Is there universal ethics or is everything relative?
We've got a big problem in the western society nowadays. There seems to be no clear directions about how to live a good life. A part of the problem is that in these modern times everything is made totally subjective: just act the way you feel seems to be the theme. But does universal ethics based on objective truths exist and can it guide us to live a good life? I claim definitely YES! Let me explain.
Definition of Freedom
Freedom is great because freedom is the essence of a good, humane, modern society. But complete freedom is something we have to grow into. It's not something that is given to us from the beginning. Babies and children don't have a full control of their lives. This comes to them in stages and over a long period of time.
The same applies to personal freedom as an adult. Here's an example: you can either spend your free time playing only games and wasting time watching prank videos all day long, or you can do something meaningful and constructive that helps you and the people around you.
You've probably heard advice such as: Just be yourself! Just do what you want! No one says openly that such advice is very vague and doesn’t really help in practice. There’s this complete lack of understanding that people are actually entities in constant development to better themselves emotionally, intellectually and physically.
If you think about it you’ll realise that we all have so much to learn in life, but only very few people really care about self-development. The meaning of life is not about being just yourself, because we all have so many bad habits and traits. Instead of being ourselves we should strive to be our better selves. It’s up to us to decide where we want to move next on this journey. That’s the precondition of freedom - the freedom to active and self-initiated personal development.
in search of moral Values
What’s the objective of human development? You can’t develop if you don’t have an objective, a goal, an ideal to aspire to. This takes me to the notion that in today’s society there’s a complete lack of generic standards for social values. It seems as if society had no values at all. We parrot about values and freedom, but there’s no genuine public discourse about what those values actually are.
Yet there are values underlying society! Otherwise you couldn’t build economic, political and cultural systems. These always need some kind of legitimacy and a conceptual framework on why and how they should be structured. And that derives from the worldview of a society, from our thoughts on who we are and what we are trying to achieve in life. That is formulated in our norms and values which then define our civil codes, daily conducts and ultimately laws.
framing the question right
Ethics is about our values and the conception of right and wrong. Now the question arises: Is there an objective way to know how to behave in the right way? To put it simply: Is there an objective right and wrong? Do eternal absolute values exist or does everything depend on relations (i.e. relativism)?
Before I continue let me note that the answer is already implied in the question: yes, there are eternal absolute values and yes, it all depends on relative situations as well. There’s no contradiction in that dichotomy and to distinguish the absolute from the relative simply requires the right sense of judgement.
definition of absolute & relative values
Let’s define the terms now. First, what does the absolute mean? Absolute means a value, a concept that is universally valid, that which is not in relation to other things. It exists independent of any relations, is unconditioned and therefore eternally valid under all possible and imaginable circumstances. The key point here is that the absolute is independent of any relations, so it doesn’t refer to any specific situation. Therefore, by its nature, an absolute value is always a generic, abstract concept, an ideal without any more specific details.
The term relative is the complete opposite. Relative means in relation or proportion to something else, that which is conditioned and therefore limited by relations. By its nature a relative concept, a relative idea is a specific expression that applies to a particular situation. It’s not independent, but relies on the mutual relationships between people, things and events.
Why am I mentioning this? It’s because we try to discover the dynamics between absolute and relative values. I try to find out if there’s objective ethics that we can apply to society and that people can look up to in order to develop and become their better selves. You see… everything is slowly coming together like the jigsaw pieces.
dynamics between universal ethics & Relativism
My claim is that universal ethics exists regardless of the fact that our values and norms are also relative. What’s the dynamics between absolute and relative? To put it simply, absolute values are the backdrop for the unfoldment of relative values. The absolute gives birth to the relative. The mastery of our daily life is to see the absolute in the relative.
When you tell people everything depends on the situation, no one who is right in their mind would deny it. It sounds reasonable. We also understand what it means to adjust to various circumstances in life. It's clear that there’s the right time to speak up and the right time to keep silent, the right time to be active or to just be and listen. We know it automatically from experience, so we don’t question that.
identifying the universal ethics
The absolute values and concepts are that which are eternal, independent of any situation. They apply everywhere and to everyone in all situations. Asking for the absolute is about asking for the ultimate reality, the ultimate reason for why we should or should not do something. To really know that is a hard thing to achieve, because we need to become intellectually active.
Our mind needs to think things through and ask the right questions to find the absolute. It requires much brain work of analysis and synthesis. This is something that a regular person is not interested in. What the majority of people is not interested in, won’t be discussed on mainstream platforms, because the audiences won’t understand it.
This is actually not my criticism of society. I’m just claiming that it’s easy for us to see the relative value of an idea, but it’s not so easy for us to see the generic, abstract absolute ideas. Why not? Because those universal ideas need to be intellectually understood, and we often don't understand intellectually, but only instinctively.
People’s interest in mental issues is small. This can be the reason why we don’t talk about the universality of our norms and values too often and openly. There’s just no common realisation that this topic is important.
Difficulties with universal ethics
Let me throw one last thing at you: another reason why it’s difficult for us to imagine and discuss absolute concepts is because to a certain degree our language is very limited. We find ourselves in a position when we try to formulate generic, abstract concepts while using a language that for the most part uses concepts relating to concrete objects, people and events. It’s difficult to identify absolute morality because we think and speak in relative terms and notions.
Here’s what I want you to take from this article: there is eternal universal truths and values, and also there is relative truths and values. A lot of personal experience and mental judgment is required to distinguish what is absolute and what is relative. Life can and should be meaningful and there’s objective truth about right and wrong. Never doubt that for even a second.
I hope I gave you some food for thought and you enjoyed the mental stimulation. I appreciate and thank you for your reading time. Peace and love to you all!