"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
The Failed Theory of Relativity
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
Voluntaryism is, primarily, an ethical philosophy applied to the organization of society. Most of the common modern social organization theories (e.g., “democracy”) focus on organizing society based upon what the majority feels is right and always with an eye toward the utilitarian target that is the greatest good for the greatest number. In such systems, ethics plays a secondary role at best to other considerations, and there can be no absolute ethical standards because exceptions continually must be made to achieve the twin goals of securing majority acceptance (or at the very least a minimum of majority outrage) and maximizing the public good. If there is a way to reach goals in a somewhat ethical manner, then that is all very well and good. If not, then that also is very well and good.
These modern social systems also share one common feature: Government is deemed necessary to control society. Since government is necessarily coercive (aggressive), then all such systems are a priori unethical, which just goes to prove the point that ethics are not and cannot be a primary concern in any government-ruled social system.
Since no one wants to admit out loud that they advocate unethical behavior, justifications must be invented. Let’s see…if we say that ethics is purely a subjective proposition, then we can always deem certain actions ethical. Oh, I know! Let’s include instituting a coercive government as being absolutely necessary, hence an ethical action! Yes! Problem solved!
And so ethics are deemed relative—fuzzy, inexact oddities that are always subject to change. As far as they exist, they must be molded to conform to the framework of popular opinion and utilitarian considerations.
Thus was born the Theory of Ethical Relativity.
Now consider the following statement: A law that forbids murder is ethical, while a law that demands that all redheads be killed is unethical.
The subscribers to the Theory of Ethical Relativity would deny the absolutism of that statement and declare that it merely reflects an opinion and has no factual basis in reality. Ethics are subjective and ethical law, claims the ethical relativist, is not discoverable in the same way as is the law of gravity, but will differ depending on the individuals or the societies or the times being considered.
Is ethics indeed purely subjective? Is the tenet of Voluntaryism set upon a foundation of nonexistent ethical objectivity? Does the ethical relativist have it right? Well, let's dive right on in and see of what ethical relativism is made.
Will the ethical relativist admit that it is acceptable for another individual to rob him just for fun? Why not, if it's all relative? Perhaps the thief really likes to take stuff, and so why should he be judged by anyone else's “relative” standards? How unfair!
Must the relativist remain neutral, neither praising nor condemning the robbery since no value can be assigned to the action? What if he “naturally” feels wronged about the action? Does this uncontrolled emotion shatter his neutrality since by definition it is an emotion related to the concept of justice?
Or can he accept his aggrieved status as valid while at the same time give equal weight to the validity of the thief's desire to steal? Now instead of human actions having no value, every individual can assign values to their actions but all such values can be different and all are equally valid. Now the relativist can justly feel wronged by the thievery, but he cannot seek redress because the thief did not behave in any manner that violated some universal objective framework. The thief behaved reasonably within his own personal framework—it just so happened that the action fell outside of the victim's personal framework of reasonability. But since both are equally valid, there is no injustice and so no redress can be rightfully sought.
So we end back up in the situation where the person being aggressed against feels he has been wronged. He is upset because he perceives that the action taken against him was unjust. The injustice is the only reason for the bad feeling and the desire for redress (or even revenge), and so redress is the tacit admission of the existence of injustice. Separate the concepts of just and unjust from the definition of redress. Go ahead, try.
While there is no arguing that every individual has his own unique set of values from which he evaluates all the actions that he undertakes and all the other human actions he observes, there can also be no arguing that there exists some universal set of values that all human beings share, and from this base comes the understanding of the concepts of justice and ethics.
The ethical absolute-relativist must accept that anyone, at any time, may do whatever he wants and there can be no logical reason for any restraint of any impulse. I don't believe that this particular relativist creature actually exists, although there are individuals who label themselves as such.
Space Relativity (ethics depend upon where you are)
Now some ethical relativists will claim that societal ethics are absolute (for the moment, at least), but are relative in relation to other societies. It is unethical for us to (do act x) here in our society, but in some other far-flung society, it may be deemed ethical to (do act x), and we cannot judge the ethics of that other society by our standards. These relativists want to play both sides and categorize ethics as locally objective yet universally subjective. As you might guess, this type of definition quickly leads to a logical contradiction.
This type of ethical relativist constructs (in defiance of his relativistic position) an objective ethical standard—Tolerance is a good thing. Tolerance, then, must be ethical. If those folks think (act x) is OK, well, then fine for them. We must be tolerant of this behavior, because there is no absolute standard of ethics outside of our two societies for us to gauge their actions. It would be intolerant and unethical of me to condemn the practice of (act x) within their society.
Of course, that society may be quite intolerant of our (non-x) acting society. Some of them may decide to drop in on our society and commit some x in accordance with their beliefs. How will the ethical relativist respond? Must he remain tolerant and nonjudgmental of these acts of x? If he condemns them, then he declares his intolerance of the behavior, which is unethical according to his standards. If he tolerates it, he feels that the outsiders are doing wrong but he can do nothing about it.
Of course we have arrived back at the “Absolute Relativity” problem here, wherein one individual acts ethically according to his framework, this time as defined by his society, but his action is unethical according to the victim's ethical framework as defined by his society. The action is simultaneously ethical and unethical. Or neither. You go figure.
In the end, Space Relativity boils down to Absolute Relativity, in that all human actions are undertaken by individuals (not societies) and each action is judged by the individuals involved and their judgments are arrived at by utilizing the universal set of values that all human beings share.
The space-relativist claim that it is ethical for a human being to (do act x) if he is standing at this latitude and longitude but unethical if he is at that latitude and longitude is a trifle odd, no?
Time Relativity (ethics depend upon when you are)
Another ethical relativist concept is that ethics change over time. Again, both sides are being played here, as ethics are deemed temporarily objective now, but they are different than they once were and are subject to change in the future. Slavery, for example, was not unethical in the past because it was an accepted part of society. Today we categorize slavery as unethical, but don' be hatin' on the slave owners because they were just doin' what they had to do.
Now this type of relativity is a bit easier to hold on to, as clashing ethical definitions are separated by time, preventing clashes of individuals with differing ethical standards.
But now, a simple question. Is the world a better, or worse place without slavery? The ethical time-relativist must say that the world is no better off, no worse off, just different. Unfortunately, he must also answer that it is a better place, since his current viewpoint on slavery classifies the practice as unethical. Given the choice between slavery and no slavery, he must choose what he calls the ethical over the unethical. He therefore has no choice but to say that the world is better off without slavery than with, and so he must admit that society has improved with the abolition of slavery. Notice that the concept of improvement (better off) is a value judgment, and the relativist cannot escape it no matter how hard he tries.
If one compares today to the past and concludes that today is better, one must be utilizing a standard of value that is neither of today nor of the past. Yes, he must be using that old universal standard of value, an objective standard of value that applies equally well to the past, present, and future.
Otherwise, the true time-relativist must proclaim with all his conviction that Jesus and Martin Luther King were unethical during their lifetimes, while the institution of slavery and the Nazis were ethical while they existed. He must acknowledge that the torturing of children may become an ethical practice on some future day, and further, that his opinion is that it would be neither a good thing nor a bad thing if it were to occur. Just different.
You never hear anyone say all that, do you?
Ethical relativism, in any of its peculiar forms, does not stand up very well to scrutiny.
There must be universal objective human values and ethics that are inextricably tied to human existence and grounded in empirical fact that apply to us all. Exploring what some of them may be is beyond the scope of this little essay, and human beings have been struggling with these issues for thousands of years, and so obviously the solutions are not simple. However, difficulty does not equal impossibility. What we have shown here, briefly, is that to declare universal human values and ethics nonexistent does not correspond with logic and the reality we all experience. If ethics is not purely subjective, then it must be at least partly objective. That is a statement of fact, and nothing less.
Voluntaryism is thus based upon a firm foundation of objective ethics, and rejects ethical relativity. The Voluntaryist merely wishes to be consistent in applying objective ethics across all the strata of society. If ethics is objective, then no one is exempt from ethical law. This consistency is the bugbear of government and its assumption that ethics are relative and are dictated by the government itself through positive law.
Objective ethics is thus seen, quite correctly, to be the mortal enemy of government, in that if this idea is ever widely accepted, government necessarily disappears.
And that would be an objectively good thing.