Saturday, March 26, 2005

Against the Bright Line

Is not drawing a distinct line between life and death the equivalent of moral relativism? David Brooks thinks so. In this commentary, in which he reads a lot into what little liberals have said on the matter, he blames the left for surrendering important decisions to the whims of uninformed individuals who make judgments based on personal tastes. First, he ignores the fact that the argument that the left made for procedure and rule of law, which puts the testimony of medical and legal professionals before the whims of the patient or the family.

If Judaism does not deploy a bright line, is it being morally relative? Here we have a problem. Judaism does not participate in the sanctity of life, at least not in the way that Christian theologians would recognize. A recent conference on the morality of stem cell research made apparent the differences in approaches of the two faiths. Even in death, the boundary is not clear. As much as there is an obligation to save life, there is also recognition that one must not obstruct the path of a death willed by G-d. Knowing what that means, like everything else in Judaism, is open to speculation and debate.

The discourses on right to life, right to personal faith, right to privacy and right to die (with dignity) seldom take into account that religion provides us with none of these things. Instead, we are obliged to stand in awe of life, free will, judgment and mercy. The pain of the cycle of life is something that cannot be abolished through legislation, administration, or adjudication.

Surrendering the decision to an absolute standard, no matter how lenient, is an abrogation of the duty to look at the individual. Knowledge of the Law must not be turned into an idol. Personally, I cannot turn my life into a decision tree. That's not really living, nor is it believing.

1 Comments:

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Northwestern Economist said...

I believe the term "moral relativism" actually has a meaning that has little to do with the way it is being used in ideological froth. The way it is used by characters such as Brooks, "moral relativism" means the rejection of absolute universal moral judgments.

In reality, moral relativism is nothing more than the application of logical positivism to moral systems: that it is impossible to define why one system should be preferred over another.

You can be as moral it's possible to be, and still know that any claim about your own moral code being superior in all circumstances to another, is not a tenable philosophical proposition.

Personally, I think people who blather about "moral relativism" are really referring to "situational ethics," a notion which is about ethics, and states that ethics needs to consider motives and probable outcome. For example, extreme scupulousness about property rights is not wholesome in the event of a tsunami wiping out the homes of a million people.

Both are commonly misused to mean, "immoral."

The problem with this sort of confusion is that people constantly have to use situational ethics to adapt to complicated moral environments. When they are told that this is definitionally immoral, they are left without any moral context in which to act. Pastors frequently confuse situational ethics with rationalization (here), although Jesus of Nazereth clearly regarded ethics situationally.

 

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