On Moral Relativism

In the context of religion versus atheism. Dear Reader Jason has expressed a need for moral absolutes that is quite common among conservatives. Wrote he,

“The bane of atheistic thought based on naturalism is that it cannot account for objective moral absolutes. All that is left is societal ideals and individual preference.”

“There are two tribes, A and B. Tribe A is composed of hunters and warriors; however, within the community itself they are loving and caring to one another. Tribe is B is composed of farmers and gatherers; they are peaceful and loving to one another. Tribe A decides that Tribe B has some things it wants, so it attacks. Tribe B is decimated; men killed, women raped, children either killed or brought in as slaves.

Is Tribe A wrong? If they have no remorse, or no feelings of guilt toward the brutality, perhaps it’s because they didn’t know them and were more concerned about their own needs. What do you do with these types of situations?”

My view is that morals are collectively negotiated and enforced constructs. It works fine since mentally healthy people are basically decent by nature and have a strong innate capacity for empathy and solidarity.

Jason rightly points out above that with my approach to morals, it is impossible to judge tribe A’s behaviour as essentially evil by any independent universal standard. But I don’t see the need for such a universal moral standard. I don’t claim the right to judge tribes A and B from any other perspective than that negotiated in my own tribe.

As for his question, “What do you do with these types of situations?”, it’s a separate issue. My reply is “If I have enough resources, I send peace-keeping troops and educators to teach tribe A my own tribe’s opinion that we are all brothers”.

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71 thoughts on “On Moral Relativism

  1. >Because of historically contingent
    >features of the moral system I myself
    >subscribe to. Most importantly the
    >idea that everybody is worthy of
    >compassion and solidarity, not just
    >the people in my country, village or
    >patrilineage.

    However, you also believe that that this idea of solidarity is nothing but a prejudice inflicted on you by the process of socialization. Why, when you’re aware of this, would you want to give your own moral system preferential treatment, knowing it’s relative and arbitrary? What would be the point? And similarly, if you see a child drowning, couldn’t you (even reasonably!) think “My society says that I should rescue the child, but of course, that moral stance is pure construction, so if I let the child drown, my only sin is not doing what society groundlessly claims I should do.”?

    By the way, just to check on your position in a philosophically technical manner, just what kind of meaning does a moral statement (if indeed it is a statement!) such as “Rape is wrong” have? Does it have a truth-value at all? (So-called ‘Error Theory’, a form of moral non-realism, argues that all value statements are false.) If it doesn’t, is the statement meaningless? (It doesn’t seem meaningless, does it, unless you’re some kind of logical positivist?) Or should the sentence be interpreted as “Boo for rape!” (moral emotivism)? When you say “Rape is wrong”, does it include the implied component “and you should think so too!”?

    What I’m driving at is that meta-ethics is an extremely complicated field, and that (as usual in philosophy) every position is fraught with its own problems and difficulties. There are large numbers of possible positions apart from the simple (and false) dichotomy between objective and relative morality. I’m certainly nowhere near as sure about my meta-ethical position as you seem to be (although I’m leaning towards a position of some kind of ethical naturalism).

    (Old joke: Of course universities are repositories of knowledge. Students come in knowing everything and leave knowing nothing. The difference has to be kept somewhere.)

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  2. you also believe that that this idea of solidarity is nothing but a prejudice inflicted on you by the process of socialization. Why, when you’re aware of this, would you want to give your own moral system preferential treatment, knowing it’s relative and arbitrary?

    Because it is an emotionally internalised part of my identity and way of thinking. I could just as well have been raised to see people from Gothenburg as sub-humans that I was encouraged to hunt and eat. People are built to feel solidarity to an in-group, but the definition of this in-group is negotiable. I do believe however that all sane people feel bad about themselves if they transgress against a member of whatever in-group they see themselves as belonging to. Nazis love their children too.

    what kind of meaning does a moral statement (if indeed it is a statement!) such as “Rape is wrong” have?

    It is a statement of opinion. Moral statements are similar if not identical to aesthetic ones. “This is a masterful painting.” “Bach was a genius”. “Prostitutes are victims and johns are criminals”. As you suggested I put it, it’s basically a matter of physicalism.

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  3. > It is a statement of opinion.
    > Moral statements are similar
    > if not identical to aesthetic ones.

    However, do note that in professional philosophy, aesthetic relativism is a minority position (although it’s a quite large minority). This frequently comes as a big surprise to non-philosophers.

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  4. Yep, I can tell it comes as a big surprise to you as well! 😉

    (Things are, of course, vastly more complex than your example tries to put it.)

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  5. Could you please mention briefly the main philosophical arguments for aesthetic absolutism? I mean, on a scale were we’re trying to argue that one Elizabethan playwright is objectively superior to another?

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  6. Morals are not pre-existing values that are reasoned into existence – rather – they are rules that are generated by the consensus of like-minded individuals.

    In order to understand the basis of morality, we must go far far back into time, to the source of all morality that began with the invention of the “clan”. The first and simplest of these clans were immediate families. When the first hominids began clustering together for greater protection, they formed clans which required a certain level of “appropriateness” amongst each other to preserve their fraternity. Those who did not practice clanship, suffered the brutal mechanism of extinction.

    Over great lengths of time, clan structures became more complex, involving cousin clans and breakaway clans. These cousin and breakaway clans eventually formed identities and customs of their own causing the formation of tribes. As external trade routes opened up and intercommunication took place, a wider appeal for common harmony ensued thus beginning the early stages of a unified moral code. These unified moral codes would later be called “laws” which varied widely depending on the type of social order that was agreed upon. They could be based on two tribal elders making a system centering on food restrictions or they could be based on two theives making a “blood pact” with each other.

    Morals change greatly depending on the society, or even on the side of the story you are on. They are not universal constants that all civilizations will somehow find. They are shaped by the varying conditions of circumstance, time and geography. Is murder absolutely wrong? No. It is subjectively wrong and will greatly depend on which side of the story you are on. Do morals exist when a person is completely alone? No. It only emerges when a group of individuals come together and agree upon certain behaviors. Thus, morals are not rules embedded within us – they are entirely a social phenomenon whose shape is determined by the consensus of the group’s cultures.

    In the far future, our morals we hold today will become outdated in the morals of tomorrow. Everything we fight for now, will someday be undone by the generation whose majority perceives its usefulness has expired.

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  7. As you might expect, philosophers don’t really agree in any kind of detailed way even within a tradition, but this page outlines the arguments in a decent way (perhaps surprisingly, there is no Wikipedia article):
    http://kimraymond.com/kimraymond.com/Aesthetics_-_Experience_and_Judgement.html

    And just as you argue for relativism from the fact of aesthetic diversity, one could argue for the objective view from the aesthetic similarity – very few people would argue that the handbook on web application testing that I have on my desk right now is artistically superiour to the collected works of Shakespeare. I would go so far as to say there’s something wrong with the person who does, or at least that his aesthetic sensibilities are seriously screwed up. It seems that there must be some kind of difference in aesthetically relevant properties between these two texts. It doesn’t seem to be completely arbitrary which one you’re likely to prefer. Teach a native of from the highlands of New Guinea English and I’d bet he’d still prefer Shakespeare.

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  8. Teach a native of from the highlands of New Guinea English and I’d bet he’d still prefer Shakespeare.

    Thats a bet you will most likely lose. ;p

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  9. You really think so? That he’d find a higher aesthetic value in Nguyen, Testing Applications on the Web, than in Shakespeare? That’s sounds very strange to me, and I also assume I would find a higher aesthetic value in the ceremonial dances (or whatever) of his people, than in the computer handbook.

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  10. Martin R: Jason rightly points out above that with my approach to morals, it is impossible to judge tribe A’s behaviour as essentially evil by any independent universal standard.

    This neglects the effects of introducing other tribes C and D, which prefer but do not insist on finding a more efficient alternative method for resolving the resource disputes than the “destroy them” approach by A (or the “do nothing effective” by B). This results in a larger CD tribe with more resources (EG: combat-suitable males), which when it encounters A, may tend to be in better position to adopt A-style tactics against A (since God generally favors the bigger battalions) after negotiation by “political” means fails.

    Of course, this presumes that “continued existence” is a basis for “good” and thus a bridge across the is-ought divide.

    Essentially, the negotiation in question is between tribes and the rest of the universe (animate and inanimate) over whether they get to continue existing.

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  11. If a culture’s ethos is changed by the deliberate acts of a group or social movement, is there any correspondence between the direction of change and the extent to which the methods used are based on true facts?

    No. History is not just changed by movements sympathetic to e.g. the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.

    That’s not quite my point. The question is whether the direction of change is linked to truth or falsity of fact claims made by the proponents. Or to put it bluntly, are there some social changes that can be accomplished only by lying?

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  12. I have a letter published on this very topic in the most recent Skeptical Inquirer where I take Massimo Pigliucci to task.

    I agree with Martin. People often treat morals as if they were empirically derived (observed and observable) facts. Morals are rules. Rules are inventions, not discoveries. Nobody ever discovered that it was wrong to behave in a certain manner. There are no units of measure, nor machines to detect wrongness. Then again, I am willing to be shown evidence otherwise. I await Sam Harris to demonstrate his claim, but I am not holding my breath.

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  13. PsyberDave – I’ll gesture in the direction of my earlier question to Martin about whether his relativism includes matters of epistemology. As for rules, are you quite sure that the rules of correct inference (i.e., rules for truth-preserving transformations over propositions) are inventions? They’re rules, after all…

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  14. Bob,

    It is my position that there is an observable universe that can be independently observed via empiricism. I think it is possible to observe THAT people have particular morals, but it is not possible to observe that a particular moral is correct or incorrect. I maintain that morals are essentially definitions. A definition is correct insofar as it declares what correctness is, but to argue that a moral is correct or incorrect seems nonsensical to me just as arguing that a definition is correct or incorrect. It is correct according to itself.

    The difference between morals and the observable world is that there is an epistemology of empiricism that can be used to verify the observable world, but I am unaware of the same ability in matters of morals. So I say relativism works very well when applied to morals, but not for the observable world.

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  15. I have a problem with the whole concept of moral values, absolute or otherwise. The concept of morality is a necessary illusion that facilitates social fluidity, beyond that is utterly pointless. Stating that tribe A was acting immorally is very nice, but as futile as stating that cancer is immoral. We attach no moral connotation to cancer behavior; we assume that it just is, nothing more. We may say that cancer is unfortunate, and to be avoided, but never immoral. Well the same goes for human behavior, it just is, nothing more. We may say certain behaviors are unfortunate and to be avoided, but nothing more.

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  16. Personally, I don’t really care what the professional philosophers think about moral relativism, aesthetic relativism, or basically anything else. The philosophers will change their stance again, as they have been doing for many centuries. Hard sciences have done the most to improve our standard of living on this planet. I don’t begrudge the philosophers their vocation, or their opinions; I simply choose to ignore them.

    Our collective morals regarding rape, murder, war, etc. were not handed to us by any god, as far as anyone has been able to show. They have not been seen to be an immutable law of the cosmos. They have been bred into us through millennia of generations. Show me a tribe where murder among the tribe members was the norm and I’ll show you a tribe that didn’t produce many offspring. The same goes for lying and rape. Activities that do not promote the common good of the tribe do not promote the continued existence of the tribe.

    As for the child-bride incidences in various places around the world: It really isn’t my place to say in regards to their morality, as those people are not part of my culture. Attempting to inflict my morals on them is akin to what religions have always been doing. Attempting to evacuate (surreptitiously, if need be) innocent (as I see them) members of the tribe (only if they desire the help) is the least intrusive option, IMO.

    Education is helpful, but doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Il Papa Ratzinger is well-educated, but is (IMO) a morally bankrupt scumbag according to his own professed morals (that’s where I take the liberty of judgment for members of other tribes: in the event of hypocrisy).

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  17. The bane of atheistic thought based on naturalism is that it cannot account for objective moral absolutes.

    1) That would only be a problem if the existence of objective moral absolutes could be unambiguously demonstrated.
    2) Many atheist philosophers believe in the existence of objective moral absolutes, and do not attribute their existence to deities.

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  18. Quoth Ak’hil:

    one could argue for the objective view from the aesthetic similarity – very few people would argue that the handbook on web application testing that I have on my desk right now is artistically superiour to the collected works of Shakespeare

    This is the issue addressed by Duchamp’s bottle drier and subsequent “found art“. It is possible to grab an object that was never intended as art and relate to it as art.

    But in my opinion, aesthetic absolutism is rather useless if all it allows us to do is predict that most sane people will prefer Shakespeare over computer manuals as entertainment. As I said, the aesthetic absolutism I reject is the one that suggests that the Beatles are objectively better than death metal, or that Shakespeare was objectively speaking the best English playwright of his age.

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