January 16, 2010

Assessing Moral Relativism

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APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 14, 2010

Assessing Moral Relativism

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 individualistic form; let’s call it individual relativism (IR for short). (Next time we’ll look at the cultural or group version, a.k.a. cultural relativism.)

According to IR, ethics are merely a matter of individual preference. That is, IR says action X is right or good if I like X, and X is wrong or bad if I don’t like X. Depending on our feelings, action X may be right for you but wrong for me. You may not like abortion, but I may be okay with abortion, if my feelings are not as troubled by it as yours are. Morality, then, is basically a matter of taste, and tastes vary. I shouldn’t impose my tastes on others, and others shouldn’t push their tastes on me.

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

If IR is true, then six problems result.

Problem 1: Intra-personal criticism is lost. If IR is true, whatever we feel is right is right. In other words, on IR we can never be wrong morally and we cannot criticize ourselves (all we can be is true to our feelings). This is not a knock-down argument against IR, but it serves as a red flag against IR, because our pre-theoretic experience of morality is that we sometimes make moral mistakes, in spite of our feelings.

Problem 2: Inter-personal criticism is lost. If IR is true, then we cannot criticize others. On IR we can’t truly morally condemn the behaviour of, say, Robert Picton (the British Columbia pig farmer who murdered as many as dozens of women) and Josef Fritzl (the Austrian man who locked his daughter in his basement for 24 years and raped her repeatedly, fathering as many as seven children, three of whom were also locked up in the basement). After all, Picton probably liked killing the women and Fritzl probably liked raping and wielding power over his daughter.

On IR, the feelings of these men justified their actions. In other words, according to IR: Who are we to judge them? I have my feelings; they have theirs. I like chocolate ice cream; Picton and Fritzl like strawberry ice cream. Sure, if I had the power to stop them, I would; but then, on IR, I’m just reinforcing my taste with power, so might makes right. It turns out that Picton and Fritzl were the more powerful in their situations, so, on IR, they were still right. Surely, though, this is morally wrong—and we know it to be a fact.

Problem 3: IR has a practical problem: it seems psychologically impossible to practice. For example, for IR to work I should be able to believe that it’s wrong, say, for me to torture my sons for fun, but okay for others to do so if they want to. But I simply cannot believe this. This is a serious practical/psychological problem for IR. (Interestingly, if somebody can practice IR, then what IR upholds as a moral model is the psychopath. That is, someone like the Joker in the Batman film The Dark Knight would be our moral model. This seems wrong, plain and simple.)

Problem 4: IR self-refutes. If IR is true, it allows for the possibility of an individual having a non-relative or absolute morality. That is, on IR an individual could feel that IR is false, and IR would say that this morality is true. So, if IR is true, then IR also is not true. This is a serious logical problem.

Problem 5: IR proponents tend to be inconsistent in the face of IR’s (alleged) truth. If, say, we were to abuse the proponent of IR, the abused proponent would probably say that the abuse is wrong—truly wrong—i.e., actually wrong for all, not just for him/herself. A person may mouth IR, but when I steal his iPod, he will probably say that’s truly wrong. A student may mouth IR but when I give her an F for actually excellent school work, she will probably say that’s truly unfair. This counts against IR. (Interestingly, if the IR proponent is okay with others abusing him/her, then the moral ideal/model that IR upholds is the masochist. Surely, this is weird, and also counts against IR.)

Problem 6: IR, if true, is useless in conflict resolution. Saying “You’re right if you feel you’re right” to a bully and the bullied, or to the abortionist doctor and the person who kills abortionist doctors, is a recipe for disaster. Morality is usually thought to be useful in social conflict. IR, however, simply stares blankly and shrugs its shoulders.

In view of these problems which arise logically from IR, it’s reasonable to conclude that individual 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.

8 comments:

Dr. V said...

For the sake of the record and to give credit where it's due, I should point out that the claim -- that moral relativism is useless in conflict resolution and simply "stares blankly and shrugs its shoulders" -- comes from Jan Narveson, my former ethics tutor at the University of Waterloo. Professor Narveson defended this claim in a critical review of David Wong's book Moral Relativity.

Climenheise said...

Since I don't know much about this area of thinking, a question: Do proponents of IR place some limits on IR? For example, do they say something like, "Your (or my) IR is limited by the constraint that you (or I) may not hurt another person?" I recognize that such a position would not be fully relativistic, but I wonder if proponents are willing to state limits on relativism?

photosynthesis said...

Hendrik,

Isn't it too much to define a position that morals are relative and conflate it with a position that rules and acceptance of such morals should be too?

In other words. That morals are relative is inescapable. Does that mean that we HAVE TO accept whatever each person wants to do?

Yet in other words, should the acceptance that morals cannot but be relative (descriptive relativism), mean that we should deem anything as appropriate (normative relativism)?

Even worse. Morals, of course, are relative. Yet, they can still be objective. You decided to discuss individual relativism. But, does it truly exist as descriptive AND normative? Well, it must. But, aren't you somehow trying to drive your readers into thinking that everybody who thinks morals are individual (which, I am afraid, they ultimately are), should thus think that there should be no norms for individuals to coexist?

G.E.

Dr. V said...

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

Your question about whether a proponent of IR would place some limits on IR (such as the constraint that one person may not hurt another) is a good question. And you’re right: This would no longer be relativism, at least not in the full-blown sense. I think that this non-full-blown version of relativism is usually what is attractive to people (“you do your thing and I’ll do mine, but don’t get in my face”). However, the question then arises: Why may I not hurt you if I want to? The usual subsequent move (in secular ethics) is that it’s not in one’s (enlightened) self-interest to hurt another person, especially if one hasn’t got lots of power, because someone else may get back at you, and so life will probably turn out to be “nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes). Enter: Morals by agreement, a.k.a. contractarian ethics.

I plan to do a column on contractarianism in the near future, so I’ll leave a fuller exposition and critique until then. Suffice to say here that it’s pretty clear (1) that not all agreements are moral and (2) that, on the contractarian view, those individuals outside the circle of agreements will count morally only if they can hurt you. More on this later.

See you in the hallways at Prov!

Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Hello G.E.,

Thanks for your comment. I will respond in piecemeal fashion.

G.E. wrote: “That morals are relative is inescapable.” My reply: This is true only if one allows an unnoticed ambiguity on the word “relative.” For more on this ambiguity, see my first reply to Pvblivs’s comment at my January 15 2009 column “Moral Relativism and Tolerance.” Look here.

G.E. wrote: “[S]hould the acceptance that morals cannot but be relative (descriptive relativism), mean that we should deem anything as appropriate (normative relativism)?” Answer 1: No, because descriptive relativism isn’t sufficient grounds for normative relativism. Mere disagreement about X isn’t sufficient grounds for thinking X doesn’t exist or that both sides of the disagreement are mistaken. Answer 2: The argument in my column is not that normative relativism follows from descriptive relativism; rather, my argument is that if one accepts moral relativism, a.k.a. normative ethical relativism, then, to be logically consistent, one should deem anything as appropriate. After all (in the case of IR), if one agrees that morals are merely a matter of taste which varies from person to person, then tastes and morals vary from person to person. You have your taste, I have mine.

G.E. wrote: “But, aren't you somehow trying to drive your readers into thinking that everybody who thinks morals are individual…should thus think that there should be no norms for individuals to coexist?” Answer: No, I’m saying that, if one accepts individual moral relativism, a.k.a. moral subjectivism, then the moral legitimacy of the norms for individuals to coexist would be essentially dependent upon one’s subjective preferences. Enter: Robert Picton and Josef Fritzl.

Best regards,
Hendrik

photosynthesis said...

Hi Hendrik,

I am afraid this will grow like a monster.

1. This is true only if one allows an unnoticed ambiguity on the word “relative.”

Not at all. If there is a God and this God is the source of our morality, then morals are relative to this God. No way around (note that in that part I was not talking about individually relative yet). Your answer to Pvblivs was not appropriate here.

2. Answer 1: No, because descriptive relativism isn’t sufficient grounds for normative relativism. Mere disagreement about X isn’t sufficient grounds for thinking X doesn’t exist or that both sides of the disagreement are mistaken.

But you are missing the point, you are clearly conflating the two. Moral relativism as description of where morals come from, with normative relativism. That we can perceive morals to be relative does not mean we have grounds to say we should have no rules.

I can agree that if we disagree about, say, God;s existence, does not mean God does not exist. It means we disagree. Morals continue to exist whether they are relative or absolute (I think absolute is where you are going). Thus, you are also making a category mistake. We both accept the existence of morals. I just see that morals are evidently relative.

Answer 2: The argument in my column is not that normative relativism follows from descriptive relativism;

But this is not clear from your column. Your column intents to present the idea of morals being relative to be the same as "normative ethical relativism." The way it is written it is implying that moral relativism necessarily implies normative relativism. Which does not.

rather, my argument is that if one accepts moral relativism, a.k.a. normative ethical relativism, then, to be logically consistent, one should deem anything as appropriate.

This would then be a tautology. Of course, if we accepted that the rules should be relative to the individual, then nothing could be deemed as wrong. However, admitting that our morals/ethics are not completely equal, but that we still have grounds for agreement, makes societies and normativity possible.

After all (in the case of IR), if one agrees that morals are merely a matter of taste which varies from person to person, then tastes and morals vary from person to person. You have your taste, I have mine.

And this is entirely a different point. Morals being individually relative does not mean these morals depend on taste and taste alone. They derive from several sources. In the end though. Morals do vary from person to person. But, for a society to work, we have to agree on a minimum to follow.

3. Answer: No, I’m saying that, if one accepts individual moral relativism, a.k.a. moral subjectivism, then the moral legitimacy of the norms for individuals to coexist would be essentially dependent upon one’s subjective preferences.

Now you are conflating "relative" with "subjective." Those words are not synonymous you know?

And, again, there is no way around it. Morals are relative, they depend on several things. For instance, our basic instincts to a minimum set of ethical inclinations is the result of us having evolved as intelligent, gregarious, animals, dependent on each other for survival. That is an objective reality (not "absolute," relative to the way we evolved, to the environment where we thrived).

After that our development, hormones, genetic backgrounds, upbringing, experiences, deeper thinking, and such, cannot but end up is each of us having differences in our ethics. Thus, the complete package of what we deem as morals would be individually relative. Yet, that does not mean we should norm over completely empty space. Or not norm at all.

Ethics are a very complex subject. Of course, we cannot but end up over-simplifying in a blog. Yet, I find your column misleading. Even if inadvertently.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

Dear “G.E.” (a.k.a. “Get Education”, a.k.a. “photosynthesis”, or whatever your name is),

Our discussion is turning (once again) into an unwanted distance education course in which I am required to tutor someone in philosophical basics! I think that this has to stop. Nevertheless, here are a few comments that I hope will be helpful to you:

1. Re: “relative”. Please read my comments on this again. (Sorry, but I don’t have the time to walk you through this step by step.)

2. Re: descriptive ethics vs. normative ethics. I encourage you to look at some introductory ethics textbooks concerning this distinction. (Again, I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to walk you through this.) Maybe take a look at Louis Pojman’s highly regarded book How Should We Live? An Introduction to Ethics (Thomson/Wadsworth 2005).

3. Re: norms. If individual moral relativism is true, i.e., if moral subjectivism is true—which is what I’ve been explicitly assuming in my column, for the sake of the reductio argument—then it follows logically that all we’ve ultimately got to evaluate “norms”—whether those norms arise from agreements or from biology or from evolution—is our subjective preferences. And these vary, because subjective preferences vary. Enter: Picton and Fritzl.

4. Re: the complexity of ethics. Yes, I agree that ethics can be complex. That’s why it’s important to read slowly and think carefully.

G.E., I’ve just had a déjà vu experience. It turns out that a year or so ago you often left confused comments on my blog, and I continually spent much time and effort unpacking your confusions—and you tended to (a) ignore my careful philosophical work (which is unfair in a reasoned dialogue), (b) dismiss my arguments as “rhetoric” (which they aren’t), and (c) charge me or my sources with being dishonest and liars (which is a serious moral charge as well as false). (For starters, see my April 18 2009 comment at my March 12 2009 column “Does God Exist?” Also, see the rest of my blog’s history.) I now recall that I came to the conclusion that your comments (and especially those of another fellow) tended needlessly to obfuscate my work (which is again happening in your comments above), and I now recall that I pointed out to you that I didn’t want to be your distance education tutor in introductory philosophy. I’m at that same place again with you, G.E. (or whatever your name is). But I have enough students right now, thank you. Moreover, I think that it’s important to minimize the unnecessary confusion surrounding my column. I think, therefore, that it’s wise for me no longer to allow you to leave comments on my blog. As my comments in this blog reveal (over the past year or so), I truly have spent much time interacting respectfully and thoughtfully with you, so please know that you can’t accuse me of being ungracious or unfair to you by shutting you down. In other words, I’ve gone the “extra mile” with you. But, really, it’s enough now. It’s time for you to move on.

Continued below…

Dr. V said...

Reply to G.E. continued:

For what it’s worth, G.E., I think that banning you from this blog is not an infringement on your freedom of speech, for you can write letters to the editor of the newspaper in which my column appears, or you can write your own column, blog, etc. (Freedom of speech doesn’t mean someone must have access to every channel of communication.) Moreover, and importantly, I think that your absence from this blog will not prevent truth and good reasons from prevailing. If fact, I think that the absence of your input will promote clarity of thought. I realize my comments are harsh, but you’ve driven me to them. You’ve worn out your welcome, and you seem not able to take kinder hints that this is the case.

Best wishes to whomever you are, and good bye. Future comments from you will be deleted immediately without being read.

Hendrik

P.S. Here’s what I wrote to you on April 18 2009: “If my clarifications aren’t helpful to you, G.E., I think that we’ll have to agree to disagree. No, this doesn’t mean that our difference has to do with faith and faith alone. Rather, by this I mean that, if it looks like what I’ve written (and written and written) isn’t helpful, then I am going to have to disengage from the conversation—I really don’t have time to do a lot more clarifying of philosophical subtleties. (No disrespect in saying this, but this blog was not intended to be a distance education course wherein I offer my services to tutor one or two students.) It seems to me that because my serious philosophical points seem to be getting ignored or dismissed as “rhetorical devices”, which they simply and clearly are not, I shouldn’t continue the conversation. Please understand that it’s not a case of me thinking that I’ve been confronted by insurmountable arguments against my view (it’s not this at all, in fact); rather (and I intend no disrespect in saying this), it’s more like a case of me talking to a student who probably should have taken an introductory course in philosophy before taking my more advanced course in philosophy. (I’m sure that all educators reading this have experienced this sort of scenario at least once in their careers, and can relate.) At any rate, I do truly hope that what I’ve written is helpful.”