Not Moral Relativism! July 25, 2010

Not Moral Relativism!

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you claim moral relativism. Not everything in life is good or bad, right or wrong, all the time:

Read the full comic here.

(via @MykDowling)


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  • Elyssienne

    I think both you and the comic strip have misunderstood moral relativism. It has nothing to do with polar opposites with nothing in between, but everything to do with adjusting morals to cultural/religious/social/ethnic dictats.

    A moral relativist is a coward. S/he says that “I believe X is wrong but you can do it because it’s part of your culture/religion/social/ethnic grouping”.

    Honour killing? FGM? Stoning? Really?

  • Good try, Hemant. Now, let’s break out the thumbscrews on your first baby’s little hands and see if you actually mean it.*

    *Sorry for the alarming visual, but I had to think of something that would be nearly impossible for anyone to say ‘yeah, I can see when that would be necessary’ about. I could have just as easily said female genital mutilation or the stoning of women for uncovering their faces or any number of examples; but when I think Hemant, I think babies…

    P.S. Anyway, you did say “not everything” instead of “nothing”, so maybe we won’t need to break out the thumbscrews anyway.

  • Mikel

    And the prior comment has what to do with moral relativity? You don’t have to prove in any absolute sense that torturing babies is wrong in order to know that it is.

  • ManaCostly

    You dont need moral relativism for something to be morally neutral.

  • Philbert

    “Not everything in life is good or bad, right or wrong, all the time” – this doesn’t sound like relativism to me. The existence of tough moral decisions, or the dependence of those decisions on particular circumstances, is not relativism. From the wiki:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism

    “Descriptive relativism is merely the positive or descriptive position that there exist, in fact, fundamental disagreements about the right course of action even when the same facts obtain and the same consequences seem likely to arise.”

    The fact that you can’t generalize actions as right or wrong under all circumstances does not mean you endorse relativism – relativism means that even under the same set of circumstances, you can’t arrive at an objectively correct answer.

    EDIT: Now I’m confused as I notice the title of the post is “not moral relativism”.

  • Richard Wade

    Hortensio,
    In the places in the world where female genital mutilation or the stoning of women for uncovering their faces are practiced, those acts are seen as justified by moral absolutes. The people who carry them out are convinced that they are absolutely morally bound to do so. Just a few feet away, on the other side of a border that is only visible on a map, there are places where those acts are seen as absolutely morally wrong.

    Mind you, I’m glad that I live on my side of that border, but the other guy is probably glad he’s living on his side. How can I argue with him, trying to persuade him to stop doing those things, if I claim that I have a system of moral absolutes? He thinks he has a system of moral absolutes.

  • The title refers to the comic, where the fundie is upset that he sees “shades of grey”.

  • Moral relativism is an philosophically tenable position, but it’s a horrible position on which to base a civilization or nation.

    And while it’s likely more difficult to countenance from a secular prospective, objective morality can be supported this way. Everyone philsophical system (math, science, religion, etc…) is premised on a number of accepted axioms which have no fundamental proof. Think Euclid’s postulates which underpin not only all of geometry, but basically all of Newtonian mechanics and thus all of science.

    So if we accept a few reasonable axioms concerning morality, objective morality becomes a viable position even in a secular framework.

    I fleshed out this argument a little herE:

    http://onestdv.blogspot.com/2009/06/mark-sanford-hypocrisy-and-subjective.html

    Start at “This got me thinking…” because the beginning is wholly irrelevant.

  • Richard Wade,

    You’re right that in practice different people feel morally obligated in different directions, but I’m referring to definition #3 (from wikipedia):

    Normative relativism, further still, is the prescriptive or normative position that as there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.

    When most people rant about moral relativism, they rant about this idea; the idea that we ought to let people marry off nine-year old girls because it’s part of their culture.

    At least, it’s what unnerves me. That we disagree on what moral absolutes there are (or even if there are any) does not mean we ought to tolerate certain actions regardless, which is what the doctrine calls for.

  • Karmakin

    Moral Relativism is one of those “big lies” that religious folks really got away with. Most people, when they hear it, think it’s about knowing what’s good and what’s evil and knowing the difference. When it’s not about that at all. Moral Relativism, at least how it’s defined, is about arbitrary morality. Things are good or evil basically just because.

    The reason that it’s a “big lie” is that the major source of arbitrary morality in our society comes from religion. Killing is wrong, unless it’s someone we want you to kill. Lying is wrong unless it’s someone we want you to deceive. And so on. Why something is right or wrong is as defined by the authority.

    Most of us, are going by objective morality. That is we have some definition of what’s right and what’s wrong, (generally speaking going by the good and the harm it does) and we can judge things as such. We know what’s moral. We know what’s immoral. But most importantly, I think, we know what’s amoral. What is morally neutral, because it’s not something that causes reasonable effect on outside people.

    Like say, gay marriage, for example. (Although I’d go so far as to say that gay marriage is actually a strict moral good thing for a wide variety of reasons) It’s why during the prop 8 trial the anti-gay marriage forces were unable to mount any real defense. They have no clue on why it’s wrong. All they have is an authority saying it is wrong so it is wrong.

    And even though it’s much less cut and dry, we see something similar when it comes to abortion. People don’t actually think abortion is murder, or that life actually begins at conception. Because if it did, there would be a clear road to follow (send the woman to prison, investigate miscarriages for potential neglect, etc.) based on basic moral principles.

    But when you’re arguing from authority or even from strictly tradition, there are no moral principles to follow.

    And that’s the problem with their “moral relativity”, and why they are most guilty of it themselves.

  • There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you claim moral relativism. Not everything in life is good or bad, right or wrong, all the time

    Hemant, this is not moral relativism and it is really sloppy to equate this with it. You would not be this sloppy with scientific terms and you would lambast people who spoke about scientific concepts they did not understand so cavalierly. You should pay more attention to philosophical distinctions as well.

    Moral relativism is the notion that cultures and/or individuals are the sources of morality in ways that make it entirely subjective and not capable of objective criticism.

    A moral relativist really does think that if you think cutting off a little girl’s clitoris to prevent her from being too tempted to sex is the right thing to do then *voila* it is the right thing to do “for you” and if someone else objects then it’s just wrong “for them”, but that there is no truth in the matter. If you feel like genocide is okay, then voila it’s okay for you. If your culture feels like homosexuality is wrong, then it’s wrong for them.

    I don’t think you think any of these things. You are not a moral relativist and you do yourself and the atheists you speak for a disservice to accept the religious labeling of you AS a moral relativist simply because you’re not a moral absolutist.

    You concede too much to the religious when you grant them this facile dualism by which the only two options are absolutism and relativism.

    As you write yourself, many things are good or bad or right or wrong as varying with the circumstances. That does not make them relative in the sense that the term moral relativism has traditionally entailed (i.e., as idiosyncratically and subjectively contingent on arbitrary, rationally unsettleable differences of cultural or individual feeling.) What it makes them is contextual. Good and bad and right and wrong are contextual terms. Good for what? Bad for what? Right for what? Wrong for what?

    But there can be, and you clearly think there are, objective goods and bads and rights and wrongs for specific things. You think it is bad for justice and bad for gays’ deserved happiness that Christians treat them badly. That’s objective. It need not be absolutist, but you certainly do not have a relativist’s attitude that says your support of gays is just your personal feeling or your atheist subculture’s feeling and that we cannot criticize Christians for their feelings. You (rightly) drop a pretty righteous hammer on Christians for how they talk about gays (even when their actions are trying to be reconciliatory).

    You and I and all of us atheists are pretty livid about all sorts of human rights abuses, with an extra special little anger at religious coverings for them. This is based on a lot of objective reasoning about morality.

    The other side is trying to lie and say our only choices are moral absolutism or moral relativism. Don’t let them.

    There can be pluralities of varying moral systems which are comparably good and acceptable given different circumstances and feelings of people. Not all cultures have to be morally identical in order to be minimally valuable and praiseworthy in ethical terms.

    This does not mean that all moral systems are equally valuable as a true moral relativist says. Instead it says that while some moral practices or systems are beyond the pale, there can be some alternatives which are good in different ways even though they recommend opposite measures in some things.

    This is moral pluralism, not relativism. It allows objectivity about minimal standards for moral acceptability, accepts diversity of good means to achieving the same good ends. But it does not refuse all judgment.

    Similarly for many centuries, Aristotelian moral philosophy has rightly argued that while there are right and wrong actions, we cannot figure them out using some set of absolute, inviolable, one size fits all rules that do not take into account circumstances. So Aristotle taught rightly that we need the virtue of “phronesis” or “practical wisdom”, the skill of judging particular circumstances and figuring out the right action in each case according to the specifics of the problems at hand. He didn’t think morality was about inflexible rules, but about wise judgment in circumstances. And he was not a moral relativist.

    Even those who do think moral reasoning is rule based are not necessarily absolutists by any means. Utilitarians, for example, think that the right action is determined by following an objective principle everyone must follow such that all actions must create the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. So, utilitarians would not think that any specific action was absolutely always the right one, divorced from considerations of context. They would think we would have to calculate for every action whether it will lead to the greatest general happiness or not. That, again, is not moral absolutism, but it’s also far from moral relativism. It is contextual without denouncing all abilities to make moral judgments.

    These are just several of many distinctions by which people can ground objective moral judgments in reasons and by which we can promote flexible, contextual sensitivity in moral thinking without being moral relativists who surrender all moral authority to criticize whatsoever.

    Please, don’t adopt the bogus straw man label that religious absolutists are trying to force on us. It’s really counter-productive.

  • Moral Relativism is one of those “big lies” that religious folks really got away with. Most people, when they hear it, think it’s about knowing what’s good and what’s evil and knowing the difference. When it’s not about that at all. Moral Relativism, at least how it’s defined, is about arbitrary morality. Things are good or evil basically just because.

    The reason that it’s a “big lie” is that the major source of arbitrary morality in our society comes from religion.

    Precisely, Karmakin, precisely.

  • Aj

    Hemant you put the “not” in the wrong place for moral relativism. It should read: “Everything in life is not good or bad, right or wrong, all the time”. Moral relativism isn’t about shades of grey. Moral relativism is the position that there is no right or wrong, or that right or wrong can be different between two sets of people.

    It’s confusing because religious people often complain about relativism in morality, but they’re talking about secular ethics such as utilitarianism that takes a relative view to the harm, and religions often have an absolute list of right and wrong. Utilitarianism however is not moral relativism, it does however take account of the shades of grey, or the details.

  • abadidea

    Camels with Hammers: that definition is right for you, but not for everybody 😉 we’re working with the sense that the comic artist, Tatsuya, intended.

    I strongly recommend the comic Sinfest to everybody. The cast includes the fundie, the wannabe-Satanist, Buddha, Jesus, God, the Devil, some ordinary kids trying to figure out the world, the nerd, and some really hot bi devil girls, one of whom is secretly a romantic.

  • Puzzled

    The only true relativists tend to be religious folks.

  • This isn’t moral relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that some things are moral within a specific context, and that from outside of that context, you have no grounds for critiquing that moral system.

    It’s absolute rubbish, considering that its primary assertion – that moral systems are immune to outside criticism – is a moral absolute. Relativism cannot be defended on relativist terms. Either relativism is absolutely right, or it’s only right in certain contexts, and thus isn’t always right… but that would mean that it is right… but that would make it absolute… but [ERROR HEAD ASPLODE]

  • codemenkey

    wow, didn’t know we had so many fanatical absolutists around here..

    point is, we don’t have to be on the defensive when religious people — absolutists by their admission — say that our morality is relative. of course it’s fucking relative, and in reality, so is theirs. case in point: homosexuality. the god of the southern baptists call it an abomination; the god of the more liberal christians say it’s morally acceptable. that doesn’t seem very absolute to me, even among people who say they worship the same god!

    second case in point: war. many christians seem enthusiastic to serve our apparently god fearing country and go bomb the shit out of brown people in the name of their god, but their holy book says not to kill. which is it? is killing okay given the right circumstances? or is it absolutely wrong?

  • Steve

    Moral relativity:
    http://xkcd.com/103/

    Ethics become subjective only when you approach the speed of light

  • Moral relativism may be right for some, but not for everybody.

    😉

  • Andrew Morgan

    On a related note, I’d be interested to know where most atheists derive morality from. It’s a topic I haven’t read enough about. Whenever a theist asks me where I think morals come from, I usually don’t have a good reply.

    I’d be surprised if true relativism wasn’t more popular than these comments suggest.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    The way I see it relativists(moral, cultural, scientific and others get confused), on this site including Richard Wade seem to be implying:

    Awwww, come on, can’t we have a little creationism in our science classes, a little absolutism in our zero tolerance policies, a little legal bank fraud, a little emotional torture with required AA cult speak for stupid drunks & aspirin abusers and their spouses and kids? What’s so wrong about strapping kids with a belt when they disobey, or banning them from a mental health support website for insisting that science and not woo is only appropriate support there?

    I haven’t studied the philosophical arguments, but I live on the other side of the line(in the US) where I see abuse of people by systemic endemic religiosity in laws all the time, and a failure to be either fair or just to minorities who happen to like to do things that are called crimes although they are victimless(drug laws, alcohol laws, education practice, discrimination against smokers, free speech, health care and mental health care, help for homeless and jobless, shifted to religious charities). Perhaps some of those would be budgetary or political relativism widely practiced and modes of grey injustice/non-freedom. Personally I don’t like only half the nutrition(educational, social, economic) I need to be healthy, that shades of grey relativists seem to justify.

  • wow, didn’t know we had so many fanatical absolutists around here..

    point is, we don’t have to be on the defensive when religious people — absolutists by their admission — say that our morality is relative. of course it’s fucking relative, and in reality, so is theirs. case in point: homosexuality. the god of the southern baptists call it an abomination; the god of the more liberal christians say it’s morally acceptable. that doesn’t seem very absolute to me, even among people who say they worship the same god!

    second case in point: war. many christians seem enthusiastic to serve our apparently god fearing country and go bomb the shit out of brown people in the name of their god, but their holy book says not to kill. which is it? is killing okay given the right circumstances? or is it absolutely wrong?

    WTF, making clarifying distinctions about kinds of objectivity and kinds of subjectivity makes you a “moral absolutist?”

    Give up the childish dualism. It’s not a simplistic choice between moral absolutism or moral relativism. There can be objectivity that is not insensitive to nuances. The only other choice isn’t arbitrariness. No one here has advocated moral absolutism. Learn to read.

  • codemenkey

    “learn to read!” says a person who clearly failed to grasp the message of the original post.

    then again, maybe you did get it… but for the purpose of making yourself look more impressive than you are, you write up a long-winded diatribe about “the different kinds of objectivity and subjectivity” — whatever the hell that means, i didn’t bother to read it — even though you probably knew what hemant meant to begin with.

    camels, you insufferable pedant, you spew a great deal of verbal diarrhea, but i truly wonder if even you know what the hell you’re talking about.

  • codemenkey

    I’d be interested to know where most atheists derive morality from.

    why? because i was raised a certain way. it’s certainly no worse than “because god said so.”

  • Karmakin

    Speaking for myself, my morality is based upon a combination of self-interest, empathy and community. Namely, it’s in my self-interest to be empathetic and community minded.

    I look at how things affect other people, if it helps them or hurts them, and that’s how I know if something is right or wrong. Sometimes, that’s not easy. And that’s ok. Sometimes we make mistakes, or lose track of the right priorities. Again. That’s ok. We just dust ourselves off, try to make amends for what we did, and move forward.

  • Richard Wade

    Defiantnonbeliever,
    Please do not include me in this group you are describing. I am not saying or implying any of the things you list.

    I was asking Hortensio about the difficulty of trying to persuade someone from doing what I think are objectionable things by taking a moral absolutist stance, when that person is also taking his own moral absolutist stance, but one that requires the actions that I find objectionable. I’m talking about one of the problems that moral absolutism poses. Nothing was implied about letting a little bit of this or that into anything.

  • Dan W

    I’ve recently gotten into reading Sinfest. It’s an interesting comic that I’ve come to enjoy.

    On the topic of morality, I do think many fundies would like everyone to believe that you’re either a moral relativist or a moral absolutist, with no other possibilities. I think that’s a false dichotomy, and I agree with much of what Camels With Hammers said in his long post.

    I’m honestly not sure how to describe my moral values, except that they are neither absolutist nor relativist. Mine are something else, and generally I try to help others, partly because it makes me feel good, and partly because it makes them feel better as well. I’ve always liked the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated.

  • Greg

    On a related note, I’d be interested to know where most atheists derive morality from.

    For myself, my morality is grounded upon fairness and the right to self-autonomy. Everyone has an equal right to control of their own lives; if you restrict someone’s autonomy (through, say, murder) then you forfeit the right to your own.

    As for why I ground my morality upon fairness: it’s ‘group selfishness’, rather. It is in the interest of an individual in a social species to live in a secure, fair society, and it is also in the interests of that society as a whole.

    As for myself, I’d be interested to know where most theists derive morality from. They claim they derive it from their god, but until they prove that god exists, for obvious reasons, I am unable to accept that.

    Actually, I think much of the argumentation about ‘morality’ comes from the theist’s claim that morality is somehow a special set of laws, floating out there in the ether. If you ignore that, morality just because a synonym for justice, charity, and other mutually beneficial acts. There are reasons we think the above are good things – morality is just the entire set of these ‘good’ things.

  • codemenkey:

    point is, we don’t have to be on the defensive when religious people — absolutists by their admission — say that our morality is relative. of course it’s fucking relative, and in reality, so is theirs.

    You seem to have missed the fact that relativism is a specific philosophical position. It is not simply seeing things in shades of gray. It might do you some good to see what it is.

    What both Hemant and the comic are referring to isn’t relativism.

  • The problem with moral relativism—and also a lack thereof—is that people tend to think that you’re one or the other, you either believe in moral relativism or you don’t. When you’re firmly entrenched on one side or the other you’re bound to support atrocities of various kinds. On the one hand, you believe that your God-given morals are absolutely superior to everyone else, and all others must therefore die unless they accept your beliefs. On the other hand, you believe you have no right to judge a culture performing FGM because you believe no culture is intrinsically superior to any other, including your own. These are extreme positions, of course, but they work for illustrative purposes.

    The cartoon above is ultimately worthless because it denigrates without enlightening; it slaps the moral absolutist across the face, points a finger in his face and yells, “You’re a moron! Ha ha! Everyone look, what a moron!” It accomplishes nothing.

    Instead it should’ve at least tried to educate by showing that while moral relativism is often abhorrent, like moral absolutism, it is not always the ultimate evil. You can be both, about different things, at the same time.

  • NorDog

    Seems to me that if…

    1) Person A says a certain act is always wrong

    and

    2) Person B says the same certain act is always right..

    That…

    It’s rational to say that at least one must be wrong, and…

    It’s moral relativism to say they both can be right.

  • Frink

    Richard Wade said:

    “In the places in the world where female genital mutilation or the stoning of women for uncovering their faces are practiced, those acts are seen as justified by moral absolutes. ”

    And outside of those places, the practice is justified by moral relativists who claim we can’t judge an action of another culture because it’s “ethnocentric” and cultures are “not better nor worse; just different.”

    When this comic says “moral relativism,” they’re meaning “an understanding of ethics (the philosophical study of morality),” which sees things in shades of grey. Seeing things thusly is not the same thing as moral relativism.

    It must be concluded that Richard Wade, Hemant and the comic’s artist either do not know what moral relativism means or do not understand it. I think a correction is warranted. Namely, that moral relativism is not the same thing as being ethically astute, and that a position of moral relativism would agree with the position of moral absolutism within the bounds of the culture or society that practices or tolerates it.

  • alex

    WTF, people? Moral relativism is an observation of reality. It simply states that there aren’t absolute “rights” or “wrongs”, or even that those terms are defined subjectively. To be fair, when you consider murder, rape, torture, and other things, you also base your judgment on certain positions that matter to you, but not necessarily someone else. Suppose you say, all human beings are essentially equal, therefore killing anyone is wrong. Someone else might say, no, some human beings — say, unbelievers — are subhuman and an abomination, and therefore it’s okay to kill them. They base their judgment on different premises, and reach different conclusions. Moral relativism does not dictate how one should construct their moral systems; it does not say that everyone is right; it does not establish any system at all; rather, it simply observes that there’s no way to establish these basic premises from anything but an opinion. There is no true or false, only agreement and disagreement.

    Essentially, if you assume that there are absolute morals, and then continue asking “why?”, your position will eventually fall apart due to reaching an invalid argument like “because I said so” or “because it’s written in the buybull” or something to that extent, making your entire argument subjective and, therefore, relative.

    As to right to judge someone else’s moral system, that’s also entirely up to you. You can support or condemn some values, but in the end, that will be only your opinion. There are no “God-given inalienable rights” given to people other than those that people give to each other (or themselves).

    This is, of course, only my opinion.

    PS: of course, all of the above has shit to do with the shades of gray referred to in the comic; +1 to all those who stated the same.

  • Frink

    Alex–

    Actually, moral relativism does say everyone is right. That’s the problem with it. Those of us who’ve studied philosophy and have built our own ethical systems are not “moral relativists.” There is also a false dichotomy between asserting that if one is not a moral relativist, one must be a moral absolutist. No, morality can be achieved through reason and does not depend on absolutes, though some maxims can be granted as universal (for instance, “undesired suffering is bad”). You do not understand what “moral relativism” means.