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April 28, 2005

Field guide to accusations of moral relativism

David Velleman compiled a comprehensive taxonomy of ways to attack relativism as a straw man, with an assist from Matt Yglesias.

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» Moral Relativism In Action from The Corpus Callosum
Link skipping this morning, I happened across of tangle of posts about the topic of moral relativism. TO give credit where it is due, I first encountered a link on Majikthise, then Left2Right, then Yglesias. All very erudite, but with something mis... [Read More]

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I'm so old I remember when 'relativism' was called 'situation ethics.' Memmmoorreeeezz...

Moral and other relativism

According to the theory of general relativity, any position has a right to consider itself unmoving and the center of the universe from which every other position moves in relation. A self centered view claims this primacy for itself but does not acknowledge the rights of any other positions to the same claim.

In the realm of morality the same might apply. Some positions are widely agreed upon such as a prohibition against killing within one’s own group. That position becomes less clearly defined the further removed from the group it becomes, so that killing in war is permissible and, even more commonly, killing outside one’s own species is permissable. Different people and peoples define the borders differently, omeone in the military defines it differently than a theologian may and certainly differently from a pacifist or a vegetarian. Who can make the claim that their position is moral. The issue is more wildly divergent on other less commonly held moral positions. The Pope may hold that sodomy is evil and to be roundly punished whereas a practicing homosexual would find it good and something to be practised and improved. Though both have an equal claim to their position, their positions differ in relation to each other’s position. Are they different positions, each with an equal claim, is one or the other simply wrong?

We humans state, often sanctimoniously, that we practice absolutism. We humans, more often than not, actually practice relativism and accuse those we disagree with of nihilism.

Why do we always have to think of relativists as leftwing academics or euros? The Neocons are relativists. Strauss championed sophists (and Nietzsche) in his readings, over and over again. I thought we got this with the whole "reality-based" thing?

The Pope may hold that sodomy is evil and to be roundly punished whereas a practicing homosexual would find it good and something to be practised and improved. Though both have an equal claim to their position, their positions differ in relation to each other’s position. Are they different positions, each with an equal claim, is one or the other simply wrong?

If the practicing homosexual held that people should be punished for not engaging in sodomy, the two views might approach some sort of ontological equivalency.

I think there are alot more relativists out there than you would/think. They just don't raise their hands. Why would they? Unless honesty is a value, which isn't a relativist's position.

Re Rob's comments, which I agree with:

In the privacy of my own mind, I think of the various groups Rob mentions as different circles we draw around ourselves -- i.e. killing people inside our circle is bad -- the conflicts arising because we don't have just one circle but numerous circles arranged in a heirarchy, and the heirarchies force conflicts. (how we arrange the circles tells us how to react to conflicts) My country tells me to do something that's against my religion. My job tells me to do something that hurts my family. My family tells me to do something that violates my personal freedoms. Etc..

Lindsay, help me out here, because, not being of the World of Philosophy, I don't know what the terms are for whatever it is I'm trying to say. But isn't any kind of moral absoultism just a really big (infinitely big) circle that not only trumps all the other circles but denies their existence?

Or is that just the kind of thing a relativist would say?

"I think there are alot more relativists out there than you would/think. They just don't raise their hands. Why would they? Unless honesty is a value, which isn't a relativist's position. "

Here is one relativist raising his hand. I also believe honesty is a virtue. I seek to associate with others who have adopted and try to hold to the more that honesty is a virtue. It has been my experience that I and the moral relativists with whom I associate live up to the codes of moral absolutists better than they themselves do. The exception would be in our "thought crimes". We tend not to think right thoughts. I believe any thinking at all puts you on very treacherous ground with the moral absolutists, so you are better off avoiding it.

Actually, Velleman's post is kind of funny because he starts by announcing that there are no moral relativists, and then his comment thread fills up with people who say they are moral relativists.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of atheists and liberals who think (like Ratzinger) that atheism and or liberalism entails relativism. They don't, nor does the existence of moral disagreement or the impossiblity of non-circular infinite proof, but there are obviously lots of people who think they do.

Re (the) Pope and relativism:

My possibly knee-jerk reaction to his stance against "relativism" is that what he's really saying is, "you individuals out there aren't entitled to just make up whatever shit you want and decide you're not going to hell for it. follow the fucking rules! the church tells you what's right and wrong. it's not up to you."

There was an article in the LA Weekly about 20 years ago about the then pope's love/hate relationship with American Catholics. The hate part was that he hated how Americans were of the habit of cherry-picking which Catholic beliefs they would follow and which they wouldn't, and still insisted on being Good and going to Heaven. (so for example, they would think they could make a judgment call on birth control; when the pope's attitude was, "not so fast; you're going to hell. non-negotiatble Hell!") The article editorialized that it was as though Americans put the Bill of Rights about the Vatican, like, "yeah we're Catholics, but we're Americans and we have inalienable rights!" So the Pope was pissed because he didn't like the smarmy Americans and their Constitution.

The love part of the love/hate equation was the money. He needed the American money, but resented what bullshit he had to tolerate to get it.

So the pope's relativism, 25 years later, is still, "no, you're not entitled to your opinion."

My own opinion is at my URL. I'll go and read Velleman now, but my suspicion is that by defining the question in a properly philosophical way, he triumphantly wins the argument while failing to address the reasons why some people are upset about relativism, whereas others claim to be relativists.

IMHO, this is characteristic of analytic philosophy whenever it tries to deal with anything more ethically-, politically-, and culturally-loaded than color-perception.

As I expected, Velleman defined relativism and refuted relativism as he defined it, thus proving that there were no relativists.

This proves that people who think that they're upset about relativism are wrong, because their name for what they were upset about is erroneous. What they claim to be upset about simply doesn't exist.

And really, how can we take people seriously who get upset about something that doesn't exist?

I am probably taking a tangent by mentioning this but, I think it applies.

http://www.oldamericancentury.org/14pts.htm

Lindsay, help me out here, because, not being of the World of Philosophy, I don't know what the terms are for whatever it is I'm trying to say. But isn't any kind of moral absoultism just a really big (infinitely big) circle that not only trumps all the other circles but denies their existence?

Or is that just the kind of thing a relativist would say?

I've got a fever, so I don't think I'm going to be all that helpful, but here goes. Absolutism isn't about the size of the moral community, it's about whether there's one set of rules that applies to everyone. (But you can think about that as being a circle wide enough to encompass all cultures, times, places, etc.)

If you're a relativist, you think that whether something is right or wrong depends on the agent who does the act or the group that she belongs to, or the era in which she lives, or some other set of circumstances. A relativist says that there's no such thing as being right or wrong, only being right or wrong [for this person/in this culture/etc.]

It's important to differentiate the number of valid moral frameworks acknowledged from the size of the moral community. The circle metaphor is more often used to convey a sense of the kinds of beings that a moral system takes into account. Some absolutist ethics call for a very small moral community. Racists or ultra-nationalists might hold that only people in the in-group have moral status. Whereas a utilitarian absolutist say that the moral community includes all sentient being as such. But all of these absolutists are committed to the idea that there is one standard of right and wrong. A small-circle nationalist will say that it's just right for members of the in group to enrich themselves at the expense of the out-group and that it's just false to say that the preferences of the out-group matter.

Velleman isn't trying to refute relativism. He's just describing some common rhetorical attempts to attack relativism as a straw man. Ratz says that the world is on the verge of a dictatorship of relativism--he thinks relativism as such is a threat to morality. In fact, most of the trends he's complaining about aren't intrinsically relativist at all. Yes, there are relativist arguments against Ratz, but they aren't the most common or influential critiques out there.

For example, I oppose moral authoritarianism because it doesn't make sense. There's no good reason to believe that Ratz or any other authority figure has privileged access to moral knowledge or singular authority to impose his will on everyone else. Some of his advice is good, some bad--but none of his teachings are binding simply because he teaches them. The official line is that God left Ratz in charge while He's away and that we all must do what he says. As a non-relativist, I call BS. Who died and made Ratz the arbiter of right and wrong. Answers like "Jesus" or "St. Peter" just don't convince me. A relativist might say that it's wrong for Catholics to ignore Ratz, but okay for non-Catholics to do so. That reply strikes me as equally bizarre.

As an Absolutist/pantheist, I'd agree that claims of moral absolutism by sect leaders who profess to follow the same "one true god" as a multitude of other sects (with whose dicta they disagree) are exercises of relativistic hubris, on their parts.
The immanence has encouraged me to recommend the following text (to the form and tune of Woody Guthrie's "Lady's Auxiliary"): Oh, the Nonduality/ Is a Rockin' Duality/ an' the Best Duality/ That you never did see// If you want a Duality/ Get the Non-Duality/ That is the Non-/ Dualityyy. ^..^

Absolutism seems to me to be absurd on its face. If there's one set of rules that applies to everyone, then why can't anyone agree on what they are?

It's particularly strange to believe that the rules exist independent of culture, when the only way we apprehend these rules is through culture.

Well, except for a few philosophers who think that universally applicable rules can be arrived at by reason. Which is fine, except for that project has been going on for a couple millinia by now, and not only have they not figured it out, they're not even converging on an answer.

If the rules are independent of culture, then it's possible that there's some set of rules up in the sky somewhere that no existing person or culture recognizes. Maybe "the good" consists entirely in sneezing as much as you possibly can over the course of your life, and anything you do that contributes toward that goal is good, and everything that hinders it is evil. But like the poor Romans who didn't know and couldn't figure out that slavery was inherently evil, every culture and person on earth is too dumb to figure out about the inherent virtuousness of sneezing above all other things.

And so we're mired in evil, falsely concerned with trivial concerns like honesty and tolerance, never recognizing the ultimate moral stain on the age: decongestant use. Oh, that the philosopher kings of the future would judge us mercifully.

Absolutism seems to me to be absurd on its face. If there's one set of rules that applies to everyone, then why can't anyone agree on what they are?

It doesn't matter that people don't agree. People don't agree on whether there is a god or not and yet the evidence makes it clear that there isn't. Even though there is disagreement about ethics, it doesn't mean ethics is relative.

"Even though there is disagreement about ethics, it doesn't mean ethics is relative."

Ethics are not morals. Ethics can be defined by any organization to be whatever they agree upon. An extortion ring could create an ethical code deeming it unethical not to beat up a store owner who does not pay protection money.

"A relativist might say that it's wrong for Catholics to ignore Ratz, but okay for non-Catholics to do so. That reply strikes me as equally bizarre. "

Aknowledgement that the Pope speaks infallibly on matters of faith is a prerequisite for being a Catholic. According to the Catholic Church doctrine, it IS his church, not the other 1.1 billion Catholics'. If they all disagree with him, they are all wrong.

Now, I wouldn't say Catholics are "wrong" for ignoring the Pope. I would say their actions are not consistent with Catholicism. It would mean that they were not being true to their chosen moral code, or, they decided that their religion was seperate and subordinate to their own personal moral code.

Piling on to what Levy said:

The same could be said about biology laws, Social Democrat. If we look at most theories concerning medicine and biology through time and cultures, we don't find much agreement. That must mean that different biological laws apply to members of different cultures.

Now, normative laws are not exactly the same as natural laws ( at least for this non-Platonic non-Kantian ) but the idea that if there isn't universal agreement on X it must mean that X is relative to each culture, we have to conclude some pretty weird things about geology, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy ( you get the idea ) and their effects on members of different cultures.

In shorter form: Variations in the concepts/representations of X does not mean that X ( the thing itself ) varies.

Let me sugest an example. I take the absolutist view that every human being has the right to use birth control, if he or she so desires. I deny that a self-professed Catholic who takes the Pill is doing anything morally wrong. She's breaking the rules of Catholicism, but she's not acting immorally.

Someone might mistake my view for relativism because I think birth control is a personal choice. In fact, it's absolutist because I think everyone has that right to exercise, or not, as they see fit.


But I think the pope's idea of relativism is simply that you are not entitled to decide for yourself what is moral and what is not. The Church tells you. You don't have a say in it.

(from Njorl) .."Aknowledgement that the Pope speaks infallibly on matters of faith is a prerequisite for being a Catholic. According to the Catholic Church doctrine, it IS his church, not the other 1.1 billion.."

Right- and if I recall, that goes for "morals", too, as a separate category- although I think that saying .."it IS his decision" might be more appropriate than granting him ownership of the "Holy Mother, the church". Ratz is her husband, I guess.
So, while an issue of Faith may be considered 'absolutist' (despite challenges like Galileo's heliocentric assertions, I suppose), aren't moral issues relative to the conditions of the community whom they inform?.. at least, some of them? My own paradigm for an immutable morality would have to be the Golden Rule- which shows up across various faiths and cultures (which is a de facto sort of "faith", no?.. I mean, don't we accept cultural membership on faith?). Or maybe I'm guilty of confusing "morals" and "ethics". (Boy, I wish Barry Goldwater was around to expound on whether Extremism in the defense of morality is ethical.)
^..^

"Now, normative laws are not exactly the same as natural laws".

Is there a Nobel Prize for understatement?

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