If Moral Relativism leads to chaos and Moral Absolutism to tyranny, what’s left?
In conversation with the president of a local university he claimed that ninety percent of his students are moral relativists. Moral Relativism, which is practically the state religion of collegiate America, asserts that there is no such thing as supreme moral standards; rather, each society’s morality is relative to its own cultural and historical influences. According to this view, there is no behavior which could be universally wrong. The moral relativist might personally believe a certain behavior to be wrong, but cannot say that the same would apply for others.
In contrast, Moral Absolutism is the belief that there are universal moral standards by which behaviors can be judged. Indeed, the moral absolutist would argue that the prevalence of moral relativism among our country’s educated youth is an existential threat to the civilized society America prides itself to be. The moment we believe that our own values and morals may be negotiable in other societies and cultures, the imperative to conserve these values in our own society is significantly reduced. Consequently, the very foundations of our society are threatened.
But moral absolutism comes with its own set of dangers. We pride ourselves in being a society in which each individual is entitled to make his own decisions on matters of conscience. How would these rights hold up in a society where moral absolutism holds sway?
Indeed, the conflict between radical Islam and western liberal democracy falls along similar lines. Radical Islam would like to impose its moral view on others, and democracies are fighting for individual freedoms.
Choosing between moral absolutism and moral relativism seems like having to decide between two evils of equal intensity. If moral relativism leads to chaos and moral absolutism to tyranny, what’s left?
Judaism’s remarkable response to this dilemma is both balanced and instructive.
Judaism sees morality as absolute. Yet, although it has many moral laws and norms by which Jews are expected to live, its universal morality–the laws which Judaism believes should apply equally to all peoples and cultures–are very basic. Called the seven Noahide laws, the first six are prohibitions against murder, stealing, adultery, cruelty to animals, idolatry and blasphemy.
Thus, Judaism is minimalistic rather than imperialistic about the application of Judaic moral standards on others. Instead of presenting the world with a lawbook, it institutes the seventh Noahide law, which states that justice systems must be set up in each civilization. In other words, each culture and society should decide, through its own regulatory system of justice, which additional moral rules, aside from the six fundamental Noahide laws, should be binding upon itself.
By limiting the number of universally absolute moral laws to the basic half dozen, and then mandating each culture to institute others as they see fit, Judaism treads a middle path between moral relativism and moral absolutism. Clearly, without a minimum few incontrovertible moral principles, society has no moral foundations upon which to stand. But on that foundation, each society, drawing on its distinct historic and cultural influences, must decide on the moral issues that confront the day-to-day navigation of civil life.
This article was originally published on .org