Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Danger (And Benefit) of Absolute Morality

It's been a subject of debate for, frankly, as long as I can remember. We all know from infancy that there is such a thing as right and wrong. What seems to be a bone of contention is whether or not something is right or wrong in every given test case - if morality is absolute.

Meet Andy. Andy is a hypothetical person belonging to the middle economic class of a fully modern, westernized country. Andy was "brought up right" and is generally concerned with the rightness or wrongness of their actions. We're going to follow Andy as they run through some simple scenarios.

Andy is walking down the street when they encounter two others, Bobby and Casey. Bobby has backed Casey into a corner, which distresses Casey. Because Andy is only just encountering the pair, Andy cannot determine the exact mode of conflict, except that Casey is distraught, and Bobby seems not to care.

As a moral case, we know that violence is wrong. Sure, most of us are accustomed to violence through film, television, and gaming - but we know that violence, particularly for its own sake, is wrong. If we treat this as an absolute, however, the ways in which Andy can help Casey are limited. Does Andy approach Bobby and offer to be a mediator in this dispute, which like as not could start a fight? Or does Andy move on, inform the police, and leave Casey figuratively twisting in the wind? Further, if Andy does intervene, that intervention would commit them to see the end of that conflict, however it develops. Were Bobby to round on Andy and attack, Andy would be forced to defend against that attack - or does the absolute wrongness of violence mean that Andy should simply take what is coming?

While we're mulling over those particular waters, let's take an ethics question that should be familiar to ever business student.

Meet Darian. Darian is Andy, except that Darian was born in a different part of the world - one of the many countries where it is customary to give a gift of some kind before concluding a deal, often as soon as the first negotiating session. In the west, many would see such a practice as a discreet form of bribery, a practice that we all agree is wrong. In Darian's homeland, however, the absence of such a gift is a gross insult. The gift serves to acknowledge that the recipient has something the giver wants, and that the exchange is intended to be genial and mutually productive.

Knowing this, should Andy accept the gift, and, moreover, should he reciprocate as is customary?

Absolute morality would be very useful, if we all could agree on the rules. Killing is absolutely wrong, but it is a wrong I would hope many would commit if their families themselves were threatened with death. Now, where Wrath is almost certainly my primary sin, I think most of my readers would agree.

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