Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we explored the danger of basing one’s morality on public opinion. This week, we continue our series with a look at the more common view that morality (while relative to individual societies) is rooted in those forms of conduct which lead to cohesion and stability within a given society.
It is hard to deny that there are certain social concepts which seem to transcend the boundaries of individual cultures. For example Laws against actions like murder, genocide, and slavery exist in many societies. Such codes generally do promote a cohesive community as they serve to protect the rights of the individual. These moral rules and regulations often go a long way towards promoting friendly cohabitation in blended societies – those in which members of multiple cultures have drawn together with a common purpose or cause.
Yet there have been many non-blended societies in which the majority of the population has not come to similar conclusions. Throughout history, we see the stories of cultures which have sought the annihilation or subjugation of rival people groups. By preventing friendly interaction with these “outsiders”, these societies were able to ensure their own continued safety, dominance and, in many cases, survival.
That this causes a dilemma for the societal relativist is undoubted. After all, if one is to hold to the view that moral right and wrong are determined according to those practices which promote unity within a society, one must agree that it is not merely acceptable to enslave or even terminate the lives of members of rival groups, but also, at times, morally obligatory to do so! Furthermore, the view that such acts are or were immoral becomes in itself immoral, since it is the minority within the society that hold this view.
It is important to understand this particular implication of societal relativism before we continue. If views on morality are directly linked to that which the majority feels will promote unity within the society, the societal relativist is in no position to pass moral judgment on the laws of any society at any time! (This can be particularly difficult for some societal relativists, since it requires them to accept the correctness of the unifying Christian morality which has at times been the predominant view of certain cultures.)
Next week, we’ll delve a bit deeper as we discuss what constitutes a “society” and how our definition of the word can revolutionize our understanding of societally relative morality!