Moral Relativity

Moral Relativity

"I learned, at a very young age, that if I talked for long enough, I can make anything right or wrong. So, either I'm God, or truth is relative."

The above quote is from one of my favorite shows of all time, Community. If you've never watched it, the show is centered around a group of friends, with each person having their own set of quirks, who are trying to make their way through community college. Jeff Winger, played by Joel McHale, is the leader of the group and is an egocentric narcissist who can talk his way out of any bind he gets himself into. He said the above quote and it's the topic of this post: Moral Relativity.

I think it's important to lay the groundworks of this topic and fully define what it is we want to talk about. Moral Relativity is the idea that a person's ethical or moral ideologies or opinions are independently of any universal or objective reality. In essence, moral relativity says that there is no way to definitively determine what a person should or shouldn't do. Someone who believes in moral relativism believes that no person is bound by a higher moral authority.

For obvious reasons, people who identifies as religious tend to take issue with this philosophy for the simple fact that it diminishes the deity they worship. In nearly every religion, if not all religions, there is a set of rules or guidelines that must be followed, a moral foundation that tells the followers of that religion what moral decisions they should make in certain situations. Non-religious folk have a different perspective, though. In their eyes, what's right for one person isn't necessarily right for the person standing next to them. Since there's no higher authority to whom these people have to answer to, they can do as they please and live in the moment of doing whatever it is they want to do.

Since this website is centered around topics related to the world of writing, I won't delve into the religious/political debate of which side is right and what people should believe. Instead, I thought this topic would be a good one to discuss because it can definitely determine how an author develops his/her story, especially in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. Before writing a story, it's important to think about how characters make the decisions that they do, why they feel the large assortment of emotions, how they find the motivation to fight through their conflicts, both internal and external.

In terms of writing a story, what is a better philosophy for the author to have? Is it better for the characters to have some form of moral standards that need to be met, or is a story better served to have characters with an independent will of their own, unbound by any of the expectations of the people around them? Let's consider the latter choice first. If morality is completely relative, then that could lead to a chaotic plot because the character's could be erratic and unbound to anything that's happening around them. They don't have to care if something bad happens to the people who are close to them and they would be a lot less motivated to tackle difficult conflicts that are laid before them. On the other hand, if morality is strictly defined, the character could become overly burdened by the immense expectations and the protagonist's failure would be imminent. When it comes to writing, I've found that a healthy balance between moral relativity and moral authority is needed because it helps to structure a well thought-out story and gives the characters a sense of guidance.

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