This model claims that ethics must ultimately be rooted in an authority, usually supernatural and all-knowing. However, there are other variants of this model, where the authority may be a state, a philosophic/religious institution or official, a mystical impersonal force, or some other authority. The central attribute of these models I mean to single out here is the alleged necessity of an absolute authority on matters of ethics.
Proponents to authoritarianism say that, without an absolute authority on ethical matters, society would fall apart, or at least that unethical behavior would run rampant. With each individual able to decide for him/herself what is “right” there would be chaos.
Furthermore, proponents argue that human limitations do not allow us to know for certain what is and what is not ethical on our own. This limitation is the reason why the authority in such models is usually a supernatural entity, with the alleged ability to either know these principles or actually define them by choice.
The strengths of this model are that it can provide a very stable basis for an orderly society. It also gives great comfort to individuals who may be questioning what is truly ethical in a dilemma. Being able to simply refer to the proper documentation saves the individual the hassle or the emotional stress of deliberating over the various arguments for or against various ethics. More importantly for proponents, it prevents a slippery slope whereby individuals, pretending to engage in honest moral deliberation, slowly “rationalize away” any and all behaviors out of subconscious (or conscious) desire.
Unfortunately, the model also has some serious drawbacks. First, there is no way to ever verify that unseen authorities actually exist. Even for those that do, there is no reliable way to tell the difference between authorities that really know what is ethical and those that are simply adamant about their opinion. For those that do not share proponent’s particular beliefs about the existence or nature of the authority, it is impossible for them to genuinely accept the ethical dictates. In today’s multicultural world, it is highly unlikely that consensus would ever be reached on improvable assertions. When ethical norms are tied to them it becomes even more destructive to society when those beliefs begin to diversify. Even if a society remained small and/or monolithic, authoritarianism would still have additional failings. These include a tendency to encourage dogmatism, intolerance, vilification, and cruel treatment toward dissenters. In addition, authoritarianism often hinders social, scientific, and even ethical progress because it refuses to re-examine itself in the light of new information and changing conditions. All of these shortcomings can, in many cases, actually destroy what authoritarianism is designed to provide: an ethical society with happy individuals.
This model lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. It maintains that, since an absolute ethical authority may not exist, or at least their dictates may not be agreed upon, then all ethics is actually subjective. This means that ethics are simply social norms that have developed differently in different places and times, due to the circumstances a culture finds itself in. So, any one culture’s ethics are no better or worse in an absolute sense. Each society has the ethics that seem right to it; there is no “superior” or universal ethic – no objective “right” or “wrong”.
This model has gone a long way in increasing tolerance between cultures. It has also allowed social scientists to analyze diverse cultures objectively, with a lower incidence of their own cultural attitudes getting in the way of true understanding. Cultural relativism avoids most of the pitfalls of authoritarianism, in that adherents are not likely to engage in religious wars or stand in the way of many scientific advancements that would otherwise morally offend.
But relativism too has its downside. It tends to lead individuals to think that nearly any ethic can be violated if a rationalization can be imagined. That, since there is no “real” right or wrong, that all ethics are merely a matter of compromise (or domination). This leaves the relativist completely impotent to argue for or against any ethic on a rational basis.
Ironically, one will find subjectivists debating just as vehemently in favor of many ethics and in opposition to other practices of cultures (their own and others). This would seem to be hypocrisy. In fact, even the relativist position itself displays an inherent paradox. How can one say it is wrong to judge the norms of other cultures, or that it is wrong to consider one superior to the other, if the very concept of “wrong” is subjective? While subjectivists steer clear of the use of such words as “wrong”, “right”, “good”, and “evil”, their messages of advocacy for and against various actions of society maintain the same content and are expressed with the same demeanor and conviction as someone who believes in good and evil. There is no shortage of alleged ethical subjectivists in protest marches, op-ed articles, and voting booths. So, what are they basing their arguments on, “because I said so”?
Lastly, relativism isn’t practical or useful in furthering ethical progress or understanding. If all is mere opinion, then nothing rational or meaningful can be claimed about ethics and we are left with only the options of emotional appeal or brute violence when conflicts arise – ironically the very thing relativism is designed to alleviate.
The overwhelming method of dealing with these issues which appears to be emerging, is a sort of hodgepodge merger of authoritarianism and relativism. What I call, “commonality” is the approach which looks at the shared ethics existing throughout several prominent cultures across the globe. These commonly shared ethics provide a sort of multicultural consensus on which many base a sense of the universal in ethics (and religion for that matter).
Commonality takes on at least two forms. One of these leans more toward authoritarianism and the other towards relativism. In authoritarian-commonality, the shared ethics which exist across many cultures are seen as an indication of their objectivity or universal nature. Global religious union movements and new age philosophies have often taken this slant. With relativistic-commonality however, the shared ethics are seen merely as an indication that there is broad agreement, and such can be used to attempt harmony and understanding. By doing so, relativists can make moral arguments on the grounds that “everyone agrees that...”
But in authoritarian-commonality, how many cultures must hold an ethic before it can be considered universal? To what level of importance must they hold it? Does the reason they support an ethical principle matter?
In relativistic-commonality, what happens when most or all of the world agrees on something, but it happens to be misguided? How could one ever determine if the majority of cultures were ever misguided if one’s definition of ethics itself is hinged on the majority?
In the case of specifics particular to the conditions of a region commonality is less helpful. Commonality will give us very general ethics, such as not killing or stealing, but aren’t more specific ethical principles and guidelines important? Shouldn’t these specific ethics be dependant on the specific conditions facing all of these different cultures?
There are many difficult issues that arise with commonality but they are not insurmountable in specific situations. Still, one is left with a situation where argument for or against an ethical principle is based either on bandwagon logic or on other matters not yet well defined. Many of these other matters pertain directly to Natural-Objective Ethics.
Next Chapter: The Natural-Objective Model