Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Moral Relativism


There has been a lot of debate here on MP, and also over at Philosophy, etc over moral relativism. This was kicked off when I claimed that I thought it would be impossible to practically justify terrorism, regardless of your moral position, and would have to appeal ultimately to unjustified faith in order to defend it.

My views on moral relativism then came under attack, not unfairly, but I still think incorrectly. I can't work out whether my arguments seem weak to other people, but they make sense to me. I'll try to outline how I think moral relativism "works".

Firstly : Let us entirely discount situations where the people concerned are mistaken about facts. For example, if I believe that you killed my best friend, I am also going to believe that you committed an evil act. Am I wrong to do so? Let's say I have reasonable evidence and I am justified in doing so. Did you commit an evil act? No. Do I hold a false moral judgement about your actions? Yes. It's trivially easy to use mistaken beliefs to reach an incorrect moral position. Examples where someone is merely mistaken about the facts are not good counter arguments.

If I adopt a moral principle which you believe is wrong, and you accept that my understanding of the facts is correct, then we have a true disagreement.

The position of the moral relativist is not that merely by believing something mistaken, you can arrive at correct moral judgements. The position is that different moral judgements are possible from a correct understanding of the facts, and that those different positions are equally valid.

It is my further position that the definition of morality per se means an acceptance of society's goals as your own. If your society believes, for example, that retributive justice is morally right, and you refuse to adopt that moral position, even though you have no problem with their interpretation of the facts, then you are acting immorally. By my definition, morality is a group understanding. We each have our own individual moral faculty, but it is wrong to exalt out moral beliefs above that of society. Perhaps you have the belief that justice should be solely about rehabilitation of the criminal. Let us suppose for the moment that both possibilities are equally justifiable. My position is that you are not acting morally if you place your own opinion to be more important that the judgement of your peers. If nothing else, it is plain that you will be judged at immoral by that society. Morality has no anchor outside of what is accepted by society. Morality means accepting society's goals as your own, and adopting their beliefs as your own.

I think it is clear that at a psychological level, this is plainly obvious. All the way from capital punishment, to the clothes you wear, there is diversity in the number of societies. Within those societies, certain things simply are judged wrong by them.

I don't see any other way to incorporate this basic truth into philosophy other than by accepted each position as valid. One person alone cannot be a perfect moral judge, for no one person is fully cogniscant even of their own moral reactions and/or principles. Morality is a fuzzy, dirty, confused set of beliefs and attitudes which arise from ones physical nature, ones society, ones intellect, even ones happiness will affect a person's instinctive moral judgement. And none of these differing moral positions are clearly invalid.

Moral absolutists would have us believe that, in principle anyway, every single act could be assessed according to various moral principles, the same each time without regard for said context, culture and society. I return merely to the example I gave at the outset - that computer crime was not wrong in the year dot!

So, what happens when society "slips up"? What is happening when we judge a culture as "evil" with the benefit of hindsight. Examples like slavery, cannibalism and sacrifice come to mind. In each, I think it is easy enough to identify simple facts about which people were mistaken. Their moral faculty had been subverted by indoctrination with false beliefs about the world. Does this make them bad people? I return to the example of mistakenly attributing a crime to another person. Am I a bad person to judge you as wrong, even though my context gave me little choice? Or was I merely mistaken? Can we really take someone's actions outside of their social context, and apply them to a consistent set of principles, identified by their accordance with whatever virtues we find pleasing?

This is not to say that I believe that "slavery is right", that is to miss my point entirely. But when I pass judgement on a society in which slavery was considered morally good, what am I doing other than making another, different moral judgement? The question is loaded because we can identify so many other principles that are at stake - the happiness of the people involved, the quality of life, principles of welfare etc, which are justified not only by our moral position but by things outside of it. Principles like proceeding properly from facts to conclusions do not depend on a moral position. What I am doing beyond merely passing a moral judgement is passing a rational judgement. They should have known better. For example, slaves were thought to be stupid. Stupidity, however, is not dependant on a moral judgement, but it is a matter of fact.

An example of a moral judgement which differs across society, but is not subject to factual correction, is the kind of thing to which I am referring. Such a thing might be choosing which divinity to put your faith in, if you are of that persuasion. Or whether euthanasia should be a crime. Whether "respect" is a major part of your social heirarchy. What your voting system is.

I am quite willing to accept that there are some principles, such as the value of human life, which must always be considered morally good, but the force of that "must" doesn't come from a moral judgement, but from an intellectual one. It doesn't make sense to devalue human life. It's not rational to elevate some humans above others without some proper basis.

Some people become angry, because they think that such a position reduces their moral judgements to meaninglessness. What value can a moral judgement have, if the opposite position is also allowed? Well, it has plenty of meaning -- it still defines your happiness, the success of your relationships with others, it prevents you from descending into certain behaviours. In short, it plays a tremendously valuable role in your life, in spite of and not in conflict with the idea that it could very easily be different.

At the end of the day, morality is about working with your society, towards goals which you all accept as your own. Some of those goals are defined by what it means to be human - i.e. they come from everyone's personal goals for happiness, elevated to a moral good by virtue of their commonality - while other are defined by nothing more than an accident of history. They remain the goals of your society.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"An example of a moral judgement which differs across society, but is not subject to factual correction, is the kind of thing to which I am referring. Such a thing might be choosing which divinity to put your faith in, if you are of that persuasion."

I would argue that this is a poor example of what you are trying to prove. It assumes that that all the said divitinites simultaneously co-exist and also do not exist. What you are saying is that everyone is correctly interpreting the facts, regardless of which religion (including atheism) they choose to embrace. The is manifestly untrue. If the atheists are right then people who believe in a divinity, and belive they have a factual basis for this belief, are obviously misinterpreting the facts. If there is a God then the atheist is misinterpreting the facts. If a belief based on misinterpreting the facts is "wrong" then someone has to be wrong. And this is not only an abstract argument - being wrong could have dire consequences. I can accept that various religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) can be equally valid in terms of providing a framework for living a satisfying life (if that is your goal), but when you raise the issue of an afterlife that all falls apart. That's the point when we will all find out who is "right" and who is "wrong"...

7/13/2005 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Not necessarily. I'll try to make my thoughts more coherent. I can't explain what I mean simply by opposing your individual arguments, but here's the short version :

You can pass moral judgements on someone separately from rational judgements.

It is irrational to pass a moral judgement on someone, if your moral principles are irrational.

The question that YOU have to answer is how to deal with the conflict between moral judgements and rational judgements. Is it reasonable to pass a moral judgement on someone, if they hold a rational position? As a believer of a particular religion, can you marry up your moral beliefs with your rational ones?

It's patently obvious that people really do believe lots of mutually exclusive things to be true - like the particular faiths. It's also obvious that between some of those faiths, there's not too much difference between how much rational justification backs them up.

So what's the problem with what I'm saying? It seems to me to capture the true situation.

My position is not that this paradox is resolved, but that I can describe it. How is it possible that people are so mistaken, but still have some intellectual rigor? There are idiots and thinkers on all sides.

What's true is that there are, out there in the world and observable, many moral positions taken by various societies, and by individuals within those societies, which are mutually exclusive. But that's not cause to reject the validity of those positions.

Maybe you can't handle passing moral judgement in that way, or can't accept my justification. But my point is that I'm not even trying to morally justify these positions, but rather I am intellectually justifying them.

Once you accept that there are lots of rational moral positions, you might choose to update your own beliefs. But if you are living in a particular society, and you reject the particular moral position you find yourself in, what you are doing is acting in a way which is counter to the common goals of your society.

It is that confluence of interest with your society that makes an action moral. Yes, we have societies with mutually exclusive positions. Yes, some of those are just as justified as others. What is right is to adopt the morals of your society, and what is wrong is to reject them.

The only rational reason to reject the morality of your society is if that morality is irrational.


7/13/2005 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous guile said...

nice, cozy place you got here :)..

7/13/2005 07:10:00 PM  
Blogger Skip Weisman said...

You've got a good point in your last posting. Most people would not get it, but the way you explained goal setting, it makes all the sense in the world. I should know because I post similar information about goal setting.

10/05/2005 09:57:00 PM  

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