Monday, May 9, 2011

On Morality (or at least the knee-jerk newspaper columnist understanding of such)

I am not a philosopher. I have not read the works of Plato, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, but I have read some more accessible books on various subjects. So perhaps the technical aspects of the field escape me. But today, I was reading an article on the Sydney Morning Herald website by columnist Paul Sheehan and I had a reflexive reaction to something he said in one paragraph about morality.

The article was ostensibly about drug policy in the light of the death of a jockey, originally from Toowoomba who had consumed a cocktail of drugs and died. In it he appears to be arguing that drugs are bad, and society believes that they are bad (the phrase "collective wisdom" is used), and that he is of the opinion that continued criminalization of drugs is the wisest course, indeed summing up his article "when it comes to hard drugs, more tolerance creates more misery". He takes exception to a former Public Prosecutor arguing in a debate that legalization of drug use may be a better course than prohibition. I don't know where I stand. Arguments that drug use is a "victimless" crime seem vacuous to me. However, prohibition, seems to create other problems.

The point in the article that I took exception to, though was specifically related to moral relativism.

"Drug legalisation advocates also love the word ''tolerance'' because it masks a position of moral relativism, the default position of progressive politics. Moral relativism encapsulates several mantras which favour victimology: social disadvantage is the root of social problems; addiction is a disease not a crime; prohibition drives crime, not consumption; underground markets drive underground behaviour."
I don't know specifically what Mr. Sheehan's politics are. I would argue that moral relativism is not just a trait of "progressive" politics, but putting aside that for the moment, how do the "mantras" he states follow from moral relativism? Morality, as far as I understand it, is concerned with right and wrong, good and bad. Perhaps that is too much of a layman's interpretation, but I would wager that the majority of the article's readership would take this definition as read. I suppose one could infer that the "mantras" being used here are arguments used by proponents of legalization. Would inverting each of the "mantras" be encapsulated by moral objectivism, or moral universalism? I can't see how.

Each of the four statements, apart from the second one may be true or false; and they are assertions which could be argued or discussed. However, I would argue that Mr. Sheehan has deliberately formulated these "mantras" as strawman positions, or at least as caricatures of the debates surrounding these issues. For example, social disadvantage might not be the root cause of social problems, but surely Mr. Sheehan would argue that social disadvantage is a contributing factor? Moving on, I would argue that prohibition and consumption both drive crime. Of course, one could be facetious and say that, by definition, without prohibition, there would be no crime to drive, but that would be falling into the same over-generalization. Next, how could you seriously argue that underground markets could drive behaviour that is other than underground? This seems like a tautology.

Coming back to the second statement he made, it sounds absurd to me. "Addiction is a disease, not a crime". Now admittedly it makes for a good soundbite, and is undoubtedly used by legalization proponents to highlight a point, probably that treatment is a more appropriate route for addicts that incarceration. However, I am sure everyone would agree that addiction is not a crime? Unless some strange legislation has been passed that I am unfamiliar with, addiction to a substance is not a crime - possession, sale and consumption of various substances are crimes. Whether or not addiction is a disease (a bad word, perhaps "medical condition" would be better), well, that is an area of debate.

So having unpacked the mantras which are asserted to be part of moral relativism in the sphere of drug legalization, I can't see how one follows from the other. Which leads me to moral relativism itself. Is moral relativism a bad thing? Is it just part of "progressive politics"? I cannot see how either of these things can be true. Morals evolve and change. Different cultures have different moral systems. Progress towards a universalist morality is a slow process of cultural, political and societal consensus.

Within this article, Mr. Sheehan believes that public opinion on drugs is right. Isn't this simply a morally relativistic position? After all, public opinion would probably be against the prohibition of alcohol, a drug which undoubtedly does harm to individuals and society? Even with regards to alcohol, some countries allow 18-year olds to buy and consume it. In some countries, you must be 21. In some places, it is banned. Some religions consider it profoundly immoral to consume alcohol. On what basis does one assess the morality of alcohol, and by extension, drug use? If one were to take the position, as Mr. Sheehan does, "when it comes to hard drugs, more tolerance creates more misery" as defining an objective moral imperative to prohibition, how can one ignore the misery that the non-hard drugs such as alcohol and tobacco cause and not extend the moral imperative there, too? Of course, there are some people who would like to do this. By what objective measure do we reject their moral stance?

And to what degree do we equate "immoral" with "illegal"? I am sure most people believe that adultery is immoral; however, in Western society, it is not illegal.

Morals are a human construct. Two hundred years ago, slavery was commonplace. It was justified by religious texts, by historical precedent and by economic imperatives. Today, it is almost universally held that slavery is immoral. And illegal. Today, with a comfortable existence divorced by decades from past excesses, it is easy to say that slavery was always immoral, that previous generations were less moral, blinded to a universal truth we now recognise. I've said it myself. But on what basis do we make those judgments? By what standards of behaviour? It would be nice to think that there is a way of objectively determining what is good and what is bad; what was always good, and what was always bad.

But there isn't. I have a moral system. Someone else has a different moral system. We can only approach consensus and universality by discussion and debate. Absolute objectivity about morality is a figment of the imagination. And with that Mr. Sheehan, the derogation you apply to moral relativity as the preserve of "progressive politics", and the implication that both of those things are inherently anathema, is rejected.

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