The tragedy of the human brain inheres in its pretensions to a level of discerning knowledge and insight simply not available, given its inherent defects and limitations. Chief among these is the brain's tri-partite architecture. Specifically, the (most ancient) paleocortex sits evolutionarily beneath the more evolved mesocortex and neocortex, the latter of which crafts concepts and language. One clever person has compared this brain structure to a car design welding a Lamborghini to a Model T Ford chassis, with a 1957 Chevy engine to power the Lamborghini. If an automotive engineer can conceive of such a hybrid beast, I'd be interested to know exactly how he thinks it would run.
Given the preceding brain structural defect, there is much evidence that the aggregate of human behavior will get progressively worse as the complexity inherent in technological and globalized societies increases, but brain evolution is unable to keep pace with it. Basically, we are a species with the capability of making nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles – but with Cro-Magnon brains – and a swatch of reptilian tendencies.
An additional problem, which as been pointed out by philosophers like Jacob Needleman (Why Can't We Be Good?) as well as neuro-scientists like Robert Ornstein (The Evolution of Consciousness) is that the emotional circuits are largely isolate from key brain regions, including in the neocortex. This leads to immense disconnects - say between moral-ethical behavior and intelligence. For example, author Michael Shermer ((The Science of Good and Evil, p. 74) has noted that most of the high ranking Nazis had IQs over 128.
The dearth of Nazi emotions (to promote empathy) was probably a partial contributor to their "final solution" and implementing the Jewish Holocaust that killed 6 million. Jews became merely like lower rung animals to them, so slaughtering them like "rats" became no obstacle. (Indeed, in many of the early Nazi propaganda films, rats were shown in alternating scenes with Jews - to attempt to force subconsciously connections in viewers. Much like a notorious ad from Republicans - in the 2002 mid-terms- quickly flashed the word 'RATS' into the image of selected Democrats.).
However, this was only one part of the genocide equation. The other part was described by Jacob Bronowski when he visited Auschwitz and pointed to the gas chambers, in the BBC documentary The Ascent of Man and the book by the same name. As he put it (p.235):
"This was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave."
And of course, the Christian Inquisition as he notes, was no different. Heretics, atheists ...anyone not kowtowing to the then Church's dogmas could be burnt at the stake or tortured...because the Church held supreme absolute authority- and no one was permitted to question it.
Because of this, Bronowski is painfully aware of what he calls the "principle of tolerance" - which he ties to the principle of Uncertainty in physics. As he puts it (p. 232):
"The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once and for all the realization that all knowledge is limited."
Because knowledge is limited, and further - the human brain is limited in its processing of it, then no absolutist propositions to do with morality or ethics can be entertained.
To show that absolutism is a myth that can't work, one may begin by showing that truth statements cannot be inherently complete, non-contradictory or binding forever. I will not go over all this again, but point the interested reader to two of my previous blog essays:
'Truth, Existence Claims and God Talk'
This also means no complete or absolutist morality or absolutist ethics can be formulated precisely because the cognitive apparatus to validate such simply isn't there (go back to the tri-partite brain and its defects).
Let's take some examples to see:
For example, the biblical literalist may insist the 5th commandment is absolute: 'Thou shalt not kill" (N.B. many fundies refer to this as the 6th). But clearly in practice this is impossible.
Accepted violation (1): An intruder enters a home with a weapon and is about to threaten or kill one's wife and children. The home owner, however, has his .44 Magnum nearby the bedstand.
Now, under any absolutist dictum there is no way any killing can be permitted. The most the homeowner is allowed is maybe to shoot the intruder in the knee and phone the cops. But how many will actually do this? I warrant not one in a million. If they have a weapon they will shoot to kill.
Further, the LAW in most states allows lethal force in such circumstances (such as the 'make my day' law here in Colo.) and few religions would protest. Thus, the commandment cannot be absolute. ANY exception, no matter how finely drawn, eradicates the absolute nature of the ethic. You can't have an "absolute" morality and also exceptions to it, it's that simple.
Accepted violation (2): An invading country crosses its neighbor's border and begins raping, plundering and klling its citizens. The invaded nation has every right to fight back and kill in turn.
Or, as in the case of World War (II) - multiple nations in one alliance are entitled to stop the Hitlerian-Nazi threat of world domination- by invading and bombing (killing) in the German homeland.
NO Christians I know - even hardcore bible punchers- dispute this exception to the rule. BUT - if there is such exception, then there is no absolute moral prohibition.
Accepted violation (3): A serial killer, who has slaughtered over 100 women is finally electrocuted by "Old Sparky". In this case- Ted Bundy's end was decided by the state of Florida. Just before his end the fundamentalist Pastor James Dobson assisted him in "finding Jesus" - but at NO time did Dobson tell the state that there was an absolute moral prohibition against killing Bundy!
These three examples disclose that there can be NO absolutist proposition forbidding killing of other humans, since three exceptions are already allowed. Once there's ANY exception, the proscription ceases to be absolute, and there is no "absolute moral truth" underpinning it. There is rather an expedient moral truth used when convenient to do so!
Now, if such exceptions can occur in one moral realm (for one "commandment") they can occur for all the others.
Nor are biblical examples any use!
For instance, 2 Kings 2, 23:24 allows children to be slain by wild animals if they insult their elders (in this case a "prophet"). Well, good luck on that, elders! I daresay that if some young sprats were to taunt you with "Baldy!" and you set your three pitbulls loose on them - citing this Kings text, no cop or judge or jury in the world would accept it, and you'd likely do time.
Thus, the bible is not offering any kind of absolutist moral teaching here! It is regurgitating the bloodthirsty thoughts of the vengeful moron that wrote it - who is saddled with a deformed brain.
By Deut. 22:22 both John Edwards and his former girl (Riele Hunter)would have to be stoned to death. The bible fails here by flouting the absolutist code for 'No killing' (in the 10 commandments) and even worse, allowing it for adultery.
By Deut. 21: 18-21 any insolent son would have to be taken to the outskirts of a city by his parents who'd let the elders stone him to death.
This too is nuts, and no biblical literalist in his right mind would accept it. Hence, the bible cannot be an arbiter of moral authority, far less absolute authority.
Now, can relativism work instead? NO, it can't. If pure moral relativism were the law of the land one would have nearly as much chaos in ethics if absolutists were permitted to run hog wild and impose their beliefs willy nilly.
Much relativism today emerges from Derridian deconstruction, following the principles of Jacques Derrida.
My personal introduction to Derridian madness was incepted and initiated by having to argue with deconstructionists - on the AOL forums , ca. 1993- who claimed "No REAL Humans were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki" only "mental constructions of humans, since the A-bomb was a mental construction of a real bomb". Of course, if NO real humans were killed and they view even an A-bomb as an abstraction, they'd have no qualms about carrying out any kind of killing themselves! Indeed, they'd regard any bombs or other weapons they use as "mental constructions"!
This sort of (literally) insane moral "argument" paves the way to moral chaos and insanity since it seeks to conflate automatically what is in the (Derridian's) head with the outside world- thereby trivializing the latter as mere "epiphenomena". People then cease to be authentic beings and emerge more as virtual-digital avatars - to be wiped out as if from a mouse click. At least one serial killer, I believe the "Green River killer", actually invoked Derridianism as an excuse if memory serves.
Nor can we allow cultural moral relativists to have their way. Just because wives who stray are permitted to be severely beaten (and sometimes killed) in Brazil doesn't mean we allow it in the U.S. Merely because young girls are subjected to clitorodectomy in parts of sub-Sahara Africa doesn't mean we permit it here. And merely beause "common law" marriage is the norm or standard in much of the West Indies, doesn't mean it can become the moral norm in the U.S.
So, if neither absolutism or moral relativism is the answer, then what is? Author Michael Shermer (op. cit., p. 168) gives what is perhaps the best solution to the conundrum of ethics:
"moral provisionalism" or what I would call: "ethical incrementalism"
As Shermer notes (ibid.):
"Provisional ethics provides a reasonable middle ground between absolute and moral relative systems. Provisional moral principles are applicable to most people, for most circumstances, for most of the time - yet flexible enough to account for the wide diversity of human behavior"
Further, for my ethical incrementalism, I would allow increasing moral oversight when EVIDENCE warrants it.
Let's look at illustrations:
According to ethical incrementalism abortion cannot be ethical in ALL circumstances for all conditions. Thus, since Sagan and Druyan have noted that fetal brain waves appear past 6 months, NO abortions should normally be allowed in the third trimester. The only (provisional) exceptions would be: a) the health of the mother (e.g. if she were to have the child she'd die), or b) case of incest or rape - wherein having the child would create extreme mental trauma for the victim. (By that I mean possible psychosis or severe depression, including attempted suicide).
In the judicious application of ethical incrementalism, NO war would be permitted in the U.S.A. unless an actual DECLARATION of WAR by congress is made. This would give congress the opportunity to exercise its constitutional rights, and impart moral and ethical authority in rendering a war truly just. In this light, we'd have no more Vietnams, Iraqs, Afghanistans or other adventures...finagled outside the parameters of congressional validation. For too long too many wars have been waged through the back door as it were, at great financial and moral cost to the U.S. The Iraq invasion, for example, never would have been allowed had an actual declaration of war been demanded by congress....as opposed to just meekly rolling over for Dubya.
3) Teen sexual behavior:
In the domain of ethical incrementalism, teens are warned that actual intercourse outside of a stable permanent relationship is ethically, morally toxic. As a midway position, however, teens are allowed - as former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elder suggested- to obtain sexual relief via self-stimulation. This balance would immediately stop the increasing rates of teen pregnancy, though likely not without the benefit of a good sex ed. course, which must also include removing the stigma attached (by teen culture) to masturbation.
These are just a few examples, and many more might be cited or found. The point is that there is a middle way, and ethically conscientious humans ought to seek to pursue it - as opposed to pretensions to either a facile absolutism or equally facile relativism.