Applecarts are for up-setting

by Yule Heibel on March 19, 2005

A young boy was making an argument yesterday about right and wrong. He sought to dispute that right and wrong exist as such since they are determined by the perspective of whoever is doing the action. An atrocity is seen as bad (“wrong”) from the victim’s point of view, but as good (“right”) from the murderer’s. Snared into a conversation I couldn’t help but overhear, I disagreed with his puerile argument, which struck me as not just immature, but also as symptomatic of a half-baked teenybopperdom in search of its inner Nietzsche — albeit without finding him or drawing the consequences from the search.

Later, I wondered why nature endowed people with brains if they’re going to use them in such a stupid way, and I seriously contemplated that the best response would have been a hearty slap upside the head. Since this wasn’t my kid, that wasn’t an option, alas. In case other confused young teens stumble across this, however, here’s an extended response, in terms a child can understand:

Once attached to the actions of real people, right and wrong aren’t abstractions. They are the expressions of values that people interacting with one another hold, and they can’t be relativised away. If I enslave a man, I take away his freedom. From my perspective, there might be nothing wrong with that, but from the slave’s perspective, there is everything wrong with it. That boy would argue that both views are legitimate, and add that he’s not agreeing with the slaveholder, he’s merely pointing out that it’s a question of point-of-view. Bullshit. And cop-out. You are considering two diametrically opposed actions (the enslavement vs the struggle for freedom), and I wonder how you can pretend to distance yourself in some Land of Abstraction as though you have no stake in those actions, for you do have a stake. You must decide whose “point-of-view” you will choose to call legitimate, which means you must search for a basis for defending one over the other. Some aspects of that choice will have to do with self-interest, which means that in a slave-holding society, you might defend the slave-holder, provided that you’re in the same social category and not a slave. But since we live in the present, here and now, how can there be any question as to where your self-interest lies? Do you seriously propose that your self-interest doesn’t lie with freedom? The world in which we live has agreed that freedom is a good thing, which is why we take away freedom (put people in jail) as punishment. We don’t stand around and say smart-alecky stupid things like, “from the oppressor’s point of view, lack of freedom is a good thing,” because we understand that right and wrong are values acted out in social contexts, and that people have died to defend freedom as a value. Point-of-view? BS.

Let’s take another example, simultaneously both less and more stark: If I observe a society that systematically oppresses one gender, say, and even subjects that entire group to mutilation and enslavement in the name of tradition and religion, I might also observe that the oppressed in that society perversely and actively collude in their oppression, considering it a sign of “natural” stability, god’s favour, and what-have-you that the status quo (their servitude and subaltern status) is maintained through their oppression. Yet I would still champion freedom as the superior value, and hope that eventually empowerment of the oppressed gender will change that society, too: Freedom, once you have a grip on it, is not a relative point-of-view thing, and the oppressed only collude in their oppression out of inertia and fear.

Another example: If a child is abused (and remember that abuse can be subtle), the child might make excuses for the parent(s) and he or she might actually feel that the abuse is natural or right (or that it’s not really abuse), or perhaps she or he wants so badly to make the parent happy that she or he complies with the abusive conditions as though of his free will. The child is brainwashed by the parents into accepting the status quo. He colludes in his oppression, unable to question the existing conditions, because who knows what tragedy lies beyond the known evil. But there is no freedom in that life, and the parent in fact stole the child’s freedom, stole his childhood, and effectively put him into emotional jail. What’s relative or “point-of-view”-ish about that? It’s simply wrong.

Gee, I always thought that teenage hormones were invented by nature to ensure that the kick-ass march to freedom is inexorable. To instead hear excuses made for keeping one’s unfree head down and accepting things as they are is almost ghoulish. Let’s hope it’s just a case of delayed development.

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