Ethical relativity versus Ethical absolutism. This is a long standing argument in philosophical circles. Is there an absolute moral code? The answer given even a casual look at history and nature would seem to be obviously in the negative yet there are still those who believe. My question to those who continue to believe in an absolute moral code would have to be what good is an absolute moral code that exerts little or no influence in the world, one that can be stretched, broken, or ignored at will, one that remains hidden from most? What does it mean to say there is an absolute moral code that each time, place and culture interprets and practices differently and often oppositely?
"There is an absolute moral code the slave traders along with the bible, the Catholic and Protestant church, the average Joe on the street, and most of the known world at that time were simply unaware of it and so they were breaking it without knowing it."
"So then where does this moral code exist? Where does it come from?"
"It comes from nature."
"But then why is it that though we have come to understand that slavery is wrong animals like ants and bees capture and enslave other ants and bees? If it was absolute wouldn't it apply to all animals most particularly animals that are completely instinctual?"
"Well...It comes from God."
"Didn't God create ants and bees?"
"Yeah, but this only applies to humans because they have freewill and are intelligent."
"Which God then because the bible actually condones and even encourages certain types of slavery and almost every culture in the world practiced slavery at one time or another and most of them justified it with religion."
"They were just reading it wrong. They were misinterpreting it."
"Then why does the bible describe the ways in which slaves can be acquired? They may be purchased (Leviticus 25:44-46), captured in war (Numbers 31:32-35; Deuteronomy 21:10-14), enslaved as punishment for theft (Exodus 22:1-3), or enslaved to pay off debts (Leviticus 25:39; Exodus 21:7). The bible says it's okay to beat slaves (Exodus 21:20-27). It does make it a sin to kill a slave. If he murdered his slave, he was executed (Exodus 21:20). On the other hand, if the slave survived a beating and died a day or two later, there was no punishment (Exodus 21:21. Where's the morality in that? So were slave traders amoral or just following the morality of the times?"
"Yes but it also says that you can't kidnap someone and make a slave out of them or you will be put to death."
"True, so the slaves that the bible says that it's okay to buy, where do they come from? The first African slaves brought to America were captured in inter-tribal wars and then sold to the Europeans who later encouraged these wars in order to keep the slave trade going, which according to the bible made it all nice and legal. Some of the tribal wars fanned during the slave trade in order to keep Europe with a fresh supply of slaves continue to this day. But according to the bible that's okay."
"Well, that's the King James Version. My God is the God of love."
"Okay, then where is this morality to be found? In what version?"
What sense does this make? Is it just me or does that just completely fly in the face of reason? Let me give you a more reasonable explanation of morality.
I used the slave trade because that was the example my philosophy professor (who was an ethical absolutist)used in our discussion to try to elicit an emotional response in hopes of swaying my opinion. In fact, it's the example that always gets thrown at me when this discussion comes up. I wonder if it has anything to do with me being Black? Nah. Okay, so let me answer the question of whether the slave traders were amoral or whether they were perfectly moral at that time when morals were different.
"The slave traders were amoral."
Moral opinion was different morality was the same. What does that mean? It means that just because a majority of people believed it was okay to enslave Africans does not mean it was actually ethical to do so anymore than the fact that a majority of people believed that the earth was flat and the planets revolved around it made it so. Logic was the same then as it is now and the fact that some people behaved illogically does not mean it was logical to own slaves. The damage the slave trade caused in society far outweighed any benefits making it illogical for anyone to have ever practiced slavery.
Promoting a society in which one person is free to capture, enslave, abuse, sell-off the loved ones and family members of another human being is illogical because it creates an environment in which the same thing might someday be done to you. Further more, societies benefit from mutual cooperation towards mutual goals with mutual benefits. Societies in which one race or class of people enjoy a parasitic relationship benefiting from the labor of another race or class of people without reciprocating are always in a state of unrest with the threat of revolution and rebellion ever present. That threat still existed in this country almost two hundred years after the slaves were freed.
To make it even clearer, let's look at how the slave trade devastated not only Africa, which is obvious, but America as well. Free labor meant no jobs for poor whites creating increased poverty here in America. It meant unrest in the families of slaveholders whose wives and children often played with and were served by light-skinned slaves who were they're half-sisters and half-brothers or stepchildren but whom were still slaves, constant reminders of the slaveholder's infidelities. The wives of slaveholders were notoriously cruel to the house slaves for this reason and I can't imagine they were much kinder to their adulterous husbands. The threat of slave revolts was a constant fear and many revolts did occur resulting in countless deaths including the slaveholders and their families.
Slavery was wrong because there was a better way that would not have lead to so much pain and suffering, bloodshed, and fear, which would not have set two races against one another for centuries. Mutual cooperation has always been the foundation of a successful society. Minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure is the goal of every sentient creature. Slavery created such pains as to ultimately negate any pleasure derived from it both for society and the individual. The child who had to learn to shut off their natural empathy towards a fellow human being when dealing with slaves went through tremendous turmoil, what type of parent would want to create such a monster? How do you think such a child behaved towards the rest of society once it learned how to suppress their sympathy, once they learned that it was okay to prey on other human beings?
Slavery ultimately resulted in war in which "brother fought brother" and hundreds of thousands died and the legacy of slavery can be seen in ghettos all across this country. So was it logical? I don't think anyone would argue that it was. But society had to evolve to recognize it. The plight of homosexuals in modern society is a perfect example of this evolution. The bible says homosexuality is a sin. Society has condemned it for at least a couple centuries in this country. But as society evolves men of reason have come to understand that limiting the rights of homosexuals threatens the rights of us all. Allowing any human beings to be oppressed for any reason makes the rights of all human beings less certain and secure. Our morality is evolving beyond the bible and beyond human prejudice. Just as our morality evolved to include women as our equals rather than our property so now it is evolving again.
As I said on a thread on another board,"The universal standard [The ethical absolutist] seeks is simply the greatest good for the greatest number and that standard does change as the means to that end evolve through technology and greater knowledge and understanding. [Whether man is an accident] or designed by an egomaniac for his own aggrandizement, this standard remains the same. It is merely the means to that end that has undergone some trial and error adjustments." And we are still in the process of trial and error. This process has been fettered however by our need to hold onto traditional values and prejudices even when our increased knowledge and understanding should have allowed us to outgrow them. It has also been impeded by the immediate gratification mentality of those in need which has been encouraged and exploited by the corporate kingpins. This "I gotta get mine" mentality that capitalism promotes has created a type of selfish individualism that has stunted society's growth. Still, societal ethics continue to evolve and with it the moral conscious of the world. I too have a dream, that my children will live in a world where everyone understands that their success and happiness is directly dependent on the success and happiness of every other member of society and that their children will understand that their success and happiness can only be secured once the success and happiness of all the citizens of the world has been secured. In a predatorial society we all live under the threat of one day being swallowed by a larger predator.