It should be a point generally recognised that, someday, in the not-too-distant future, our society’s dominant paradigms will have changed significantly. How could they not? A cursory glance over the history of Western civilisation shows dominant moral codes and philosophical discourses to be in states of constant flux; evidently, it would be myopic in the extreme to imagine that our current understanding of the world is immutable.
In the meantime, diverse political ideologies abound. All promise a kind of utopia: if not a perfect society, something approaching the best one imaginable for its constituents. This is as true for neo-liberal capitalism as it is for revolutionary socialism; as true for fascism as it is for libertarianism. There is no inherent virtue in sticking closely to the mainstream, for what are today’s dominant paradigms but amalgamations of views that were, sometime, somewhere, considered radical?
Roughly speaking, there are two possible ways of interpreting all this. The first is that our changing moral codes are merely deviations from some sort of ideal; something that we either have intuitive access to or that needs to be dictated. Proponents of this view are likely to point out that certain principles, such as prohibition of murder, seem present in all societies. There is truth in this, but only insofar as societies require these basic regulations in order to function. The fact that few restrictions have historically been placed upon the killing of soldiers, dissidents, criminals and those of other tribes or classes shows that murder laws are not in any way evidence of fundamentally ‘moral’ intuitions. Other conceptions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ differ so dramatically across cultures – altering our perceptions of ‘conscience’ and ‘guilt’ accordingly – that any assertion of moral universalism must be looked upon suspiciously.
A further problem for this position is its dependence on a higher authority. In the absence of belief in mythical deities or adherence to dogma, all that remains to serve this need is an appeal to nature. This, in principle, is the concept that there is something inherently ‘good’ about the natural world; conversely, that immorality is derived from ‘unnatural’ states or behaviours. This is rightly dismissed as a fallacy for two reasons: firstly, that it usually depends upon a romanticised view of nature (and, oftentimes, pre-agrarian human societies) that ignores its essentially violent, Darwinist qualities; secondly, that it makes an arbitrary demarcation between natural and unnatural. As Homo sapiens is itself a product of the natural world, consisting of natural material, so are its inventions, wholly constructed from natural resources. How can that which is natural produce that which is unnatural? If we are to equate morality
with natural processes, then, we have no alternative but to claim that all that has happened and ever could happen is ‘good’ – a tautological conclusion that renders the entire discussion of morality void.
This leads us to the second possible conclusion: that morality is purely relative. In many ways, it is the only viable one. If we reject the presence of a higher moral authority – as we logically must – we are left with the conclusion that there is no objective ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; just an array of ideas and actions with varying consequences.
Why, then, should we protest human rights violations, fight climate change or vote for progressive political parties? The answer is found in the fundamental motivation leading any organism to do anything: pursuance of self-interest. Just as it is in our own interest to breathe and eat, so it is in our own interest to interact favourably with those of our kind. Because we are happier and safer in groups, it is beneficial to us to make society the sort of place we would want to live in.
This is not a moral concept, but a rational one. Rationality is recognising that living harmoniously and kindly with others is more personally satisfying than amassing possessions; that having some of our immediate desires curtailed for the good of the many is better than being socially ostracised. The key, then, is to rationally identify what ultimate goals best suit our collective self-interest and finding the most effective means of achieving them.
In order to do so, we must have as open and unfettered discourse as possible. Anything less serves to hinder this
process. Ideas, and the ability to communicate those ideas, must be constantly protected; likewise, they must always be open to vigorous criticism. It is through this interplay between free expression and the critical approach that intelligent consensuses can be achieved.
It would be naive to presume that such freedoms are completely safe. Here in Australia, for instance, subservience to foreign superpowers is economic and political reality; the fact, then, that the dominant superpower in our region currently takes a dim view of free expression and political protest ought to be of some concern. Furthermore – as I have written elsewhere – the rising power of the commercial sector threatens to assault freedom of speech from another angle; that of PR and the withdrawal of sponsorship money. Free speech may make society a better place, but the threat it poses to centres of power ensures that ways will always be sought to curtail it.
There is much to be thankful for in this society. Democracy, a welfare safety net, centralised health and education, advanced scientific research, separation of church and state, a mostly consequentialist legal system and the ability to consume and create art of all disciplines are all qualities that make our lives more fulfilling and satisfying. We should not take these things for granted, but neither can we afford to let them lead us into complacency. We also live in a society in which many Indigenous people are disadvantaged and disenfranchised; in which people are shamed and discriminated against because of their weight, appearance, cultural background or sexual orientation; in which international mass murder and exploitation occur on a regular basis. There are many things that we can and should aim to change for the better both at home and in the wider world. Dogma, taboo and censorship will do little to aid that process; free, rational and fearless argumentation very much can.
I hope that, with this blog, I have contributed a little to that discourse. If this series of posts has helped you gain a new perspective on certain issues, provoked you into pondering or writing rebuttals, or simply fostered your pleasure in challenging the status quo, then it has achieved something. These freedoms are valuable; so long as they exist, let us make use of them.
Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!