What's so wrong with…if?

Clinton Chisholm

Sunday, October 08, 2017

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Weeks ago when I read the allegation that some police officers were being overlooked for promotion because they refused the sexual advances of superior colleagues, I smiled mischievously, saying to myself philosophically, “So what's so wrong with requesting or demanding sex for promotion...?” A similar thing happens to me when I hear or read of the societal furore about corruption, scamming, etc.

Careless Christian readers of the above, who are tempted to write me off as backslidden or unsaved, should know that I couldn't care less, because none of you has access to the 'Lamb's book of life'.

What's so wrong with any so-called ill in Jamaica if our preferred ethical principle and practice is relativism — the belief that there are no absolutes, so everything depends on the situation or circumstance surrounding an act or intention to act?

Two months ago I started a series in our circuit of churches with the title of this article, minus the 'if', and we began with and are still on gambling and hope to go on to premarital and extramarital sex. I hope to help our people develop critical thinking on issues of practical importance to all of our lives.

If there is really no such thing as 'always right or always wrong' with reference to acts or intentions to act, then our moral outrage at whatever is empty, though we may not realise it philosophically.

A few years ago, while I was still in Florida, there was a major exam cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida which outraged the university bigwigs and the wider community. Philosophical mischief seized me, and the morning after the scandal was aired on the nightly TV news I called the university and asked the person who answered, “What's the fuss all about, and what's so wrong with cheating on a university exam?” (or words to that effect). The lady on the phone was adamant that it was wrong, and I calmly kept on asking why. She just stopped short of calling me a morally bankrupt fool, then I asked her which university lecturer there believed in or taught any ethical viewpoint beside relativism.

I have encouraged Christian students to request from the authorities their reason for monitoring every single exam to ensure that no one ever cheats. Why, if the default ethical viewpoint is that there is no such thing as always right and always wrong? If relativism rules, why not allow each student to cheat at least only on the most important exam of his/her academic career as determined by the student?

Here's the rub: There is a delightful flexibility and fluidity about ethical relativism, and it appeals to the basic desire for ethical autonomy (self-rule) that we all register at the core of our being. Yes, even religious folk.

If the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined by me, then I become the final court of appeal concerning the ethical value to be put on that act. That is delightful in principle and in practice, or so it seems. Ponder a few scenarios.

Declaring as true what one knows or suspects is false, ie lying, has no intrinsic ethical status for the consistent relativist. The existential context in which one tells a lie is what allows a value judgement to be made on the declaration.

Converting to one's use and benefit funds belonging to another, without the authority or permission so to do, ie stealing or fraud, has no intrinsic ethical status for the consistent relativist. The existential context in which one does the act is what allows a value judgement to be made on the converting.

Premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex has no intrinsic ethical status for the consistent relativist. The existential context in which one engages in sexual intimacy is what allows a value judgement to be made on the act of intimacy.

At the level of ethical practice, ethical relativism is delightful to live on, but uncomfortable to live with. If I am ethically free to indulge my desires, then every other person is entitled to that luxury, even to my detriment.

Work with this half-crazy parson a bit more. If ethical relativism is defensible, then the consistent relativist could not instinctively or belatedly experience or express outrage at any so-called 'wrong', because it could be right owing to the context in which it happened. Consider Rob the relativist. Swindle him in business, rape or seduce his wife, bugger his son, lie on him in court, etc, and he would be forced to grin and bear it because any such act could be right.

Why then the ethical furore over non-transparency in the awarding of fat governmental contracts if relativism rules? Why the moral outrage concerning realities in our country: companies that use double-invoicing to evade the tax man, contract murders, cheating in exams, evading Customs, multiple taxation laws, sex for promotion, etc, if relativism rules and is defensible as a principle of ethical decision-making?

There are negative societal spin-offs of ethical relativism. There is no easy way of seeing how ethical relativism can curb human desires that are or could be detrimental to a business or a community. Nor is it conceivable that ethical relativism could inculcate a sense of ethical duty or the sense of 'ought' in anyone.

Even relativists recognise and admit to this defect in ethical relativism. Humanist and ethical relativist Paul Kurtz writes: “…the humanist is faced with a crucial ethical problem: Insofar as he has defended an ethic of freedom, can he develop a basis for moral responsibility? Regretfully, merely to liberate individuals from authoritarian social institutions, whether Church or State, is no guarantee that they will be aware of their moral responsibility to others. The contrary is often the case.” (cited in David Noebel, Understanding the Times, p 206)

And yet, despite the fact that at the level of ethical practice, ethical relativism is delightful to live on but uncomfortable to live with, absolutism may be delightful to live with but extremely difficult to live on consistently.

More anon if the editor obliges.

Rev Clinton Chisholm is a minister of religion and scholar. Send comments to the Observer or to




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