Absolute vs. Relative, Universal vs. Socially Immanent Ethics
Problems of Humanistic Ethics
We see men sometimes so affected by one object, that although it is not present, they believe it to be before them; and if this happens to a man who is not asleep, we say that he is delirious or mad. Nor are those believed to be less mad who are inflamed by love, dreaming about nothing but a mistress or harlot day and night, for they excite our laughter. But the avaricious man who thinks of nothing else but gain or money, and the ambitious man who thinks of nothing but glory, inasmuch as they do harm, and are, therefore, thought worthy of hatred, are not believed to be mad. In truth, however, avarice, ambition, lust, etc., are a kind of madness, although they are not reckoned amongst diseases.—Spinoza, Ethics.
The discussion of absolute as against relative ethics has been considerably and unnecessarily confused by the uncritical use of the teens “absolute” and “relative.” An attempt will be made in this chapter to differentiate their several connotations and to discuss the different meanings separately.
The first meaning in which “absolute” ethics is used holds that ethical propositions are unquestionably and eternally true and neither permit nor warrant revision. This concept of absolute ethics is to be found in authoritarian systems, and it follows logically from the premise that the criterion of validity is the unquestionable superior and omniscient power of the authority. It is the very essence of this claim to superiority that the authority cannot err and that its commands and prohibitions are eternally true. We can be very brief in disposing of the idea that ethical norms in order to be valid have to be “absolute.” This concept, which is based on the theistic premise of the existence of an “absolute” = perfect power in comparison with which man is necessarily “relative” = imperfect has been superseded in all other fields of scientific thought, where it is generally recognized that there is no absolute truth but nevertheless that there are objectively valid laws and principles. As has been previously pointed out, a scientific or a rationally valid statement means that the power of reason is applied to all the available data of observation without any of them being suppressed or falsified for the sake of a desired result. The history of science is a history of inadequate and incomplete statements, and every new insight makes possible the recognition of the inadequacies of previous propositions and offers a springboard for creating a more adequate formulation. The history of thought is the history of an ever—increasing approximation to the truth. Scientific knowledge is not absolute but “optimal”; it contains the optimum of truth attainable in a given historical period. Various cultures have emphasized various aspects of the truth, and the more mankind becomes united culturally, the more will these various aspects become integrated into a total picture.
There is another sense in which ethical norms are not absolute: not only are they subject to revision like all scientific statements, but there are certain situations which are inherently insoluble and do not permit any choice which can be considered “the” right one. Spencer, in his discussion of relative versus absolute ethics,73 gives an illustration of such a conflict. He speaks of a tenant farmer who wishes to vote in a general election. He knows that his landlord is a conservative and that he risks the chance of eviction if he votes according to his own conviction, which is liberal. Spencer believes that the conflict is one between injuring the state and injuring his family, and he arrives at the result that here as “in countless cases no one can decide by which of the alternative courses the least wrong is likely to be done.”74 The alternative in this case seems not to be correctly stated by Spencer. There would be an ethical conflict even if there were no family involved but only the risk of his own happiness and safety. On the other hand, not only the interest of the state is at stake but also his own integrity. What he is really confronted with is the choice between his physical and thereby also (in some respects) his mental well-being on the one side, and his integrity on the other. Whatever he does is right and wrong at the same time. He cannot make a choice which is valid because the problem he faces is inherently insoluble. Such situations of insoluble ethical conflicts arise necessarily in connection with existential dichotomies. In this case, however, we deal not with an existential dichotomy which is inherent in the human situation but with a historical dichotomy which can be removed. The tenant farmer is faced with such an unanswerable conflict only because the social order presents him with a situation in which no satisfactory solution is possible. If the social constellation changes, the ethical conflict will disappear. But as long as these conditions exist, any decision he makes is both right and wrong, although the decision in favor of his integrity may be held to be morally superior to that in favor of his life.
The last and the most important meaning in which the terms “absolute” and “relative” ethics are used is one which is more adequately expressed as the difference between universal and socially immanent ethics. By “universal” ethics I mean norms of conduct the aim of which is the growth and unfolding of man; by “socially immanent” ethics I mean such norms as are necessary for the functioning and survival of a specific kind of society and of the people living in it. An example of the concept of universal ethics may be found in such norms as “Love thy neighbor as thyself” or “Thou shalt not kill.” Indeed, the ethical systems of all great cultures show an amazing similarity in what is considered necessary for the development of man, of norms which follow from the nature of man and the conditions necessary for his growth.
By “socially immanent” ethics I refer to those norms in any culture which contain prohibitions and commands that are necessary only for the functioning and survival of that particular society. It is necessary for the survival of any society that its members submit to the rules which are essential to its particular mode of production and mode of life. The group must tend to mold the character structure of its members in such a way that they want to do what they have to do under the existing circumstances. Thus, for instance, courage and initiative become imperative virtues for a warrior society, patience and helpfulness become virtues for a society in which agricultural cooperation is dominant. In modern society, industry has been elevated to the position of ore of the highest virtues because the modern industrial system needed the drive to work as one of its most important productive forces. The qualities which rank highly in the operation of a particular society become part of its ethical system. Any society has a vital interest in having its rules obeyed and its “virtues” adhered to because its survival depends on this adherence.
In addition to norms in the interest of society as a whole, we find other ethical norms which differ from class to class. A case in point is the emphasis on the virtues of modesty and obedience for the lower classes and of ambition and aggressiveness for the upper classes. The more fixed and institutionalized the class structure is, the more will different sets of norms be explicitly related to different classes, as, for instance, norms for free men or for serfs in a feudal culture, or for whites and Negroes in the southern United States. In modern democratic societies where class differences are not part of the institutionalized structure of society, the different sets of norms are taught side by side: for instance, the ethics of the New Testament and the norms that are effective for the conduct of a successful business. According to one’s social position and talent each individual will choose that set of norms which he can use while perhaps continuing to pay lip service to the opposite set. Difference in education at home and in school (as, for instance, in the public schools of England and certain private schools in the United States) tends to emphasize the particular set of values that fits in with the upper-class social position without directly negating the other.
The function of the ethical system in any given society is to sustain the life of that particular society. But such socially immanent ethics is also in the interest of the individual; since the society is structured in a certain way, which he as an individual cannot change, his individual self-interest is bound up with the society’s. At the same time the society, however, may be organized in such a way that the norms necessary for its survival conflict with the universal norms necessary for the fullest development of its members. This is especially true in societies in which privileged groups dominate or exploit the rest of the members. The interests of the privileged group conflict with those of the majority, but inasmuch as the society functions on the basis of such a class structure, the norms imposed upon all by the members of the privileged group are necessary for the survival of everybody as long as the structure of the society is not fundamentally changed.
The ideologies prevalent in such a culture will tend to deny that there is any contradiction. They will claim, in the first place, that the ethical norms of that society are of equal value to all its members and will tend to emphasize that those norms which tend to uphold the existing social structure are universal norms resulting from the necessities of human existence. The prohibition against theft, for instance, is often made to appear as springing from the same “human” necessity as does the prohibition against murder. Thus norms which are necessary only in the interest of the survival of a special kind of society are given the dignity of universal norms inherent in human existence and therefore universally applicable. As long as a certain type of social organization is historically indispensable, the individual has no choice but to accept the ethical norms as binding. But when a society retains a structure which operates against the interests of a majority, while the basis for a change is present, the awareness of the socially conditioned character of its norms will become an important element in furthering tendencies to change the social order. Such attempts are usually called unethical by the representatives of the old order. One calls those who want happiness for themselves “selfish” and those who want to retain their privileges, “responsible.” Submission, on the other hand, is glorified as the virtue of “unselfishness” and “devotion.”
While the conflict between socially immanent and universal ethics has decreased in the process of human evolution, there remains a conflict between the two types of ethics as long as humanity has not succeeded in building a society in which the interest of “society” has become identical with that of all its members. As long as this point has not been reached in human evolution, the historically conditioned social necessities clash with the universal existential necessities of the individual. If the individual lived five hundred or one thousand years, this clash might not exist or at least might be considerably reduced. He then might live and harvest with joy what he sowed in sorrow; the suffering of one historical period which will bear fruit in the next one could bear fruit for him too. But man lives sixty or seventy years and he may never live to see the harvest. Yet he is born as a unique being, having in himself all the potentialities which it is the task of mankind to realize. It is the obligation of the student of the science of man not to seek for “harmonious” solutions, glossing over this contradiction, but to see it sharply. It is the task of the ethical thinker to sustain and strengthen the voice of human conscience, to recognize what is good or what is bad for man, regardless of whether it is good or bad for society at a special period of its evolution. He may be the one who “crieth in the wilderness,” but only if this voice remains alive and uncompromising will the wilderness change into fertile land. The contradiction between immanent social ethics and universal ethics will be reduced and tend to disappear to the same extent to which society becomes truly human, that is, takes care of the full human development of all its members.