Existential woe! Tears roll down your face, when you have an existential trip and wind up in the land of moral relativity! You find your most drab black turtle-neck and walk down the street holding Neo-Nihilist philosophical texts, complaining that the there is no God, and that the universe has no plan for you. To all those who have experienced the crush of a meaningless wave, battering your consciousness, this is for you!
A lot of my more philosophically inclined friends (including myself), have ended up in ruts when they realized that we were created purposeless, with no designer, or general wish by the universe. With a deity thrown out the door, we as humans are left stranded in a world that does not metaphysically care about us. But as famous film director Stanley Kubrick (Space Odyssey 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc.) said:
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
For some, this lack of metaphysical fulfillment is depressing, but think about what a rational design perspective says about your life. If we live in a world where God, or Allah, or Shiva, determine our actions, how can we say that we really have an identity, or that we make choices for ourselves? It was John Calvin who while giving a sermon realized that God had already predetermined that some of his parish goers would not go to Heaven. With God at the helm your life is less in your control. While an indifferent world is initially more depressing, without it, how can one be said to exert their own agency? I can only really be held responsible for choices I make as an autonomous individual. Unlike Nihilism, existentialist philosophy realizes that human beings are meaning creators, we have always been meaning creators, and we always will be meaning creators. In a sense, we are God’s in that we create the world we want to live in: we have the ability to actualize new futures, new social structures, or even more elaborate and complex social structures. We also have the ability to manifest our imagination in the real world, whether that be through invention, or literary works.
The second problem that people run into, revolves around Ethics. In a world with God, one can appeal to his wishes, his dreams of the world, and figure out if one is acting ethically by examining God’s will. Here we sink into a pit of despair, surrounding moral relativism (different than cultural moral relativism). Moral relativism asserts that because there is nothing to center our morals around, all morality is therefore impossible to derive. I for one sat at moral relativism for a really long time when I started learning more and more about different cultures through anthropology. Anthropologists assume the position of cultural relativism when they study other cultures. We assume this position because if we remain close-minded and just enforce our own morality or cultural norms, we lose the ability to understand other people’s ways of life. Like in anthropology, moral relativism is not a place to stop, it is a place to start. My cultural relativism sprung out of a place that was trying to appeal to various humanity’s, but in the end, my relativism was flawed because it missed an important part of humanity. While trying to appease the every culture, I forgot about the very humans who make up that culture. Even if a culture accepts murder as a proper social practice (like the death penalty in the US), that does not mean that the social practice is morally the right thing to do, as it dehumanizes, or enforces human suffering.
We get out of moral relativism the same way as cultural relativism. I have already written about existentialist ethics by examining Simone De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, so I am going to briefly explain the premise, but if you want the argument, go read the original essay. Moral Relativity only works in the abstract, because it does not take into account our personal autonomy/agency. As Sartre points out, because we are free, we are responsible for other people. Any sort of ethical framework that does not A) include other people, B) is not centered in the relationship between you and other people, is going to be flawed. The existentialist point is an expansion on Kant’s Categorical Imperative, except examining it through a subjective lens. While ethics are always going to be framed between the individual and other, and should generally help the individual, they are not relativistic in that being morally good will require you to coincide with yourself and others.
It is only when we realize our connection to other human beings, that we realize what we must do to live in the world. If God does not exist, that is all the better, because when they do, we lose our ability to make choices for ourselves. Relativism/nihilism is not where you have to stay when/if you realize the world is largely indifferent to your struggles. You can take up that struggle, and create your own path, and “supply our own light”.
For some extra happiness on this topic, here is a Zen Pencil’s on that Stanley Kubrick quote. Enjoy!