Geoff LambertonEthically Speaking

Now I want you to try a little test. Lets find out where you sit along the moral spectrum! You need to answer each of the following five questions with a yes or a no.

Do you always obey the speed limit?

You know an employee whom you work with has stolen $1000 from the firm and has refused to confess. Do you tell the boss?

Your partner asks you whether their bum looks big in pants? Do you tell them the truth, or give them a cuddle and tell them skinny is overrated?

Would you appear in a pornographic movie if you were sure no one you know would ever see it?

Have you or would you ever exaggerate a bit on an insurance claim?

So treat yourself a bit now that youve just completed your Ethics 101 exam, and give yourself a score of one for each no answer for questions 1, 2 and 3 (ie no you wouldnt tell them the truth), then give yourself a score of one for each yes answer for questions 4 and 5. Then add up your score.

If you scored zero out of five youre a radical absolutist (assuming this testing procedure is idiot proof) and you occupy the space to the extreme left on the ethical scale. Whereas a score of five out of five makes you a relativist, so you sit up on the right, and probably most of you sit somewhere in between these two extreme positions.

Absolutists believe that moral norms provide rules which should never be broken, without exception. More difficult though is the issue of where you go to get these rules. Some absolutists look to religious scripture where others (such as Plato) believe moral rules can be derived using logical reason.

Relativists believe there is no absolute truth and that morality is relative to a specific culture, nation or group of people. So if you believe in ethical relativism, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the specific cultural values of the society in which the actions take place.

Now we know that some cultures have practiced infanticide, others allow the elderly to die of starvation, and here in Australia we imprison refugees, including their children. Which set of principles do we use to judge the morality of these actions? Do we take account of the context of insufficient food to feed everyone in the tribe? Do we accept the claim that detention policies are designed to strongly deter would be illegal immigrants from entering Australia?

This distinction between absolutism and relativism represents a contrast between the stability, predictability, order and security provided by absolutism versus the freedom and creativity of relativism. A major challenge is to establish a set of moral principles which are nearly absolute, that is, most of us agree we should live by these rules in all but exceptional circumstances. An example might be that we should always respect other peoples freedom. Now if were absolutists this can be a real challenge, especially when we think this just allows other people to annoy, challenge or insult the rest of us!


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