“When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity”— Albert Einstein
When sitting in judgement with respect to different people and various events, one is prone to making comparisons with one’s own self. Hence, “My pain is greater than hers,” or an official might opine while talking about his boss, “Although he is less qualified, he is luckier than me,” or “You can never know what I am going through as you have never faced this situation,” or “How come she hardly studies but is among the top five in the class,” or “He is the same age as me but looks fifteen years younger,” or “We live in a strange world where the poor walk miles to get food…and the rich walk miles to digest food.” One could go on and on citing examples but the common thread in all such exclamatory remarks is the concept of moral relativity—absence of standards of absolute and universal application. What is good for one can be bad for another. What is luck for one could be misfortune for another. What is one’s gain is another’s loss. What maybe excruciating circumstances for one can actually be revolutionary for him while a bed of roses life for another could be augury of an affliction.
Relativity is not restricted to scientific studies alone and is not just E= mc2 but is dominant in all spheres of life and dependent upon circumstances, environment, culture and life-style. Many times we are deceived by outward appearances just as we are overwhelmed by our own problems that feel like the heaviest of loads one can imagine, while those of others seem feather weight. A poor man’s worry is that he has too little while a rich man’s tension is on account of having too much. While one labours day and night to make ends meet, the other spends sleepless nights thinking of ways to preserve his wealth. The world of human beings is full of dichotomies! On the one hand, a man may beat his wife to a pulp and on the other, may stand in support of his mother suffering similar treatment meted out by his father. While the likes of a Yemeni father may brutally kill his ten years old daughter Ma’ab for speaking to boys, they would shamelessly flirt with someone else’s daughter.
With the exception of a few universal truths, it has been observed that good and bad, evil and benevolence, right and wrong are mostly relative to certain situations. Grievous bodily injury, like a knife wound, inflicted on someone is considered a crime but when the surgeon cuts open a patient to remove his appendix, it is a noble act. In the same way, when someone strangles another to death, it is called murder but the person who inserts a lethal injection in the arm of a convict is not called a murderer even though both are responsible for taking a human life with the clear intention of killing. Traffic violation is termed an offence so if someone crosses a red light, he is given a ticket but no ticket is given to an ambulance or fire engine for the same act. In fact people step aside allowing them to pass.
Another example of moral relativity can be quoted of the naked tribesmen inhabiting the Amazonian, Congo and Malayan jungles. Their nudity maybe obscene for the civilized but is just a normal way of life for them with the high rate of humidity in these equatorial rain forests. Again, what is nudity for a patient when a doctor is examining him? Not that obscenity should be given a free hand and is certainly forbidden in regulated societies but what is, and what is not is a matter of the context in which it is present.
Moral relativity can be seen at its best in the United States of America where legality or illegality of termination of pregnancy has remained an ongoing debate. A split opinion exists whereby pro-choice advocate that to abort or continue with pregnancy should be a woman’s sole prerogative based on the 1973 decision of the US Supreme Court in the famous case of Roe v. Wade, whereas the pro-life have no tolerance for abortion under any circumstances. This topic has given rise to innumerable heated discussions where time and again moral relativity is referred to by both the proponents. Following in the footsteps of other states, on 14 May 2019 Alabama’s state senate voted on a complete ban on abortion (even when conception has occurred because of rape or incest) with a 99 years imprisonment for doctors performing such operation. How morally correct is this ban is again a question of relativity. As a pro-choice person jokingly remarked, “If men had to undergo delivery pains, abortion would be legal all over the world.”
From a cultural point of view, modern followers of Islam and Hinduism may be wary of the many festivals that take place in the Sub-continent almost throughout the year. For them these maybe a source of extravagance and waste of time but from another angle they can be seen as promoting economic activity allowing the deprived segments of society to occasionally enjoy good food and some means of earning livelihood. By using the concept of moral relativity, one can justify or negate the utility of these events.
The tendency to adopt hard line approaches must be considered delicately in the social context of human beings, the most unpredictable of all living species. In a society that is full of complexities, where one person’s act can affect, both positively and negatively many lives, the path of morality must be tread upon with utmost care. When confronted with having to make a decision involving passing of a moral judgement the relativity aspect must not be ignored. What is and what is not, can only be determined by going beyond that which is visible to the eyes. Reality can be much different from what it looks like and sometimes it comes disguised in pretention, as the inventor of theory of relativity aptly said: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)