Morality: Both objective and historically contingent

I chaired a panel last weekend at the Ciceronian Society Conference. One of the papers was by Ryan Holston, and concerned the debate between Leo Strauss and Hans-Georg Gadamer on the nature of morality. Strauss held that morality was a set of timeless, placeless absolutes, so that what was wrong at one place and time is wrong at any other place and time. Gadamer argued that our moral practices are embedded in an historical situation, so that our moral judgments can't help but be historically contingent.

In my role as discussant of the paper, I declared them both to be right. How could that be?! Well, both are partially right, although each is taking a one-sided view of the topic.

As Plato well knew, sometimes the truth can best be communicated by means of a myth or a metaphor. So I offered a metaphor to explain how morality can be both objective and historically contingent.

Imagine on the sixth day of creation, God scatters human beings across the globe, and gives them the following mission:*

"Verily, I say unto ye: you will look around yourself, and by the sunset of this day, you will have climbed to the highest point it was possible for you to reach in a day of walking."

Clearly, in judging whether someone has obeyed this command, their contingent circumstances will be of utmost importance. We cannot expect someone who found himself in the midst of the Great Plains upon receiving this command, to have scaled Mount Everest by the end of the day. In fact, if they are 50 feet higher than they were in the morning, they have probably done a fine job obeying.

On the other hand, if someone walked around for a few minutes, then climbed down into a ditch and went to sleep for the rest of the day, I think we can objectively say that they failed to obey this command.

You may have recognized my debt to Plato here: yes, this is very much like Plato's metaphor in The Laws of man as a puppet, responding to the tugs on various cords. Man is virtuous in that he responds to the tugs on the golden cord of Reason, and blameworthy should he succumb to the tugs on the cords being manipulated by the passions. But what it means to respond to the tug of Reason or the tugs of the passions will be contingent upon his circumstances.

UPDATE: One member of the audience approached Ryan after the panel, clearly upset. "Wouldn't you agree," he asked, "that murdering an innocent person is wrong at any time and in any place?"

I did not catch the entire discussion, but from what I heard, Ryan took the right tack: that statement is an abstraction. Of course, if two people agree that some action can be described by the abstraction "Murdering an innocent person," then they have already agreed that the action in question is wrong. But, as usual, the devil is in the details: Who is a person? (Is a fetus a person?) Who is innocent? (Were the factory workers producing armaments for Nazi Germany innocents?) In what does murder consist? (If I order the bombing of the enemy's base camp, and several field nurses are killed as a result, did I murder them?)

* NOTE: This is just a metaphor. I am not asking you to believe in God, or to believe that obeying a command from God is a moral imperative. I am just asking you to except this hypothetical situation in order to understand what I am getting at.


  1. I suspect a lot of the difficulty about this is because so much of what we tend to believe about morality turns on the notion of harm, but harm is in large part a subjective matter of human experience (at least, a great deal of it appears so to us as a matter of experience). What is experienced by one person as a violation can be experienced by another as either unremarkable or even enjoyable -- especially in matters that boil down to semi-arbitrary culture and custom.

    It's something of a conundrum to try to square this situation with objective morality.


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