Can there be a moral consensus?
A dialogue between Aurelius the angel and Gottfried the bird. Aurelius wants to be the guardian of classical Judeo-Christian thought while remaining attentive and compassionate. Gottfried thinks that each being is independent but is part of a logical and harmonious whole that the song makes one guess.
Gottfried: Aurelius, you look all confused, what’s going on?
Aurelius: I just heard some news that makes me doubt the order of the world …
Gottfried: oh, well, what happened?
Aurelius: Niccolò, the Deer, Luce, they’re all different and they don’t care about my precepts.
Gottfried: you mean they don’t share your ideas.
Aurelius: yes, that’s right, I feel like that I was living on a cloud and that I have just suddenly fallen to earth. And then all this language that animals use now, it’s like there are no more taboos!
Gottfried: God hadn’t warned you about all these changes?
Aurelius: He must have done it during the meetings I didn’t attend.
Gottfried: Luce made a point to you about that and she was right. If your principles are not updated, how do you want to understand the world and help us?
Aurelius: but precisely, it is because the principles do not vary that the world has benchmarks so I didn’t think they had to be changed! We need a universal morality to guide action, not relativity.
Gottfried: yes and no, dear Aurélius. Principles and benchmarks move forward in parallel, if one changes, the other too. The moral imperative remains universal but its content adapts.
Aurelius: so there is no more revealed truth?
Gottfried: there is a rational consensus based on ethical discussions. The main thing is that everyone agrees on standards, but they don’t need to be set in stone. On the contrary, if they adapt to changes, they are better understood and better accepted. Here too, there is an evolution of the definition of morality and that is why you must keep yourself abreast of things.
Aurelius: therefore half of the inhabitants of the domain have an deviant sexuality and this is normal ?
Gottfried: they have a sexuality like everyone else except you. As for the standards in this regard, they have changed so they are not deviant.
Aurelius: that seems to be a somewhat easy relativistic solution to me and where will it end?
Gottfried: why should it end, Aurelius? For us living creatures, change is a sign that we exist. Only death freezes things but that, you do not know it since you are immortal.
Aurelius: I am immortal, I have no sexuality, how can I understand you and help you, then?
Gottfried: the fact that you are different offers us a point of view that allows us to reflect on it but that does not mean that we can be like you or share your ideal. You are pushing us to take our moral correctness a little further, but you need to know that we cannot achieve your goals. On some points however, your expectations are dated and they no longer correspond to the existence we have. This is why the ethical consensus is always to be redone but it is not relativist since it concerns everyone.
Aurelius: so if I understand you correctly, I protect you because I question your actions and I forces you to weigh their value more than you would otherwise.
Gottfried: yes, that’s correct, you probably prevent us to make too many mistakes when we pay attention to your remarks but the questioning will never end for you since the living will never looks like you. On the other hand, if your remarks are out of date, it no longer works.
Aurelius: don’t you want to take my place? I think I have to go for an update and you would probably be of good advice while waiting for my return or the arrival of a more modern angel.
Gottfried: it would be an honor but I am mortal, I have a family, I don’t have time to do what you are doing. And I really hope you won’t go.
Aurelius: we’ll see, it may be necessary. Either way, it felt good to talk to you.
Gottfried: you know Aurelius, whatever you do, don’t forget to sing, it’s always a pleasure for our souls, whoever we are.
Aurelius: it’s true, at least I can do that …
Can morality be relative?
This dialogue follows on from Dialogue 22 but offers a different response to Aurélius’ questions.
For him, morality must be universal in order to give everyone clear and precise rules. To relativize it is to accept everything and its opposite according to desires and preferences.
For Gottfried, a universal and imperative morality does not know how to adapt to the concrete cases of existence. It must therefore be replaced by a morality of consensus born not from the revelation of a single one but from discussions between individuals who define what is acceptable or not for all at a given time. It is a relativism revisited to preserve the moral value of command.
Believing that what I am is right, is it enough ?
How to reconcile war and the imperative not to kill?
Want to think a little more? See, for example, Moral Conciousness and Communicative Action where Habermas investigates the conditions under which a moral standard can be valid.
Want to contribute to these dialogues? Write your comments and questions below.
Want to know more about the tastes of Gottfried and Aurelius? Their favorite books are in the domain library.