Moral Relativism

In my 11th class English class, we read a short story entitled The Man with the Scar by Somerset Maugham. It tells the story of a Latin American revolutionary leader who when captured and faced with the firing squad killed his beautiful wife before anyone could stop him. When asked, he answered he had done this because he loved her. The presiding officer was so touched by this gesture that he released the man.

The teacher asked the students’ opinion on the man, the student opinion was overwhelmingly critical. The revolutionary was a selfish monster who cruelly cut short his wife’s life for his own reasons. I was not sure. The murder certainly pained him and it took great courage to do it. The people around him seemed to understand that and considered his action to be a great sacrifice. The problem was that he was operating in a moral framework so alien to my own that I found it impossible to dissect his motives.

Two years ago, there was a brouhaha in Oxford about a statue of Cecil Rhodes that had stood there since the 1930s. Rhodes was a businessman, explorer and an ardent believer in British imperialism. He founded the colony of Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). He founded the diamond company De Beers and at his death was considered one of the wealthiest men in the world. His legacy lives on in the famous Rhodes scholarships.


Punch cartoon of Cecil Rhodes astride the African continent

Rhodes was what would today would be called a “white supremacist”. He ardently believed that the British were a race destined to rule over “barbarous” savages like the Africans. These views again were hardly rare in his day but sound appalling today. Hence began the movement to remove his statue and obliterate his name which came to fruition with the “Rhodes must fall” campaign in 2015 which resulted in his statue in Oxford being removed on 9th April 2015.

Even people we have been taught to admire are not free from controversy. Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy wrote an article in Caravan magazine about Gandhi and Ambedkar. She took considerable pains to bring out seemingly every racist statement ever made by Gandhi. She correctly pointed out that Gandhi’s main concern during his time in South Africa was to win rights for the Indian community there. He did not campaign for the rights of the indigenous Africans, nor is there any evidence that he considered them equal to the white or Asian races.


Gandhi in Africa

It should be pointed out that in Gandhi’s generation, his opinions were hardly rare. I remember to my horror, my grandfather once remarked that he was unsure if the blacks were as smart as other races. Needless to say, such beliefs have no place in a modern society.

All this reminds me of a science fiction story my sister had read and told me about. A spaceship from Earth enters a wormhole to find an alien species at the other end. These beings come from a society where extreme food scarcity had forced a previous generation to prey on their own young. The idea had got enshrined in their culture to the extent that the phrase for a “good man” was the same as the phrase for “he who eats his children”.


Cronus devouring one of his children – Rubens

The humans were horrified and threatened to wage war on the aliens unless they mended their ways. Just as things were getting under way, another spaceship appeared from another nearby wormhole belonging to a second alien species. These creatures deliberately gave their children “feel good” drugs so they could feel no pain or negativity. They were horrified by the humans who allowed their children to feel pain when it was in their power to stop it. They considered it barbaric that humans could consider pain to be necessary and character building. They threaten to wage war on the humans unless the humans amend their ways. The story ends with the humans escaping back the way they came and sealing the worm hole.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


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