Musings on universality and intellectual integrity

UniversalityNoam Chomsky once defined Universality in terms of morality as “If it’s right for me, it’s right for you, if it’s wrong for you, it is wrong for me” in a 2007 interview. This is a fairly short and to the point definition for moral universality. The opposite of this is moral relativism in its many forms, which always makes morals a conditional case. Our laws are in theory based on universality, an act is illegal regardless of who performed it. One could argue that in practice it may work out differently, but the theory and system is designed to be as close to universal as possible. Moral relativism on the other hand, is the position that moral statements are right or wrong only based on a specific standpoint, for instance culture or historical period.

For instance, most of the western world today would consider slavery morally abhorrent, while most of the western world would have considered it perfectly permissible, and even benevolent in some cases if we travel back 300 years. If you view this as “slavery is always wrong” you are a universalist, if you view it as “slavery was ok back then, because of the times” you are a relativist.

Now, both cases tend to end up in the wrong to varying degrees. For instance, universalism may argue that killing someone is always wrong, whereas relativists would argue that each individual case of killing would have to be evaluated. For the most part, our justice system works around the inherent universalism by adding things likeĀ  “tiers of killing badness” such as first degree, second degree, third degree, manslaughter, self-defense and so on. However, this does not mean that the justice system is relativistic, it just means that it takes into account the circumstances of an action. You will be charged, and in a court of law a jury of your peers will determine your guilt. Continue reading