On Moral Ambiguity, Moral Relativism, and Possible Moral Absolutes
By Ken K. Gourdin
It’s certainly not popular to speak in today’s work in such stark terms as good and evil (or good and bad), right and wrong, and other such binary classifications. Even as someone who is religiously devout, I am not incapable of appreciating nuance, and there is certainly no shortage of that surrounding some of these issues. However, my religious convictions compel me to reach the conclusion that too often, “moral ambiguity” is appealed to in an effort to justify a morally relativistic view of things that simply are wrong. Which is not to say that I disrespect people who hold contrary positions. I am familiar with the old adages that if two people are of exactly the same opinion on absolutely everything, one of them is unnecessary, and that none of us sees the world as it is, but, rather, as we are.
I recently commented on these issues at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion as follows:
I can understand the live-and-let-live, libertarian approach. It does have its merits and its appeal. Generally speaking (that is to say, I’m not accusing anyone in particular of this, notwithstanding my use of the second-person pronoun here ) I don’t think the place to start when trying to persuade [someone] who may (or who does) disagree with you is to assume that s/he must accept your paradigm; the vitality imparted by Living Water notwithstanding, it’s probably not best to attempt to impart that Living Water through a fire hose set at full blast, particularly not without having done some soil preparation and without having undertaken other preparatory measures first; in our public discourse as well as our personal discourse, we should employ Doctrine and Covenants Section 121 principles of “persuasion . . . long-suffering . . . gentleness and meekness, and . . . love unfeigned . . . kindness and pure knowledge” and non-hypocrisy and guilelessness (see vv. 41-42); and I do think it’s important to not sacrifice good will, to disagree as agreeably as possible, and so on.
All of that having been said, I’m not convinced of the idea that morality cannot or should not be legislated. Yes, I know that the idea that morality should be legislated has been carried to extremes in various totalitarian regimes throughout history, but those cases are notable precisely because they are so extreme. [Current LDS Apostle and former Utah Supreme Court Justice, University of Chicago law professor, Utah Supreme Court Justice, and U.S. Supreme Court clerk] Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who knows a thing or two about morality, about law, and (in particular, I’m tempted to say) about the Constitution, has said that the law of crimes legislates nothing but morality. (I’ll hasten to add that that does not mean that the converse . . . everything that is immoral also should be illegal . . . is true, and a big part of what it means to live in a free society involves negotiating the various tensions between law, morality, social mores, and other such forces.)
Yes, living in a free, tolerant society is a complex undertaking, and no, no one person or group of people should undertake to impose that person’s or that group’s will on another person or group in violation of the principles I have laid out (as well as others too numerous to mention). But as [former LDS Church] President David O. McKay is reported once to have said (paraphrasing), “Right is right even if nobody listens to it, believes it, or does it, and wrong is wrong even if everybody listens to it, believes it, or does it.”
A few weeks ago in another thread, I mentioned the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s passage from Letter From a Birmingham Jail which he wrote in response to critics who felt that, as an outsider, he had no business meddling in local affairs . . . “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” . . . and asked whether that same principle might be applied to (un)righteousness . . . “Unrighteousness anywhere is a threat to the righteous everywhere.” . . . I think it applies with equal force here. I believe that various scriptures are in accord, e.g.: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (Proverbs 29:2); “And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you” (Mosiah 29:27); et cetera. See also The Family: A Proclamation to the World toward the conclusion of that document. One of the reasons I think we have a duty to stand for righteousness even in public spheres and even when it’s not popular . . . is because it’s not as though the righteous will escape calamity because of their righteousness: They’ll suffer right along with the wicked.
All of this is, perhaps, simply a long-winded way of saying that while I’m not, by any means, endorsing unrighteous dominion1 as an antidote, neither am I prepared to say that in no case can or should morality be legislated.
1. For information on how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints defines “unrighteous dominion,” see here, last accessed September 16, 2016: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1990/09/avoiding-unrighteous-dominion?lang=eng.