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Objective ethics?

March 15, 2017

I try really hard to not be rigid. Truly, I do. At the same time, I was raised to believe some things truly are categorical imperatives. We didn’t call them that and I have some doubts as to just how many of my relatives could have told me who Immanuel Kant was, had I even known to ask. What I did know, was this: there are some things one simply does not do. Ever.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize some things are perhaps not as black and white as I once believed. Really, this has been more of a realization that I don’t have all the answers to all of the questions. Growing up is like that. As a person of Christian faith, who is closer to 80 than 18, I’ve reached the point of being relatively comfortable with not only saying “I don’t know,” but even with a section of scripture that, in a different context, expresses what I now see as a great truth. In Isaiah 55:8 we find “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.… I’m okay with that. Regardless of a person’s view of spirituality and faith, there are, at least currently, some things we simply don’t know. Some things, though, seem constant, at least to me.

Sarah Hoyt’s blog features a guest post by Caitlin I. Woods. Dealing with situational ethics, she makes the point that eliminating objective right and wrong is a dangerous and usually unnecessary step – for most people, most of the time, there is no need to argue circumstances dictate what is right and wrong. Can we devise a sufficiently convoluted hypothetical situation in which objective right and wrong are at least questioned if not abandoned? Of course. In fact, that’s how she opens.

“Is it wrong to steal if it’s to feed your starving family?

No, no, wait—I mean, what if you *really really* needed the food, and you had no alternative way to get it, and you had a huge extended family that was going to die, *literally die* if you didn’t procure food for them *right now*. And you live in a hideous dystopic world where the powers that be are intentionally starving everyone, and the only people who have food are the ones that are actively starving

everyone else, and…”

She follows with what is arguably the best response to any hypothetical situation clearly designed to lead to arrival at a predetermined conclusion.

“Stop. Just stop.

Yes, I’m sure it’s possible to posit a world where the only reasonable alternative to death is theft, and even a world where any moral person would cheer the decision. You win. I will completely and totally agree that it is theoretically possible to come up with the circumstance.

So. Freaking. What.”

She gives a quick overview of the problems with the question asked, pointing out that in the real world, the one in which you, I and  presumably those who would question the existence of objective right and wrong live, there are almost always options beyond the ones the hypothetical offers.

“I think the best comparison is really something like… I don’t know, gravity. The effects of gravity vary wildly depending on where in the universe you’re observing it. In a black hole, it is an astoundingly inescapable force that even light is powerless against. On Deimos, a human could, unassisted, attain escape velocity.

For pretty much all practical purposes, though? Gravity is 32ft/s^2, and anyone who needs to deal with it being different than that will certainly know it well enough in advance to be able to make the proper allowances.

In the same vein, while it’s possible to come up with a circumstance in which it isn’t wrong to steal… it’s not here, it’s not now, and it’s a circumstance none of us are likely to come across. Ever. Let me put it this way: While we can have an argument about whether it is more moral to steal than to allow someone under your care to die of starvation, there are *so many millions of options to take* before that’s even remotely an issue that I’m astounded at the sheer fatuousness it requires to come up with the circumstance.”

I know that in my case, the “there are no other options” limitations placed on me by such questioners really annoy me. As a result, I usually reject the premise(s) of the question. I hate it when people try, overtly or otherwise, to shove a given belief or position down my throat.

Then, she calls the whole thing what it is – an attempt to destroy the very concept of objective ethics. It’s not simply a silly question you’re asked in a situation like that. Nope. It’s an attempt to force you into accepting as true something you’d normally reject, thereby calling into doubt a far more basic belief – that there can even be an objective ethic.

“But it’s not fatuousness. Not really.

It’s an inherent, knowing attempt to destroy the entire idea of things being always right or wrong *at all*.”

I encourage you to read the entire posting. It’s well worth your time. I think, in many cases, people are for some reason unable to accept that something can be wrong and yet virtually unavoidable at the same time. In my opinion, it is for things like this that the legal arena, for instance, has jury nullification. Maybe there are times the conflict is not between whether a thing is right or wrong, but between something being right or wrong and necessity.

I’m reminded of the story, probably apocryphal, about New York Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. I have the text saved to my computer. Sadly I don’t remember the source. The story goes like this:

“In the middle of the Great Depression, New York City mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, strived to live with the people. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, raid with the police, or take field trips with orphans. On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter’s husband had left, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.

However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, “Here is the ten-dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.”

Read the rest of the post. It’s worth your time and consideration.


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  1. Well done and agreed! And Catlin’s post is excellent too!!!

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