One of the more interesting books I read in my checkered past was written by a sociologist. I say that because it is remarkable given the fact that the man had more interesting things to say about my field in philosophy, namely ethics, than most of the philosophers I have read since Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. The author, Michael Walzer, begins with an anecdote and expands his argument into broader territory.
“I want to begin my argument by recalling a picture (I have in mind a film clip from the television news, late in that wonderful year 1989) . . . It is a picture of people marching in the streets of Prague; they carry signs, some of which simply say “Truth” and others “Justice.” When I saw the picture I knew immediately what the signs meant — and so did everyone else who saw the same picture. Not only that, but I recognized and acknowledged the values that the marchers were defending — and so did (almost) everyone else. . . .How could I penetrate so quickly and join so unreservedly in the language game or the power play of a distant demonstration?”
Imagine, I might add, we are sitting in our living room watching the news and we are confronted by a story about some folks on the other side of the world who are taken from their homes at night and locked up without a trial and never heard from again. Despite the fact that this is happening in another part of the world, we would not hesitate to judge that this is wrong. Walzer calls this part of “thin” morality — a few basic principles (he focuses on justice) that are binding anywhere and at all times. He makes a strong case, since any child can tell when injustice has reared its ugly head: just give one of them a smaller piece of birthday cake than their sibling! “It’s not fair,” they would shout! And since justice is essentially a matter of fairness, none would really argue with the child. That is the nature of thin morality: it is straight-forward and compelling to any open mind.
Of course, when it comes to morality we are not dealing with open minds. In this egalitarian age where all are regarded as equal in every possible respect and “discrimination” has become a nasty thing, we are admonished not to be “judgmental” and we are asked repeatedly “who’s to say” what’s right and what is wrong? Walzer argues that in the region of “thick” morality, namely those hundreds of morés that are peculiar to specific cultures, things are, indeed, relative. We don’t really care what the marriage customs are in far off countries, how people dress, whether they shave their faces, or whether kissing is considered unacceptable in public. Nor should we. It’s none of our business. In fact, when it comes to thick morality, the only people in a position to judge are those actually living in the culture making the judgment.
And this is where folks go wrong: they lump all of morality together, thick and thin, and draw the hasty conclusion that it’s all relative — to particular cultures or even to particular individuals. It’s part and parcel of our anti-intellectualism that has fostered a deep distrust of experts and our unwillingness to acknowledge that some people know more than others and some things are simply wrong. In itself, this may not be a matter of concern. But when we reflect that the war in Iraq, as an example, was undertaken by a small clique of small-minded people who were on a power trip and who refused to confer with known experts about the dangers such a war would invariably entail, we can see how this sort of blindness can lead to tragedy on a broad scale — thousands of lives lost and millions more displaced or out of mind. The war was wrong from the git-go.
In a word, ethics is not relative and there are some who know more about the world and what things might lead to catastrophe (and are therefore clearly wrong) than others. I would only add to Walzer’s notion of justice as the central concept in “thin” morality the related concept of human rights, which seems a bit broader. It would rule out such things as lying to Congress and the rest of the country about so-called “weapons of mass destruction,.” since we all have a right to the truth. In any event, human rights certainly include justice, since all persons clearly have the right to be treated fairly. This does not mean people are all the same, or that everyone knows as much as everyone else. It simply means that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to being treated the same way. It is a “thin” precept that is so simple a child can see it clearly.