Thursday, December 08, 2011

Moral Relativism and What Christian Moralists Really Want

I've been talking in one or two places across the blogosphere about moral relativism. Largely, the exercise has been frustrating because people have not even attempted to address my argument:
The argument in favor of moral relativism, therefore, boils down to this:
  • We are all already relativists in most every aspect of our daily lives.
  • Moral relativism is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is not itself a moral system but a condition of moral agents (plural) acting in the world.
  • Relativism does not entail moral equality between either acts or viewpoints.
  • Moral relativism does not preclude making, legislating, or enforcing moral behavior.
  • Relativism enables a necessary flexibility in assessing and evaluating moral acts, and improving moral law.
Yet in my travels, I've learned that the number-one source of discomfort for objectors is that moral relativism does not allow one to "claim the moral high ground."

Get that? Recognize that? They reject moral relativism because it does not give them the result they want: to be right, finally and irrevocably right. Being right--that is, having the moral high ground--is as political a position as there is: the superior vantage justifies imposing and enforcing the One True MoralityTM on absolutely everyone else.

I am not being hypocritical, self-righteous, or mean-spirited with the above comments. We know from the Mercier-Sperber paper that came out in SSRN this year that humans are built for the combat of argumentation, not the end-point of truth:
Abstract:
Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found. [emphasis added]
I want to list some of the common objections to moral relativism that I have heard, but I think tThe objections to moral relativism are worth noting, but I won't comment on them because they are easily dispatched:
  • Objection 1: Any and every moral value is A-OK.
  • Objection 2: No way to condemn Hitler, Stalin, etc.
  • Objection 3: No way to resolve moral debates.
  • Objection 4: No way to make moral progress.
I am disheartened that folks can't bring themselves to accept that other people and other cultures can have different moral values, or that our own moral values are historically and culturally contingent. I've also been surprised at the visceral component of the resistance to relativism. People react strongly against it, and they cling ferociously to the idea of objective moral values.

Clearly, something more than reason and even more than the moral high ground are at stake.

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.

5 comments:

  1. At one time, I used as an internet forum signature:
    "Show me a moral absolutist, and I will show you a moral relativist who absolutely wants to impose his relative morality on everyone else."

    I believe that was making a point similar to one of your main points.

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  2. You have a problem with Christians claiming the moral high ground. You have no problem claiming it for yourself, for example,

    "They reject moral relativism because it does not give them the result they want: to be right, finally and irrevocably right. Being right--that is, having the moral high ground--is as political a position as there is: the superior vantage justifies imposing and enforcing the One True MoralityTM on absolutely everyone else."

    If that's not a pronouncement of others' moral inferiority to you, then what is it? Again:

    "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.

    You do much more of the same on my blog, as I have explained here: http://www.thinkingchristian.net/2011/12/is-it-still-wrong-if-another-culture-says-it-is-right-a-teachers-surprising-discovery/#comment-32128

    You really are a hypocrite after all, in other words.

    ReplyDelete
  3. In response to Tom's comment:

    I don't see how Larry claims the moral high ground in this post. The rational high ground, perhaps, but not necessarily the moral high ground. His comment seems more descriptive than prescriptive.

    He points out a common human attitude: Our arguments tend to degenerate into arguing for the sake of arguing, because primarily we want to win, to "feel right," and this sensation of authority or correctness often takes precedence over actually being right. It's easier to forcefully argue a position (some position, any position) than to identify the correct position.

    Moral relativism acknowledges the difficulty inherent in making moral decisions and the impossibility of accessing transcendent, universal, unchanging moral knowledge. Acknowledging moral relativism in this sense prompts a reassessment of the way one has been thinking and talking about moral issues. Resistance to moral relativism may be grounded in the fear that one will no longer be able to argue in the same way that one has argued in the past. If one is an absolutist/transcendentalist/foundationalist/essentialist and becomes a relativist, it wouldn't be a nominal change; one would change something significant about the way one thinks and talks. I think that's what Larry is saying. He's suggesting specifically that relativists might be less likely to assume the mantle of moral authority over others. I don't see anything hypocritical about that observation.

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  4. Defined so loosely, moral relativism is nothing more than having an open mind about one's moral beliefs, or the moral beliefs of others. But that's not any meaningful form of relativism (perhaps there is no such thing).

    I know plenty of other moral realists/objectivists/whatever (including myself) who have rather open minds with respect to moral truths.

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  5. @nwrickert - I believe that is a point I am making. Some say that I myself am not immune to that charge.

    @Tom - See my comment above. It is indeed possible that I am a hypocrite. I'll try to do better, but surely you have something to say about the arguments themselves?

    @Stone Dead - Well said.

    @drj - I shall try to get more specific, but having an open mind isn't such a bad thing either. As an atheist, I often hear from the religious that I should keep an open mind.

    ReplyDelete

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