A few thoughts on morality

Is morality absolute? No, I don’t believe it is. I believe that there are no objectively moral or immoral acts, only acts which can be labelled moral or immoral. Here’s some examples.

1) A small boy steals an apple from a shop.

Situation A: The boy is spoilt, not necessarily rich, but well fed and cared for. He has never wanted for anything – in fact, his parents have always bent over backwards to assuage his desires. As such, he feels entitled to take whatever he wants in life. He sees the apple, he wants the apple, he takes the apple.

The shop is a small corner store, in a poor neighbourhood close to a huge new supermarket. The owner has been robbed at gunpoint on more than one occasion in the previous few years. His insurance premiums have been rising steadily, he is just about keeping his head above water. Every penny of profit is important for the survival of his business. Clearly, the stealing of the apple is an immoral act.

Situation B: The shop is a massive supermarket, whose profits each year run into the millions, to be shared out among wealthy directors and shareholders. The apple was picked by a poorly paid migrant worker in East Anglia, working 12 hours a day, six days a week. The loss of a single apple will not be noticed in the slightest, except possibly in the bonus of a shop floor attendant.

The boy is hungry, and has been for days. His mother has recently been evicted for non-payment of rent, and the family has been shunted from one B&B to the next. While stealing is not ideal, it’s surely preferable for the child not to starve than for the supermarket to sell another steeply discounted piece of fruit.

2) A man and a woman have sexual intercourse.

Situation A: They are both in their mid-twenties. They met through friends a couple of years ago, gradually grew closer, and this is their wedding night, spent in a hotel in Paris. They plan this to be the first night of the rest of their lives, and desire to start a family together, the sooner the better.

Situation B: The man is in his mid-thirties, the woman is barely out of her teens. The location is an alleyway behind a nightclub, which the slightly drunk woman has just left. She attempts to cry for help, but he clamps his hand over her mouth, and she is powerless to stop him.

3) A man shoots another man through the head.

Situation A: The shooter has broken into his victim’s house. The victim is the new lover of the shooter’s divorced wife. Jealousy is a powerful motivation. In the dark of the night, the shooter enters the victim’s bedroom, places the barrel of his gun on the temple of his sleeping target, and pulls the trigger.

Situation B: The shooter is a police marksman, called to a hostage situation. The hostage-taker has threatened to behead one hostage with a sword. As he leans back, ready to strike, the marksman gets a clear opportunity to shoot. If he does not take it, a hostage is certain to die. He pulls the trigger.

I can’t think of an act that could only be considered moral or immoral, in any given situation. If anyone could provide an example, I’d be interested to hear it.

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