We frequently make moral judgments about the actions of others. We proclaim that things like removing a wallet from someone else’s pocketbook on a crowded train; flying airplanes into the Twin Towers; and intervening (or not) in the Syrian war are wrong. According to Gilbert Harman, such judgments about people’s actions are defective because they lack relativity to the individual’s moral framework. (Harman, 1975) In ‘Some Moral Minima’ Goodman argues that “there are certain things that are simply wrong.
” (Goodman, 2010) I contend that right and wrong are subjective, based upon elements of an individual’s belief system, and dependent upon the situation. In this paper, I will discuss theory based arguments to justify my disagreement with Goodman’s contention. When considering the theories of right and wrong, it is customary to think of them as absolute. If it’s wrong, it can’t be right or if it’s right, it can’t be wrong. It is only when we stop looking at these theories as absolutes that we can begin to explore the possibilities of moral, subjective and cultural relativity.
I submit that a person’s actions are only right or wrong relative to their particular moral framework. It is wrong to kill is a statement that could be made by one based on his moral and/or cultural beliefs, thereby making it a true statement. However, the image becomes blurred when that same man is responsible for administering drugs to prisoners sentenced to death. Some would conclude that such acts raze his moral framework and change the truthfulness of the statement. I submit that, to make such a judgment absent the benefit of knowing the full extent of his moral beliefs would be flawed.
There is the possibility that he defines killing and carrying out a death row sentence differently. Harman asserts that it is possible that when one says “It is wrong to steal” s/he is saying something true, but that when another says “It is wrong to steal” s/he is saying something false (Harman & Jarvis Thomson, 1996). This theory, known as subjective relativity, is based on individual beliefs and on interpretation. An example of subjectivity in moral truth can be found in the classic tale of Robin Hood. On the one hand, Robin Hood describes the King’s taxation of the poor as stealing and states that it is excessive and, therefore, wrong.
The judgment, based on his moral beliefs, is true. Robin Hood, however, justifies his own acts of stealing as charity, e. g. stealing from the rich to give to the poor. In this scenario, for Robin Hood to say stealing is wrong, he is stating a fact that is neither truthful, nor based on his moral beliefs. On the other hand, when looking upon Robin Hood’s acts of stealing through the King’s eyes, to conclude that Robin Hood is stealing and that stealing is wrong would be a true statement made by one who believes that stealing is wrong regardless of the situation.
These examples are supported by both individualistic and subjective relativism. Richard Joyce contends that “individualistic relativism sees the vital difference as lying in the persons making the utterance. ” (Joyce, 2007). In the Confucian school of thought, Mencius developed his philosophical theory on the contention that man’s nature is inherently good (Chan, 1996). Chan maintains that based on Mencius’ philosophy, “all men have a mind that cannot bear human suffering. ” According to Chan, Mencius expounded on this position in the following excerpt.
“[w]hen men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have the feeling of alarm and distress, not in order to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation (for being un-virtuous)…[t]he feeling of commiseration is the beginning of the feeling of love; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and complaisance is the beginning of wisdom.
Men have these four beginnings just as they have four limbs. ‘ ‘These four, love, righteousness, propriety and wisdom are not drilled into us from outside. We are originally provided with them. ” (Chan) In light of the information presented herein, the theories of right and wrong are subject to cultural beliefs and moral individuality. It is my belief that subjectivity is most prevalent in making this determination.