I wonder whether I would prefer to live in a universe of moral absolutes. In that fantasy world, I can imagine that always knowing what was right might not make it any easier always to do it. But at least one would know where one stood. On the other hand, moral relativism allows for adjustments that I might welcome.
In the sermons on last month’s theme of “truth”, I said that I acknowledge the postmodern view that there are no absolute truths, only relative ones that are always shaded by different perspectives. More and more, I find myself captivated by the idea that moral truths shift depending on the position one occupies in the moral dilemma.
Let me illustrate by giving a real-world, mundane example. As a shareholder/owner in my former law firm, I helped decide salaries and bonuses for our firm administrator, secretaries, and non-shareholder lawyers. I started out on the other side, the “labor” side rather than the owner side. I always felt tension between labor and management on such issues.
What fascinated me about observing that process from both sides was that whether a bonus was deemed fair or generous usually depended, not surprisingly, on what one’s perspective was. My own view of what was right changed when my position changed. Employees tended to judge fairness and generosity by what they assumed was the relative wealth of the owners and what the owners could give without really “feeling it.” Owners tended to base employee bonuses not on their own net worth, what they received as owners, or what they could give away without really “feeling it,” but on what they guessed would be significant in light of employees’ lower income and net worth.
Generosity and fairness arise outside the financial realm, too. In personal relationships, I doubt that there is an objective reality. If I want to do something and you want to do something else, assuming neither choice is wrong of itself, there is no right or wrong, only conflicting preferences. What makes our choice right or wrong is how we treat the other person in the relationship. Ideally, each person in the relationship would decide that the right thing for them to do would be what the other wanted. I don’t think I know any relationships that work that way all the time.
But it seems to me that in trying to live an ethical life, the only corrective to narrow self-interest is to try to see and understand other points of view, to put ourselves in others’ positions, and hope they will do the same for us. That lodestar of trying to see other perspectives runs throughout our UU Principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience. We also find that lodestar in our many and varied Sources. And it is in community that we learn about perspectives outside our own.