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”.

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]

Comments

  1. #1 Phillip IV
    April 10, 2010

    I have always found the “absolute moral standards” argument to be utterly bizarre, for one simple reason: There is no evidence whatsoever for the actual existence of any of the many different types of higher beings proposed by religions over the millennia – so adopting any one of the various and contradictory sets of rules these religions have developed as an absolute standard is still just an arbitrary
    individual decision
    .

    In the absence of objective evidence, saying “I hold behaviour A to be immoral on the basis of my own moral convictions” is no more subjective than saying “I hold behaviour A to be immoral on the basis of my adaption of moral standard B as absolute”.

    Even if we would all agree that an absolute, external, objective source of morality was desirable for a society (and I don’t think it would be), that still wouldn’t change the fact that such a source simply does not exist. Thus, moral standards will always remain subjective and relative, no matter whether a fictive godhead is interjected or not.

  2. #2 Ahcuah
    April 10, 2010

    Interestingly, Tribe A is exercising the absolute moral standards endorsed and followed in the Old Testament.

    And if you say those were superceded by the New Testament, that doesn’t make them very “absolute,” now does it?

  3. #3 Bob Carlson
    April 10, 2010

    As discussed here Cardinal Ratzinger was denouncing moral relativism just before he became Pope, back in 2005. It turns out that back in 1985, Ratzinger had written a letter in which he delayed action in defrocking a priest who had molested children because of “concerns about the priest’s young age [38] and how any dismissal would affect the church.” I guess the message is that moral relativism is bad, except when it is used to defend the church.

  4. #4 Craig Pennington
    April 10, 2010

    In the absence of objective evidence, saying “I hold behaviour A to be immoral on the basis of my own moral convictions” is no more subjective than saying “I hold behaviour A to be immoral on the basis of my adaption of moral standard B as absolute”.

    I’ve had the same discussion countless times — the result is almost universally that the other side does not see that it’s a mere shifting of deck chairs. They don’t recognize that there is no objective justification for their assertion of moral absolutes.

  5. #5 Dave X
    April 10, 2010

    Where does anyone get the “universal moral standard”? Out of some book written by Tribe A’s troubadours? Instead of A vs B, how about Moses vs the Midianites?

  6. #6 Bob Carlson
    April 10, 2010

    Re my #3, I hadn’t yet seen the poster illustrating the point.

  7. #7 Thomas
    April 10, 2010

    Phillip, it’s even worse than what you describe. Even if there was evidence of an all powerful God, that wouldn’t automatically make him or his rules good. Christians always pick and choose what rules in the Bible to follow, yet few see the contradiction in that to be able to do this they must have some other source of morality to make that choice so the Bible can’t be the objective source of moral.

  8. #8 Tony P
    April 10, 2010

    Formerly Truthspew here. Noticed that you hit on it momentarily and move on.

    It is the whole concept of judgment. The religious tend to think of themselves as being the judges and that explains their asinine spouting about objective morality.

  9. #9 Russell
    April 10, 2010

    What Jason misses is that positing a god does nothing to resolve the situation. When you ask why their god’s commands should be taken as absolute, Christians swirl around a) because their god is absolutely good, which assumes the latter can be defined and tested independent of their god, b) because their god defines good, which is simply a circular argument, c) because their god will damn those who don’t, which merely reifies absolute might as what they take to be good, or d) because their god created the universe, which merely reifies creative power as what they take to be good. All of these are every bit as relativistic as anyone else’s morality, except a), which assumes an absolute good that stands independent of god.

  10. #10 Nomen Nescio
    April 10, 2010

    and Russell just summed up some points Socrates worsened his own position with back before christ was even (supposedly) born. moral absolutists haven’t come up with any real answers to them since then.

  11. #11 Owlmirror
    April 10, 2010

    Consider various formulations of the Golden Rule:

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were them.

    Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

    Where is “God” mentioned in any of these?

    God isn’t necessary for ethical or moral behavior. Only caring about the consequences of your actions on others matters.

    Of course, “others” may have a very limited definition (friends and family), or a more humanistic one (all humans), or a universal one (all living beings), or somewhere in-between based on some potentially personally relevant criteria — being of the same nation, or same species, or closely related by evolution, or having relatively high intelligence, or having a nervous system. Of course, the broader the definition of “others”, the harder it is to actually implement; conflict, in some cases, is inevitable.

    Narrower definitions of “others” are pragmatically justifiable because human relations are interdependent; altruism has a payoff in reciprocity. There may be a weaker pragmatic justification for a broader definition, but this is obviously something that is highly debatable.

    And so on and so forth.

  12. #12 Andrew G.
    April 10, 2010

    Beware the fallacy of the excluded middle.

    I’m a moral universalist; that is to say I reject both moral relativism (and therefore have no problem with judging that tribe A’s behaviour in that example is morally wrong) and moral absolutism (any statement of the form “action X is morally wrong regardless of the circumstances”).

    I don’t make any claim that moral universals aren’t grounded in specifically human nature (and therefore might not apply to, say, aliens or artificial intelligences, should any show up). But nor do I claim that morally good behaviour is necessarily natural; some of the recent criticism of Sam Harris’s position has focused on the prevalence of immorality in history in an attempt to claim that morality doesn’t have a factual basis, which is missing the point.

    Human moral emotions are about as well adapted to human society as the human backbone is adapted to bipedalism: well enough to work, most of the time, but obviously suboptimal (and increasingly so in modern society).

  13. #13 Art
    April 10, 2010

    [i]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.[/i]

    You mean like the Israelites were told to do by Jehovah?

    Seems like a sliding standard is a very evil thing, unless, an imaginary supernatural being tells you otherwise.

  14. #14 Rose Colored Glasses
    April 10, 2010

    Whenever I encounter ‘absolute’ outside of mathematics, I smell a phony.

    Moral absolutes? Name one.

  15. #15 llewelly
    April 10, 2010

    Moral absolutes? Name one.

    That’s easy. People who advocate or enforce the use of internet explorer are absolutely immoral.

  16. #16 Marcus Ranum
    April 10, 2010

    collectively negotiated

    What if someone disagrees?

    Or, what if more or less everyone collectively agrees that something like slavery is morally acceptable – as they used to? It’s hard to say “slavery used to be moral but now it’s not” and sound like you have anything resembling a sense of right and wrong.

  17. #17 steve oberski
    April 10, 2010

    As pointed out above, Jasons example is right out of the old testament. The chosen people were on a non stop orgy of rape, pillage, incest, genocide, ethnic cleaning etc. at the behest of their invisible sky fairy.

    They were up to their necks in the blood and gore of “moral absolutism”.

    Civilization would have been far better off with a bit more of “societal ideals and individual preference” and a lot less of bronze age mythology made up by nomadic goat herders who didn’t even understand germ theory. Not that I blame the bronze age goat herders, they were ignorant and didn’t know any better.

    Jason, on the other hand, puts his ignorance on an alter and worships it as a god.

  18. #18 mad the swine
    April 10, 2010

    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”.

    In other words, when your tribe rapes and murders (lol, ‘peace-keeping troops’. War is peace, amirite?) it’s the right and moral thing to do. When these other tribes rape and murder, it’s wrong and immoral. As for ‘educators’? The ‘kill them or convert them to Western secularism’ position is no more beneficial – and, from some standpoints, less beneficial – than the old-fashioned ‘kill them or convert them to Christianity’ missionary standard. Try and be a little less ethnocentric next time.

  19. #19 Bob Carlson
    April 10, 2010

    I now realize that the question that began this thread was originally posed to me. I couldn’t improved on Martin’s response, however.

    Perhaps another thread could be started on the question of whether Dawkins and Hitchens should be attempting to arrange the arrest of the Pope upon his planned visit to the UK. What would happen if, for example, this were to so stress out the Pope that he expired during his visit there? Would this make him a martyr and lead to him acquiring sainthood? How ironic would that be?

  20. #20 steve oberski
    April 10, 2010

    Would this make him a martyr and lead to him acquiring sainthood?

    I’m pretty sure Ratzinger would be thrown under the wheels of the sex scandal bus along with John Paul II in an attempt to deflect blame. Not that either of them are blameless, but a scapegoat (another old testament moral absolute by the way) is always handy.

    Bad popes, no sainthood for either of you.

    Make me wonder why sainthood isn’t an automatic perk of the pope job.

  21. #21 Nomen Nescio
    April 10, 2010

    Make me wonder why sainthood isn’t an automatic perk of the pope job.

    don’t give U.S. employers any ideas. “this job comes with excellent fringe benefits — that kick in just as soon as you die.” i can see it now…

  22. #22 steve oberski
    April 10, 2010

    A the risk of completely derailing this thread, I have always considered the predilection that catholic clergy seem to have for children to just be part of an extremely comprehensive benefits package.

  23. #23 ganv
    April 10, 2010

    You have ended up responding with the same kind of rhetoric that the moral absolutist uses…stating your own viewpoint without bothering to understand the best version of your opponent’s ideas. Clearly there are big problems with moral absolutism. But there are also big problems with moral systems as ‘collectively negotiated and enforced constructs.’ The main problem is that this is not the way humans use their moral reasoning. They don’t say that homophobia is wrong because we have negotiated some construct. They say that homophobic laws violate some basic rights that exists even if a culture negotiates a tradition of suppressing homosexual behavior. As I see it, we have a deep problem. We have brains that developed to use moral absolutist categories…but we no longer believe that moral absolutes can be known… and so we keep using our absolutist moral instincts even though many people recognize them as not rooted in anything rational.

  24. #24 Jason
    April 10, 2010

    For those who maintain there are no moral absolutes:

    Is raping a child always wrong? If yes, wouldn’t this constitute a moral absolute? If no, please explain. Provide examples if you can.

  25. #25 steve oberski
    April 10, 2010

    Is raping a child always wrong?

    This sounds like a behaviour that leads to the worst possible misery for everyone.

    Can you think of a case where raping a child would result in the increase of the well being of conscious creatures ?

  26. #26 Tacroy
    April 11, 2010

    Jason: If you assume that all morality comes from God, then raping a child is moral when God commands you to do it. The problem is, how do you know that God hasn’t commanded you to rape that plump little altar boy? After all, you’re a holy man and have been one for your entire life; surely you know best what God’s will is in this matter!

    It’s so weird to me that theists argue for absolute morality, when their God-driven morality hinges on something that can’t be detected, can’t be seen, can’t be verified and can’t be reviewed.

    I mean, raping and pillaging was okay when God commanded the Israelites to do it, but it’s not okay now? What kind of “absolute morality” is that? If you pulled your morality out of the whole of the Bible (heck, even just the whole of the New Testament), you’d be a screwed up barbarian unfit for modern society.

    The only way they get around it is because the Bible says everything twice: one time yes, one time no. When they want their morals to say yes, they pull out the passage that says yes; when they want their morals to say no, they pull out the passage that says no. There’s passages that will support either side of almost any issue, and passages that are vague enough that they will support anything if you put them in the proper “context”.

  27. #27 bonvito
    April 11, 2010

    just a thought: would it be hard for atheist-archaeologists to interpret the archaeological record of religion if we take a detached approach to the question of spirituality and religion? if we subsume religion as quackery, science in itself will be at a loss to understand alternative theoretical elaborations.

  28. #28 MadScientist
    April 11, 2010

    For centuries christianity supported and promoted slavery. Religions only claim to be the penultimate authority on ethics, but it is a hollow claim. In fact poor Jason must have problems understanding the bible. His own god commanded people to rape and murder and take slaves. In more recent history Jason’s god told Dubbyah to wage war against Iraq. This christian god is such a wonderful source of morals (which of course are all absolute as claimed by the god worshippers).

  29. #29 Martin R
    April 11, 2010

    In #16, Marcus R asked, “What if someone disagrees?”

    They’re free to disagree. If they break certain of the tribal rules we call them criminals or sociopaths.

    what if more or less everyone collectively agrees that something like slavery is morally acceptable – as they used to? It’s hard to say “slavery used to be moral but now it’s not” and sound like you have anything resembling a sense of right and wrong.

    I don’t see a problem. Morals are not timeless and global. They are historically situated and local. Perhaps I should emphasise that my tribe has condemned slavery since the 14th century.

  30. #30 Martin R
    April 11, 2010

    Jason asked, Is raping a child always wrong? If yes, wouldn’t this constitute a moral absolute? If no, please explain.

    My point above is that nothing is “always wrong”: there is no timeless source of morality. But your question strikes me as curious. AFAIK there is not a single jurisdiction on the planet where child rape is legal. I certainly don’t condone it.

  31. #31 Akhôrahil
    April 11, 2010

    I’m a little surprised at how easily you default to the post-modernist position of relativism and pure social construction in the matter of morals. What’s wrong with a naturalistic position, like the utilitarian one for instance?

    (That’s why the argument you’re referring to in the original post makes a false dichotomy. You don’t have to choose between moral objectivism – that there are individual moral facts floating in the universe – and subjectivism/relativism. There is also the naturalistic position, which seems the promising one if you’re going to get anywhere.)

  32. #32 bob koepp
    April 11, 2010

    Martin, et al – If you think relativism provides an adequate account of morality, how about the epistemic domain? ‘Tribal truths’ — has a nice alliterative ring about it.

  33. #33 Martin R
    April 11, 2010

    Akhy, what do you mean, “promising”, “get anywhere”? I agree that moral naturalism is a good way to explain the empirical fact that most moral systems converge. But that is not what morals are or do.

    I should perhaps explain that my moral relativism has little to do with post-modernism. It instead follows from my materialistic world-view. Morals simply can’t have an independent existence as they are immaterial. They are culture.

    Bob, I am a firm foe of, and perennial campaigner against, epistemic relativism. To put this in in everyday English, I don’t think knowledge about the world is just something people make up and agree upon. There either is or is not milk in the fridge and it is not too hard to find out what the case currently is.

  34. #34 Andrew G.
    April 11, 2010

    AFAIK there is not a single jurisdiction on the planet where child rape is legal.

    Hmm… I think you’re being a bit optimistic there.

    Ethiopia:

    In 2003 – the last year for which statistics are available – the National Committee on Traditional Practices of Ethiopia found that 69 per cent of marriages begin like this, with the triple-whammy of abduction, rape, and a forced signature. In a country with a mixture of Protestant, Catholic and Muslim, all religions practise it equally.

    [...]

    Bridal abductions have been technically illegal since 2005, but, outside the capital, the law is interpreted very loosely by the police and judges. When a 13-year-old girl called Woineshet Zebene Negash became the first Ethiopian ever legally to challenge a bridal abduction, the judge at her trial said: “What is the problem? He loves you – that’s why he abducted you.” He added she probably wasn’t a virgin before the kidnapping – the medical tests were inconclusive – and so it couldn’t be rape because “nobody wants to rape a girl who isn’t a virgin”. Even the girl’s defence attorney said in court: “I think [she] was, like, ‘Please rape me’.”

    You don’t think that a culture in which more than two-thirds of marriages start with the abduction and rape of the bride is in any sense immoral?

    Let’s try another:

    Yemen:

    Fifteen is the favoured age for a bride here. But Ahmed knows a girl who married when she was eight.

    She married her cousin, who was 22. On their wedding night, he expected sex. She didn’t understand. She screamed and tried to run away, but her aunt – her husband’s mother – came into the room, and ordered her son to “touch her”, as Ahmed describes it.

    and:

    A 13-year-old Yemeni girl has died of internal bleeding three days after being married, rights groups say.

    The report comes amid ongoing debate on setting a minimum age for brides in Yemen, where more than a quarter of girls are married before the age of 15.

    A 2009 law setting the minimum age at 17 was repealed after some lawmakers said it was un-Islamic. A final decision is due this month.

    Still sure about that?

  35. #35 Andrew G.
    April 11, 2010

    I should perhaps explain that my moral relativism has little to do with post-modernism. It instead follows from my materialistic world-view. Morals simply can’t have an independent existence as they are immaterial. They are culture.

    A materialistic world-view does not automatically entail moral relativism or even moral anti-realism; the position of ethical naturalism opposes these.

  36. #36 Martin R
    April 11, 2010

    You mean that people are not just basically decent by nature and have a strong innate capacity for empathy and solidarity, as I argued above, but that they have some built-in more detailed system of morality?

  37. #37 Andrew G.
    April 11, 2010

    You mean that people are not just basically decent by nature and have a strong innate capacity for empathy and solidarity, as I argued above, but that they have some built-in more detailed system of morality?

    No.

    I’ll comment further once you’ve attended to your moderation queue.

  38. #38 bob koepp
    April 11, 2010

    Martin –
    The fact that there are “not too hard” mehtods for determining whether there is, indeed, milk in the fridge doesn’t seem to me to be particularly relevant. Drawing metaphysical conclusions from epistemological premises is a risky business. There are a lot of descriptive (i.e., non-evaluative) statements, including a great many that are expressed in terms of well-confirmed scientific theories, to which we don’t have such “easy epistemic access.” In other words, difficulty in determining the truth-value of a statement is not much of a reason to doubt that there is some “fact of the matter.”

  39. #39 Martin R
    April 11, 2010

    You don’t think that a culture in which more than two-thirds of marriages start with the abduction and rape of the bride is in any sense immoral?

    *sigh* Of course I do. But this is not a discussion of what behaviours Martin Rundkvist finds immoral. It’s a discussion of whether we have access to any timeless source of moral absolutes. And nobody has been able to point us in the direction of one. Those Ethiopians just strengthened my point further.

  40. #40 Akhôrahil
    April 11, 2010

    >Morals simply can’t have an independent existence
    >as they are immaterial. They are culture.

    The entire point of ethical naturalism is that there doesn’t have to be independent moral facts. The hedonist, for instance, doesn’t say there are (independent) moral facts floating about. Rather, hedonism identifies an ethical concept, such as value, with a natural phenomenon, in this case pleasure. This, in turn, means that when someone asks “What should I do?”, you can now answer with a “Well, out of your options, D seems to be the one that causes the largest surplus of pleasure – you should go with that one!” and you can meaningfully criticize another culture by claiming that their way of doing things is not conducive to pleasure (although you might of course be mistaken). Perhaps most importantly, it gives you a position to evaluate your social system from ‘outside’ – “you know, this slavery thing that we’ve always had, we should change it – it really doesn’t result in the greatest good for the greatest number”.

    This is completely compatible with physicalism (don’t use ‘materialism’, that’s a severely outdated term). You’re putting up a false dichotomy by saying that since there can’t be independent moral facts, morals must be relative.

    The point is also that this is a much stronger toolset than replying “In our culture, we think C, although that’s just a more or less arbitrary construction, and when we criticize those guys over there for [insert favorite despicable practice here], the criticism is equally arbitrary.”

    >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”.

    Why?

    Given that you’ve just argued that morals are completely relative and without any kind of connection to moral factuals, what could this intervention possibly accomplish? (Apart, of course, from making you feel good about yourself, or stopping them from invading you next, or other purely practical consequences.)

  41. #41 Nomen Nescio
    April 11, 2010

    Given that you’ve just argued that morals are completely relative and without any kind of connection to moral factuals, what could this intervention possibly accomplish?

    it could change people’s lives. and, when you get right down to it, what else is there?

  42. #42 Jonathan Jarrett
    April 11, 2010

    The problem I have with Martin’s tribe here is that I don’t think they would have a problem with the US invasion of Iraq. They would in fact have less of a problem with it than the US did, in as much as no justification by threat would be needed. My tribe would like to deprecate intervention on a supposedly moral basis more than that. But, as Martin says, it comes down to who has the resources, not who has what morals.

  43. #43 Andrew G.
    April 11, 2010

    A:

    You mean that people are not just basically decent by nature and have a strong innate capacity for empathy and solidarity, as I argued above, but that they have some built-in more detailed system of morality?

    B:

    It’s a discussion of whether we have access to any timeless source of moral absolutes. And nobody has been able to point us in the direction of one. Those Ethiopians just strengthened my point further.

    OK. Let me test my understanding here. You seem to me to be assuming in point (A) that moral realism is necessarily grounded in actual behaviour; and in point (B) arguing that since there exist societies whose ethos is immoral from your perspective that this necessarily entails relativism, which position seems to me to contain the hidden assumption that the ethos of a society is automatically morally valid. Needless to say both assumptions are false.

    Moral realism (the position that ethical statements have a truth value) does not in any way require that that truth value is automatically taken into account by the person acting on the statement. In particular, most people make moral judgements on a largely emotional basis, and our moral emotions are, as I said before, adapted to modern society no better than our backbones are. We don’t argue that physical theories are false or nonexistent because they tell us that our skeleton is suboptimally constructed, so why should we argue that moral theories are false or nonexistent because they tell us that our historical (and in some cases current) behaviour is ethically suboptimal?

  44. #44 Martin R
    April 11, 2010

    It’s probably painfully clear to commenters with university training in ethics that I have no such schooling. Yet I’ll answer as best I can.

    Akh’il asked why I would send peace-keeping troops to keep Tribe A from screwing over tribe B and teach tribe A peaceful morals. He suggested that this couldn’t possibly do any good. This strikes me as very odd. I’m sure that Akh’il would keep bullies from harassing smaller kids in school and help the former improve their ways. My solidarity takes all sentient beings as its in-group.

    Jon said, “The problem I have with Martin’s tribe here is that I don’t think they would have a problem with the US invasion of Iraq.”

    Peace-keeping missions are fine IMHO, but only if you have a UN mandate and if you don’t lie to your constituents about why you want to intervene. Neither of this was true in the case of the Iraq war.

    Andrew and I keep asking each other what the other means. Having learned the term “moral realism” from him, I’ll just rephrase what I said in my blog entry above: I reject moral realism. Ethical statements are prescriptive and have no truth value. Yes, the ethos of a society is automatically morally valid in its local context (barring any unforeseen technical meaning of the word “ethos” that might differ from the vernacular that I write).

  45. #45 Akhôrahil
    April 11, 2010

    I probably didn’t make myself clear about the armed intervention, so let me rephrase:

    Given that moral systems (in your view) are relative and arbitrary, and given that you’re aware of this, why would you want to intervene? Why would you want to impose your moral system on someone else if you don’t actually think it’s in some relevant way actually better than theirs? Because if not, how is this not just some kind of memetic imperialism? Do you want to spread your morals not because they’re better, but because they’re yours?

  46. #46 Andrew G.
    April 11, 2010

    I’ll just rephrase what I said in my blog entry above: I reject moral realism. Ethical statements are prescriptive and have no truth value. Yes, the ethos of a society is automatically morally valid in its local context (barring any unforeseen technical meaning of the word “ethos” that might differ from the vernacular that I write).

    Well, I doubt I’m going to change your position then; but I will note that in a recent major survey of professional philosophers both naturalism and moral realism are majority positions (though they haven’t published any inter-question correlations yet, unfortunately).

    Some questions to consider (for which I don’t necessarily have the answers):

    1. If a culture’s ethos (by which I mean nothing more than its customary norms, values etc.) changes over time, is it more likely to change in some directions rather than others?

    2. 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?

    3. Does education alone, without any specific intent to change cultural values, have any effect on cultural ethos?

    I would argue that relativism implies a “no” answer to all of the above, and that a “yes” answer implies some form of factual basis for morality. Of course the questions may not be answerable – there are a lot of confounding factors, and experimentation would be difficult…

  47. #47 Martin R
    April 12, 2010

    Given that moral systems (in your view) are relative and arbitrary, and given that you’re aware of this, why would you want to intervene?

    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.

    Do you want to spread your morals not because they’re better, but because they’re yours?

    Neither, really. Because they look much better than the alternatives to an observer inside this specific moral system, such as myself.

    If a culture’s ethos changes over time, is it more likely to change in some directions rather than others?

    That’s an empirical question answerable by historic research. Something known as the “civilising process” has actually been going on for a few centuries. I wouldn’t want to generalise this onto a scale of 10,000s of years as a “law” though.

    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.

    Does education alone, without any specific intent to change cultural values, have any effect on cultural ethos?

    No. Try sending everybody to business school.

  48. #48 Martin R
    April 12, 2010

    BTW, Nomen Nescio, could you please befriend me on Facebook and give me a shout there?

  49. #49 Akhôrahil
    April 12, 2010

    I’ve seen that survey before, but I always find something new and interesting in it. Great stuff!

  50. #50 Randy the Atheist
    April 12, 2010

    “….if we subsume religion as quackery, science in itself will be at a loss to understand alternative theoretical elaborations…”

    An elaborate way to claim science is a religion.
    Scientists develop theories, direct and alternative, because there is a factual piece of evidence that something is amiss. For instance, the latest theory of DARK MATTER has been postulated, not because we’re making a titanic leap of faith, but rather, its because we cannot find the missing mass of galactic measurements. Every theory ever postulated emerged due to evidence providing clues to additional pieces of the puzzle.

  51. #51 Akhôrahil
    April 12, 2010

    >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.)

  52. #52 Martin R
    April 12, 2010

    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.

  53. #53 Anthony Ruter
    April 12, 2010

    Martin,
    Sam Harris has something to contribute here have you seen this?
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

  54. #54 Akhôrahil
    April 12, 2010

    > 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.

  55. #55 Martin R
    April 12, 2010

    There are people who love death metal and hate the Beatles. QED.

  56. #56 Akhôrahil
    April 12, 2010

    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.)

  57. #57 Martin R
    April 12, 2010

    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?

  58. #58 Randy the Atheist
    April 12, 2010

    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.

  59. #59 Akhôrahil
    April 12, 2010

    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.

  60. #60 Randy the Atheist
    April 12, 2010

    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

  61. #61 Akhôrahil
    April 12, 2010

    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.

  62. #62 abb3w
    April 12, 2010

    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.

  63. #63 Andrew G.
    April 12, 2010

    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?

  64. #64 Martin R
    April 12, 2010

    It’s a very big question. I can’t answer it. And I doubt that the issue is amenable to even semi-rigorous testing.

  65. #65 PsyberDave
    April 12, 2010

    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.

  66. #66 bob koepp
    April 12, 2010

    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…

  67. #67 PsyberDave
    April 13, 2010

    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.

  68. #68 walter
    April 14, 2010

    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.

  69. #69 Dan J
    April 14, 2010

    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).

  70. #70 Darmien
    April 16, 2010

    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.

  71. #71 Martin R
    April 20, 2010

    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.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.