Thursday, 3 January 2013

Should We Be Relatively Moral? Absolutely.

The beginning of a new year is often a time for moral reflection. Beth Albuery considers whether it is better to be a relativist or an absolutist.

The Ten Commandments (via Hollywood)
When assessing moral dilemmas, it is compassionate and responsible to consider both the situation and the outcome. Absolutism is therefore an emotionally absent theory which is too inflexible to create a positive outcome when applied to an emotive moral dilemma in which a relativist would act according to the situation and consequential outcome. By following Mackie’s argument that “there are no objective values”, relativists are able to make rational decisions towards moral and ethical dilemmas based on their common sense rather than their obligation to follow absolute rules.
Absolutists would argue that relativist ethics are ambiguous, allowing their flexibility to be exploited in cases such as Hitler claiming that he was “euthanizing” disabled people for the benefit of the country. Absolutists uphold that their absolute rules provide certainty and clear guidelines for moral behavior. They would argue that absolutist ethics can support universal laws such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, proving that absolute morals are desirable and necessary on a global scale. However, in the 1950s as a result of the Second World War, a set of relativist human rights called the Convention of Human rights were laid down. These rights were universal yet conditional if anyone could satisfy the conditions by his or her own efforts. When applied to ethical dilemmas, these rights provide a compassionate and proportionate response to create a just outcome which could be supported by relativists. An absolutist with the view that all killing is wrong would condemn the death penalty. However, a relativist could support Act 2 of the convention of the protection of Human Rights which states that “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law unless in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law” and therefore take a subjective stance towards the death penalty. Relativism therefore provides the flexibility necessary in a post-modern world whilst the introduction of the Convention of Human Rights into English Law in 2002 proves the unrealistic and inappropriate nature of absolute rules when applied to ethical dilemmas.

Contrary to the view of absolutists such as Kant, who criticized our Phenomenal nature and argued we should follow our reason; when ethical issues concern life and death, emotions must be considered. Objectivism therefore neglects this important part of decision making, not allowing for a compassionate response. When applied to euthanasia, absolutism provides an objective response in which the situation, outcome and suffering of the patient are not considered. Though many absolutists claim to be opposed to the practice as it contradicts the sanctity of life, all absolutists who take the view that killing is wrong objectively and immediately condemn active euthanasia.
An absolutist with this objective view would criticize the actions of Daniel James, a rugby player paralyzed from the chest down when a scrum collapsed during training who chose to die by assisted suicide in the Swiss clinic Dignitas. When assessing whether Daniels actions were “right”, a relativist would take into account the needs of the patient, family, doctor and the magnitude of the suffering; “He couldn’t walk, had no hand function, but constant pain in all his fingers. He was incontinent, suffering uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body and needed 24 hour care”. A relativist would be able to access the situation subjectively and accept that Daniels case as a quadriplegic was causing great suffering and that his decision to travel to Dignitas was justified.
An absolutist could condemn Daniel’s actions by supporting the view of his physiotherapist who argued that “Daniel was improving and…most quadriplegics do improve over time…it was early days for Daniel.” Kant claims that every person should be treated as an end in themselves, leading Absolutists to condemn countries like the Netherlands which allow active euthanasia as they are treating individuals as means to an end.  However, British Law recognizes that prolonging life indefinitely is not a compassionate approach and the acceptance of euthanasia in cases such as Daniel's is rapidly expanding; proving the outdated nature of absolutism in the post-modern world.  Absolutists like Socrates would argue that “One should not regard all the opinions that people hold”, proving the merciless nature of following absolute rules. When applied to euthanasia, relativism allows for the emotions of those involved to be responded to compassionately, creating an outcome that would often satisfy the desired utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number”.
UN Declaration of Human Rights in Word Cloud form
When applied to moral and ethical dilemmas, relativism is not only more compassionate but more practical in its application. For example, Relativist ethics would allow for a mother to abort her baby if her own life is at risk. The rights of the baby could be weighed against the rights of the mother, creating an ethical and considered outcome. Absolutists with the view that killing is wrong would condemn the abortion even though it would minimize suffering and save the life of the mother. Utilitarianism and Situation ethics, forms of normative relativism, could also allow for a compassionate approach to this ethical dilemma.
When applied to ethical and moral dilemmas, relativist ethics create a rational and compassionate response underlined by common sense. The flexibility of relativism allows us to tailor our views to the individual situation, creating an outcome which is not predetermined by an absolute rule such as “killing is wrong”. In the case of euthanasia for example, relativism is the more compassionate approach as it considers the needs of the patient, the family and the doctors in every situation. Every situation of ethical and moral dilemmas are extremely different, and therefore require a different and non-objective response.

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