Chapter 10 -DecidingEven though morality is relative, it is objective, so actions can be empirically tested to determine what is moral or not.
The final chapter will discuss how to apply statistical reasoning to ethics and some discussion of some of the important moral issues of today. The material here is heavily influenced by the book "How to Think Straight About Psychology" by Keith Stanovich. It forms the basis of the first part of this chapter.
One movement in moral philosophy in the last century or so is the concept of moral non-naturalism - that morality cannot be reduced to natural properties. It appears that this type of morality entails a belief that there are qualities of morality that are not addressable by naturalistic means. They form part of the human psyche, since they act as the motivating forces for people to perform moral acts, or at least give a moral perspective to potential acts. But this implies that psychology must have a non-natural component; psychology cannot be explained naturally. Although this is perhaps possible, it begs the question. Perhaps there are qualities that a naturalistic explanation cannot explain, but the postulation of such characteristics leads to the creation of a set of new dimensions in which these qualities can be said to hold, which can be addressed though an extension of naturalism. We are then led back to a naturalistic morality.
If any one comes up with a theory of morality that makes claims about what is good or bad, it must be capable of experimental verification. Otherwise, there is no connection between the morality and what is good. Claims that cannot be verified are arbitrary, and arbitrary claims cannot be reasoned about.
One thing that we strive for when building a conceptual framework for a body of knowledge is the principle of connectivity - every new theory must account for all old data as well as the new. This makes the overall theory into a semantic network where the interrelationships can be traced from one area to another, or alternatively from the general to the specific and back. That does not mean, though, that the new theory need be a gradual development from previous theories or even that the theory contain a single monolithic set of concepts. Kuhn's identification of paradigm shifts in scientific development shows that the new theories can be radically different from the previous ones. A theory can also have different methods of reasoning at different levels of abstraction or in different specialties and still retain connectivity. The science of biology has connectivity even though the principles of biology cannot all be reduced to molecular biology. The methodologies in ecology of populations, in evolution or taxonomy all retain their own qualities. The addition of new knowledge in areas such as molecular biology augments these methodologies but do not supercede them.
It is important that these theories are more than a set of practical applications or observations. In building a moral framework, it is necessary to have a conceptual structure of definitions and theories that tie the framework together. Personal experience is not sufficient to lead to a fundamental understanding of the world. This is true in every field of thought. Before the laws of motion were discovered. Even common everyday events were misinterpreted. For example, in his Physics, Aristotle makes the claim that "a weight which is twice as great will fall from the same height in half the time."
Common preconceptions lead to erroneous conclusions about even basic physical laws. An example that Stanovich mentions is where people are asked to reason about the situation where a person is twirling a weight above their head and then let go. The intuition of the majority of people lead them to predict that the weight will move directly away from the person, instead of following the tangent at that part of the circle the weight was following. With Newton's Principia Mathematica, the laws of motion were abstracted to an extent that we could make accurate predictions, and were not led astray as often by mistakes in our intuition. The intuitions lead us even further astray with statistical reasoning, especially because the laws of probability are so new that they have not yet become part of the basic human culture the way the basic laws of science have. The laws of probability are recent - barely more than a century old in most cases even though games of chance are old. The intuitions we have built around these games will take a long time to be superceded.
Any theory has two parts to it - a theory of knowing and a theory of doing. This is known as procedural versus declarative knowledge. The declarative knowledge tells us what we know about the field. The procedural knowledge tells us what to do in the field. Procedural knowledge cannot be reduced to declarative knowledge or vice versa. Even in something as abstract as mathematics, there is a vast body of knowledge of the definitions and theorems in each specialty of mathematics, but there is also the often unformalized, but still equally important, body of knowledge and techniques that tell us how to reason about these concepts. For example, formal logic has a number of results about reducibility relationship between problems because one of the most successful techniques to arrive at a new result is to reduce an unknown problem to a variant of an already known problem and to discuss the differences. But this can lead to the case of the drunk looking for a set of keys under the streetlight. The problems that are solved are the problems that the techniques allow us to be solved. This illustrates the importance of ensuring that procedural knowledge has a learning component. We must always be willing to try new things when we come up to the limits of our declarative knowledge. One of the hallmarks of an expert practitioner of a field to that they can maintain the balance between knowing theory from the books and knowing when it fails and it is time to try new things.
Almost all fields of knowledge except the purely theoretical (such as mathematics) have to be able to reason under uncertainty. This means that there must be a statistical component to the reasoning. Although this statistical reasoning is sometimes due to an inherent uncertainty underlying the forces involved, this is mostly not the case. When building a body of knowledge in a field it is important to recognize that the analysis of something due to chance does not mean that is it completely random. It may simply be that we choose to remove certain deterministic components from the analysis because they are irrelevant and treat them as random factors. Also, it is important to recognize that, quantum mechanics to the contrary, situations that are treated as random means that they are currently indeterminate not that they are forever indeterminable.
The basic claim in this book is that an absolute morality is insufficient to reason effectively about the world, but that a moral relativism that does not incorporate moral absolutes cannot achieve a coherent theory. In creating a methodology of ethics, it is necessary to come up with testable predictions to distinguish between moral relativity versus moral absolutism and pure relativism. When we get to specific moral situations later in the chapter, we will provide specific cases to measurable predictions.
One family of testable predictions of ethical questions that distinguish between the correctness of moral relativity versus the other two theories is the following: the degree of relativity to a moral choice (for example, bigamy versus abortion versus murder) is correlated with the distance of the choice from the absolute best. This requires that we look at the underlying conditions that make societies different, to tease out a measurable metric to quantify the degree of relativism. In an absolute morality no such distinctions would apply. Similarly, a pure relativism would lead to the incapacity to distinguish between degrees of transgression at all. A moral relativity instead tries to capture differences between cultures and situations to find relative degrees of moral acceptability.
This is somewhat of an overstatement, though. Actually, a moral absolutism has a distinction that there is more leeway the less severe the transgression. But there still is a sense of rightness and wrongness to an action that tries to establish a bright line between right and wrong. Tolerance of deviation from the absolute moral standard then does not mean that there is a gray area as much as it means that the effort to correct the deviation can be proportional to the degree of injury the transgression involves.
Instead of a fine line between right and wrong of the moral absolutist, moral relativism recognizes that there is a gray area that is proportional to the distance from the moral absolute. This sets up a metric on the characteristics of the cultures being compared based on the relevance of their differences to moral choices, rather than, for example, differences based on climate, population density or access to resources.
How does one compare? By negotiating a standard. What standard? One that can be agreed on by all parties. What if you cannot agree on a standard? You cannot compare. For example, a religious fundamentalist requires absolute consistency with their sacred scripture, whereas a secular humanist requires an adherence to logic or rationality. There is no standard of comparison. The differences in the conceptual basis between the two parties means that if they both hold to their basic principles, even if one compromises on derivative characteristics - there is still no basis for comparison. Both parties must use their own standard of comparison. But does this mean that we cannot judge what is right or wrong? Yes, you can, by using your own standard. This is meaningless to the other parties, though.
To some degree, a comparison is possible, even without an agreement on a standard. Every religion believes that their moral code leads to better behavior in the people who practice it, and therefore a better world. These positive changes (or negative changes, in the case where their moral codes are not followed) can be measured and compared analytically using their own standards. One the other hand, the correctness of sacred scripture can be judged by looking at how well the sacred scripture's picture of a just and good society compares to the actual society. Unfortunately, the degree of symmetry is violated in that there is less chance of compromise on the admissibility of religious faith in the comparison. If the recognition of this principle is demanded, it appears likely that strict rationalists will have doubts about the comparison, even though the belief that rationality holds is in itself a form of faith.
Before getting to specific situations, it is necessary to talk about the methodology of moral reasoning. The claim from the last chapter is that this reasoning heavily involves the use of statistics. One thing that a statistical analysis would de-emphasize is reasoning about 'lifeboat' cases. These are situations that are extreme or artificial that are presented to illustrate or reason about a particular point.
The lifeboat case also finds use in the physical sciences. There it is known as the gedanken experiment, or thought experiment. Its purpose is to reason about a particular situation in a way to arrive at a way of looking at the world - a methodology, or an example of the essential reasoning underlying a set of related phenomena. But it is used only as a conceptual framework. It plays no further part in the validation of the theory. The solution of the gedanken experiment does not validate the theory itself, even though it may give confidence to the theoretician in its applicability.
Similarly, in moral reasoning, the analysis and solution of a lifeboat problem has no real bearing of the general validity of a moral principle. To make a good moral judgment, you need to fit the case into a population of similar cases to determine what is best. For a given unique case, no matter how well reasoned, the choice is arbitrary due to the uniqueness of the case. The lifeboat example resolves itself through statistics. This demonstrates the degree of applicability of the example to the universe of human experience.
Instead of stopping at the archetypical example, it is necessary to find enough cases to make a statistical sample and base our verification on that. If enough cases cannot be found, then we have to relax our conditions to allow for a larger population and see if the more general situation can be validated instead. If there are too few cases where the determining factors are in effect you can make no moral judgment of any assurance
For example, think of the case of the runaway train, sometimes used in moral analysis as an archetypal case. Take a hypothetical situation of a runaway train bearing down on 10 people. A moral agent, someone capable of making a decision affecting the outcome, is standing near a railroad switch. If this agent switches the train to another track it kills one person standing there and saves the ten. Studies have been made on how people would choose in this situation. These studies do give valuable insight into how human psychology operates in making decisions of this nature. But ultimately it may not give as much insight as one would like into the moral principles involved and their outcome.
It is more important instead to do studies of actual cases of this nature. Some of the questions we can answer are: did the actions that were taken save lives? Were the lives negatively affected? What happened to the person who pulled the switch or not? How did they feel about themselves? How did others treat them? These answers give insights into the real effects on well-being that are involved in cases of this kind. They also help to indicate the nature of the discrepancies between human reasoning and the theoretical calculus. People seem unable to switch the train even if it saves lives. This may be due to a built in part of human psychology that implicitly recognizes that this kind of sacrifice does not actually yield gains in the real world. Although the suspicion is that humans are not making an optimal choice and that real cases arise where the taking of few lives saves the lives of many, a study of a population of such cases is required to verify this.
But there are also problems that arise with statistical reasoning instead of reasoning from cases. People have a variety of misconceptions about statistics. These are not just statistical paradoxes, but cases in which human intuition has not been organized in a way to handle statistical reasoning very well. Coincidence is a basic part of life, but people do not handle it well. Humans feel the need to explain coincidence by some nonrandom mechanism than consider it due to chance, or due to a sampling from a population of different, related events.
This tendency for rationalization comes out of our basic need to be effective in dealing with the world. We depend on our emotions and perceptions to identify and react to what is going on. They make up the type of outlook that each of us has. Our outlook determines how we reason with the facts. It also means that we ascribe a deterministic functionality to our responses to these observations. This can happen if the facts at hand have simple causes that come from a single source. But facts are not simple monads. This leads to inconsistency due to the context of the event and the degree to which our interpretation addresses this context. We make decisions confident in a reliable outcome, but the underlying variability thwarts this confidence.
One aspect of human expectations where this deterministic viewpoint goes awry is in the determination of how deserving a person is of the consequences of their actions or the justice of what befalls them. People have a tendency to believe in a just world hypothesis. If some random negative event occurs, people tend to ascribe to the victim some blame. All too often, the world is not just. Misfortune befalls people through no fault of their own. Someone may have taken reasonable precautions and still disaster struck. Someone may have gotten lucky to a degree greater than they deserve. Not every bad thing is a sign of failure. Not every success is a mark of virtue.
This phenomenon is expressed in the moral luck paradox. If our makeup is determined by chance combinations of our genes along with the random events of our lives, how can we be held morally responsible at all? Is it our fault if we end up drowning in a dangerous river? We were not guaranteed to have drowned by entering the river. The chance of each drowning is low, but still we can make the argument that it's our own fault because we ignored the risk. One famous example of this was Ayn Rand's conclusion that it was all right to smoke cigarettes because the consequences of getting lung cancer were at best statistically determined. She was forced to admit the error of her reasoning after she herself became diagnosed and had to admit that her actions had led to the outcome. A resolution of the paradox is not in the relative effects of luck versus choice but by looking over whole populations. Is it the fault of the inner city gang member that they became a criminal when that choice was determined by the bad luck of their situation? We can best give an answer by inspecting a population of average people in the same situation. By comparing a particular person's choice versus other people's choices can we arrive at an answer, and that answer is not necessarily one way or the other. If, given the fact that a significant proportion of average people placed in the same situation goes bad, it is unreasonable to ascribe blame to each individual. If instead, it is the exception rather than the rule can we can reasonably blame them. This avoids the problem of deciding how much free will is at stake. It also points out the solution to the problem from society's point of view. If we are faced with a situation where it is unreasonable to ascribe blame to the individuals, then the solution is to fix the situation as a whole than to concentrate on changing the actions of the individuals. A moral problem that is seen over a population should not be transformed into a collection of individual cases in a false attempt to apply reducibility. Some problems are fixed by changing individuals, some by changing society as a whole.
Humans have a tendency to explain random events through overfitting. Some moral choices don't have not moral outcomes, they are random events. Randomness does not mean unmeasurable, it does though mean we have not measured it. What we must guard against though, is basing our conclusions from too small a sampling of a population to warrant the degree of confidence we ascribe to a conclusion.
Although stories and fables are used to teach moral principles, we must not be taken in by anecdotal evidence. This is just another example of reasoning from cases. One or two archetypal cases prove nothing by themselves. One of the problems is the problem of self-selection. These archetypal cases are chosen because they are special in some way, but their specialness may be unrelated to the underlying principles involved in the moral choices. They can also give the illusion of causality where no such thing happened. To violate this principle by supplying an example, there is the example of the story of Richard Feynman (recounted in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman") where he had a premonition that his grandmother was dead. Right after that premonition, there was a telephone call to his frat house. He recalls clearly that the call was for another roommate, and had nothing to do with his grandmother, who, it turned out, wasn't dead at all.
The incident points out the fact that most events are not premonitions at all, and that it takes an unusual mind such a Feynmen's to point this out. The average person only remembers the premonitions that come true and forgets the myriad of negative ones. So we end up believing in premonitions because we self-select the ones that come true, while the ones that are false or unverified tend to be forgotten in short order.
Statistical evidence tends to be overwhelmed by personal anecdote and vivid evidence. This varies from person to person. Some people have skeptical minds and demand a higher level of independent verification than others. Some people are very good at statistical reasoning, but that appears to be the exception. Instead most people seem to overfit their experience, and have the unfortunate tendency to retain these beliefs even when disconfirming evidence is presented. At the extreme are the authoritarian personalities, that is, those people who rely on authority figures to judge them. This is actually the personal anecdote magnified.
Once it is accepted that there is randomness in the world, you actually make better predictions if you accept error. One example given by Stanovich was a psychological study where the subjects were asked to predict which of two lights flashes on when the underlying situation is random and 70% of the time light 1 is lit. If you decide on some strategy that ends choosing light 1 70% of the time, in the same proportion as the light comes on, then you are correct .7*.7 +.3*.3=58% of the time. If you continue to try different strategies to predict an underlying cause for the randomness, the fact that there is none means that at best you end up trending to a random strategy. Your attempts to model the behaviors of the lights will result in you choosing light 1 70% of the time just as if you had a random strategy, giving you the 58% success rate by the false assumption of an underlying causality. Instead, it is better to choose a second strategy: choose light 1 always. This gives up any pretense of finding a pattern to the variability and just goes with the most likely outcome. In this case you are then correct 70% of the time.
Stanovich points out that in situations where randomness is a significant factor, if you give up the hope of predicting then you gain better accuracy. This is termed actuarial prediction. It has been shown that actuarial prediction over populations is more accurate than case prediction, trying to analyze a case in detail -clinical prediction is inferior to actuarial prediction. Paul Meehl in his 1954 book "Clinical Versus Statistical Prediction", showed that actuarial models almost always are better than the judgments of human experts.
Because the just world hypothesis is demonstrably false, this applies to morality. Trout and Bishop, in an essay on the relationship of actuarial prediction to philosophy of science, point out a possible explanation for why actuarial prediction is better. It is known as the "broken leg problem". Given that an actuarial formula accurately predicts a person's weekly movie attendance, the fact that this person has just suffered a broken leg is enough to jettison the formula in the near term. That is, outside causes not part of the statistical model, such as the presumed working of a just world, will cause us to discard the model. Unfortunately, experts given this leeway find more exceptional cases (such as broken legs) than the statistics would indicate. In the final analysis, it is better not to overrule the actuarial analysis, because the attempt leads overall to worse predictions.
Besides the introduction of statistical analysis into the analysis of moral problems, we also have the problem that human well-being is a multidimensional feature space. This leads to two problems. Each action can have an effect in different dimensions of well being, and that there can be multiple events that lead to a particular situation. Humans just don't do well with this. As Stanovich points out, multiple causation is ignored in cases of preexisting bias - when we believe that there is a causative agent, we tend to think it is the major causative agent and that there are no interactions.
A multidimensional feature space makes it difficult to tease out these multiple causations. This means that it is often necessary to perform testing of a theory with nonrandom data. If another nonrandom sample does not have the same response, the difference between the samples may tease out underlying causes. The failure to have the same response does not invalidate the first set, but only shows its limits. This appears to be a way of reintroducing the lifeboat cases to moral reasoning in the guise of objectivity. It is not. The lifeboat example is the attempt to use anecdotal evidence in place of statistical reasoning. The use of nonrandom data is the attempt to control the effect of randomness in a study without claiming that randomness does not exist. If done correctly, it allows for the random factors to be easily incorporated into the final model. Done incorrectly, it leads to erroneous conclusions due to sampling error.
Finally, it is important to note that population and the effects of probability over large populations affect ethics. Take for example the problem of atmospheric pollution. Pollution for one person can be ignored - but for many, exactly the same behavior can be evil. This means that a morality based on some sort of pure libertarian principles will not work because they do not allow for a population effect. This points out that a social ethic - an ethics of society as a whole - cannot be reduced to an ethics of individuals. In some cases the moral judgment of an action can only be based on a determination over a population. In this case, the individual act is not and cannot be judged to be good or bad in itself. Probability determines good and bad for the typical case of an event of this type. In that case something may be bad sometimes but not always.
In conclusion: statistics is a good method of making morality relative. Logical reasoning can help us triangulate the relative situation, but probability helps us to fix the bounds of applicability. By relying on the study of local populations to determine what is good or bad, morality is defined relative to the society from which the statistics are drawn. Despite the differences, they also preserve the absolute metric. Using the standard of what is best for each individual, statistics may show different outcomes in different places.
For example, the restrictions placed on membership in many religious communities lead to conditions that the general society does not accept. But these conditions have their advantages. The article "Why Strict Churches are Stronger" by Laurence Iannaccone points out that some of these restrictions keep out people who are not as committed and would act as freeloaders on the society. This leads to the maintenance of a more cohesive and committed community, which gives more satisfaction to those members who choose to live with the restrictions. If an objective statistical survey of the personal satisfaction of the members of such a community reveals that they are happiest living under the restriction of their group, then that should be considered the moral choice for that time and place.
Next, let us look at some specific cases. We shall not attempt to reach definitive conclusions on ethical situations, though, since this is a book on the principles of morality and ethics, a quantitative study of ethical behavior will of necessity involve a detailed analysis of the psychological and sociological literature to tease out the factors that apply in a given situation and their interrelationships, a time-consuming task. Our goal here is more limited. Instead, we will consider ways to test the correctness of the basic theme of this book - that morality applied in a relative manner rather than an absolute one leads to an overall increase in well-being.
Some characteristics that indicate an absolute morality is preferable is that the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is, except for obvious conditions, largely independent of individual circumstances and cultures. This tends to lead to a situation where the boundary between good and bad is well-defined and the similar for different societies.
A relative morality is harder to quantify. Here, the morality of an action is best measured by comparison to alternative actions. This comparison is relative to the degree of difference between these actions. Moral absolutes, such as the Golden Rule can be applied as a further comparison. In this case, the alternative actions can be compared by their relationship to the absolute. Therefore, a moral absolute can probably be the best model if the evidence shows a uniform applicability in all societies, whereas a more relative moral choice differs from society to society.
Instead of a single yes-or-no comparison of absolute versus relative morality, there needs to a relationship drawn between the universality of moral values over societal and individual characteristics and the effect on well-being for different choices. This means that the results of transgressing more absolute values such as murder have greater consequences than violating a more relative standard such as a prohibition against polygamy. Or for example, the seriousness of a lie determines the degree of transgression of the lie.
But absolute morality makes a distinction between degrees of transgression also. Stealing a loaf of bread is a minor crime compared to massive fraud or armed robbery. Shooting someone in the head is worse than punching someone in the nose. So the method of comparing the claims of absolute versus relative applications of morality cannot just look at the comparison of degree of transgression versus consequence. Both type of morality claim this relationship exists. The difference is that in an absolute morality, the relationship between transgression and consequence is the same over different societies and individuals, whereas for a relative morality, as the degree of transgression decreases, the variability in consequence increases, and this variability is due to differences between societies and people.
This means that the tests that determine whether an absolute or relative morality is better are statistical tests over many moral problems, individual characteristics and cultures. So in the following analysis of various moral topics, we will attempt to define what an absolute and a relative moral outlook to a given situation would manifest themselves, and to provide some testable predictions or studies that would show which of the two moral outlooks is a better model for this problem.
We begin with a moral injunction that comes out of the Bible: "spare the rod and spoil the child." James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family is famous for his book "Dare to Discipline" where he advocates spanking as part of raising children.
Curiously enough, in the discussion of corporal punishment, the religious conservatives are on the side of moral relativism, while the religious liberals talk in terms of moral absolutes.
For example, Dobson is quoted as saying "Some people (particularly those who are opposed to spanking in the first place) believe that the use of a neutral object in discipline is tantamount to child abuse. I understand their concern, especially in cases where a parent believes 'might makes right' or loses her temper and harms the child. That is why adults must always maintain a balance between love and control, regardless of the method by which they administer disciplinary action." The advice is replete with warnings that each child is different. Dobson warns, "Be sure the child gets the message while being careful not to go too far." He warns that spanking may not work on some kids such as a child with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. On the other hand he qualifies the degree of spanking if a child is strong-willed. Although he warns against inconsistent discipline, he notes that the key to effective discipline is in knowing your child. Dr. Dobson says "the only way to raise children correctly is to understand each boy or girl as an individual and to design parenting techniques to fit the needs and characteristics of that particular child."
The liberals tend to be more absolute in their condemnation of corporal punishment. They point to studies that show significant correlations between spanking in childhood and psychiatric disorders and substance abuse problems in adulthood. They also point out that people who have been abused as a child tend to be abusers themselves, and that this result applies to corporal punishment also.
There are many factors to consider in determining the difference between corporal punishment and abuse, and the degree of corporal punishment. Some factors are the frequency, the anger displayed by the parent, the method of punishment, the psychological makeup of the child, and the parenting style. Collapsing these dimensions into a single measurement of degree of punishment is not easy.
In summary, both sides agree that beyond a certain point, corporal punishment leads to abuse and abuse is detrimental. The difference lies in the range of mild spanking (however that is defined). The anti-spanking group would make the claim that there is a straight, constantly increasing correlation between the degree of punishment and the negative effects on the child. In contrast, the pro-spanking people make the claim that there is an inflection point, and that if there is no corporal punishment at all, the negative effects on the child again increase. This may be a case where it is not necessary to compare differences between culture and personalities to find the difference between a relative and an absolute measure, qalt6hough this can lead to further insights. Simply looking for this inflection point is sufficient.
Capital punishment is a response to moral situations that has a built-in absolute stance to it. Although there are some gray areas between death and life, such as the degrees of brain death, great care is taken in the application of capital punishment to ensure that these situations do not arise. If capital punishment is applied, it is applied in such a way that the person it is applied to is dead and stays dead.
People on both sides of this issue discuss it in absolute terms. Those against capital punishment argue that it is never acceptable. Those who are for capital punishment refer to it as the ultimate penalty, often citing the Biblical injunction of "an eye for an eye."
A morally relative viewpoint of capital punishment would look at the tradeoff between the lives saved by deterring crime versus the lives taken by execution, especially the execution of innocent people. One famous case of this deterrence was the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His execution caused the collapse of a resistance movement by his secret police, which was in the middle of a bloody rampage. Many lives were saved because the resistance collapsed in the aftermath of seeing him executed on national television.
The situation with capital punishment may never be resolved if it is just looked in terms of two competing standards of absolute morality. Both sides make rational arguments for their claims, based on a set of axiomatic principles. Both sides claim that with their given standards the world is a better place. The proponents argue that if capital punishment is applied, the deterrence (both for the criminal and others) results in a decreased murder rate. The opponents argue that no such deterrence effect is seen, and besides, a certain number of people are executed in error, when in fact they are innocent of the crime. There is some evidence that this is alarmingly common, not a rare miscarriage of justice.
Although this debate is often expressed in absolute moral terms, capital punishment in most modern societies is applied using the principles of moral relativity. Instead of executing every criminal convicted of killing someone, there are various degrees of transgression, such as murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, with the imposition of capital punishment based on mitigating circumstances, such as age, mental competency, facts about the victim and the heinousness of the act.
Since the arguments for and against capital punishment are absolute in nature, the question arises whether it is possible to give a relative justification for capital punishment, more in line with the way it is applied. The relative argument would have a number of parameters: the application of the punishment on the irretrievably depraved, the possibility of being applied in error, and of course the question of the tradeoff between the positive and negative effects of capital punishment on the overall well-being. It may well be that a case can be made that reconciles the two sides of the issue, making capital punishment legal, but rare.
[Homosexuality and adultery]
Homosexuality has become accepted in modern times. This is an application of moral relativity where the changes that have developed in the human condition over time have led to corresponding changes in moral standards. Currently, the discussion of gay marriage is an example of the further social change in these definitions and social mores.
The sacred books of the Abrahamic traditions inveigh against a number of behaviors that had serious negative consequences. Homosexuality and adultery were probably banned because they led to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In the same manner, meat such as pork and shellfish very also banned because of the danger of disease. If this was the underlying reason why they were proscribed, it can actually be argued that there is nothing inherently wrong with these types of sexual activity at all. The actual cause of disease is promiscuity, no matter how it manifests itself.
It is fair to ask what the difference is in the well-being of the individual and the well-being of society since these changes in social mores have been in place. For the individual, the practice of adultery and homosexuality leads to positives, such as the increase in sexual pleasure for the acts alone, but there are also negatives, such as the disapproval of other people. The effects on society also have negatives and positives. Besides the negative in the spread of disease due to unsafe sex there is the positive effects of bringing out into the open activities that have always been part of sexual activity but can now be dealt with in an open manner.
Whether a relative or absolute morality is most applicable here depends on how much or how little things have changed as society and its mores have changed. An absolute morality would say that regardless of the changes in society over time, these behaviors should still be proscribed. A relative morality would claim that allowing what was formerly forbidden results in a net positive effect on well-being, if the negative consequences are mitigated. The analysis is complicated by the fact that society has changed through time, so any analysis must take this into account. The relativist can make the claim that allowing the change in mores has not led to a society that is any worse off by any objective standard of well-being. The absolutist would have to show that society is worse off for allowing these changes, a claim that, in fact, the absolute moralists do make. In this case, though, the null hypothesis, that there is no measurable degradation due to the changes in morality favors the relativist argument.
The term 'zero tolerance' has been used in the last few years to describe the reaction of authorities to behaviors that are unacceptable. This has come into vogue with a resurgence of the attitude that absolute morality is correct and that moral relativism is somehow wrong. A moral relativist would argue that this altitude is immoderate in a negative way - that zero tolerance is intolerance and an inappropriate application of moral norms.
A study of the effects of applying zero tolerance as a general principle would make a good testing ground to compare the effectiveness of absolute morality versus relative morality. Absolute moralists would claim that the application of zero tolerance policies will, in most cases, lead to a better overall outcome for individuals and society than the alternative of providing leeway, such as allowing first time offenders the benefit of the doubt. Moral relativists would argue that once we move away from extreme transgressions such as murder, a reasonable allowance for mitigating circumstances and first time offenders does not lead to an overall negative outcome for society as a whole, and will even allow the individual transgressor an opportunity for self-correction that would benefit both themselves and society.
Related to this difference in attitude is the changed notion in society towards sin and repentance. In American society in the nineteenth century, the notion of rehabilitation came to be the governing attitude for law enforcement. Instead of jails, prisons were termed penitentiaries, and instead of punishment, the offender was supposed to have undergone a process of correction and rehabilitation. In recent generations, attitudes have moved away from this. Prisons are now a place for punishment, where prisoners are no longer coddled and given luxuries. Even training courses are eliminated along with television or exercise equipment, and hard labor and chain gangs substituted in their place.
This response has extended the absolute attitude towards right and wrong to an equally absolute attitude towards a person's character. Less effort is made to reintegrate the person who has served their time back into society. Instead, the prison sentences are longer so that the transgressor is removed from society entirely. With this attitude, punishment is more important than redemption, and more often redemption is not even considered an option. Character is conceded fixed instead of leaving open the possibility of a change of character.
A moral relativist would tailor the incarceration of a prisoner based on the actions of the prisoner. Instead of fixed sentences, moral relativism is implicit in the establishment of the concept of parole. The elimination of parole and the return to fixed sentences marks another turn away from moral relativism to an absolute morality. Whether society is better off for it can be seen in studying the effects of these changes of attitude on society and on the criminals behind bars or the recidivism rate.
One of the moral movements of this generation is that of animal rights, led by notable moral philosophers like Peter Singer. The goal of the movement is to grant certain rights to animals that are similar to the rights of humans. Considering that animals are killed for food and used in scientific experimentation, along with the fact that many animals, especially mammals, feel pain, they should be granted rights that respect their need to avoid suffering.
The argument is based on a logical analysis that says that since rights are based on the needs and desires of humans and that animals have similar needs and desires, animals should be granted similar rights. The argument is based on the observation that the simple fact of being human is not a reasonable distinction for granting rights or denying them. Just as the denial of rights to slaves or women was eventually shown not to have logical validity, the same denial to animals is unjustifiable.
The argument for animal rights relies on absolute consistency and drawing clear demarcations. The granting of rights is dependent on the purpose and protections that those rights are for, not due to some artificial distinction. There are no statistical arguments necessary.
The problem with this argument is that it does not satisfy most people. Even given the logical argument, it does not get to heart of why we feel there is a distinction between human and nonhuman. There is an emotional bias against animal equality that goes beyond the logical argument itself that makes it difficult to accept this equality. Of course, there was an equally emotional bias against equal rights for slaves and women that in retrospect is now considered rationalization. But the question still exists - perhaps there is some justification in this case for the bias against animal rights.
But it is undeniable that animals have rights, too. These rights are represented by humans, though, since animals cannot bring them to our attention. But the existence of groups such as the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals exist because humans have for a long time recognized that animals suffer and have a right not to. This organizations arose out of a basic empathy that people felt towards domestic animals such as horses, dogs and cats. These rights, though, are attenuated (the way that well-being is considered aggregated in Chapter 4) by the fact that humans are recognized to have a higher level of awareness than animals do.
In the distinction between absolute and relative morality, the traditional approach to animal rights as practiced by groups such as the SPCA is more relative than the attempt to grant absolute rights. Which approach is better can be resolved by studying the effectiveness of the two approaches. If the current relative morality is the less successful approach, then the granting of animal rights will lead to a greater level of well-being for both humans and animals. But if the attempt to impose these rights leads to contentiousness that works against the ultimate goal of the reduction of suffering, then the more gradual relative approach to animal rights that has developed through the last century or so is preferable.
In the abortion debate, both the anti-abortion and the pro-abortion advocates discuss the morality of abortion in absolute terms. But the majority of people are moral relativists.
For the anti-abortion movement the issue is at what point a fetus becomes a human - where it is immoral to take an innocent human life. For many, the start of life is defined to be at conception. Therefore, any abortion is murder. But this simple moral absolute leads to paradoxes in its application.
Many people on the anti-abortion side of the debate rely on Biblical references to bolster their case that life begins at conception. But there is no absolute biblical statement in the Christian or Jewish holy books that directly discusses abortion or the moment when life begins. They must base their argument on a logical inference drawn from other statements that do not address the matter of abortion directly.
It is argued by some that life begins when the egg is fertilized and by others when the egg is implanted. Although the point of fertilization is a clean distinction, common usage shows that this is not the point that is regarded as the start of life by most people. If it were so, a fertile woman who had sex during the month but had her period would be regarded as having had a life which died, but this is not how people see things, except for the extremely doctrinaire.
One question that naturally arises is the question of how temporal is conservatism. Many of the people who claim that life begins at conception tend to consider themselves conservative. If that is so, then how far back do accepted beliefs have to go before they are acceptable? For a Christian belief system, is a century adequate, or must it be two thousand years? The belief that life began at conception came only after the creation of the microscope during the Enlightenment. Before that, life began when the womb was quickened. Therefore, the claim that life begins at conception is a recent development.
Quickening is still the standard that the average person uses to determine whether abortion is acceptable or not. This distinction, though, creates a gray area. It is obvious that life has not begun in the first trimester, but it certainly has begun for a healthy fetus in the last trimester. The middle trimester is the question. Some people make an argument about the existence of a human life based on neurological development of the fetus, but this is also ahistorical. The stages of development were only known in the last century or two and do not carry much credence with the average person in making the decision on when to define a fetus as a human being.
Abortion is an example of the heap paradox. If 10,000 grains of rice all piled up form a heap but one grain of rice is not a heap, how to determine that intermediate stage where a few grains become a heap? Similarly, when does a fetus becomes a child? One way to phrase the question is that of probability. A zygote one day old has .00000 chance of surviving; a fetus eight months and twenty nine days old is .99999 chance of surviving. A fetus becomes a person when its chance of surviving becomes reasonably greater than zero.
A moral relativity is one that acknowledges that there can be competing rights that are in opposition to each other, and that neither right is absolutely attainable without the complete negation of the competing right. This situation holds in this case where it is necessary to balance mothers right to choice to carry the child versus the potential child's life. The definition of murder being the unlawful taking of a human life, the implication of a legal abortion is the recognition that this is not murder. A secondary implication is that the fetus is not a human life until the third trimester, probably because it is incapable of life on its own. It is generally regarded that abortion in the last trimester is killing and should not be allowed. But for the majority of people, abortion in the first trimester, even if it is killing, is not killing a human being.
One of the best arguments for a relative morality is the fact that there are less abortions where it is legal. From the standpoint of moral relativity, the actions that may lead to the greatest well-being is to keep abortion legal, but to actively work to make it rare, by providing alternatives such as adoption. In this case, then determination of whether a relative or absolute morality applies would be to undertake a comparative sociological study of societies that differ in terms of whether abortion is legal or not. If the claim that legality actually leads to a reduction in abortions is consistently verified over a large number of societies, then a relative morality would bypass the whole debate of when life begins and establish a compromise where the ultimate goal of reducing the use of abortion is the goal. The goal can be shared in common regardless of the absolute definitions either side holds.
If an organization commits a wrongful act, then how does the organization and its members bear the responsibility? The responsibility must be shared between the organization and its members. If you can't evade responsibility, there are no other alternatives.
This question explicitly recognizes the fact that social organizations can exhibit emergent behavior. Even a group of well-meaning individuals can act together as a group with an outcome that is morally unacceptable. One of the places that this can happen is in social services organizations, especially one that has been starved of the resources to adequately fulfill its mandate. Every member of the organization could be trying hard to do the best they can, but the organization could magnify any errors through a lack of oversight or self correction.
Ideally, if an organization does something wrong, justice demands that the people responsible for these misdeeds are punished. But this is not so clear-cut. Someone can take an action in good faith, but not have the information to make a moral judgment. Presumably the executive who gave the order does have this information. It is theoretically possible but difficult to come up with an actual case where no one has the knowledge to judge an action wrong but the organization as a whole has an organizational "awareness". Since an organization does not have a brain, this awareness would only be manifest through and informational flow or a set of procedures. If this could actually happen, it might even be hard for an outsider to recognize that some wrong action was being committed.
But if a morally wrong action takes place and the people who took the action and those in authority take responsibility there still can be a residue of blame for the organization as a whole and its members. There have been cases in this century where governments and whole societies have had to deal with this. If no person or persons come forward to take the blame, the price paid by the organization can be severe and long-lasting.
The concept of having an organization and its members as a whole pay for the transgressions of some part of the group underlies the motives of terrorist actions. Terrorism, except for a small number of pathological individuals, is justified by the perpetrators as punishment against the group as a whole, including the innocent and even those members of the group who might have even objected to the particular action.
The terrorist response is an unfortunate and an extreme type of reaction in an absolute moralistic context. Since evil acts were judged to have taken place, all of the members of the group responsible are judged to have equal responsibility. This absolute moral response underlies the equal treatment in the law of a accomplices to a crime such as murder, even for those who did not pull the trigger, such as the drivers of getaway cars.
A relative morality acknowledges differing responsibilities of the group members. Responsibility is apportioned to the individuals depending on their degree of involvement. In the case of an action where individual responsibility cannot be determined, it is still possible to apportion blame differently to different members of a group by considering each individual's overall contribution to the group in activities that this group has performed.
There is also a difference between absolute morality and relative morality in terms of how long a sanction of a group should be applied for transgressions in the past. An absolute morality that does not recognize degrees of blame has a difficult time of letting go of the past, since there is no mechanism for this to happen. Too often, blame continues up to the point where the original transgression is almost forgotten, at which point the group abruptly goes from being reproached to being held blameless.
A moral relativity must take into account whether any sanctions against the group or its members lead to an overall positive increase in well-being. This can be as a deterrent effect or by restitution of the injured parties. But the application of sanctions is taken relative to the individual's responsibility for the action and the amount of time that has passed. Also, the organization of the group must be taken into account. Although the citizens of a society with a corrupt government can be held responsible for the actions of that country, the responsibility must be tempered if the citizen was a not a direct member of that government or its institutions. Also, blame is much less for a citizen of an authoritarian country than for a democratic country whose citizens voted for this wrong course of action.
[Aggression and deterrence]
In Michael Clark's "Paradoxes From A to Z", two paradoxes about aggression and deterrence are presented, that have differing responses for absolute and relative morality. The first paradox is a variant of Prisoner's Dilemma.
Two sides make a disarmament agreement, which is easy to evade by hiding the weapons. There are four outcomes, ranked in terms of what is best for us: 1. We are armed and they disarm: they are at our mercy, so we arm safe. Call this state AD 2. We are both disarmed. Then we are at peace, unless we arm in the future. Call this DD 3. We are both armed: Then a war is possible, but neither of us have the advantage. Call this AA 4. We are disarmed and they are armed. Then we are at their mercy.
So, we have the following situation: if we break the agreement and arm ourselves then either case AD or AA applies. They are at our mercy, or we are at risk of war. If we stick to the agreement and disarm, then either DD or DA apply. Neither outcome is preferable to the two cases if we cheat and stay armed.
This is a basic part of game theory, where the situation is expressed as a game in which either player can win or lose or tie.
There are two ways around the problem .The first is to recognize that in real life, the situation does not lead to immediate disaster - in effect, there are multiple time steps. If the other side breaks the agreement, we have war. But we usually have time to rearm ourselves before war breaks out. The situation with nuclear weapons was a classic case of the prisoner's dilemma that could not be resolved by repeated trials. That is why the United States has refused to disarm, and why it has been untenable for the United States to demand that other countries do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.
Before going to the other solution, it is time to introduce the second paradox - the paradox of deterrence. If you deter an enemy by threatening retaliation, which you know you will not want to carry out, can you make the threat, knowing you don't really mean it? At its most benign, it is a lie. Again, this has come up in the nuclear conflict - the threat of mutually assured destruction. In real life, during the Cuban Missile crisis, the solution was found by the two powers taking their rational self-interest to heart and working out the problem instead of resorting to the threat. But the situation can certainly arise in real life where one or the other adversary is just not acting rationally. This led to the First World War with the result that the countries of Europe ceased to be the Great Powers they were before the threat was carried out and the war started.
In both of these paradoxes, the way out of the problem is usually to expand the parameters of the situation to incorporate other conditions that change the nature of the game. This is most successfully done by transforming the situation into one where it is much less likely for there to be a cases where there is a winner and a loser or both lose. If, for example, in the case of the Prisoner's dilemma, where disarmament leads to a net positive for the power that disarms, this can translate into further turns of the game into situations where it is in the best interests of both parties to disarm. For example, the costs of maintaining a powerful military are high. The positive outcome of disarming is that the resources of the nation are turned to positive endeavors, such as trade. This leads to a situation for the other party where starting a war with the former adversary is not a win, but actually a loss due to the reduction in trade.
The relationship of absolute versus relative morality to these paradoxes turns on the flexibility of defining the rules of the game. An absolute morality has the danger of defining these problems in terms of absolute rules, making it hard to find a way out. A relative morality redefines the rules of the game. One way of doing this is to redefine the meaning of well-being. Since well-being is not a single one-dimensional function, shifting the different ways of computing well-being changes the nature of the game. Of course, as the consequences of the game become more absolute, a relative morality becomes more like an absolute morality. In the case of nuclear war, it is more difficult for a relative morality to redefine the consequences.
An historical analysis of actual cases of these nature can determine which is the more successful approach. If history shows that these situations have been most satisfactorily resolved by redefining the rules of the game, a relative morality is preferable. If it can be shown that usually one or the other side wins according to the defined rules of the game, then an absolute morality is more successful.
[Welfare and socialism]
The political definitions of conservative and liberal mostly consist of connotations. Essentially, a liberal is someone who is open to new ideas. A conservative is someone who prefers the tried and true. In the United States among the main connotations the words liberal and conservative have is that implies that these two attitudes to change result in a different point of view on social welfare.
Welfare comes down to how much selfishness is tolerable. You can completely focus of your own family and friends and let others fend for themselves. Or one can consider that, since we all partake in the benefits of society we also have obligations to contribute to the greater good.
Ayn Rand became famous for espousing the virtue of selfishness. Relative to her era, she was correct. But the differences between selfishness and altruism are not absolute. Like the debate between the effects on human development of nature versus nurture, the two sides are both wrong when they take out extreme positions. In the era in which she spoke, the world had an ascendancy of socialism. It was the predominant morality. People like her came along to challenge this position because it had gone too far. The pendulum has swung, perhaps too far now the other way. Even the Democratic Administration of Bill Clinton pronounced that they would end welfare as we know it, and social security is under attack. With the collapse of communism, the reliance on Objectivism to show the way to a better world has lost its relevance.
But in the current era the pendulum has swung further the other way. For example, Christianity is at its heart a communistic religion. The Acts of the Apostles talk about giving, each according to their ability and taking, each according to their need. Christ also talked about the necessity of charity. A major force for socialism in the Nineteenth century was the Christian Church. Some of the earliest communes were established by devout Christian sects. Currently, the most vocal parts of Christianity are espousing a social virtue that is incompatible with what is taught in their holy book.
But in this era we are witnessing the effects of too much selfishness. It is remarkable that is the last twenty years it has been Republican administrations that have run up the largest governmental debt. This is due to a selfishness that demands services of a government but is not willing to pay its fair share. The lack of socialized medicine in the United States leads to an overall more expensive and less effective medical outcome. For example, the rate of infant mortality in the United States is worse then many other developed countries to the extent that even Cuba fares better.
But the heart of socialism is the financial assistance given to the less fortunate by the government, and here the results are mixed. Although the United States gives much less in terms of its percentage of wealth in welfare compared to other countries, its individual citizens give much more than other citizens or other countries. But citizens are unwilling to give up social security and for good reason. When Social Security was first established, the majority of senior citizens lived in poverty. That is not the case now. The system works. It is just a question of the relative balance.
Given the question "how much welfare is enough" a relative morality can give no absolute answer. The appropriate level is dependent upon the situation, and the situation always changes. Therefore, even presented with the same situation, such as a response to a natural disaster, or helping out a person down on their luck, the degree of altruism is different in different eras depending on changes such as the development of education and technology. In some ways technological changes enable people to help themselves. But in other ways, the complexity of technology requires more outside assistance to enable the unfortunate to rise to the level of current society.
An absolute morality would attempt to provide fixed rules, such as the concept of tithing. Of course, the rules in an absolute morality are not as simple as a single percentage - different situations demand different responses. But an absolute morality would claim that there are universal rules that hold over all times, places and situations.
Neither liberals nor conservatives can claim to be exclusively absolute or relative in their approach to welfare. Although one can draw a caricature of a conservative having an absolute approach to welfare, it is equally likely that the liberals frame their attitude in absolute terms also. Unlike the debate on abortion, the discussion of welfare in absolute terms is across the whole population, not just the strongest advocates either for or against the welfare state. But when it comes to individual action, it usually happens that the group is defined by absolute rules, but individual welfare is relative to the situation. So even though both sides talk about welfare and codify it in absolute terms, they become relativists when given the opportunity to deliver it as they see fit.
If it were possible to develop an absolute morality of welfare, it could become more quantitative an endeavor. We could measure effectiveness and apply optimal strategies. But if the moral basis of welfare is inherently relative, it must be invented anew as situations change. One way of determining which type of morality applies would be to look at the effects as the pendulum swings from too much or too little welfare. If there is an inherent stability and predictability to the effects of these swings, with similar initial conditions, then an absolute morality would be in force. If the changes are chaotic, a relative morality applies.
[The Golden Rule]
An absolute golden rule cannot be defined in a way that applies to every single person uniformly because that is subjective. But it can be defined statistically for a society.
There are many ways to formulate the golden rule. An analysis can determine both the quantitative aspects and the qualitative of a formulation. A major aspect of the golden rule is the principle of reciprocity involved. A statistical analysis can determine whether an absolute equality is best over a range of exchanges, or whether something less or more is best in certain circumstances.
The qualitative characteristics of the golden rule can be studied also. Is it better to formulate the golden rule as a positive "do unto others" or as a negative "do no harm". This would be an observational study. Different commu8nities phrase it in different ways. The statement of the rule in a given society can be matched to how the rule is applied.
Although individual applications of the Golden Rule are by necessity relative to the people involved, if there is some objective absolute standard for the Golden Rule, it would show itself in some sort of invariant characteristics that manifest themselves in a variety of different societies. It would be interesting to see if the Golden Rule leads to an absolute sets of common behaviors, or is relative to each society, or even each community.
[Morality and God]
The practice of ethics goes on whether or not a person believes in a God or not. Belief or disbelief changes morality but does not negate it. The atheist and the theist are both as likely to lead a moral life. Different viewpoints of the ultimate lead to different conclusions about good or bad actions.
But how does one compare the effects of different theologies on morality? Without a rigorous proof of the correctness of one or the other viewpoint of the universal, it is not possible to judge and accept or discard a particular theological viewpoint based on theoretical analysis alone. In any case, it is probably impossible to give a rigorous proof of a universal, except for those that contain obvious contradictions. The best one can do is to make an empirical evaluation of which viewpoint leads to the best overall outcome in terms of observable well-being.
The definition of good and bad must be quantifiable - if they involve salvation, they cannot be measured. They can, though, include things that might be believed to be associated with salvation. This is generally true of concepts - the measurable properties can change as they get refined.
Since we have no direct knowledge of the afterlife, the only measurable properties of salvation involve the individual in this life and the effect on the living after the individual is dead. For example, it is impossible to quantify the effects of following God's laws on the chance of eternal salvation, since this question cannot be answered either way. Pascal's Wager is a motive for believing, but it has no direct bearing on how to live a moral life. Pascal's Wager cannot even help us indicate which God to believe in and thus which morality to follow. But we can quantify the effect of belief in salvation on how a person lives their life and interacts with others. We can also quantify the effect that this person's example affected the behavior of others.
Can morality be applied to prove the existence of God? It would appear that such a proof cannot be done, because, if God existed, morality would be defined in terms of God-like absolutes. This would make any argument circular. But this is no barrier to a proof, since the measurable characteristics of the morality that is associated with a particular definition of God may distinguish that belief structure as being superior in terms of morality. In effect, there could be an Intelligent Design argument for morality.
Whether a relative morality or an absolute one functions better does not necessarily mean that a God exists or not. Although many theists belief in an absolute morality, this is often inferred as part of the dogma of that religion, when in fact no such claim can be directly found. Instead, the proof that certain unique and specific practices are especially related to a good life may provide a compelling argument for belief in God, regardless of whether these specific practices are absolute or relative in their nature. Although existence of a God implies the existence of a set of absolute standards, the application of these standards do not have be absolute also.
[The meaning of life]
Even if the basic nature of humanity could lead to a universal definition of the meaning of life, each of us is unique enough so that we have to define our own within those parameters. The meaning of life is expressed in different religious traditions in different ways. The Christian, the atheist, the nihilist, the Buddhist - each has a different description of the basic meaning of our existence.
The sources that these traditions use are varied. Meaning comes from our nature. Meaning comes from our experience. Meaning comes from the facts of life, and our existence on Earth. Some traditions use the nature of God to define meaning, even to the point of making that axiomatic and deriving the other sources as secondary. This makes free will complicated, in that free will is constrained by how the sense of what is meaningful gives a perspective to their available choices.
Just as the Golden Rule can be shown to be an absolute rule in a relative morality, it is possible to state an absolute, universally applicable meaning of life that can be applied relatively to each person capable of free will: the purpose in life is what you believe that helps you decide what to do. This purpose gives meaning. So, meaning is what makes it possible to make the decisions in your life.
Even for someone who believes that there is some external entity or force in the universe that provides it with a meaning, this meaning only gives purpose to a person's life through that person's decisions. An entity that exists without deciding is probably non-existent. The feelings that a person has are in reaction to the environment and are not the cause of ultimate meaning because they are just there and cannot be avoided. Only in making decisions does the actor consider what is meaningful. Therefore, meaning drives purpose and this drives decisions.
What helps a person decide can come from many sources. If a person belongs to a community of faith that has an explicit statement of the meaning of life and the purpose that it gives to living, then this statement helps the believer decide what to do. If a person is a complete nihilist, then even the though of suicide is driven by a purpose - the identity of the essential nihilism of life.
For the atheist or the pantheist, the meaning of life comes from within and is an active give and take between an identification of the facets of the essential nature of the individual. Meaning can come from the most trivial acts such as what to choose to eat for a meal, or the most universal desires such as how Gaia is evolving and to what state it should reach. Meaning and purpose develop a multifaceted richness to their definition. They create a conversation between action and its consequences, both good and bad. They juxtapose the essential nature of the individual against the nature of the world that individual is an actor in, no matter how big or small the degree of this person's actions. Meaning also has dimensions of long term and short term characteristics. Not all of what makes life meaningful need to focus on the big picture. The immediate experience, even a unique experience, never to be repeated again can be the result of meaning and purpose that exists only for the moment.
Meaning can also change as life goes on. To each season and stage of life, the parts of meaning can ebb and flow, shifting as different factors are less important in the decisions that affect the future. Meaning changes as the individual learns about themselves and learns about life. As this understanding changes, meaning does too. As responsibilities and demands change in life, the different aspects of meaning come and go, and as each chapter in a person's life is closed. Some parts of the meaning are left behind with it.
Of course, people can make decisions in their lives that can lead to a reduction in well-being of themselves and others as well as an increase. But this does not mean that meaning is only in the positive choices that the person makes. It is possible to conclude that bad decisions imply that this individual's meaning and purpose are maladjusted, and that redefining their meaning will lead them to a better state of existence.
Meaning and purpose, like the Golden Rule, may not be provable, but given as axiomatic. But like the Golden Rule, it is possible to experimentally determine whether the meaning of life is absolute or relative. If, through an empirical study of what drives different entities to make choices in their lives leads to the same set of core principles, then there is an absolute meaning to life. If each entity comes to meaning through a extremely different outlook, then meaning is relative. This determination should not be made without regard to overall welfare, though. If the meaning that a miserable person ascribes to life is different to the happy and successful person, this does not imply that meaning is relative. Instead, we need to sort out if the unhappiness is under the person's control, and consider meaning and purpose only if they lead to a good outcome. If even in this case we still find that each person's meaning is unique or even highly differentiated by that person's makeup, then can we claim that meaning is relative. But if the core principles of an essential life change little from person to person, then meaning and purpose are absolute.