Sunday, December 11, 2011

Moar on Moral Relativism

I continue to take a beating on my defense of moral relativism. Initially, the main purpose of my defense was to make only one claim:
To acknowledge cultural conditioning in morality does not prevent one from judging specific actions of another culture.
This claim still seems indisputably correct.

As is my wont, I took the one claim further and laid out a thumbnail defense of moral relativism. I was perhaps mistaken to do so, now that I reflect on matters. For one thing, I am not a philosopher and before these posts I have neither fully explored nor concretely adopted any particular philosophical stand related to morality. My mistake, then, has been to lock myself into a position of moral relativism before I have thoroughly investigated the scholarship in and around it.

Nevertheless, certain elements of relativism and objectivism seem irrefutable:
  1. Cultural factors do play a role in what people consider moral and immoral behavior. Surely, we can agree on this?
  2. An objectivist position that asserts universal rightness or wrongness of specific behavior/category X is indefensible. How can any human phenomenon, such as morality, be universal?
Beyond these elements, the important parts of the discussion concern not only when one is permitted to pass moral judgment on an act, as I've mentioned, but also when one is permitted to impose one's own morality on others by acting punitively or otherwise by prohibiting specific behavior.

I've also made a severe charge against some of the objectivists I have encountered:
Here's what I think actually is going on with these folks: What they are really after is sufficient justification for imposing one-world under Christianity. They're looking for the reason, not to use it necessarily but for the security of having it. They are like a nation that trusts only itself with nuclear weapons and doesn't get why that would make everyone else nervous.
Honestly, these statements frighten me a bit because they are serious. Yet, I am not sure they are incorrect. That's why I have not revised or stricken them. Perhaps someone can show me a reason to think I am wrong on these charges, but Christianity's self-appointed mission to evangelize strikes me as a reason to think I'm correct.  

So what now? I will read up over the next week or two and aim to come back with a better articulated version of my position--whatever it may be--and why I think it is the most reasonable.

A week or two is virtually no time, and the matters under discussion can legitimately take a lifetime to argue and to study. I know that, and I mean no disrespect to the subject or the people who study it. My modest aim is to put together something coherent and more considered; my aim, in other words, is to improve.

I need 2012 to be about my dissertation, more than anything else. Many topics, and indeed blogging itself, will probably be placed on the back burner next year.


  1. Wow, you weren't kidding about taking a beating. I felt compelled to add my two cents to that other discussion but by the end it seems it would have been pointless.

    At the very least I wanted to point out that there is no hypocrisy in the position that there is no such thing as moral truth. One can easily believe in existence of truth but simultaneously believe that there is no such thing as a universal morality.

    Incidentally you may be interested that, whereas I happen to fall mostly in the moral relativism camp, my wife of 25 years does not. She might best be described as an Atheistic moral objectivist (though perhaps after reading the following, you'll have a better term).

    Put simply, she believes that there does exist a collection of "best" moral principles. These ideal principles are not God-Given nor does she claim to know what they are or even to be able to list a single one of them.

    And she doesn't even have a precise definition of "best" other than to say that:

    1. There is a unique "best" collection of moral principles.
    2. A society that lives according to these moral principles will be more likely to thrive and its members will enjoy a greater level of happiness than those that adopt a lesser system.
    3. This "best" morality is stable in that any society adopting such principles will be highly resistant to outside "immoral" influences.
    4. Even if conquered and forced to adopt a "lesser" system of morality, people who have lived under the ideal system of morality will, on average, want to return to that system.

    Note: #3 is mostly there to rule out any system whose members are only happy by virtue of being drugged or by having their pleasure centers continuously stimulated. And #4 is there to rule out systems in which segments of society are oppressed and/or uneducated but who still profess to be happy under that system.

    Personally, I do not believe that such a system exists. But I certainly cannot prove that one does not, nor would I attempt to.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I always appreciate that people don't have to agree about "serious" things to be very fond of each other. People make way too much of disagreements and "compatibility."

  3. Ri,

    Let's look at something pretty basic. Do you think that its possible, all other things being equal, for a society in which people had no taboo against its members indiscriminately killing one another, to thrive - or to thrive more than a society which did have a taboo against indiscriminate killing (again, all other things being equal)?

    If not, why not just call a taboo against indiscriminate killing a moral fact?

  4. "why not just call a taboo against indiscriminate killing a moral fact?"

    Because the way you are talking about it suggests that it's neither a moral concern nor a factual one.

    It's more a matter of practicality and enlightened self-interest, on the one hand, and a matter of interpretation or attitude. You have to evaluate what defines "indiscriminate" and what describes "thriving." The evaluations of indiscriminacy and thriving will necessarily be arbitrary.

    So you are not talking about moral facts but reasoned and negotiated lines in the sand. You're talking about socially constructed social/political/legal contracts.

    Calling things moral facts because a cursory reflection makes them seem plausible and reasonable to us is not good enough.

  5. I suggest for your studies read the two first books of the Plato´s Republic and try to answer the questions made there based on this:

    "An objectivist position that asserts universal rightness or wrongness of specific behavior/category X is indefensible. How can any human phenomenon, such as morality, be universal?"

  6. Good suggestion, Chesterton.

    Sounds, however, like you already "know" an answer. Am I right?

  7. There two answers with its consequnces, you have to choose one.
    I chose the right one.

  8. Then I'd ask just what the alleged difference is between a "moral concern", and a practical one?

    I'd suggest they are one and the same - or at least, that moral concerns are a subset of practical concerns. That would make me a species of utilitarian or consequentialist. I don't know why it seems to be a given that there must be some division there.

    But taboo's of that sort would not just be negotiated lines in the sand - they would be the rational thing to do, in order to flourish (or what they would do, to seek that which is sought for its own sake).

    Now "flourish" is a tricky thing to define and hard to get at. But it has something to do, at least, with avoiding unnecessary misery, and experiencing happiness. But I don't think an exhaustive definition is necessary for us to make moral progress (or to be a moral realist). "Health" is a tricky thing to really define too, in an identical respect, but most of have no problem saying that its objectively true, that to repeatedly stab oneself in the leg is objectively unhealthy.

    Similarly, I don't know why we should be so resistant to the idea of saying its objectively wrong to murder a person.

  9. Off the cuff, I'd say the difference between moral concerns and practical ones is that morality is largely a question of emotional attitude toward something. To praise an act as virtuous is to be especially approving of it. A practical concern has some material value for someone. Something can be practically beneficial yet also cheap and undeserving of approval. So I don't get how you would put moral concerns and practical ones together.

    Without being especially resistant to objectivism, isn't "murder" something deserving of disapproval and punishment by definition? What is the specific feature of murder that is always and forever wrong, not matter who or what commits the act?

  10. @Chesterton,

    Well, the important thing is that you feel justified.

  11. Larry, I asked you on my blog for your definition of moral relativism, as you recall. Here the question is relevant again. You say you merely wanted to defend the position,

    "To acknowledge cultural conditioning in morality does not prevent one from judging specific actions of another culture."

    The problem with defending that position is that no one is attacking it. No one I know of disagrees with it. The position I disagree with is more like this:

    "To hold that morality is *entirely* a matter of cultural conditioning does not prevent one from judging specific actions of another culture."

    But that doesn't quite get there, either. I don't disagree with that version yet. The one I disagree with would be along these lines:

    "If morality is entirely a matter of cultural conditioning, that does not prevent one from being morally right when judging specific actions of another culture."

    I think on my blog you were attacking a straw man: that we disagreed with your position as you stated it here. As I hope you can see now, that's not the case.

  12. Tom,

    Your last formulation is problematic because there wouldn't be an absolute "morally right" if morality is entirely a matter of cultural conditioning. In this view of morality, "morally right" is always "morally right according to the values of culture X that I agree with."

    Personally, I don't have a problem with saying I think this or that is "morally right according to the values of culture X that I agree with." Neither do I have a problem with someone else disagreeing with me. The only thing I have no use for is the idea of transcendent moral rightness. Why should anyone need to appeal to such a thing?

    On your blog, what I was "attacking" (from my recollection) was:

    1) That we can get from my formulation, the one at the top of your comment here, to the final formulation that you say you disagree with.
    2) That transcendent moral value was something real or possible or desirable.

    Does this make sense?


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.