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Message Kent Welton
Let's Hear It For Moral Relativism

"There is nothing right or wrong. It all depends on your standpoint. The same thing can be right to one person and wrong to another. Because it more or less depends on the person. The same thing can be right in one moment for a person, and in another moment it can be wrong, because it depends on the situation.
You have been taught in Aristotelian categories. This is right and that is wrong. This is white and that is black. This is God and that is the devil. These categories are false. Life is not divided into black and white. Much of it is more like gray.
And if you see very deeply, white is one extreme of gray, and black is another extreme, but the expanse is that of gray. Reality is gray. It has to be so, because it is not divided anywhere. There are no watertight compartments anywhere. This is a foolish categorization, but is has been implanted in our minds.
So right and wrong go on changing continuously. Then what is there to do? If somebody wants to decide absolutely, he will be paralyzed; he will not be able to act. If you want to act only when you have an absolute decision about what is right, you will be paralyzed. You will not be able to act. One has to act, and to act in a relative world. There is no absolute decision, so don't wait for it. Just watch, see, and whatever you feel is right, do it."

We hear preachers rail on endlessly today about the evils of "moral relativism." Most often this is without naming any specific situation or concern within which to examine the question, or allow for any elucidation of broader concerns and extenuating circumstances.
Such righteous condemnation of others comes easily to true believers as they slip into black and white moralisms, good and evil postulates, and my-savior-is-better-than-yours rhetoric. All such decision-making dogma, however, generally has no relation to time, events, circumstances, freedom, culture, courtesy or consideration.
In contrast, relativism as process keeps its options open, responds to circumstances, takes into consideration other's views and situations, and has faith in human goodness, consciousness and our ability to respond.
More than simply bad manners, however, armed with unchanging beliefs absolutism becomes both cruel and dangerous - witness the Muslim terrorists, the Taliban, the Christian crusaders, the Inquisition, and thousands of years of human slaughter. In effect, all such absolutist dogmas are the root cause of inflated egos, of cruel and torturing certainty, of imperialism, genocide and war - all the very opposite of religion.
It is the short-circuiting of such supremacy-seeking forces that has led to human progress, in the abolition of slavery and growth of women's freedom, etc.
Relativism, no matter how distasteful to some, remains the only road to peace for the simple reason that Absolutism is often implacable dogma, imperialist in nature, and destined to meet another immovable dogma object. Look around the world, it is absolutism that is killing us, not relativism. Old or new, absolutism is so often about conquest, supremacy and thought slavery - whether economic or religious in nature.
In practice, absolute belief leaves us no flexibility. In a world of multiple such dogmatisms, we are then destined to clash and seek supremacy. Two absolutisms, an eye for an eye, and you have perpetual chaos. In this environment, turning the other cheek was once Jesus' way of saying relativism is a better bet to achieve the "peace that passeth understanding."
Amidst the dogma wars, relativism (which implies and effects a greater, but not neccessarily a total, acceptance) has to continually defend itself from absolutisms demanding the I'm right, you're wrong, I'm good, you're evil, model of human affairs. With dogma so sacrosanct and uppermost what we continue to get is Holy Wars - an oxymoron if there ever was one. Peace, tranquility, understanding and tolerance thus necessitate a disarmament of our dogmas, beliefs and certainties - as "reality is gray."
Situation ethics, it seems, is then often better than any ignore-the-situation-ethics state of mind leaving us unable to respond to novelty, discovery, difference, dichotomy, crisis, chaos, ruin and eco-cide. We have to examine the gray, and we have to live in the gray, or we wind up killing each other and the very environment entrusted to us.
There is also good reason that legal theory and practice recognize the relevance of extenuating circumstances and contributory negligence, etc. The very quest to be fair and just must allow examination of the set and setting, of mind, mentality, and circumstance.
There but for the grace of god...
What so many on the Religious Right fail to understand is that the United States Constitution is literally a manifesto of moral relativism. Indeed, the very First Amendment is a strike into the heart of dogma, puritanism, state religion, imperial fantasy, and moral absolutism itself - all a necessary recognition of the primacy of freedom and a vital concession to foster the longevity of federation.
At the very starting point of society then, our heritage of Freedom of Religion must involve considerable latitude and "grayness" in the questions of human behavior and morality, lest we descend into conflict and chaos.
The story of Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi is another case in point. The Oracle once declared Socrates to be the wisest man in the land. Why? Because he was the only one able to admit doubt, to not have the answer, and to accept life as a mystery and eschew certitude. In effect, Socrates became the father of moral relativism in being able to say "I don't know," I don't have the answers, and there are questions beyond human comprehension or answer.
It is evident today that we need more Socrates' and fewer Popes and Ayatollahs in this world as there is no way we can let the fanatic absolutists simply kill each other without, as bystanders, becoming collateral damage and heir to their ruin.

Kent Welton
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