THE LIMITS OF A GOOD IDEA
The Myth of the Stones
The Absolute Relativist declares:
“The problem with such things as stoning an adulterer and female ‘circumcision,’ is not that they are evil, but that they feel evil to us. The only wrong in
those situations is that the people being stoned and circumcised don't necessarily have the choice to be there or not. If a woman wants to be part of a
society that will stone her for adultery, it should be her right to choose it. Our goal should not be to stop such things, but to make certain those who are
unhappy in a culture where they are approved of, can choose something else.”
The Relative Absolutist replies:
Respect for the universal sanctity of life is the crucial missing element in the relativist approach. The idea that one should avoid imposing one’s moral
standards on another often proves to be the best path, but like any other idea or principle it can be taken too far, it can be taken to the point where
putting it into practice results in an immoral stance.
If there is one law that is universal and absolute in nature, one law every important religious tradition got right, it is this: You cannot kill or harm another
person except in self-defense or defense of others. The primary reason you cannot kill or harm them or remain passive in the face of their suffering, isn’t
because you might be violating their freedom of choice, isn’t because they would not (presumably) choose to be killed or harmed (a person with suicidal
or masochistic tendencies for instance, may want to be killed or harmed but that does not in any way justify murdering or torturing them), isn’t because
they would not (presumably) choose to remain in a society where officially sanctioned murder and harming of those who do not deserve it occurs, isn’t
because doing so would violate the one principle the absolute relativist considers unassailable, sacrosanct and immune, by which I mean the principle of
individual liberty or free will, it is because life, God’s great gift is sacred even when the vessel of life does not regard it so. If it is the attribute of
democratic choice that determines right and wrong, nations may murder or enslave millions and not be considered evil. Religions may burn and crucify
and behead, corporations may cheat and lie and steal and no one can say they shouldn’t.
There are those who insist, that, because in some ancient cultures the practice of sacrificing young female virgins in order to attain God’s blessing or
forgiveness was a part of their religion rather than a capital crime, that because the virgins themselves, may have regarded being chosen for sacrifice a
great honor (at least according to those who documented their experience and you can be sure it wasn’t the virgins) - human sacrifice, when
performed as part of a religious rite in a culture that approves of it, is not therefore immoral, not consequently a sin. They feel that so long as the culture
gives its blessing, so long as the institutions of the society allow, so long as people are free to leave if they object to the practices in question anything is
permissible. It may be true that there are those who, in a figurative as well as a literal sense, choose the “volcano” and even consider it an honor to have
the volcano “take them.” The problem with this formulation is that in a society which oppresses its own people, the racist, sexist, misogynist,
homophobic institutions which allow for that oppression are not by definition fully democratic. Furthermore, to imply that a vulnerable person who
“freely” chooses to live in an unjust society until perhaps that society turns on them, forfeits their right to be rescued or defended (and may even
deserve what they get) is to ignore the moral and psychological complexity of the predicament with which those who belong to an oppressed class, be
they women, children, minorities of any kind including sexual, or the poor are confronted, and compassionate people must take this into account.
Indeed, in situations of this nature it is probably impossible to determine on a deep level, whether freedom of choice actually exists, in which case the
question remains: what criteria do we fall back on in the effort to define good and evil?
No one deserves to be stoned, not for adultery, not for premarital sex, not for speaking ill of their religion, not for any of the offenses which, though
defined as religious are in reality political because they threaten the hold those in power maintain on others. No one deserves to be stoned, and
compassionate religion requires us to acknowledge that people who appear, like the virgins who welcome the volcano to choose their own destruction,
are controlled people: Generally speaking, they cannot leave and they cannot say they want to leave. They cannot protest, they cannot criticize, they
cannot rebel without putting themselves and those they love at risk.
Indeed, compassionate religion requires us to acknowledge that people who appear to choose their own destruction are not only coerced from without
but, as a result of their conditioning, from within. If we presume that because she stays, a woman is “ok” with stoning adulterers, with living in a society
where such things are considered just, and therefore deserves to be stoned herself if she becomes an adulterer, if we presume that because she stays, a
pubescent girl is “ok” with female genital mutilation until she herself is mutilated or threatened with mutilation, and therefore deserves to be mutilated
herself when the society in which she lives demands it, then we ourselves become an accessory to that conditioning.
Though they may rise up from time to time, and usually at great cost, oppressed people are also, generally speaking conditioned to accept their
oppression. Indeed, when oppressed people acquiesce in their own destruction or in the destruction of their peers, (women ok with women being
stoned) compassion requires us to recognize that not only do they lack the power to resist injustice without putting themselves at grave risk, but beyond
that, those who are a part of an oppressed class, who have been conditioned from the beginning to see themselves as their oppressors see them, are
conditioned not only to accept oppression but to believe that they deserve it and thus cannot be held responsible for the false choices they make while
in that dysfunctional milieu. One must be capable of recognizing their oppression before they can overcome it.