“During the last century [19th], man cast off the fetters of religion. Hardly was he free, however, when he created new and utterly intolerable chains…The kingdom of grace has been conquered, but the kingdom of justice is crumbling too. Europe is dying of this disappointing realization.”
(Albert Camus, The Rebel, 1956, 279-280)
We all know it, but it bears reinforcement. All of us struggle with the two-edged sword of deciding on wholesome ethical principles and more so, finding the inner strength to live consistently on or practice those principles.
As a conservative Christian I confess regularly, to God, my sins (= my failure in doing what I ought and in ceasing what I ought not to be doing).
Our Integrity Commission and groups like NIA are correctly holding up the high standard of integrity for all (albeit without a clear definition of integrity). The hidden assumption/presumption is that people in general not only ‘ought to do better’ but ‘want to do better’. This assumption/presumption is problematic. If my ethical outlook is unwholesome or dubious in essence, my sense of ‘ought to’, even when matched with ‘want to’, will not help anyone.
The cutting edges of the sword are the principle edge. and the practice edge and all of us get cut ever so often.
Let’s illustrate with a relativist who does not believe that there is any such thing as ‘always wrong’ or ‘always right’ with reference to acts or intention to act. Such a person, if she is say an underpaid and hardworking accounting clerk in a company may convert some of her company’s funds to her use and benefit without permission so to do. She does so even though that is fraudulent, and she sees it as what she is due and deserves, being underpaid and overworked!
Similarly, if the relativist is a clergyman. he may sleep with any available female in his flock because he is “distributing to the necessity of the saints” (I have actually heard of a species of this devilish defence) and after all, though married, he is being starved of sex at home and “man haffi eat a food”!
The white-collar relativist lawyer, politician, business mogul or other ‘big fish’ whom we seek to flush out could argue likewise because if nothing is always wrong, almost anything could be regarded as right.
The rub of relativism is this: It is delightful to live on (for the relativist) but deadly to live with (for others). The late Carl Stone said it well years ago: “Where there are no high ethical standards, the cost attached to malpractices in public life becomes trivial…The values of the society are fundamentally changing, and hustling, rackets and scams are now considered as normal activity provided you make sure that you are not caught.” (Daily Gleaner, 7/12/92)
Religious folk may instinctively gloat at the ethical blood-letting from relativism, but they should remember that absolutism does not necessarily escape the sharp edge of the sword because though absolutism may be delightful to live with (for neighbour) it is very challenging to live on consistently!
Truth be told, at the level of practice both relativists and absolutists are essentially alike except that a blundering absolutist may register guilt and seek to change whereas a blundering relativist may feel bad only if caught and that one has no philosophical reason to desire change.
The lament of the late Arthur Leff, Duke University Professor of Law, is worth pondering. In a celebrated lecture he said in part:“…What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.”
(“Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”, Duke Law Journal 6, December 1979)God help us all with our genuine desire to rout out corruption before our Lord’s return!