January 29, 2010

Assessing Moral Relativism, continued

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 28, 2010

Assessing Moral Relativism, continued

A presently popular view of ethics is moral relativism. According to moral relativism, there are no moral principles or values objectively real and applicable to everyone; rather, what’s right/wrong and good/bad essentially depends on individual preference or culture, and this varies from person to person or group to group.

Moral relativism seems tolerant (“you do your thing and I’ll do mine”), but is it reasonable to believe? We should think not.

First, let’s get clear on moral relativism by looking at it in its group or cultural form; let’s call it cultural relativism (CR for short). (Last time we looked at individual/subjective relativism.)

According to CR, ethics essentially depend on one’s culture or tribe. That is, CR says action X is right or good if culture says X is right or good, and X is wrong or bad if culture says X is wrong or bad. Action X may be right in one culture but wrong in another. Our culture may hold that apartheid is wrong, but another culture may be okay with apartheid, because of a difference in the history of interracial relations.

On CR, then, morality is wholly a matter of cultural invention, i.e., social construction, to cope with historical circumstances, and because such circumstances vary from group to group, so do the constructed moralities. Thus, we shouldn’t impose our culture’s moral values on others, and others shouldn’t push theirs on us.

CR sounds good, but is it sound? To show that CR is not sound (i.e., is not reasonable to believe), let’s assume, temporarily for argument’s sake, that CR is true. If the logical consequences of CR’s assumed truth are false or otherwise deeply problematic, then it follows logically that CR is false or otherwise deeply problematic, or both. (This argument strategy is known as reductio ad absurdum or the absurd consequences move.)

If CR is true, then six problems result.

1. CR ends up giving support to obviously evil regimes and evil cultural practices. On CR it becomes impossible to criticize the Nazis. If Nazi culture says that genocide is right, then, for Nazi Germany, genocide is right. In other words, if CR is true, then we cannot condemn the following: the Jewish Holocaust, Stalin's murder of millions, human trafficking in Asia and eastern Europe, torture of political prisoners in Afghanistan, the Hindu practice of Suttee (cremation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre), the African practice of clitoridectomy (wholly or partially removing a woman's clitoris so she will not be distracted from her family duties), Chinese foot binding (so women’s feet remain tiny and pretty, albeit crippled).

Moreover, if CR is true, then we cannot condemn atrocities committed by Christians in the Crusades and in the Spanish Inquisition. It was just their culture, after all. But we think—we know—that we can and should condemn such regimes and practices.

2. If CR is true, then internal cultural reform is disabled. On CR what the culture says is right is right, so it's not possible for one's culture to be mistaken let alone reformed. Yes, one can critique acts according to cultural standards, but it's not possible to criticize one's own cultural standards. The result: moral quietism—no prophets or independently-minded moral reformers could arise to preach a social justice hitherto unknown.

But, obviously, they do arise. Examples: Old Testament prophets, Jesus, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, etc. In other words, the existence of cultural reformers is a fact, and this fact counts against CR.

3. CR self-refutes. If CR is true, it allows for the possibility of a society having a non-relative or absolute morality. That is, on CR a society could hold that CR is false, and CR would say that this morality is true. So, if CR is true, then CR also is not true. This is a serious logical problem.

4. CR has a practical problem. According to CR, what the culture says is right is right. But the question arises: Which culture? The one you're born into or the one you presently occupy? I asked this question when I visited a university in Russia a few years ago: What should I do, since I was born in Venezuela, grew up in a Dutch family, became a Canadian as a teen, teach at a Christian college, study at a secular university, and yet I was spending some time in Russia?

And what about the Arab-American father who kills his daughter in accordance to Arab custom, because she refuses to marry the man the family had arranged for her to marry? American culture says this is wrong, but the father’s Arab culture says this is right. Which culture should be followed? These questions throw a wrench into the practice of CR.

5. CR does not provide a satisfactory answer to yet another important question, specifically: Why obey the tribe’s rules? Tribe's answer: Because the tribe says. But it makes good sense to ask: Why? Significantly, any non-question-begging answers (i.e., any answers other than “culture says its rules are right because culture says its rules are right”) lead us to reasons other than mere accordance to what culture says. But this means that culture is no longer the fundamental ground for ethics.

If we are told to follow culture because, say, human life has intrinsic worth, then intrinsic worth of human life is what's most important, not culture. But this means ethics are not essentially dependent on culture, and so any good reason for CR actually counts against CR. This nuttiness counts against CR too.

6. CR, if true, is useless in conflict resolution. CR says, “You’re right because your culture says you’re right.” But saying this to a bully-nation and a bullied-nation—that is, saying this to Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Netherlands, or to a Holocaust-denying nuclear-armed Ahmadinejad-ist Iran and its Jewish targets—is a recipe for disaster. Morality is usually thought to be useful in social conflict. CR, however, simply stares blankly and shrugs its shoulders.

In view of these problems which arise logically from CR, it’s reasonable to conclude that cultural moral relativism is flawed—logically, factually, and morally—and so should be rejected.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.


Unknown said...

Hmm. One of the difficulties I see against the objective moral view is that 'objectivism' is only intelligible by way of a subjective pursuit. Hence it is a subjective pursuit of an ideal that not everyone agrees on. So, how can anyone then logically terminate on a neo-Platonic notion of an ideal moral standard as if it actually exists?

I think it's a ruse, personally, and I'm not concerned if morality is situational and subjective. Even if you can enforce a view of morality in principle, you cannot enforce it in practice. That leads me to conclude two things:

1) Morality is a subjective process;
2) You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.*

*Regarding #2, noting there is water is not noting an objective standard. It is noting a moral situation wherein a person can choose what action s/he will take.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hey Christopher (a.k.a. Kane Augustus),

Thanks for your comment. You raise an interesting objection to the objectivist moral view. I don’t think the objection is insurmountable, however. (Nor do I think the objectivist view is a “ruse”.) Let’s look at some of your claims.

1. Re: “‘objectivism’ is only intelligible by way of a subjective pursuit.”

Yes, we are subjective beings, so anything and everything that we pursue would be a “subjective pursuit.” From this, however, it does not follow logically that what we are pursuing is wholly subjective. What we are pursuing might be something that is mind-independent.

Maybe this will help clarify further. My perception of, say, a logical principle is subjective in the sense that I am a subjective being and the act of perceiving takes place in my subjective self; however, the logical principle itself is something real and independent of my subjective perception. Think of logical principles such as the principle of non-contradiction (nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same sense), the principle of identity (a thing is what it is), the principle of the excluded middle (either something is or it isn’t). Or think of deductively valid argument forms such as modus ponens (if P then Q, P, therefore Q) or modus tollens (if P then Q, not Q, therefore not P) or disjunctive syllogism (either P or Q, not Q, therefore P). Or think of arithmetic (2+2=4, etc.). The principles are real, whether I subjectively perceive them or not; but I subjectively perceive them.

So I think an act such as torture for fun or rape is wrong in itself, truly, really, objectively. I perceive that something (someone) of intrinsic worth actually gets violated. It’s not merely my feeling or merely my subjective projection, i.e., it’s not me merely not liking it or merely feeling disgust; it’s a perception of something actual and mind-independent plus I don’t like it and I think it’s disgusting.

For more on the objection “Are feelings merely being projected?” see pages 154-156 of my PhD dissertation. Be sure to read, too, my larger case (in chapter 2) for thinking that human beings have objective moral worth and that we intuit this.

Continued below…

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Reply to Christoper continued:

2. You wrote: “Hence it [objectivist moral values] is a subjective pursuit of an ideal that not everyone agrees on.”

Yes, it’s a subjective pursuit, but, as I argued above, from this it doesn’t follow logically that what is pursued is not objective (real or mind-external). Moreover, from the fact that not everyone agrees on a moral principle/value, it does not follow that the moral principle/ value doesn’t exist. Plato thought that moral value is objectively real and disagreement could exist because of ignorance. Christian theism holds that moral value is objectively real and disagreement can exist because of willful resistance. The philosophical point here is that mere disagreement about X doesn’t mean X doesn’t exist. As philosopher Francis Beckwith points out, two people can disagree about the shape of the earth, but it doesn’t follow that merely because of this disagreement the earth has no shape (or is flat or whatever). We can disagree with Nazis about the intrinsic moral value of Jewish people, but, surely, it doesn’t follow that merely because of this agreement Jewish people don’t have intrinsic moral value.

Also, it turns out that quite a bit of the alleged moral disagreement between peoples can be shown to be disagreement not about moral principle/value but about non-moral facts. For example, I understand (from reading the philosopher James Rachels) that some years ago some northern people would euthanize their parents by leaving them while they’re quite young and healthy on an ice flow to freeze. We think this is a difference of moral value/principle. However, when we ask why, we can see that it’s due to their view of the hereafter, not a different moral principle. It turns out that the Inuit held to a view of reality that when we die we will take the bodies in which we die to a hunting ground, so it’s good to die while relatively young and healthy. But they also hold to the moral principle to honour one’s parents. So the moral difference is merely apparent, not real. The difference has to do with their understanding of what is actual or factual with respect to the hereafter. The moral principle—honour mother and father—remains.

Moreover, it turns out that much alleged moral disagreement between peoples can be accounted for by differing circumstances of application of the moral principles, not differences in the moral principles themselves. For an example (again from Rachels), consider some Eskimo again. At one time, they practiced female infanticide. Initially this appears to be a wholly different moral principle from what we hold. However, when we again ask why, we see that they in fact held to the moral principle to respect human life (as we do); but, because of harsh survival-related circumstances (i.e., cold and lack of food) and division of labour (i.e., they needed more male hunters), they had to reduce their number in order to survive (unlike us).

Furthermore, it turns out that there is quite a lot of agreement about moral principles and moral values. In general, people do think that the following are deeply and truly wrong: rape, torture, child abuse, governments punishing innocents. Think about the UN Declaration of Human Rights: human freedom, dignity, life, liberty, security, and many other things are said to be good; racial and gender discrimination, slavery, arbitrary arrest, etc. are said to be bad. Think too of the world’s ancient moral codes. C. S. Lewis did a helpful survey of these codes in the appendix of The Abolition of Man. Lewis shows that the peoples of the world throughout history have had a great many fundamental moral similarities.

Back to what you wrote: Yes, not everyone agrees on objective moral values/ principles. However, these two points remain: (1) such disagreement isn’t sufficient grounds for showing that objective moral values/ principles don’t exist, and (2) the disagreement isn’t as huge as it seems.

Continued below…

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Reply to Christopher continued:

3. You wrote: “So, how can anyone then logically terminate on a neo-Platonic notion of an ideal moral standard as if it actually exists?”

My answer: By moral-rational insight/ intuition. I think that human beings have real intrinsic moral worth and we can know this via moral-rational intuition. My (and others’) moral experience of the world is that we especially intuit (know) that people have real intrinsic moral worth when an injustice occurs, i.e., when a human being is violated (e.g., by rape, torture, murder, etc.). We can “logically terminate” on this because we know it to be true.

For more about “logically terminating” on this, take a careful look at my dissertation’s second chapter: “Moral Philosophy: The failure of moral relativism and the success of minimal intuitionism as clues for thinking that intelligent human beings have objective moral value.” For a more fun and more interesting read, I recommend Paul Chamberlain’s book Can We Be Good Without God. (Don’t let Chamberlain’s inclusion of "God" in his title throw you off; Chamberlain makes a good case for thinking that people have objective moral worth and we can come to know this via careful thinking—i.e., we can “logically terminate” on the reality of this moral standard in the sense of coming to know it. Explaining or accounting for the moral standard is another matter, a matter that's wholly different from acknowledging the existence of the standard in the first place.)

4. You conclude: “1) Morality is a subjective process; 2) You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.”

I conclude (for the reasons I’ve given above plus the reasons I’ve set out in chapter 2 of my dissertation) that morality is not a wholly subjective process. There is something objectively real to morality, namely, that people have real intrinsic moral worth, and we can know this via moral-rational insight/intuition if we attend to it carefully.

I agree that I can’t make a horse drink water, i.e., I can’t make people choose to be moral. However, I think that I can at least persuade horses that there is water by bringing water closer to their noses, i.e., I think that I can at least persuade people that morals are real by presenting them with an indirect argument ("indirect proof") for the reality of objective moral values and our knowledge of that reality. How? By encouraging people to think about what the logical consequences would be if we assume morality is wholly a matter of feeling or culture. Hence my Apologia columns on moral relativism. (A reductio ad absurdum argument, i.e., the argument strategy used in my columns, is also known as an "indirect proof".)

Of course, what people do after realizing the reality of the intrinsic moral worth of fellow human beings is up to them, i.e., it's their choice. But consider this: Injustice is (at minimum) the violation of those who have real intrinsic moral worth. So, instead of people succumbing to moral relativism's siren call to shrug off injustice with a blank and useless "whatever", maybe they'll be encouraged to make a greater effort to resist injustice—because perhaps now they have a better understanding that the violation of people really and truly is unjust.

Best regards,

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. Christopher, I have another comment.

You wrote: "I'm not concerned if morality is situational and subjective."

My reply: Consider the following quote:

"Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself –- what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself –- that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring –- the strength of character –- to throw off its shackles…. I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me –- after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited."

- Ted Bundy (proponent of wholly subjective ethics and murderer of at least 20 women), cited in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 3rd edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 1999), 31-32.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.P.S. For additional discussion of moral relativism (and Ted Bundy), see the column and comments at my January 15 2009 installment of Apologia: "Moral Relativism and Tolerance".

Climenheise said...

A brief comment, Hendrik. Part of your response to Christopher is that admitting that we perceive things subjectively does not remove the objective basis that we perceive subjectively.

Agreed. I would add a similar caveat to your description of cultural relativism. Sin (or whatever term you prefer) has a "cultural relativist" component. To refer to CR as purely subjective does a disservice to those of us (mostly missiologists, based on a Christian reading of anthropology, a discipline that is itself the child of missiology) who refer to CR, but also agree that revealed truth gives us an objective standard by which to measure CR.

An example. Many non-Western cultures value harmony more than truth-telling. Some Western cultures value truth-telling more than group harmony. That is CR. Cultures generally agree that truth-telling is right and lying is wrong. Cultures generally agree that group harmony is good and fighting is wrong. But they value these same goods in different ways.

I don't know that we disagree here; but I think it is important to acknowledge the influence of our culture on the way that we perceive right and wrong.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Daryl (a.k.a. Climenheise),

I agree that culture can influence our perception of objective right and wrong. But I would quickly add that I believe culture doesn’t influence us so much so that we can never perceive what is actually right and wrong. I think that just as we can know the truth of some logical principles even though we are subjective beings and culturally embedded, so too we can know the truth of some objective moral values even though we are subjective beings and culturally embedded. (Of course, some cultures may thwart this knowledge or make us numb to it: e.g., think of a decadent drug culture of child soldiers, or, closer to home, a decadent culture of TV sitcoms coupled with violent video games coupled with uncritical viewing of films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds [sic].) In other words, I think that there are trans-personal and trans-cultural objective truths and we can know at least some of these, fallibly and non-exhaustively, if we attend to them with care and a willingness to live in accordance with them. I think this fits with the biblical understanding of the world.

Regarding your example, I have two points.

1. I think the example isn’t an instance of CR (in the philosophical sense under discussion). We should keep in mind that CR (in the philosophical sense under discussion) is the ethical view that moral values and principles are essentially dependent on culture, i.e., the culture invents/ creates the values and principles which otherwise do not exist. On CR, in other words, there are no objective moral values; they are wholly socially and humanly constructed. So maybe it would be better (i.e., more accurate, in view of the reductio ad absurdum argument of my column) to say that valuing is relative to culture but actual objective moral values per se are not.

2. If we follow James Rachels’ approach to understanding the ethics of various cultures (the approach I mention briefly above in the Eskimo examples), an approach that involves asking why a non-Western culture values harmony more than truth-telling, or why a Western culture values truth-telling more than harmony, I suspect that we may end up finding a deeper moral principle/ value which lurks in the background and is common to the cultures. My why question is philosophical in its origin, but to answer this question would be to step into the realm of anthropology and/or missiology. I suspect that the answer has something to do with the known moral fact that people matter (a moral fact very apparently known better or worse by some than others). And I think that my suspected answer fits with the biblical understanding of the world too.

At any rate, the above is food for thought.

See you in the halls.