Fighting For Wrong

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This is the second in a series of essays on Moral relativism.

Value is the driver of human action. If, at a moment in time, you value a bag of milk more than the five dollar bill in your pocket, then you will be motivated to buy a bag of milk for five dollars. If you value the sanctity of the environment more than economic wealth, then you will vote for a politician who stands for environmental sanctity, even if it means reduced economic wealth. If you value your self-respect more than your life and you feel you will not respect yourself if you fail to act in a particular situation, then you will act in that situation, even at the risk of losing your life.

But, if I am right and morality is relative, then, when you disagree with someone about morality, it is just your opinion vs. theirs. So how can you justify taking action against them? You have no objective reason for doing so. You are forced to accept that, in their frame of reference, you are wrong. So do only moral realists get to act? Do they get to act only because they are ignorant of the fact that they are wrong in another person's frame of reference? Must moral relativists be paralyzed by their recognition of the subjectivity of their convictions?

The answer is not easy. This is not a surprise. There is a long history of honest moral philosophers pointing out that morality is difficult. This is what has made it possible for so much to be written on the subject. My experience has taught me not just to not bother looking for easy answers. It has taught me to dismiss easy answers.

The answer is that moral quandaries always arise from conflicts between multiple values. If I spend this money to feed my child, I won't have it to buy medicine for my mother. If we cripple the economy to protect the environment, people may starve in the streets. If I die saving a stranger, I won't be there later to protect my child. If we force our values onto another culture, we will know that, in their frame of reference, we are oppressors, but, if we ignore the harm that another culture inflicts on its members, we will be complicit in the perpetration of that harm.

At some point, you must accept that you are human. You must recognize that your frame of reference calls you to take action. You must recognize that your frame of reference is no more or less valid than anyone else's. And so you must act. You must decide what you aspire to be. You must work to alter yourself into the moral being you aspire to be. You must remain conscious of the line between what is right in your frame of reference and what is right in someone else's. You must decide when the moral being you aspire to be will be called to act across the line and when the acceptance of the line itself is more important.

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But when you cross the line, you may have to fight people whom you know are right, in their own frame of reference. This is the most difficult task faced by a moral relativist. Sometimes, you must fight for what you know is wrong, in another frame of reference, because you are human and you wouldn't be human if you didn't.

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