Thursday, June 21, 2012

Some Moral Minima

A Review

Lenn E. Goodman wrote the article Some Moral Minima in an attempt to point out certain morals that should be universal.  Goodman singles "out a few areas where I think human deserts are irrefragable — not because these deserts are never questioned or breached in practice, but because they never should be."  (Goodman, 2010)  The article more specifically targets "(1) genocide, politically induced famine, and germ warfare; (2) terrorism, hostage taking, and child warriors; (3) slavery, polygamy, and incest; and (4) rape and female genital cutting."  (Goodman, 2010)  Although Goodman makes several viable points, his view of universal deserts is too broad.   Values and morals are not universal.  Although it may seem they should be universal, ethics are almost always subjective and relative to their current situation and cultural context.  Concessions may be given to Goodman's list, however in some cases he simply goes too far. 

Goodman claims that "all living beings make claims to life" and that "murder is wrong because it destroys a human subject."  Generally, this is true.  However, it is also subjective to the situation.  Is it wrong to kill a person in an act of self-defense?  There are certain situations where the taking of someone else's life is justified.  As Louis P. Pojman stated, "Intentionally taking the life of an innocent human being is so evil that absent mitigating circumstances, the perpetuator forfeits his own right to life.  He or she deserves to die."  (Waller, 2008) 

War too, is an instance where in some cases the ends justify the means.  While genocide, which "targets individuals as members of a group, seeking to destroy a race, a culture, a linguistic or ethnic identity, even class" (Goodman, 2010) is wrong, the killing of innocent people is a part of war.  Indeed, it would be wiser to use whatever means necessary to end a war a quickly as possible, rather than prolonging it for the sake of trying to avoid hurting innocent people.  That is the very nature of war.  Goodman also speaks of terrorism as an absolute.  "Terrorism is willful targeting of non-combatants, aiming to intimidate and attract attention.  It is a war crime, since war, if just at all, seeks only to block an enemy's ability to make war."  (Goodman, 2010)  Again, this too, is subjective.  If the purpose of terrorism was to defeat an enemy of war as quickly as possible and in addition to prevent further invasion from a recurring enemy, then this too is a justifiable means to an end.  "Terrorism, as a tactic, finds its military use in sapping the will to resist."  In this case, ending the will of an enemy to continuously attack may be a better idea than sacrificing one's own citizens on a matter of principle.  Perhaps the reason for inhabitants of certain countries to reject this idea stems more from a lack of ability to perform, rather than the act itself.

After discussing ideas of human life, Goodman's article then focuses on the quality of life to which people have a right.  He cites slavery as "the deepest exploitation."  (Goodman, 2010)  He then speaks of human trafficking, incest and polygamy.  Slavery is no doubt a heinous act which "keeps its victim alive while stripping her of agency."  (Goodman, 2010)  However to include polygamy in the same category as slavery, human trafficking, and incest is wrong.  By alligning polygamy with such acts as slavery and human trafficking, Goodman is creating a strawman fallacy in his line of reasoning.  He is deliberately "distorting, exaggerating or misrepresenting an opponent's position in order to make it easier to attack."  (Waller, 2008)  There is certainly no disputing that abuse can and in many cases does take place in polygamous situations.  However, in these cases, it is the actual abuses that should be dealt with rather than an attack on polygamy itself.  Child brides and abusive relationships may be a part of some polygamous acts, however it is a generalization to say that all polygamist families share in these abuses.  Currently, there is a movement in Utah to legalize polygamy.  Much of this push comes not from the compounds of fundamentalists often featured in the headlines, but rather from independent fundamentalist mormon groups.  These families do not follow a direct leader.  They practice polygamy as a part of their religion.  They do not believe in child or spousal abuse, nor do they condone the act of child brides.  These familes look and act much the same as every other family in the country.  To deny them the right to live and practice their religion is to deny them a basic constitional right.  Further to state that polygamy is the cause of such abuses is similar to saying that it is the gun which kills rather than the individual who uses it.  Both, whether used for good or evil, are the responsibility of those who involved.  Likewise, it is the individual, not the vehicle, which should be accountable. 

Goodman also states that polygamy is "not conducive to familial stability or the growth of emotionally stalwart children."  (Goodman, 2010)  To this one must ask where is there any such evidence?  Familial stability and emotion growth in children comes from the atmosphere of the home.  Polygamy alone neither promotes nor diminishes emotional growth or stability.  Indeed, there are many children in this world that would be much better off in the hands of a loving independent fundamentalist mormon polygamist home rather than the drug infested broken homes many inter-city children live in. 

Goodman ends his disertation with the topic of rape and clitoridectomy.  In this it would be very easy to quickly agree with his assertation, but for one small point.  Goodman states that "statutory rape is as much a crime as violent rape."  (Goodman, 2010)  This is a gross distortion of truth.  Violent rape seeks to "humiliate and abase".  (Goodman, 2010)  Further, it "violates the victim's psyche even as her bodily integrity and self-image are violated and abused".  (Goodman, 2010)  On the other hand statutory rape involves an age difference.  Whereas the sexual abuse of young children is undeniably wrong, consenual sex between two people who are aware of their actions can not be listed in the same category, nor is it the same as a violent rape.  In many cases of statutory rape, the sexual act took place between two teenagers, close in age, yet one is slightly older.  For example, an eighteen year old high school boy engaging in sex with his seventeen year old girlfriend.  Although her parents may disagree, this is in no way the same as a violent rape.  Yet, if parents get angry and have the boy arrested, he faces criminal charges and is marked as a sexual offender.  This is not just.

Goodman's attempt to point out certain morals that should be universal is not without fault.  He may at first appear to construct a well thought out argument; however, in certain areas he falls short.  His argument in some cases lacks proper evidence and in other cases generalizes too much.  Ethics are generally relative and subject to situation, circumstance and culture. 


Goodman, L. E. (2010, November 1). Some Moral Minima. The Good Society , 19, pp. 87-94.

Waller, B. N. (2008). Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues (2nd ed.). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.

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