Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: True North and the Moral Compass

Gorgias
Gorgias of Leontini

Moral relativism is not new. It has been around since Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily) arrived in Athens in 427 BC, and really even before that. In his Protagoras, Plato interpreted the teacher of the same name’s dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” to be an advocacy of moral relativism, i.e., that any human being is capable of determining what truth is from a personal vantage point. In other words, from the mid-fifth century B.C. on, Protagoras’ view competing with the notion of a moral absolute was established, an early form of phenomenalism that suggests that a single individual deems true what is true for that person. It would quickly devolve into an essentially nihilistic view expressed by the Sicilian sophist Gorgias in his now lost (but preserved piecemeal in two other sources) treatise entitled On Non-Existence which suggests that nothing exists (i.e., being has no existence) or, if it were to exist, what it consists of would be impossible to know, explain or be understood.[1] (Coincidentally, these are the very opinions most of my agnostic friends advance about God).

Protagoras
Protagoras

The most important aspect of Gorgias’ argument—what he has successfully transmitted to the modern age—is that there is no such thing as an objective point of view, for each individual’s point of view is precisely that—individual. And that is where his argument dovetails with Protagoras, and it is on that confluence that I want to focus this blog, for I met a man in Italy who happened to be advancing essentially the same argument as that of Gorgias and Protagoras.

Now a disclaimer: normally these kinds of conversations happen to me on an aircraft but this time it was at a bar. Still, the argument, which I am paraphrasing here, was worthy of any aircraft: it was stated in very anti-platonic terms (but of course, as it is essentially a sophistic argument) that since there is no objective vantage point, all moral codes are constructs. No one can say whether any is better than another or, for that matter, which is good at all, since even the notion of good is a construct. Put metaphorically, there is no “north”; there is only an agreed upon direction that many folks say is north, but if even one person should say that north is not north, then there can’t be a true north. Or, even if there is a true north, it is not knowable, as each person interprets the direction “north” in his or her own way.

compassOn this view, the question of what north is ultimately becomes a preference—do I find north preferable or not? I may have my own ideas about north, but those are just my ideas, constructed for me, most likely, out of the worldview that I inherited. So, even if I say I prefer my interpretation of north I cannot discount another person’s interpretation of north, which might really be east, or south, or west, or some other direction. I cannot say to that person, “No, if you go west when you’re intending to go north it will be quite dangerous for you. I really want to dissuade you from taking the wrong direction.”

And the reason one should not do that, according to the view of the man at the bar, is because we ourselves actually can’t possibly “know,” however certain we may feel about it, where north really is; we only know what we prefer about what is called north and we may like (or simply be habituated to) our own “north” but we have to recognize that someone else’s west might serve just as well as a north as our own north does.

This sounds clever, and at first blush, even generous. Let’s start with the positive: it is generous and very “non-judgmental”—so much so, though, that even when it sees someone going the wrong way, it doesn’t intervene on the principle that true north is not a knowable concept. To press the north analogy just a bit, one might say, “AftWrong wayer all, true north is not precisely magnetic north, which itself differs from grid north. So, who is to say what ‘north’ really is anyway?” And thus it is that the person who has thoroughly adopted this mindset can’t intervene when someone is going the wrong way on the principle that he or she should not presume to know that his own way is the right way. He prefers his direction, but it is only a preference.

The only comfort I can find in this argument really is that it is an old one; as Solomon wrote (though obviously not in Latin), nihil novum sub sole, and he was right, there is nothing new under the sun. The relativistic argument has been recycled nowadays and fobbed off as new, sc. post-modern. But really it is very un-modern, a bit humdrum, and in any case very old. And it is also countered not only by the obvious—that we do exist and that there is a such a thing as life, liberty and happiness, honor, dignity and worth—but by the fact that north itself does exist, entirely independent of us, our point of view, or even whether or not our compass should be working properly. While what we call “north” may vary both in terms of precisely where it is (as magnetic north does move a bit) and by what it is called—the Chinese (Mandarin) word for north is Bei, Japanese is Kita (though the symbol [北] for both is virtually the same, since the Japanese calligraphic kanji is based on Chinese Hanji), Hebrew is tzafon, Hungarian is északi; yet despite all these differences, north is, in the end, indeed northward, however tautological that may sound. Since that is true, it is especially important to call attention to the direction in which north lies when we find a person heading west but thinking that he is going north, who we know is clearly sailing into dangerous waters.

Thus it is not ethnocentric cultural superiority to say to the cannibal that it is simply wrong to kill and eat one’s fellow human being. Nor is it a matter of going too far to say that if one sees a woman being beaten by a man, it is good, even necessary to intervene. It is not wrong to tackle a bad guy who is running from the police, not wrong to prevent a terrorist from being successful in his attack (if it should fall to one’s lot to be in a position to do so), not wrong to stop any act of sheer evil. It is not the case that we should say to ourselves, “But I can’t know what the precise motives of that person happen to be, nor can I say that this or that person’s version of right and wrong are the same as my own, so I can’t and shouldn’t intervene.” We are not hardwired to conform to the non-interventionist “prime directive” of the old Star Trek series—the consistent failure to do which, by the way, made Captain Kirk the admirable hero of the series; indeed, do we not innately wish to do precisely what Kirk does?

Mother Theresa
Mother Teresa

Thus, we are born with an internal compass that suggests to everyone from every culture a sense of right and wrong and those of us who can recognize true north, actually have a kind of moral obligation—for we ultimately believe in morality, that morality is something given to us by a higher power, by God himself—to direct lovingly, wherever possible, those who are so far off track, whose moral compass is so broken, that they are likely to render harm to themselves or others. Is that ethnocentric cultural superiority? Someone might try to make that argument, but the moral code I am referring to as “north” has been transmitted by the votes of what G. K. Chesterton calls the “Democracy of the Dead,”[2] handed down in many cases by wise teachers like Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most recently, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  All of those individuals had a pretty good idea of the direction in which north lies.  And what has been demonstrated for us by their example is instilled in us, ultimately, by God.

In closing, what can we learn from my friend at the bar? Well, first, we should recall that his ideas are not new: they are very old. They devolve from Protagoras and Gorgias. Second, we can learn that while being empathetic and seeking to understand as best as one can, the point of view of another is certainly a good thing—love your neighbor as yourself is an unqualified command—that does not mean that to do so we must deny our God-given internal compass. (And one should be very careful here, for if we deny it long enough, we may corrupt it or simply lose it, as so many of those who have joined the ranks of ISIS clearly have.) Rather, let us gage our journey by the North Star which means, from time to time, if we are following the internal compass aright, we may even have to direct others trying to find their way on the same path on which we are going. I am heading north; please feel free to join me.

[1] This treatise, by the way, enjoys the highly ironic title Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως, which, when translated, means “‘On Not Being’ or ‘On Nature’,” the latter of which the former clearly undermines.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), p. 85.

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