Is there a universal type of ethics, or is everything relative?
There’s a big problem in our society today. And by society, I mean the whole world. There seems to be no clear directions about how to live a good life. On the one hand it’s good, because freedom is the essence of a good, humane, modern society. But complete freedom is something you have to mature into. It’s not something that is given in all its aspects from the beginning. It’s the same as with the freedom to manage your free time: you can either spend it playing 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.
The problem with society is that everything is made totally subjective nowadays: just act the way you feel! Just be yourself! Just do what you want! No one says openly that such advice is very vague and doesn’t really help. There’s this complete lack of understanding that people actually develop and that they should be working on bettering themselves emotionally, intellectually and physically. Modern understanding presumes that people are fine the way they are, but if you just think about it, you’ll realize that in fact we have so much to learn in life, but only very few people really care about self-development. It’s not about being just yourself, because we all have so many bad habits and different traits that we wished we could change. So instead of being yourself we should strive to be our better selves and it’s up to us to decide where we want to move next on this journey. That’s the essence of freedom - the freedom to self-development.
But what’s the objective of human development? You can’t develop if you don’t have an objective, a goal, an ideal to which you should aspire. And that 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. We parrot about freedom, but there’s no profound public research into the moral values that underlie a society. And there are values underlying society. There are always values underlying a society, otherwise you couldn’t build economic, political and cultural systems, as these always need some kind of legitimation and explanation 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 here in life. And that is formulated in our norms and values, which then define our civil codes, daily conducts and ultimately laws.
So it’s about ethics, about our values and the conception of right and wrong. And now the question arises which is the main focus for this video: is there an objective and clear way to know how to behave right? To put it simply: is there an objective right and wrong? Are there eternal norms and values which are absolute, or does everything depend on relations in specific situations? Before I start explaining, 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 definitely no contradiction between these two and to distinguish the absolute from the relative requires the right sense of judgement.
Okay, let’s define the terms now. First, what does it mean - the absolute? Absolute means a value or a concept that is universally valid, that which is not in relation to other things. It exists independent of any relations, it's 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, the absolute is always a general, abstract concept, an ideal without any specifics.
Now, the term relative is the complete opposite. Relative means in relation or proportion to something else, that which is conditioned and therefore limited, dependent on relations. By its nature a relative concept, a relative idea is a specific expression that applies to a particular situation or particular circumstances. It’s not independent, but relies on the mutual relationships between people, things and phenomena.
Why am I telling you this? It’s because we try to discover the interaction between absolute values and relative values. And we do that because we try to find out if there’s an objective type of ethics that we can apply to society, that people can rely on and look up to and in this way strive to develop and become their better selves. You see… everything is slowly coming together like the jigsaw pieces.
So, it’s all about finding universal ethics and my claim is that this exists, regardless of the fact that also relative values exist. So what’s the interaction between these two concepts of absolute and relative? To put it simply, the absolute values stand behind the relative values. It’s hard to pin down absolute values using relative terms. And yet, people generally see and apply the absolute to the relative, the general to the particular.
When you tell people everything depends on the situation, no one who is right in their mind would deny it. It sounds reasonable, because we all face different problems in our daily life, so we understand what it means to adjust to various circumstances. We understand that there’s the right to time speak up, and there’s the right time to keep silent, the right time to be active, and the right time to just be and listen. We know it automatically from experience, so we don’t question that. That’s why it’s easier for us to recognise the relative value of our norms and concepts.
I think it’s the concept of the absolute which most people might have a problem with. As mentioned before, the absolute values, the absolute concepts are that which is eternal, independent of any situation. It applies everywhere and to everyone in all situations. Asking for the absolute is about asking for the ultimate reality, the ultimate reason of why we should or should not do something. And to establish that is a hard thing to do, because we need to identify the generic, abstract principle, the abstract idea that stands behind all the specific expressions of our life. And to do that we need to become intellectually active. Our mind needs to think things through and ask the right questions. It requires much brain work of analysis and synthesis. And this is something that an average person is not concerned with. And what the majority of people is not concerned with, won’t be discussed on mainstream platforms, because the audiences won’t understand it or find it relevant.
Now, this is actually not my criticism of society, I’m just saying 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 ideas on which the concrete values of any society are based. Why not? Because those universal ideas, those abstract concepts need to be intellectualized, and we often do many right things out of experience without really understanding intellectually why we do it. And that shouldn’t surprise you. Check my previous videos to see that people’s interest in mental issues is an undeveloped aspect of our society, and by society I mean the entire world. So, this can be the reason why we don’t talk about the universality of our norms and values so often and so openly. Because there’s no common realisation that this is important.
In the meantime, let me throw one last thing at you: another reason why it’s difficult for us to imagine absolute concepts is because to a certain degree our language itself derives from our experience which is limited and based on relative situations and circumstances. So 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 phenomena. No wonder that it’s difficult to identify absolute morality, because we think and speak in relative terms, in relative notions, and to identify the absolute you kind of have to transcend the relative terms of your intellect, and again, that’s something that doesn’t concern most people. I know, it all sounds complicated, but trust me, it isn’t. Just contemplate on that let this sink in.
To summarise it, 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 in their relations to people, things and processes. It requires a lot of personal experience and mental judgment to distinguish what is absolute, and what is relative. Now, I haven’t given you any concrete examples to back up my points, but this I might do at another time.
I hope with time those things will become much clearer and easier to comprehend. I’m also learning, so I hope to have some good examples as well, so that you realize that life can and should be meaningful, and that there’s an objective truth about what’s right and wrong. And there is truth about what it means to strive after self-development in your daily life. I hope I gave you some more great food for thought. If you enjoyed the mental stimulation.
I appreciate your time. Peace and love to you!