By Matthew Kennedy
*Matthew Kennedy is currently a J.D. Candidate at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He is a seasoned world traveler, having lived and worked in both Europe and Africa. He is a frequent contributor to WLF.
My education throughout my life has been a lesson in contradictions. It seems like, every few weeks, a new scientific study or some anecdotal evidence upends the status quo. One week the scientific community will say drinking a glass of wine every day will make you healthy, the next week a new report comes out that says a glass a wine a week will give you cancer. A certain diet is good, until you find out a month later that it will kill you. Sleeping too much is bad until sleeping a lot is good. But I take that all in stride. Science is a place that constantly searches for the truth and though we often stumble and fall and our understanding of the “truth” is limited, that simply inspires further efforts to find it. So a diet is good and we accept it, until we find out that it is bad, at which time we move on to a new understanding as we come closer to a real understanding of real truth.
This quest for truth would be maddening if it weren’t for the fact that some amount of truth has been clearly discovered. For example, the Earth is a sphere. (Technically, it is shaped more like a pumpkin, isn’t perfectly round, and is all sort of lop-sided; but that we really know this only improves my point.) We may not be able to explain gravity and how it affects the space-time continuum or how gravity played a roll in the formation of this big, blue ball that we live on. But at least we know we’re on a ball. We know the truth about certain principles of math, chemistry, geometry, and aerodynamics. The coriolis effect exists, even if only from a given frame of reference. So these little truths that we have found inspire us that there is more truth to be found. Certain physicists and scientists, who are much smarter than I ever could hope to become, continue to search for a Grand Unifying Theory that will explain all of the interactions of particle physics. Despite the incredible difficulty and complexity such a theory entails, there is a faith and belief that it really is there, just waiting to be discovered. And so physicists dedicate their lives to the search of it.
Contrast that with other aspects of life. I was raised in a very religious home where certain expectations and morals were taught to me as being true. These include some things that are pretty common, such as it is wrong to murder, steal, cheat, etc. But I was also taught things that many people largely disagree with: premarital sex of all forms is wrong, abortion is wrong except in very specific circumstances, lying (even little white lies) is wrong although some lies are more culpable that others. As I have thought about these teachings it seems like they fall into one of two categories to everyone that I speak with about them. They are either 1) rules that are important to society and make a lot of sense (prohibitions on theft and murder), or 2) they are the beliefs of religious zealots that may be fine for the zealots but should not be imposed on anyone else in society because, hey, while I’m a nice person and want people to live and let live, those are just subjective beliefs, and subjective beliefs cannot be “true” like science is “true” so it should not be regarded as really applying to everyone.
It’s easy, in my own life at least, to see why there is a strong disconnect between scientific principles and moral principles in the minds of most people. Science principles or hypotheses are testable and observable while moral principles cannot be similarly examined, for those reasons the idea of “true” moral principles are discounted. This was taught to me and reinforced again and again as I pursued an undergraduate degree in International Business. The world is full of many different cultures, manners, and practices. Burping is discouraged in the West, but is a sign of appreciation after a meal in many pacific nations. Americans tend to, as a rule, be brash and straightforward while many other cultures are more reserved and prefer quiet deference to comparative forwardness of a western culture. This isn’t true of all individuals of course; it’s just a general rule of thumb. But that is precisely the point. Everyone is different with different practices and beliefs, which, more importantly, are all valid. Just because another culture is different doesn’t make it right or wrong, just different. There is no “right” way to do things and there is no “right” culture and there are no “right” morals, just the plentitude of ways that everyone lives their lives, all of which are valid. So there is no “moral truth” or correct moral practice, just the multitude of different morals that exist in difference places and at different times.
Maybe that is true. Maybe morals, unlike science, do not have an objective truth that can be pursued and investigated. That’s what I believed for a long time. But something has made me question that dogma.
While preparing something for a school project I stumbled across the concept of cultural universals. It is true that all cultures are different from one another, yet there are certain practices and principles that exist universally across all cultures. Wikipedia has an extended list along with citations, but some of the practices that caught my eye were:
- Some form of proscribed violence
- Personal names
- Gender Roles
- Rape, but rape being proscribed
- Incest between a mother and son is taboo or unthinkable
- Rights of passage
This has made me think critically and reevaluate some of the basic premises that I have believed for years. If there really are universal cultural practices, a finding that some contest, do those practices show that there is some moral truth which really exists that these practices follow?
I am not the only one to grapple with the question. Moral philosophers (and various internet bloggers) have argued for or against moral truths since Aristotle, with some very recent example from the Internet available here, here, and here. It is fair to say that those making the arguments fall into two camps: 1) those who believe in a moral truth and tend to be religious/active members of a church or faith, or 2) those who do not believe in moral truth who tend to be unaffiliated with a religion. This leads to an interesting question as to whether the tail wags the dog, leading religious people to believe in morals and non-religious people to deny them. But that is a loaded question for another day. For now, it’s simply worth noting that there is disagreement on this issue.
I’ve struggled as I have tried to reconcile my training and beliefs that it’s okay for people to be different and behave differently from myself yet the equally held belief that some things are inherently and morally wrong. And if you are reading this, I hope that it is something that you will think about and struggle with a well. Do universal cultural practices give credence to the idea that there are some moral truths? If there are moral truths, are some societies inherently better if they follow those truths more closely than others? If some societies are better, should we support them and try to minimize the influence of other societies? Or is that all just a line of reasoning that leads to eugenics and the justifications for mistreatment and genocide that that been perpetuated throughout time?
I don’t have any answers to those questions and I have frequently mulled them over in my mind. I do, however, have some answers with regards to how I truly and genuinely view the universe that I think help me to understand and give some perspective to this issue. I believe that universal practices show us that there is a moral truth which exists and to which we can all strive. I think this is the thing that humans are searching for as they try to be their best selves and to fully and really self-actualize their potential. I think as we strive to find and live by moral truths in our lives we will inherently live better and richer lives. As science follows truth it gains deeper understanding that is then used to further the sciences and eventually leads to concrete, practical improvements. As we live moral truths we will experience a deeper understanding of morals that will lead to concrete and practical improvements in our own lives.
But that is all I really know. I don’t know what the higher moral law is, although I am sure that many shoot past the mark. Maybe the moral law really is following every word of the Torah, the Quaran, or the Bible. Or maybe the real moral law is just to not murder, steal, or commit incest and everything else is extra? The question of where the moral truth is interests me so much more than a question of whether or not it exists; especially since the latter is so easily confirmed or dismissed with a wave of the hand and a personal belief.
The world is an incredible place, with a lot of ideas and practices that seemingly conflict with each other. This conflict is rich grounds to search for moral truths but we are taught and trained to just accept these things at face value and stop looking. Discussions to accept others, learn from others, and not be judgmental are all important and practical. These are also ideals that we should all follow, at least that are the morally correct thing to do. Others might disagree. Am I right? Are they right? Are we both right? Are we both wrong? A real discussion about which practices lead us most surely to find moral truths is desperately needed in the world today. I’ve had my fair share of those conversations. I only wish that during my education, instead of conversations in that inevitably ended with “they do things differently and that’s okay” and the rejection of any absolute moral truth I had instead had more conversations that went “they do things differently, why is that?” An understanding of the “why” is so much more enriching than a conversation about “why not.” Only by accepting the idea of some moral foundation or truth is it possible to understanding the “why” of different values and morals and to find the moral absolutes that do exist. To reject the idea of a moral truth outright is to cease any search for it. It is to be the scientist from the middle ages who taught that the sun revolved around the earth, the which explanation is good enough, to believe otherwise and search for a different answer is folly, and who is that moron Galileo anyway?