Battlepanda: Panda epistemology, Moral bearings, and the lens of Current Events


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Panda epistemology, Moral bearings, and the lens of Current Events

Quite early on in my blog career, I waded into quite an epic left-blogispheric discussion over moral absolutism versus the dread accusation of relativism. Interestingly, that discussion both helped me cement my philosophical position as a utilitarian who does not believe in an absolute, universal morality and increased my appreciation for the importance of morality, often expressed through the language of rights. It is lazy to believe that one precludes the other. Or that moral absolutists are more likely to behave in a morally consistent manner than those who acknowledge that morality is a human construct.

The right-wingers love to wail about what a bunch of depraved relativists liberals are and congratulate themselves on their moral certainty. They espoused originalism -- the belief that laws must reflect only the original intent of the lawmakers, and that interpretations of the law cannot change with the passage of time, no matter how different society has become. Surely, one would think, here is a bunch that can be relied on to stick to their principles come hell or high water. Yet when their King was caught violating the tenets of one of their sacred documents, the constitution, out came the excuses and the equivacations, faster than you can say "strict constructionism". Even as they howl about the inviolable value of a human life as soon as the sperm wriggles into the ovum, they calmly advance improbable ticking bomb arguments that justify torture and the ruination of countless innocents inevitably swept up as terrorists wherever the GWoT is taking place. Even as they believe themselves to be agents of rightness and goodness unsullied by doubt, they don't hesitate to sell their cherished rights down the river for the cheapest, most short-sighted brand of utilitarianism -- fearmongering. I guess this moral certainty business is a lot easier if one is also a hypocrite. In fact, as Matt Yglesias demonstrates in this exercise, more often than not our morality and utilitarianism align if we take the proper frame of reference -- we know that violating people's civil rights is wrong, and surprise, surprise, doing so also ultimately begets a negative utilitarian outcome, even if that is not immediately obvious. The importance of morality and laws is precisely that it provides a guide in situations where the consequences may not be immediately obvious.

Acknowledging that our morality, our laws, our constitution, our rights are all fallible human constructs does not preclude respect and adherance, just as pretending they are absolute, universal and unviolable does not guarentee respect and adherance.