will be looking at both absolutistic and relativistic moral theory and evaluating their respective weaknesses and strengths.
On the one hand, it seems that morality must be objective. We can all have our different ethical values, but their must exist SOME kind of objective standard, otherwise, as mentioned above, no one could be ultimately judged as right or wrong in doing anything. Hitler and the Holocaust could not objectively be defined as immoral. If there is no objective standard, we might have to face the horrible idea that Hitler was, in some sense, morally justified in his actions—after all, he was only pursuing what he deemed to be a right course of action. As expressed in an excellent article I discovered online at essortment.com by a—regrettably—anonymous author:
Like all moral theories, moral relativism is not without its flaws. The weaknesses of this approach can be found in examples of its application in extreme situations. It is difficult, if not impossible, to justify extreme societal practices, often involving life-or-death scenarios. A prime example is the aforementioned situation of the Indian woman’s act of infanticide. Although popular culture and even Indian government permit the practice of killing baby girls, many people reject this as morally permissible. Despite widespread acceptance of this act, it is argued by many that taking the life of an innocent, defenseless child is morally wrong under all circumstances. This is a valid and understandable point, especially in light of other objections to moral relativism. For example, moral relativism would require the passive acceptance of the anti-Semitic, white-supremacist beliefs of Nazis in Germany and even neo-Nazis in today’s society. Their practice of genocide would, according to strict moral relativist views, be a socio-cultural phenomena which should not be subjected to criticism from outside viewpoints.
--“The philosophical issue of moral relativism”
On the other hand, the relativist does not readily accept terms like “good,” “bad,” “right,” or “wrong” as having any real, objective meanings. The same article expresses just a few of the problems inherent in moral absolutism, as well some strengths with relativism:
[M]oral relativism withstands the objections to the Divine Command Theory because it does not rely on the existence of a superior being. Therefore, moral relativism focuses on the morality of an action without being complicated by religious or teleological issues. These objections to other moral theories have been introduced in order to demonstrate the strengths of moral relativism while simultaneously displaying the weaknesses of other leading moral theories. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that moral relativism is widely practiced today, though people may not consciously realize it. When people allow themselves to live in harmony with other groups without criticizing their morality or codes, they are displaying moral relativism, which is a peaceful and non-confrontational approach to understanding other societies.
More issues with moral absolutism follow. The theory, for one, depends on the existence of “moral facts.” But what is a moral fact? How can we observe or test a moral fact as we would a material, scientific fact? Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, regarded as one of the greatest rationalists of the 17th century, denied that anything is inherently good or evil. He held that good and evil was relative to the individual. Murder might be considered by many people to be evil. However, one might feel tempted to reconsider this in a different context—such as murdering a psychopath who was attacking a loved one, in self-defense. Is murder in the defense of a loved one still evil? Absolutists like to counter this argument by saying that this is only an example of situational relativism, it doesn’t mean that evil itself is relative, or that there is no such thing as evil. Animal cruelty, for example, might be deemed evil—within all possible contexts. Torturing children for one’s own pleasure might likewise be deemed absolutely evil.
Once again, however, the relativist does not simply take for granted the meaning of evil. The relativist goes further to question if evil can even be truly defined. If the absolutist is right, there must be an objective, absolute definition for evil—for it is this definition that serves as the standard by which we are able to judge something as good or evil, right? If there is no such meaning, then how can we know what is objectively evil, without having to define it according to our own values and opinions? I have found upon investigation that there is no absolute of definition that is satisfactory or acceptable as absolute. The reason for this is that, when placed under rational scrutiny, evil cannot be defined beyond any and all ambiguity. Evil is not a fact or a property inherently possessed by anything in nature—as will later be demonstrated. I challenge absolutely anybody to provide me with a definition of evil that they deem absolute. If, upon examination, the definition were to prove total and complete within itself, without anything lacking or any term whatsoever that cannot be further clarified or simplified, then I’ll admit myself wrong. This problem does not hold true merely for the concept of “evil,” but any similarly fundamental principles, like “good,” “right,” or “wrong.”
I’m reminded of Socrates, who claimed to have no knowledge of even the most basic principles—such as virtue, holiness, justice or friendship. Socrates’ method was to investigate the claims of other philosophers as to what the meanings of these terms were. The typical result of a Socratic dialogue was the failure to find a satisfactory answer—not only did Socrates not know the meaning of fundamental principles, he was able to demonstrate than no one else did either. As Max Maxwell, a scholar of the Socratic Method, put it: “the Classic Method works by exposing unknown or unacknowledged ambiguity and complexity, which makes the respondent realize they have more thinking to do.” Socrates knew such fundamental terms could not properly be defined, because he had already attempted to work out such definitions himself, but eventually found that they failed his own test. Perhaps he was truly earnest in trying to find someone else who could prove him wrong, only to be disappointed in the end when those he interrogated failed his examination.*
The issues with moral absolutism, however, are not limited to the fact that concrete definitions for terms like evil, good, right, or wrong cannot be found. The famous British philosopher David Hume presented an ethical argument known today as the “is/ought” problem. According to Hume, and any logical philosopher worth his salt, it is logically impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What this means is that a fact does not imply a value. For example: Murder is the killing of another human being—that is a fact. However, the moral value that one ought not to commit murder cannot be logically drawn out from the fact of murder. Helping someone in distress is a compassionate thing to do. Let us regard that as a fact. Even if we do, this gives us no reason to believe that because helping someone in distress is compassionate, we ought to behave that way. Recall that facts correspond objectively to what is, while morality deals with behavior that ought to be—a manner in which we should, or should not, behave. We may describe self-sacrifice and kindness as ethical behavior, but this does not mean we ought to prescribe this behavior to ourselves or others as morally correct. All we are doing is describing facts, but values (as David Hume first pointed out) cannot be derived from facts. Morality is prescriptive, facts are merely descriptive.
It is evident, and it is logical to state that any action in and of itself is not evil or good—that is to say, no action inherently possesses a property of “evilness,” “immoralness,” or “rightness.” I think it is safe to say that we can logically agree with Spinoza. Australian philosopher J.L Mackie put together a forceful critique of objective morality in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, opening with his famous first line: “There are no objective values.” According to Wikipedia:
He uses several arguments to support this claim that objective values are false. He argues that some aspects of moral thought are relative, and that objective morals require an absurd intrinsic action-guiding feature. Most of all, he thinks it is very unclear how objective values could supervene on features of the natural world (see the Argument from Queerness). Fourth, he thinks it would be difficult to justify our knowledge of "value entities" or account for any links or consequences they would have. And, finally, he thinks it is possible to show that even without any objective values, people would still have reason to firmly believe in them (hence, he claims that it is possible for people to be mistaken or fooled into believing that objective values exist).
Actions and people, in themselves, do not possess moral properties, it requires some kind of intelligent faculty, a mind, to judge people, actions, or propositions as moral or immoral. For the theists (whom I have heard on several occasions use the arguments of J.L Mackie), that intelligence is God. God is the ultimate intelligence, the ultimate “law-giver,” if you will, whose commands determine what is moral and what is not. As an example (though not one theists will find very appealing), in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 God says: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” God, as the basis for absolute morality, determines that to show mercy upon a foreign nation when it is invaded is immoral. According to the theist, because he commands it, it is right. Or is it the other way around? Is it right because he commands it, or does he command it because it is right?
Theists use God in support of the argument that absolute morality does exist and is a real thing. Absolute morality exists because it must exist, they say, and it comes from God. For the atheist, however, this “intelligence” represents nothing more than the human mind. Some atheists will argue for objective morality, but this is actually inconsistent with their atheistic beliefs. The intellectually consistent atheist must realize that morality is ultimately subjective for the same reasons that Hume, Spinoza and Mackie argued—nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral and facts do not imply values. It is for this reason that theists today often criticize atheists as being unable to hold, or claim to hold, objective moral values since this is inconsistent with their atheistic worldview.
Since the atheist does not have God to point to and say “this is where morality comes from, and it is true no matter who you are, because it is transcendental,” theists argue that the atheist must have no choice but to subscribe to a third view, the view that all their assertions about the world reduce to: moral nihilism—the view that nothing is moral or immoral. In other words, for someone who is a nihilist, it might be meaningless to claim that killing someone is wrong. For a nihilist, nothing is right or wrong. Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker, has been described by moral absolutists as a nihilist—and they argue that since nothing is inherently right or wrong, this view allows for any kind of hideous behavior. Nihilism has been criticized as a sort of “anything goes” philosophy. In the Joker’s interrogation scene in “The Dark Knight” he says, quote: “You see, their morals, their code [referring to people]…it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” I even saw a video on YouTube showing this scene and in the side bar the user who posted it was arguing for a God-based, objective morality. Here is what he had to say, near his conclusion:
On an atheistic worldview, the only transcendental facts are descriptive facts. By transcendental I mean facts which are true regardless of what anyone thinks.
Now this being said, there can therefore be no prescriptive facts on an atheistic worldview. Therefore, if atheists are to be consistent, they have to move beyond their short-sighted secular humanism and move into the realm of moral nihilism and sit alongside Ledger's joker.
Let’s allow this user to remain anonymous (though, by all means, feel free to search the video yourself). Throughout this article one of my goals is to show why these notions are false. If secular humanism reduces to nihilism, it is only of the sort of nihilism that Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as “passive” nihilism, in which one does not merely give up life and sulk in the ultimate meaninglessness of it all, forsaking all value.
But let us now evaluate the above statement. First of all, what in the world is a prescriptive “fact?” This already seems to contradict Hume’s argument, which the user himself presented, in that facts of reality are descriptive, not prescriptive. To prescribe a certain value as ethical or morally right is not to prescribe a fact—it is prescribing a way in which someone ought to behave, but does not describe behavior that is. If God says we ought to not like homosexuals, he is not describing a fact, he is prescribing a way one ought to feel. It must be clear to us then that God’s commands are not right because he commands them, but that he commands them because—he believes—they are right. There is no reason why God’s commands should be any different from anyone else’s commands. They are not inherently moral, they are judged to be moral. In this sense not even God’s commands are objective, because they are subject to his judgment as an intelligent being. Even the theist must realize this when they employ Hume’s argument as an offense against “atheist morality.”
If all of God’s commands were objective and absolute, we would all end up burning in hell for committing a murder—even for murdering an attacker or psychopath in defense of a loved one. The Ten Commandments clearly state “Thou shalt not kill.” They do not explain special conditions under which it might be okay to kill. Even the Christian minister Paul Hill, who shot and killed Dr. John Britton with a shotgun outside his abortion clinic in Florida, would be in hell at this moment (he was executed by lethal injection in 2003). When the user above claims that there are no prescriptive facts on an atheistic worldview, this is perfectly true, however it holds just as true for the theistic worldview. In fact, there is ultimately no such thing as a prescriptive fact at all.
There is something I wish to reemphasize: this article is NOT in opposition to the existence of absolute morality (nor moral relativism, for that matter)—it does exist—however I will seek to show how absolute morality only exists in a very strict sense, and that if we are to properly understand morality, we must understand the relationship between the mind and facts of reality.
As we have seen, to determine something as good or bad, right or wrong, requires a judgment call, unless one is to call upon the existence of moral properties or moral facts. And no judgment is independent of individual or collective (societal) values, just in the same way that no organism is completely independent of its environment. If our capacity for making value-based judgments did not exist and such concepts as good or evil did not exist, we would not have the capacity to judge anything or characterize anything under such qualities. These attributes originate in the mind. Thus, to call a judgment, any judgment, completely objective is false. This judgment call may appeal to a higher standard, a standard greater than a particular individual’s own preferences, but to say that it exists independently of all/any values and ideas, whether they are collective or individual, is unrealistic. Where in space and time would these morals dwell?
So what of absolute morals? How can we say anybody is wrong in committing any crime if we subscribe to this idea that morality is subject to personal values? The answer is that morality, if it is to be functional in a society, is not subject to any ONE person’s personal preferences at all, but to the values of a society as a WHOLE. This creates the standard to which the individual members of a society adhere. John Donne once said, “No man is an island” and this is true, for there is no human being in this world who is cut off from the world, who survives or exists without it. It is like trying to say the letters you are reading right now can exist independently of the white background upon which they rely. I prefer to view society holistically, as a living organism—and the only way to ensure an organism “works” is for all of its subsequent components to function harmoniously. Morality is one way of instituting this balance, this harmony.
So while objective morals may not truly exist, this absolutely makes no difference whatsoever—because we must take for granted that certain things are innately or absolutely immoral. A nihilist would be just as capable of this as anyone else. It is necessary to the well-being and functionality of society. As long as humans have minds, it will be necessary to perceive that certain absolute morals exist—so we might as well get used to it. The heinous action of torturing children, I believe I can safely say, will almost always be determined by people, regardless of where they are born or how they are raised, to be utterly immoral—but this is not an objective statement, that is to say, it is not a judgment independent of our values as human beings, but subject to them. But what does this matter anyway, that it is not objective in the traditional sense? My point is essentially this: who cares? Most of us with an ounce of sanity deem it to be wrong anyway, so let us take for granted and judge that it is—for the life of innocent children is something that ought to be valued, is it not? The “absoluteness” of this value lies within its universality—the fact that we can all agree on it, but does not depend on objectivity.
It is with this in mind that I say I do not entirely espouse either moral relativism or moral absolutism, but find truth equally in both. I also do not find that nihilism denies our ability to hold ethical values. Sure, I will allow that the Joker be characterized as a nihilist. He represents perhaps a twisted side of nihilism—a side that acknowledges the subjectivity of morality but intentionally rebels against society’s established moral code and the morals of sane human beings, failing to see that this code is necessary if we are to live harmoniously and happily. In the ultimate sense, it is irrelevant that this code is subjective and therefore subject to possible reformation—it is pragmatic, functional, practical, and should therefore be accepted unless changes to it are necessary. A psychopathic nihilist like the Joker is no better or worse than a man like Paul Hill, or any other man who justifies his malevolent actions with twisted beliefs that were perhaps not meant to inspire violence. Now I return to the fundamental question: Is morality absolute? The answer I would like to propose to this is as follows:
It is “absolute” insofar as there is a consensus by which all other propositions and actions can be judged— a standard. Although this standard does not exist independently of human values and ideas, this however does not mean that the standard is subject to individual values—rather, it is subject to the values of the collective. Any individual wishing to coexist harmoniously with the other members of his/her social group, must adhere to the collectively defined, standard morality. Obviously there are those who don’t wish this—we call those “rebels.”
An action, any action in and of itself, can only be defined as what it is. It has no intrinsic or self-evident moral property, without a mind to judge it. To call into question the morality of an action requires a mental faculty. A moral becomes “absolute” when the majority of the members of a population can agree upon it. The more universally it is accepted, the more “absolute” it is. I do not deny the existence of absolute or universal morals; I am denying their existence as separate from us. The problems faced by the alleged existence of a separate morality are similar to those faced thousands of years ago by Plato and his Theory of Forms, such as the arguments of Parmenides. Thus, if someone says absolute morality exists, I am perfectly capable of agreeing with them, but so too do I agree with the moral relativist—this is not “fence-sitting” on my part, this is a holistic worldview and a recognition of truth in all its various re-presentations.
The case of absolute vs. relative morality is far from closed, as there are serious issues with both the absolutist and relativist theories, issues that every moral philosopher must consider. I will not arrogantly assume that all of these issues are resolved simply in espousing a view that marriages both theories. It has always been the function of philosophy to constantly and continuously evolve in a world of perpetual change.
*Some criticize rational investigation of this sort as nothing more than a game of semantics, with no real bearing on reality. I had a debate recently with a fellow YouTube user who claimed outright that “philosophy is B.S.” When I attempted to explain to him that the way in which he arrived at that conclusion in the first place was through a process of “philosophizing,” he accused me of throwing meaningless semantics at him to overcomplicate the situation and create a debate where there really was none. While he was correct both in the fact that I was complicating his claim (by attempting to examine it) and deliberately creating an argument, he failed to address it.
As philosophers, we cannot merely dismiss rational inquiry as “meaningless semantic games.” We are not content to merely assume we know certain things, we wish to investigate what appears to be self-evident on the surface. Why? It’s just what we do, but now is not the time to elaborate on this.
As Richard Dawkins said in his latest bestselling book, “I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer.” In a funny way, I think this is true!