In other places, briefly, I have mentioned this concept, and it is something that returns to me fairly regularly. I have not ”worked out” any theory on it, and perhaps do not even fully understand what it means. Nevertheless there is sometimes a vibe that can crop up in the broadest interpretation of the esoteric sphere that frequently gives me pause for thought.
Moral relativism is very fashionable now, in all spheres in fact, and determines a good deal of social policy. Social policy determines what kind of society we may live in as we go forward, so moral relativism is worth considering.
What is it?
In simple (and thus perhaps incorrect terms) moral relativism holds that nothing is objectively right or wrong. All morality has been conditioned into us by our culture, tribe, societal systems and beliefs, and no one has the grounds to say what should be considered as a baseline morality.
Now obviously all our societies have been based on conditioned morality thus far. Most western societies have a Christian ethos. The Buddhist or Hindu ethos has conditioned morality in India, China, and many parts of Asia. The Islamic ethos has conditioned morality in the Middle East. Political ideologies such as Marxism and Stalinism conditioned morality in large parts of the world previously. Shamanic ideas have conditioned morality in the past, and in some places still do. You get the idea. We did not any of us have to invent an idea of what is moral – we were born variously into differently conditioned systems. And these conditions change and have changed and are changing.
There have been very obvious problems with the culturally conditioned moral norms in place variously over the aeons – that’s easy to see. For example, the rich/elite were seen as essentially good, their ideas were acceptable, sanctioned by God or the gods and to be accepted, likewise the powerful, the martial, the dog with the fiercest teeth, the pirate with the biggest hoard. The moral basis we have accepted in various ways is open to challenge.
But that’s not really the point here. Of course we have been making a mess of things – that is our nature as humans. But should we burn the place down to try and find something better in the ashes?
The thing with moral relativity is that it is a movement away from loyalty to any moral basis. Moral relativists would not, for example, generally hold with the idea that there is a natural, intrinsic law of good or truth. This has been debated in philosophy for thousands of years, and longer. Is there a self-existing cosmic order, a foundation which cannot be uprooted?
To the moral relativist, there is not, and by extrapolation, anything goes. Or at least it should, because who am I to judge you? Or anyone?
We see this happening in our political and social spheres nowadays ever more, and it is also there in the new forms of spirituality, or rather the new interpretations of old traditions. For example – Nothing is real. It is all good, It is all illusory. It is all passing. Nothing is either good or bad, it simply is. And so on.
This is a very common modern interpretation of eastern mysticism such as Zen, Advaita, etc. From my understanding of these traditions, however, and in spite of scriptures that call for omnipresent detachment, these traditions are all rooted very deeply in strongly pre-existing moral cultures. The moral conditioning of the seeker, one that in the native has been subconsciously embedded from birth, is a reserve pool of natural law that ensures against moral relativism if and when the practitioner casts off social, political, religious etc. limitations.
I say this as a long time friend of the eastern esoteric paths. To cast off from the world into a detached moral relativism does not seem authentic to me, nor does it seem rooted in the soil from which these and other traditions emerged. What I saw in regular, domestic, natural Hindu and Buddhist esoteric circles in their native homes were ordinary people who were naturally and unshakably moral, and committed to and engaged in the world outside themselves. An idea of a basic intrinsic moral right or wrong was unquestionable. There was never a hint of apathy towards questions of morality.
(Yes, yes, there are the blackguards and the charlatans and the fundamentalist misanthropes – but I am speaking of the ordinary/extraordinary every day man and woman.)
One example of this bedrock of moral preparation prior to spiritual practice is in the Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga, or in the 8 fold path of Buddhism, where basic fundamental practices of human morality such as non-stealing, non-lying, non-violence, etc are outlined clearly. These moral preparations are held to be necessary and must be firmly established before mystical enquiry is pursued.. Even if we look at a very radical person like Milarepa, who was a black magician, we see that he had to work off his bad deeds (make a moral reckoning) by building endless towers for Marpa, which Marpa would demolish again and again, in order that his student be made a fit vessel. Marpa did not shrug and said ”it’s okay, my boy, nothing is real anyway.”
Without this pre existing natural morality the seeker who prematurely decides ”all is perfect”, ”make no flicker of preference between good and bad,” and so on, is diving into what is essentially nihilism.
This is just a present view I hold tentatively. I am not saying it is correct and am as always open to discussion. I am simply saying I see danger here. Everywhere with modern spirituality, in its dreamy sloganising, its meta-culture of assiduous self care and motivational psychology, its unthinking acceptance of whatever happens in the ”illusory” real world as some fatalistic unfolding that means nothing to the personal soul, I see moral relativism. The human species is not a tabula rasa – in endless years of development, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, we have uncovered truths. Truths we have plucked with hard labour out of the soil of our lower selves. To deny this now – to say things are neither true nor false, to be non-committal – is to secede ground gained over the millennia of the human struggle.
Postscript ~ I came across this young man’s video while looking up some ideas related to moral relativism. He speaks of the ”illusory escapism from the harshness of the world” that is common now in spirituality. I can identify with many of his points of view expressed here. His ”argument is that moral relativism is a tool for control and containment of the disillusioned masses.”