Moral Relativism

by Brian on September 18, 2004

Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum have been discussing various ethical buzzwords that have been flying around recently, all starting from this post of Eugene Volokh’s. I don’t have enough expertise to helpfully say very much here, but I thought I’d try adding some small points.

First, it isn’t relativist in any interesting sense to say that whether a particular action is right or wrong is relative to the circumstances in which it happens. Of course whether a particular act of getting into a car and driving off with it is dependent on, among other things, whether it is my car. If you want you can say that makes the morality of the action relative to ownership relations or the like, but I don’t think that’s a very helpful way of talking. Neither Matt nor Kevin nor Eugene is talking this way, though Eugene feels compelled to argue that it isn’t helpful.

Actually what Eugene is considering in the relevant passage (the stuff on exceptions to principles) is moral particularism. Like every term in philosophy, that one covers a family of cases, but at the heart of them is the view that moral principles are not very important to morality, and what is more important is the application of good moral judgement. The most extreme version is that there are no exceptionless moral principles. As Eugene rightly says, this way of thinking doesn’t line up easily with either moral relativist views or with any side of the political spectrum. (I guess it would be hard to be a relativist particularist because the moral standards of cultures seem to often be defined by principles, which seems to create an important place for principles. But this is just to back up the point Eugene is driving at, that particularism is not a form of relativism.)

Matt suggests that moral relativism is a form of moral non-cognitivism. If the two links I’ve given there are reasonable summaries of how the terms are usually used, I think that’s not right. (Matt’s taken more meta-ethics courses recently than I have, so I’m really not the expert here though.) I think one can consistently be a non-cognitivist, even an old fashioned expressivist, and say that when someone from another culture Boos things we Hooray or Hoorays things we Boo they are doing something wrong. That looks like absolutism, and so non-relativism, to me.

It’s complicated because both anti-relativism and anti-non-cognitivism (i.e. cognitivism) are often called realism. But that just shows how confusing realism can be.

Finally, I think there’s an historical error in Matt’s post, but I’m away from my books so I can’t check this for sure.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone drawing controversial normative conclusions from meta-ethical premises and, indeed, I think most philosophers would call foul on anyone who did.

If I remember right, or if this website is correct, R. M. Hare explicitly derived his preference consequentialism from his prescriptivism, and Peter Singer has endorsed this line of argument. Matt’s right about the general point that cognitivism/non-cognitivism debates usually cross-cut normative debates, but there are some prominent examples of reasoning from one to the other in the literature.

{ 69 comments }

1

BenA 09.18.04 at 9:59 pm

Relativism is, of course, the great bete noire of Leo Strauss. I’m generally disinclined to blame everything on Straussianism, but my guess is that this has contributed to the role that relativism plays in post-war conservative accounts of modern U.S. liberalism.

2

Shai 09.18.04 at 10:16 pm

I’m not going to try too hard to decipher matt’s rambling post as I’m sitting on a park bench testing my new wifi antenna (nevermind. the submit button killed the connection every time.) Just a few points about the philosophical content.

(1) interpretation of error theory leading to different interpretations of what kind of thing an ethical statement is, will produce versions of expressivism that are quite different (just as “realism” includes views as divergent as judith thompson and peter railton)

(2) matt’s post runs together non-cognitivism and expressivism (or at least is sloppy) when it’s entirely possible to adhere to one xor the other. (a realist expressivism is entirely plausible, depending on where one stands on fact sensitivity, limits of knowledge, demarcation problems, social psychology, how humans handle conflict, what partial ordering of interests amounts to, among other issues)

(3) there are actually various kinds of relativism, not all consistent with the others

(4) about brian’s last point, I don’t think there is any evidence for an impenetrable barrier between first order and second order (meta) ethical statements, but you can at the same time preserve what motivated it without too much of a cop out. In that spirit, I don’t think the first part of matt’s post has much to do with the second.

3

PG 09.18.04 at 10:48 pm

particular action is right or wrong is relative to the circumstances in which it happens

I thought that liberals had gotten a name for being relativists, not because of a tendency to see particular actions as right or wrong relative to the circumstances of their happening, but because of a tendency to see the actors as morally blameworthy or praiseworthy relative to the circumstances of their upbringing or situation in life.

For example, liberals tend to see white collar criminals who want an extra million dollars as more morally blameworthy than regular criminals who rob convenience stores for a few hundred dollars. This is on the grounds that the white collar folks generally have been taught to do better, and therefore ought to do better; whereas the stockingheads have not been brought up in the way they should go and therefore deserve some slack.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seem contemptuous of the notion that some people ought to be held to a higher ethical standard than others. (Note, for example, their widespread reaction to Abu Ghraib: “Saddam did much worse things!”)

4

Barry 09.18.04 at 11:40 pm

PG, in addition to that possible reason, a white collar criminal who’s going for the extra $1 million, *on top* of a very fat salary, has less of an excuse. Ken Lay certainly wasn’t trying to feed his starving children.

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Keith Ellis 09.18.04 at 11:45 pm

I don’t even know where to begin.

There is “moral relativism” and other varieties of relativism as they exist and are meaningful in the context of rigorous academic disciplines in which these technical terms are used.

There is also “moral relativism” and other varieties of relativism as they exist and are meaningful in the context of popular culture and what I guess I’ll call “popular academic culture” in which these terms are casually (though often yet quite earnestly) used.

If people arguing about “relativism” are unable to distinguish one of these contexts from the other, or, worse, deliberately muddle the distinction for rhetorical purposes then, well, they’re wasting my damn time.

Which is almost always.

6

Carl 09.19.04 at 12:28 am

All I can say is that if Matt has taken more courses on meta-ethics recently, it doesn’t show. Expressivism, non-cognitivism, and moral relativism are not only different, but they are sometimes in direct conflict. There are non-cognitist expressivists, cognitivist expressivists (e.g., Hogan, despite the fact that expressivism really did arise out of non-cognitivism), and all of the non-cognitivists I’ve read (be they expressivists, emotivists, or what have you)have purposefuly distanced themselves from, and even argued against moral relativism. The only explanations I can think of for Matt’s conflation of three different things here is either that it’s been a while since he’s taken a course on ethics too, and it’s gotten all jumbled in his head, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Given his other jaunts into philosophical rather than political topics, I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

7

Shai 09.19.04 at 12:39 am

keith, everyday use of “relativism” includes (i) between culture relativism, (ii) nihilistic individual relativism (that kids, at least pre 9/11, tend to espouse but contradict), (iii) post 1960s relativism about cultural issues usually including some mix of a principle of non interference and muddy autonomy (of the “i do not approve, but…” kind which prohibits outright meddling but frequently circumvented by gossip), (iv) various identity relativisms such as tribalism, nationalism, classism, etc.

all of which are different from metaethical or anthropological relativist theories without precluding philosophical analysis of common use. MY discusses both in his post. if your interest is only captured by one, ignore the other. the whining is getting old.

8

Matthew Yglesias 09.19.04 at 1:08 am

Carl — I appreciate the generosity. The thing of it is that you can’t take the self-reports of meta-ethicists about this sort of thing too seriously. Everyone in the game distances themselves from relativism because it’s become a perjorative word. Nevertheless, non-cognitivists and expressivists are both maintaining positions that other people would regard as the dread moral relativism — the idea that there isn’t really any right or wrong apart from people’s feellings.

You’re right about the existence of cognitivist expressivists. I oversimplified — it was a blog post, not a scholarly paper — insofar as I know (which isn’t really all that far) for most expressivists expressivism is a variety of non-cognitivism. Certainly, as you say, they’re historically related to each other.

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Keith Ellis 09.19.04 at 1:11 am

My point was that the conservatives have a legitimate complaint in the pop-cultural context and thus a technical, academic defense of relativism as not being what conservatives claim it is is is inaqequate at best and disengenous at worst.

Similarly, the conservatives may be smearing technical, academic relativism with the braod brush of the complaints against pop-cultural relativism either because of ignorance or deviousness…but, either way, it’s damn annoying.

Fifteen years ago I read a book of essays, a defense of relativism, that had as its central contention in its introduction that “no one seriously asserts the sorts of extreme relativism that are the cultural conservatives caricatures of ‘relativism’—say, the position that “nothing is knowable, there is no moral distinction possible between actions, there is no ‘truth'”. But, hell, when was the last time these people ever talked to one of their TAs? Because undergraduate classes of all varieties are filled with people making in complete earnestness such extreme and unworkable claims. We are not talking Hume here, we’re talking crude relativism as a convenient and blunt instrument of simpleminded criticism of any infelicitous idea.

Like campus PCism, this vulgar relativism is a legitimate problem the conservatives have opportunistically siezed upon as an issue, distorted, amplified, used as the boogeyman. Nevertheless, that they’ve done so doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

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Shai 09.19.04 at 2:15 am

“Because undergraduate classes of all varieties are filled with people making in complete earnestness such extreme and unworkable claims”

well, this may be an artifact of a post 9/11 world, but as a student in an ethics course recently i observed far fewer global relativists than this might suggest. and by “were”, i mean something very weak, because they would raise their hands supporting the individual right not to interfered with or bothered by strangers, and various other dilemmas suggesting support for autonomy, or whatever value, contradicting that original claim. and i suspect many people entertaining the idea of machiavellian egoism, after reading, say, the ring of gyges story, will contradict with their actions.

expanding on the “post 1960’s relativism” I’d also like to point out that there has to be nuance between being permissive about sex and relationships and relativism. I suspect charges of relativism often come from those who think someone is being insufficiently sensitive to or are improperly weighting relevant moral criteria. But being permissive about gay sex, even homophobic and permissive about gay sex isn’t the same thing as relativism. Not to mention the use of the relativism label to blame permissive sexuality on problems like date rape, which is a little bit ridiculous.

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a-train 09.19.04 at 2:48 am

On the 700 Club moral relativism is exemplified by thinkers like Nietzche (spl?). Although who knows what most people on the right think moral relativism means since I doubt they read Nietzche, they just know they should hate it.

12

ruralsaturday 09.19.04 at 3:15 am

There hasn’t been one moral system ever that wasn’t goal-directed.
No matter how arcane its particulars, no matter how divinely revealed, no matter how instinctive or inspired, or logically derived.
It is the inability, on the one hand, and the refusal on the other, to state these goals clearly and accurately, that keeps them from being argued and, more importantly, keeps their true adherents from being exposed.
Our genes are arguing the finer points of law, back and forth through time.
That contest is all, there is no other.

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Dubious 09.19.04 at 3:59 am

Medium-term lurker, first time poster.

Some conservative condemnations of moral relativism may be aimed at partly-understood deconstructionist theories of morality which tend to be aired by academics. It is not just over-eager undergrads who spew such non-sense, but tenured faculty as well, even if they do not behave or expect others to behave as if they theories they espouse were true.

On a more gut level, I think certain conservatives think of certain liberals as a class of ‘Byronic’ rebellious anti-heroes who (wrongly, in their opinion) seek either to escape (individualistic relativism) or tear down/reshape (constructivist relativism) the existing moral order.

I think the myths and stories of the left are probably more full of such anti-heroes than the right’s myths and stories, which often seek to portray their heroes as restoring/reenacting lost values of some Golden Age. Indeed, that’s almost the definition of the difference between Progressive and Conservative. Those who proclaim ‘our country sucks because we’ve always neglected the problem of slavery/women’s suffrage/social justice’ are swimming upstream against voters natural self-love of their heritage.

I suspect the vast majority of conservatives in the US at least are either limited govt. Lockean or nonlimited gov’t theistic in their moral reasoning. They subscribe to a moral code that is relatively unvarying in time or place. (Ignoring of course that the interpretations of Locke or the Bible have changed over the years — those other, earlier interpretations were obviously wrong, and our current ones are obviously right.)

It think it would be fair to say that, a few non-theistic ‘national greatness’ conservatives aside, most conservatives tend to be hostile to Hobbes (in domestic politics at least), Rousseau, and others whose moral thinking is more communitarian or constructivist.

How would our Rawls scholars characterize Rawls’ metaethical stance in Justice as Fairness and Law of Peoples?

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Pekka 09.19.04 at 7:17 am

Like Keith, I don’t know where to begin, except by saying that little in what follows is particularly original to me. Just a philosopher pitching in to hopefully aid the messy discussion.

For the present purposes, we can see moral relativism coming in two main varieties — normative and meta-ethical — which it’s hard but useful to distinguish, but neither of which has anything to do with moral particularism. Particularism, as it is usually stated, denies that moral judgment depends in any way on moral principles — whether moral principles are conceived of as exceptionless or not. Relativism, as it is usually stated, does make moral judgment dependent on moral principles — but it can work with either sort of moral principles.

Meta-ethical relativism is a form moral anti-objectivism. It says that there are no universally applicable moral standards. On this view, what is relative are the truth-conditions of moral judgments. For the purposes of assigning truth-conditions, judgments of the form “X is right” are best read as “In relation to moral framework M, X is right”. (Compare, perhaps, how the relativity theory in physics would treat judgments of mass.) Whether a given judgment of the form “X is right” is true then depends, roughly, on whether the standards of the relevant moral framework really approve of X.

It would be wrong to see meta-ethical relativism as a form of non-cognitivism. Whereas non-cognitivists deny that moral judgments are truth-apt, meta-ethical relativism implies that there are such things as moral truths. It’s just that there are many sets of moral truths: one for each moral framework. (These aren’t in any logical conflict, owing to the implicitly relational form of moral judgments.)

One main problem with meta-ethical relativism is that it makes genuine moral disagreement go away. For it implies that people who make apparently conflicting moral judgments will either be holding a single moral framework fixed and disputing its content (which is an empirical question) or else, if the truth-conditions of their judgments are relative to different frameworks, talking past one another (hence not disagreeing).

Of course, to evaluate the truth of particular moral judgments, we are owed some mechanism for determining what moral framework is the relevant one in a given context (see below).

Meta-ethical relativism doesn’t say anything about what actions are right or wrong, so it doesn’t as such have normative implications. But there’s also normative moral relativism, which sees the rightness and wrongness of actions as relative to (indeed, fundamentally determined by) the attitudes/practices/conventions of societies/cultures.

Normative relativism is naturally understood as “agent’s-group” relativism, since only then does normative relativism provide moral guidance to agents. This is the view that the rightness of an action is determined by the moral standards of the agent’s society, rather than those of the society to which an appraiser of an action belongs. (To see how these can come apart, consider a moral judgment concerning an action which issued by an appraiser who belongs to a different society than the agent.)

So we have: An act is right if and only if it accords with the moral standards of the agent’s society/culture. This is a normative principle telling each individual what she ought to do, but a highly controversial one. So if we cannot objectively settle any controversial normative issues on which we disagree, we cannot settle whether agent’s-group normative relativism is correct.

Normative agent’s-group relativism certainly has normative implications. Importantly, contrary to what people often seem to think, relativism is a particularly bad basis for moral tolerance. Suppose a given society has no aversion to intolerance toward the practices of others. If, as relativists say, every society’s practices have to be judged by that society’s attitudes, then relativists (qua moral theorists) cannot claim that there is anything wrong with their intolerance. At most, they can hope to belong to a society whose moral standards deem it right to disapprove of intolerance.

More generally, I think it’s right to say of normative relativism that it’s a doctrine of moral equivalence. It also appears to make cross-cultural moral comparisons impossible (except as a sociological topic) and so to make moral progress impossible. Others need learn nothing from us or we from them. So moral relativism is a lazy doctrine: it insulates our moral views from rational challenge and criticism.

By now, it should be obvious that any connection between being a moral relativist and being a liberal or a leftie is an accidental correlation attributable to the hopefully small subset of liberals who also happen to be lazy or misguided moral thinkers.

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Michael Otsuka 09.19.04 at 7:25 am

_non-cognitivists and expressivists are both maintaining positions that other people would regard as the dread moral relativism — the idea that there isn’t *really* any right or wrong apart from people’s feellings_

Matthew: The idea you articulate after the dash is _emotivism_, which is just one among many versions of non-cognitivism or expressivism and a version which most non-cognitivists or expressivists would disown these days.

16

John Quiggin 09.19.04 at 7:48 am

I’d be interested in comments on the implications of various forms of moral relativism for an assessment of Jefferson’s behavior as a slaveholder and his political actions regarding slavery.

We had a lengthy discussion about this late last year but the distinctions being debated here weren’t raised.

17

bob mcmanus 09.19.04 at 8:33 am

Matthew said this: “People seek to find a shared moral intuition and then argue about what follows from that intuition. Grounding the intuition in some absolute moral truth is unnecessary in practice because the two parties agree.”

Whereupon, on another board, I said this:”Where the intuitions are in conflict, and the argument is based on the conflicting intuitions, you will have war. If seeking dialogue, look for those intuitions that are shared, and try to build agreement from there.”

And I was gently chided thus:”but I should note that your should watch using intuition. Intuition is a word reserved for the mysterious force of the mind that gives us a certain knowledge or foundation for a knowledge process. It’s precisely ‘intuition’ that most Kantians uphold as the source of reason’s moral authority. Values are something else: they lead to an intentional stance, a desire, an opinion, not knowledge that one is justified in this.”

Later on, I think I used “values” and “preferences” interchangably, but then ran across otsuka’s note on emotivism.

Now I actually think this precision is useful, and pekka’s post very clear, but I fear there are more of us lazy and misguided moral thinkers than he supposes.

Jefferson had one set of white-skinned children as servants to another set of white-skinned children, in the same house, treated disparately by reason of their mother’s race or their legitimacy. I find him appalling, even by 18th century standards.

18

jeremy 09.19.04 at 8:52 am

Is it necessary to get academic with this?
What conservatives invariably mean when they use “Moral Relativism” as a club to beat up liberals is this:
“I believe that there are universally applicable truths behind morality (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) which are immutable and unchanging. My behavior is judged by those standards, so I behave morally, not based on personal whim or desire for personal benefit. You, on the other hand, believe there are no universal truths, only agreed-upon societal norms, which can shift with the breeze or the whims of popular culture. So your actions can and often are defined by personal whim or personal benefit, and when I say ‘But that’s immoral’, you say, “You may think so, but I disagree, so who is to judge between us?’. But regardless of what you think, there IS a universal judge of truth.”
The problem with this in practice is:
1) Conservatives tend to extrapolate from the existence of broad-consensus universal truths (“All men are created equal”, “Murder is wrong”, “It is good to love your parent/children”) to narrowly partisan and particular “truths” (“We should support the President in time of war”, “Abortion is murder”, “It is bad to love someone of the same gender, and worse to have sex with them”).
2) Those who advocate the existence of universal moral truths nearly always apply them to others, but not to themselves, and they are perfectly willing to jettison them for convenience or partisan benefit.
Vis: Those who were claiming Kerry is a ‘bad Catholic’ because of his abortion stand and should not be given communion, but did not advocate the same punishment for pro-choice Republican Catholics like Pataki and Schwartzenegger.
Vis: It’s wrong to disrespect the President – unless he’s Clinton.
Vis: We must support family values – unless I want to carry on an affair with a staffer (Henry Hyde, Bob Dole) or divorce my wife to marry my mistress (Dole, Newt Gingrich and countless others).
It is, in fact, the worst kind of moral hypocracy. Remember all the ethically-challenged Republicans who, five years ago, swore up and down that everyone in government must be pure and we had a Moral Duty to impeach Clinton for lying under oath?
I really go to town on this in this post over on Kos.

19

abb1 09.19.04 at 10:02 am

I have no idea what ‘meta-ethical’ means and probably shouldn’t post here.

Anyhow: is there really any doubt that ‘morality’ as we know it is mostly an evolved set of taboos imposed on early primitive societies by their elites? Isn’t it quite obvious that morality is relative – the original taboos were all about survival of a small tribe often in very difficult circumstances – different circumstances for different tribes. So, in one society it might be immoral to have more than one wife, while in another it could be immoral to have less than five.

So, unless you are a religious person who believs that his brand of faith is the only correct one, you just have to be moral relativist. Right? What am I missing?

20

asg 09.19.04 at 11:44 am

We should all thank abb1 for demonstrating that while conservatives are frequently sloppy and misguided in their accusations of moral relativism, the target they are aiming at is not entirely mythical.

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asg 09.19.04 at 11:58 am

Oh, and to answer abb1’s question (although there are those on this thread far more qualified than I to do so) let me reproduce his/her “argument” with a few word substitutions and see if that makes the point…

“Anyhow: is there really any doubt that ‘science’ as we know it is mostly an evolved set of taboos imposed on early primitive societies by their elites? Isn’t it quite obvious that scientific facts are relative – the original taboos were all about survival of a small tribe often in very difficult circumstances – different circumstances for different tribes. So, in one society it might be immoral to think that the sun resides at the center of the solar system, while in another it could be immoral to think that the earth does.

“So, unless you are a religious person who believes that his religion’s view of science is the only correct one, you just have to be a scientific relativist. Right? What am I missing?”

22

web of contradictions 09.19.04 at 12:01 pm

Another medium-term lurker, first-time poster.

abb1:

That’s a plausible, not a proven, theory of morality, about which there is certainly room for doubt. A minor deficiency is the top-down bias; do not the ruled also invent moralities to restrain their rulers? More to the point, it’s not incompatible with moral absolutism. On the contrary, it is implicit in your just-so story that the real (rather than stated) purpose of morality is the survival of tribes and that this real end is shared across all cultures. When the Right argue that, for example, ‘Gay marriage must be prohibited because it will destroy civilization!’, they are actually appealing to precisely this summum bonum. When you propose that your model implies moral relativism, I think you are confusing it with moral particularism. Different tribes, in different contexts, evolved different means of arriving at the very same end. The deep question about your model is whether morality really can be explained as a cultural survival strategy. I suspect that, at best, it’s a model of the origins of morality that does not explain the continuing adherence to moral codes that have taken on a life of their own.

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abb1 09.19.04 at 1:15 pm

asg,
science is different – it employs the ‘scientific method’ with observation, theory, experiment and so on. It’s universal. It’s different.

Web,
Survival strategy is the origin of morality – I believe this is what I said, only you expressed it much better.

IOW, at this point of time morality is a dogma based on some very old obsolete survival strategy. People indoctrinate their children the way they themselves were indoctrinated.

The current dogma is only loosely related to a survival strategy that would make sense these days. Take abortion for example: to waste a potential child would be a real terrible thing to do if you lived in a small vanishing tribe, but in today’s China forced abortion may be necessary for their society to survive.

If, indeed, it’s based on survival strategy (or, perhaps, ‘prosperity strategy’), how can it be absolute? It’s relative on so many levels, everything in your environment should have some effect on your morality.

It’s bad for your health to eat pork and drink alcohol in the hot climate – so it becomes a taboo, and later it becomes ‘immoral’, shameful. But it’s fine and even healthy thing to do for people who live in colder places – so, their morality says nothing about it. Unless you drink too much alcohol, of course – that’s immoral.

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tagore smith 09.19.04 at 1:20 pm

I’m not sure how many peole are really arguing for aor against moral relativism… In general the argument is against a fallacious argument that has gained a lot of currency these days- MY’s framing of it as a “meta-ethics” problem points out the fallacy rather well, as does Julian Sanchez, unintentionally (but amusingly).

People aren’t reaslly complaining about about moral relativism- they are complaining about an attempt to reframe arguments about morals in such a way that the interlocutor is “outside” of normal moral frameworks. What people really object to is the reentry.

Ypou are free to point out that all moral judgements are made qwithin certain societal frameworks- you are not free to “reeenter”, after having pointed that out, from the outside. That is reaslly the issue.

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jp 09.19.04 at 2:08 pm

A convenient litmus for the above discussion is current concern for the forthcoming Iraq elections wherein the outcome may easily prove hostile to US interest.

it remains to be seen how conservative moral authoritarians will react should Iraq elections, perceived as a moral good, prove alien to US longterm policy objectives.

In the latter case, conservatives will find themselves confronted with a morally relativist conundrum of their own making.

My point, of course, is that the entire course of the Iraq war has been one based on policies that prove morally relativist, guided by the ambiguities of public opinion, not on principle. War, by definition, imples a suspension of moral absolutes.

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novakant 09.19.04 at 4:06 pm

Maybe I’m missing something (it’s been a while since my philosopher’s days), but it seems to me that the arguments presented here don’t go deep enough, not in the sense that they aren’t sophisticated but rather that they seem to take certain assumptions for granted, which are not self-evident at all.
I think it’s time to turn the tables and simply ask those attacking “moral relativism” what the ontological status of their “values” or “principles” is. They can only attack moral relativism from the standpoint of the moral realist, i.e. arguing that moral values/principles are facts with ontological validity. When asked about the ontological status of these facts, they’ll most likely resort to either a religious, a platonic or a transcendental justification. None of these explanations is compatible with the modern, scientific philosophical outlook on the world – e.g. I don’t think anybody would want to argue that moral principles were already floating around in some transcendental realm while the earth was still only a gaseous globe populated by a few microbes. Instead these principles/values are a product of our ability to entertain counterfactuals, imagine possible worlds and abstract from the here and now. They have been put into writing, handed down to later generations through education and are constantly being propagated and put into action and in turn criticized and counteracted. Beyond this discursive realm they have no ontological validity whatsoever and therefore the claims to objectivity by moral absolutists are simply blunt assertions.

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Alex 09.19.04 at 4:50 pm

‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ = species of moral relativism?

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Dubious 09.19.04 at 5:57 pm

In response to Jefferson’s children via Sally Hemmings, two points.
A) The rumored (at the time) existence of that liason and those children was, at the time, used as a campaign issue against him. By the standards of the day, in the US at least, such dalliances were disapproved of. I have read that this is in contrast to the other major area of black slavery in the Americas, Brazil, where such affairs were out in the open and relatively tolerated.
B) Left and right reverse polarity and the misconduct (by our standards) of the various Founding Fathers. Rightists typically want to excuse them by judging by the standards of the time – normative/cultural relativism. Leftists typically do not, being in this case, absolutists.

As far as the ontological status of moral claims, I think novakant is quite wrong to argue that ‘religious, platonic, or transcendental’ derivations of moral principles would ones that ‘no one wants to argue’ for. While people may not want to argue that morality was binding on the actions of bacteria vis a vis one another, they probably would argue that if humans had existed way back when, that they would be bound by such principles. Many (most?) people hunger after moral principles which are timeless and objectively true.

Ranging from people who accept popularized frameworks of the eternal kind to many hardcore scientists, many people would see a divide between scientific claims of ‘is’ and moral claims of ‘ought.’ Certainly many of the assumptions (God wants us to act thusly) which fuel moral frameworks are non-falsifiable by our current scientific methods and standards. But that does not they are just a lot of hot air.

If all the crazy stuff in the book of Revelations came to pass, I suspect most people would accept that as sufficient proof of God. Of course, we would then be left in the position of why we should accord any more moral weight to God’s opinion than anyone else. But that second argument is almost never made. Everyone concentrates on the dubious existence of God.

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Dubious 09.19.04 at 6:06 pm

jp wrote:

` War, by definition, imples a suspension of moral absolutes.’

I think this last claim is pretty far off the mark. Many morally absolutist theories of morality have a framework for judging jus ad bello (just wars vs. unjust wars) and jus in bello (just methods of war-fighting). This goes beyond religious absolutism. A utilitarian-of-rights is arguably a moral absolutist if those rights are non-relative, and, depending on empirical facts, people did and do argue for the war on that basis.

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novakant 09.19.04 at 6:21 pm

Dubious, you are correct, I should rephrase that as:

I don’t think anybody here would want to argue…

here pertaining to the enlightened people commenting on this blog ;)

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novakant 09.19.04 at 6:22 pm

Dubious, you are correct, I should have phrased that as:

I don’t think anybody here would want to argue…

here pertaining to the enlightened people commenting on this blog ;)

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Elliot 09.19.04 at 6:57 pm

Just a bit of pedantry: pekka has it wrong regarding relatavistic judgments of mass. Modern relativity theory treats mass as a constant in all reference frames. Einstein defined a quantity called “relativistic mass” equal to &gammam, where &gammais a relativistic function that depends on the velocity. Einstein did this in order to preserve Newton’s famous equation for momentum:

p = mv

However, physicists later decided that the concept of relativistic mass was useless and instead treat mass as an invariant, even in non-inertial frames, and change the definition of momentum to compensate. A better example, if you want physical relativity, would be ‘velocity’. There is no such thing as the absolute velocity of an object, only its velocity in a particular reference frame.

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Elliot 09.19.04 at 6:58 pm

Just a bit of pedantry: pekka has it wrong regarding relatavistic judgments of mass. Modern relativity theory treats mass as a constant in all reference frames. Einstein defined a quantity called “relativistic mass” equal to gamma*m, where gamma is a relativistic function that depends on the velocity. Einstein did this in order to preserve Newton’s famous equation for momentum:

p = mv

However, physicists later decided that the concept of relativistic mass was useless and instead treat mass as an invariant, even in non-inertial frames, and change the definition of momentum to compensate. A better example, if you want physical relativity, would be ‘velocity’. There is no such thing as the absolute velocity of an object, only its velocity in a particular reference frame.

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pekka 09.19.04 at 8:01 pm

Elliot: thanks — I stand corrected.

Novakant: it is possible to argue that moral objectivism gives a better account than moral relativism of various moral phenomena (e.g., the possibility of genuine moral disagreement or the moral desirability of certain sorts of tolerance) without yet having settled on any specific view of the ontological status of objective moral standards. Nowadays most serious philosophical attempts to defend moral objectivism tend to be quite careful in seeking compatibility with a broadly scientific worldview. (Naturalist moral realists are a particularly clear example.)

Abb1’s first post: you point to a kind of descriptive relativism, giving it an evolutionary explanation. Descriptive relativism is the view that there are no universally applied moral standards, even at the deepest level. This is an empirical claim. By contrast, moral relativism denies the existence of universally applicable moral standards.

Suppose (controversially) that descriptive relativism is true (it certainly doesn’t follow from the theory of evolution alone). Then objectivists will say that some or all societies/cultures are ignorant or mistaken, and genuinely disagree, about these univerally applicable standards. Relativists might contend that relativism offers the best explanation of descriptive relativism. This contention would be undercut by relativism’s failure to explain other moral phenomena that it should explain.

Finally, let’s be clear about what objectivists say and don’t say (qua objectivists).

What the objectivist says: There are some (at least one) universally applicable moral principles which are independent of the actual practices/conventions of cultures/societies.

What the objectivist does not (or, anyway, needn’t) say:

– We know what these universally applicable principles are. (For we might be mistaken.)

– These universally applicable principles are our principles. (Again, objectivists qua objectivists should be keen to concede that even our deepest moral convictions are in principle fallible. Of course, that’s something that fundamentalists of various sorts unfortunately aren’t willing to concede.)

– These universally applicable principles are specific and culturally insensitive. (It’s perfectly OK by objectivism if all sorts of circumstantial factors may be relevant to their application to particular cases.)

– We are justified in coercing others to act in accordance with these universally applicable principles.

– Those who don’t act in accordance with (or acknowledge) these principles are thereby bad people.

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jp 09.19.04 at 9:17 pm

“Relativists might contend that relativism offers the best explanation of descriptive relativism. This contention would be undercut by relativism’s failure to explain other moral phenomena that it should explain.”

pekka: Could you give me an example of the “other moral phenomena” to which you allude?

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abb1 09.19.04 at 9:19 pm

pekka,
I understand what you’re saying (and thanks for using laymen’s language).

This approach you call ‘descriptive relativism’ explains the origin of the phenomenon we call ‘morality’ or ‘moral principles’.

Now, when an objectivist is talking about ‘universally applicable moral principles’, how does he explain what a ‘moral principle’ is? Is it supposed to be something somehow wired into our brains? Is it possible to be an objectivist without introducing a supernatural force?

Thanks.

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pekka 09.19.04 at 9:55 pm

Abb1: I’ve been assuming that moral principles are propositions. An example would be the proposition that an action’s being a lie makes the action wrong, so far as its being a lie goes. (This is a defeasible moral principle. Lies which save lives seem permissible, all things considered.) This is an assumption that relativists and objectivists typically share, since both think there are moral truths and since whatever else propositions are, they are assessable as true or false. I outlined what I take to be the crucial disagreements in an earlier comment.

Your query about supernaturalism is about what (according to objectivists) makes a moral principle true (when it is true). Supernaturalism (say, some kind of theistic morality) is just one possible form of objectivism. Humbler options might look into objective facts about rational agency (e.g., neo-Kantians) or objective facts about what makes for human well-being (e.g., utilitarians).

Note that moral requirements may be objective even if they depend on the existence of humans or rational agents — so long as their status as moral requirements doesn’t depend on their being endorsed as requirements by the practices/conventions/attitudes of societies/cultures (or, in the limiting case, individuals). Compare: if someone’s in pain, that’s a perfectly objective fact, even as the pain itself is a subjective conscious state that wouldn’t exist if the person experiencing the pain didn’t exist.

JP: by “other phenomena” I was referring back to things like the possibility of genuine moral disagreement. If I judge euthanasia to be morally permissible in a certain case but you judge it to be impermissible, we seem to be genuinely disagreeing. If (as I suggested) relativism implies that we aren’t really disagreeing, it is explanatorily inadequate in this respect.

Which phenomena, precisely, should moral theories in this vicinity be able to explain? A good question — and one to which I have no full answer, or at least no neutral answer. For example: as I said, relativism is a bad basis for tolerance. Saying that this is a defect in relativism assumes the (plausible but nonetheless) morally substantive claim that at least certain forms of tolerance are morally desirable.

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asg 09.19.04 at 10:39 pm

“Science is different.”

Oh really — why cannot the scientific method, theory, and so forth be equally easily explained away as being imposed by social elites? And why is empirical observation automatically more reliable or real than moral observation? Sorry, it ain’t that easy.

Anyway, to directly answer the question you initially posed — “what am I missing?” — it’s that the mere fact of disagreement about something (in this case morality) does not somehow entail that the disagreeing people are both right, or that there’s no correct way to resolve the disagreement. It just means they disagree. The reason why I substituted “science” in your earlier post was to bring out this point — the fact that when people disagree about a scientific fact, it’s absurd to simply throw up one’s hands and say, well, obviously this means that scientific facts are relative.

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Julian Elson 09.19.04 at 11:12 pm

Seems to me that there’s a distinction here that’s probably worth making, and has almost certainly been made before, long ago, by better-versed people than me, but there are two different things people could mean by relativism: that different rules of morality apply depending the the agent who commits the action deemed moral or immoral, and that different rules of morality apply depending on who is observing and judging the actions. Call the former “agent relativism” and the latter “judge relativism” until some good samaritan gives me the real terms.

Example of agent relativism: Action X is good if A does it, and bad if B does it.

Example of judge relativism:
Action X is good according to judge J, and bad according to judge K. (and neither is really wrong about morality)

Judge relativism probably encompasses agent relativism (i.e. Action X is good according to judge J, and it is bad if done by A and good if done by B according to judge K), though if you say that judges can have different standards, but those standards have to be objective vis-a-vis agents to be valid morals, then you can have judge relativism without agent relativism.

Of course, then individualism and “judge not, lest ye be judged” sensitivity tends to turn judge and moral agent into the same person.

I think that conservatives are somewhat concerned about about both types. pg’s “soft on poor criminals, hard on rich ones” is agent relativism, and that pisses conservatives off a bit, but I think the broader concern is the judge relativism, where they’re afraid that we must say, for instance, “Female Genital Mutilation isn’t wrong according to the laws of the universe, even if it is wrong according to us.” The fear is that this will not only lead to us viewing morality as relative to the judge, but stopping making moral judgments entirely, on the grounds that it’s all a matter of perspective, so it isn’t worth worrying about.

BTW: re: pg’s example, I don’t quite get what you mean by liberals condemning white collar but not underclass criminality. It seems to me that liberals want to condemn underclass and white collar criminality (albeit without being particularly brutal in prison conditions or sentencing to either), whereas conservatives condemn underclass criminality without feeling that white collar criminality is a very big problem.

I think that one problem that conservatives have is that they want morality to be NECESSARILY the way it is. If a sentimentalist along the lines of Smith or Hume, or an emotivist like Ayer, says “our morals are feelings, which are individual, but those feelings which are fairly widespread, almost universal, constitute what might reasonably be called human nature, which might have evolved into us hard-wired, much like the desire for sugary foods (helping friends, etc),” conservatives are very concerned because morality is contingent, and ask “but then if humans had evolved differently, so that they FELT murder was right, there nothing showing that it’s REALLY wrong.”

Of course, recourse to God may or may not help put a necessary grounding on morality. See the Euthyphro. A really worried moral objectivist then uses a varient of the objection against emotivism: “if God were different, and said murder was okay, then how would we still say that murder is REALLY wrong?” If one considers God the source of morality, full stop, then murder really WOULD be right if God said so: morality would just be a construct of God’s will. But that seems to me to be every bit as relativistic as the moral views that conservatives oppose.

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Dubious 09.20.04 at 12:06 am

Novakant — I can’t speak for whether others in the forum would want to say that moral principles exist even if there were no moral agents (only bacteria) to be guided by them. I’m not proposing that, if only because the idea of “If there were no humans here, would it be incumbent on humans as moral agents to act morally?” seems a bit ethereal and pointless to me.

But, as we are dealing with the conservative charge of leftist relativism, exactly the sorts of ideas you named are likely to be the ones motivating the charges.

While currently serving academics (moral theorists) might avoid theories that depend on religious, platonic, or transcendental arguments, they are out of touch in this regard.

Left (MLK, Ghandi, human rights NGOs) and right, those writing and speaking for wider audiences and therby hoping to impact the real world (moral engineers) tend to put forth world views that are universalist and eternal.

In applied moral discourse outside the academy, to openly admit that your argument is utterly contingent on place and time is to shoot yourself in the foot.

P.S. I’d characterize utilitarianism as mostly relativistic, not absolutist, since it has a hard time specifying why one set of preferences is morally superior to another.

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Martin Bento 09.20.04 at 12:12 am

pekka, thanks for your lucid accounts. I still don’t see, however, how moral objectivists are not relying ultimately on substantive moral judgments as givens. To take one of your examples, let’s set up a moral philosophy that attempts to maximize human well-being. “Well-being” can be variously defined, so let’s narrow it down to happiness and assume we can define and measure this. Is it better that humans be happy than unhappy? Humans may prefer happiness, but morality is clearly not a simple matter of preference, since people frequently prefer to violate moral codes, even ones they accept in principle. In what sense, then, is happiness superior to unhappiness? The only sense that would seem to have moral weight is the moral sense, in which case our objective moral system is tautological, no?

I do think evolutionary psychology provides a way out of this. Moral ideas are an observed fact of human behavior, like language. Though the specific propositions vary, all cultures have moral ideas, again like language. If the Darwinian idea is correct, these ideas and their effects on behavior must either have survival value or be noise, like spandrels. Given that morality frequently requires people to act against their most obvious self-interest, and that it is clearly determined at least in part by culture, but is nonetheless present in all cultures, the “noise” hypothesis would seem a non-starter. Therefore, I do think some evolutionary account of morality follows from the theory of evolution itself. If human morality is not a product of evolution, why does it exist?

If morality is seen to provide survival value, I would say at the group level (embracing the minority view among evolutionists, which is group selection), morality can be defined in a way that is not tautological. One does not need to attribute moral value to survival to argue that the social and psychological dynamics that exist are those that have fueled survival. It provides a path to derive the moral from the amoral.

Is such a moral theory relativist? Perhaps not entirely. Since evolutionary psychology rejects the tabula rasa, it does not require that morality be entirely contingent on culture. It seems clear on the basis of observation, however, that morality does contain some cultural contingencies, but may not reducible to these. First of all, since all humans have a common ancestry, and therefore most of the same genes, not all abstract moral possibilities may be present as potentials in the genetic material. Secondly, certain human problems, specifically the problem of living in groups, may be universal, even while others are produced by the local environment. Of course, just because a problem is universal doesn’t mean there is only one solution to it, but it also does not mean the number of viable solutions is arbitrarily large – that is very unlikely for non-trivial problems.

Example: murder. I believe all societies have moral strictures against murder. Most or all also make exceptions (e.g., war). If human societies say that murder is wrong save when the society itself says otherwise, what societies seem really to be asserting then, is that murder must be a social not an individual choice, even though it is often an individual act. From the viewpoint of society’s survival, this makes sense. Arbitrary patterns of murder will destroy it, but it will survive better if it can strike uninhibitedly at competitors without and subversive forces within. Hence, the stricture against murder itself is not relative; all societies regard murder as a group choice (even a pacifist society is simply making one of the boundary choices). How the group decision is made, and what principles specifically underlie it, can vary considerably.

From this view morality is neither entirely culturally relative, nor entirely “objective”. Grounding morality in something that is not in itself moral also makes it possible, though not easy, to make cross-cultural moral judgments. One can ask of any moral conundrum, what solution, if generalized, would best serve the survival and prosperity (in the broadest, not merely the monetary sense) of the players as a whole.

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Dubious 09.20.04 at 12:21 am

P.P.S.
Great website for this thread:
http://plato.stanford.edu/contents.html

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Dubious 09.20.04 at 1:55 am

If I may put in another word for evolutionary psychological moral theory…

Asked whether social institutions like language or money are real, our response might be ‘sort of’ since while these phenomena have physical manifestations (sound waves emerge from people’s mouths and chunks of gold unquestionably exist) it is particularistic social agreement rather than their universal physical qualities that make them language or money instead of merely physical phenomena.

They are ‘virtually’ real, in the sense that their reality is information-dependent. Some evolutionary psychologists make a similar argument for morality being ‘virtually’ real, ‘virtually’ objective.

Much like language and money have powerful effects (through human agents) on the real world, and are thus quasi-real themselves, so too moral principles.

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JamesW 09.20.04 at 8:22 am

Matt’s typo “perjorative” is q very nice Fehlleistung for current US politics. Pejorative: running something down. Perjorative: doing so mendaciously; pertaining to a lying smear.

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Kenny Easwaran 09.20.04 at 8:29 am

Martin Bento – there seem to be a couple different meanings of the word “morality” involved in the issues you discuss. While you want utilitarianism to have some justification (which would of course, have to be a justification in moral terms and therefore be circular, as you correctly point out), I think most utilitarians take maximization of human well-being to be a definition of morality, rather than a particular type of action it requires.

As for the evolutionary theories you discuss, I think these are often seen as describing something like morality that isn’t the same thing. It sounds like you want to assimilate morality to the guides for action given to us by evolution, just as some philosophers (which I actually tend to sympathize with) want to assimilate truth to knowledge, which is the approximation to truth that we have.

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abb1 09.20.04 at 8:47 am

asg,
the whole point of science and scientific method is that every theory can be independently tested and refuted by any human being of any culture. So, it seems to me, science is objective, universal for the whole humanity.

Moral principles are not verifiable, they are dogmas, axioms. You can’t prove to me that lying is bad in the way a scientist can prove gravitation, you want me to accept it as a given.

Well, axioms are subjective. For example: Euclid picked a set of axioms that seemed evident to him – and he got Euclid’s geometry. Euclid’s geometry is an excellent non-contradictory logical system. But then Lobachevsky said: no, it’s not obvious to me that two parallel lines will never cross (Euclid’s fifth axiom). And he created Lobachevsky’s geometry – another excellent non-contradictory logical system.

And I don’t see any reason to believe that the other four Euclid’s axioms are absolute.

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Martin Bento 09.20.04 at 9:51 am

Kenny,

Suppose I have an opportunity to steal someone’s car, but refrain because I believe such an activity would be “morally wrong” (I may also refrain for other reasons, like fearing the law, but that’s another question). This is what I mean by morality. What other meanings would there be? I realize that examined psychologically, this phenomenon is quite complex, but I’m interested in why it exists, rather than a detailed account of the subjective experience.

To take maximation of human well-being as the definition of morality still requires a definition of human well-being. There are arguments that people can “grow” through suffering, etc., and counter-arguments, so I’m not sure this solves much.

As for assimulating morality to the guides for action given us by evolution, well, morality is a guide to action, no? If it was not given to us by evolution, whence did it come? Of course, it is not the *only* guide to action evolution has given us, but given that it is present in some form in all human cultures, it would seem to be part of the basic human equipment. If morality is not the principles people describe as “moral” and the behaviors that emerge from them, what is it?

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jp 09.20.04 at 2:01 pm

Try as I may, I can think of no moral construct that is not ultimately contravened by an essentially Godelian conundrum: That cognitively speaking, such a construct ultimately rests on a given proposition that of itself is capable neither of proof or disproof.

Whether utilitarian, derived from cultual consensus, be it evolutionary, revealed (in the theological sense,) presented in terms of psyco-social phenomena, or founded on scientific observation, the basic epistemological foundations of a purported objectivist morality appear, to me, unsupportable.

The greatest problem I have with the above discussion is the tendency to state the problem in terms of either/or polarities.

I can think of no objective morality that does not come subject on some contingency or context. Nor can I think of any relativist morality that in application is not objective in one way or another.

As such, I see no alternative but to affirm or defend a liberal-relativist approach to morality based upon all cognitive sources at my disposal contingent on the here and now.

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Jimmy Doyle 09.20.04 at 2:08 pm

Matthew Yglesias:

“Everyone in the game distances themselves from relativism because it’s become a perjorative word.”

False. Gil Harman.

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abb1 09.20.04 at 6:39 pm

Ah, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. I remember, it’s a good one.

No, jp, I don’t think that’s it. For a moral proposition to be what you said it is, a system of rules and axioms has to be already established.

Instead, what happens is that these moral propositions are supposed to be the rules and axioms of the system.

So, if you accept one set of moral propositions you get the western system of ‘values’, and with another set you get the oriental one, etc.

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Gareth 09.20.04 at 7:24 pm

If ethics is axiomatic, then it follows that the axioms are not capable of non-circular justification, but it doesn’t follow that they are subjective. That’s just a fact about deductive argument.

Valid arguments only establish true propositions if all the premises are true. So, unless it is a contradiction to deny the proposition you are trying to establish, you will always need controversial premises.

Science is no better off than ethics in this respect, as italso requires premises that are incapable of further non-circular justification.

Pekka–

I agree that agents engaged in moral disagreement presume that moral relativism is false. But how does that prove moral relativisim is false?

Moral realism may be something everyone, even those who are theoretically opposed to it, can’t help but assume to be true. But I also can’t help but assume that classical ideas of causation and time are true, no matter how many times physics professors explain quantum mechanics to me.

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abb1 09.20.04 at 7:49 pm

Hmm, Gareth,
I took that formal logic class decades ago. But it’s my impression that an axiom is something you can only believe and hope is true. So, how can you say “it doesn’t follow that they are subjective”?

You believe one thing and I belive the opposite; you can’t prove yours, I can’t prove mine. So, we’ll just have to agree to disagree, correct?

It is possible that that you can show that my system is self-contradictory, but it still doesn’t mean that any of your axioms are absolute.

Where am wrong here?

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Martin Bento 09.20.04 at 9:32 pm

Gareth, it is true that science requires axioms that cannot be established non-circularly, so these essentially have to be accepted by consensus. For example: the universal behaves according to predictable laws, which rules out miracles. Disagreement on this axiom obviously exists between the scientific and many of the religious, but not between scientists, AFAIK. Hence, agreement with the axiom defines an included and an excluded community. With morality, the axioms are controversial even among proclaimed moralists. True, societies can also divide according to specific moral beliefs, but in the modern multi-cultural world, it is difficult to avoid some arbitration between claims.

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Martin Bento 09.20.04 at 9:58 pm

I don’t know whether evolutionary psychology can be proven, but it is not circular. It does derive morality from axioms that are not, in themselves, moral. It is true that, if it go no further than that, it is merely descriptive, not proscriptive, but it is descriptive of a proscriptive process. Further, I think that if one wants to challenge the premise, as opposed to the specific conclusions, of evolutionary psychology, one must either: 1) challenge Darwinism itself, at least as a comprehensive account of life, or 2) argue that morality is insignificant to evolution and arose in human behavior for no scientifically discernable reason. I don’t think the second argument can be reasonably made, but would be happy to see someone take a whack.

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novakant 09.21.04 at 12:28 am

OK I’ll take a whack at it.

In a post further up you claim that all human behaviour is the product of the evolutionary process and as such must be either noise or have some survival value and that since moral behaviour is a complex, ubiquitous and transcultural phenomenon it must have some survival value. But here one has to ask why the same couldn’t be said for immoral behaviour which is just as widely obeserved across cultures and can be equally complex.
That aside, the form of morality at the group level you mention can be utterly immoral when judged by the standards of modern moral theory, which require that people abstract from just this group level and hold the same principles universally for every member of mankind.
The Nazis had a very strong group morality which manifested itself negatively against other groups and the same goes for the Hutu and Tutsi – this is an animalistic form of morality which obviously has nothing to do with what we understand by the word. Evolutionary principles like group survival and expansionism are probably rather hardwired in our brains, but it is exactly overcoming these instincts what defines a moral human being in the emphatic sense.
I therefore cannot see how one could possibly derive morality from the evolutionary process.
I think morality arose because our brains developed a bit of extra capacity, which gaves us the opportunity to communicate via signs, to reflect upon our actions and to imagine different possible worlds. It’s a product of human culture and language, dependent on a cognitive space we describe as “free will”. Sure, we somehow “evolved” as human beings to this stage, but it seems to me that cultural phenomena are far too complex to be explained via a recourse to evolutionary processes.

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Gareth 09.21.04 at 1:28 am

Martin:

Psychology, including evolutionary psychology, can in principle, explain moral beliefs. But it cannot provide grounds for thinking those beliefs are true.

In fact, I understand that some EPers have theorized that Aristotlean physics is “hard wired” into us, but Aristotlean physics is wrong. If EPers are right, and the belief that adultery by (or with) a wife is worse that adultery by a husband with an unmarried woman is evolutionarily favoured, it doesn’t mean that it is correct, just that it is hard to change.

Martin & abb1:

“Controversial” does not equal “subjective.” Say that three times every morning.

Anyway, it isn’t clear that moral controversy is because people disagree about principles (at a suitable level of abstraction), but because they disagree about application of those principles.

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Martin Bento 09.21.04 at 3:33 am

“But here one has to ask why the same couldn’t be said for immoral behaviour which is just as widely obeserved across cultures and can be equally complex.”

Sure, but the evolutionary advantage of immoral behavior, at least of the most serious kinds, is usually obvious – rape increases your progeny, murder eliminates competitors, theft increases resources. It is the refraining from these things that requires explication.

“That aside, the form of morality at the group level you mention can be utterly immoral when judged by the standards of modern moral theory, which require that people abstract from just this group level and hold the same principles universally for every member of mankind.”

We are trying to explain morality as such here. It is clear that morality exists as a factor in human thinking and behavior. I have asserted that it exists in some form in all cultures, and no one here seems to dispute this. Any theory of morality as such, however, has to apply to all moral systems. It cannot be restricted to one that is specifically modern, and far from universal among modern (or postmodern, if you like) people. What you are doing is taking your particular moral theories and holding that any account of morality must justify them. This is no more legitimate that it would be for a fundamentalist Christian to insist that any general theory of morality must justify a prohibition against gay marriage. You may, of course, feel that your morality is “true” morality, but, frankly, so does everyone else.

If a society held that its ruler should defend the weak in the society against exploitation by the strong, would you call that a moral position?

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Martin Bento 09.21.04 at 3:56 am

gareth, “controversial” may not equal “subjective”, but if you believe that something is true, there is the question of why you believe it. If you believe it because of reason, you should be able to convince others who accept the arbitration of reason. If moral ideas remain controversial among people who accept and correctly apply reason, then there is some dimension to them that must have a basis other than reason. Yet, attempts to treat morality as something other than an arbitrary cultural artifact, attempts to justify morality, seem to fall straight into tautology, as in this discussion.

I think it is clear that people differ about principles. Osama bin Laden and I have moral principles that differ radically in their goals, their standards of judgment, their logic, and many other respects. I don’t think it is just a question of application; we seek different things, and have different ideas of what is “right”.

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Martin Bento 09.21.04 at 4:23 am

“The Nazis had a very strong group morality which manifested itself negatively against other groups “

I could by all rights invoke Godwin here, but I think that meme is virulent, so I’ll pass.

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Martin Bento 09.21.04 at 4:30 am

“The Nazis had a very strong group morality which manifested itself negatively against other groups “

I could by all rights invoke Godwin here, but I think that meme is virulent, so I’ll pass.

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Alex Fradera 09.21.04 at 12:52 pm

There are many examples of behaviors that many would consider immoral or at least not explicitly legitimized by recourse to morality that have debatable survival value – masturbation, anal sex, oral sex, excessive use of alcohol, gluttony, drug use, homosexuality.

I’m not sure that isolating those cultural phenomena that can be considered moral, suggesting they are detrimental to survival and concluding they must be the product of a single, powerful, selected-for process which constitutes morality is going to hold. I know evolutionary psychology can be very exciting but really, the bars it has jumped are not as impressive as we sometimes think. Even phenomena as deep as face perception – face perception! – can be challenged as being an authentic product of phylogenetic construction. I’ll give you a quote from Cecelia Heyes’ paper “Four routes of cognitive evolution”:

Just as natural selection tends to be conservative with respect to respiratory pigments (e.g., hemoglobin) and revisionist with respect to respiratory structures (e.g., skin, gills and lungs), it is likely that some properties of behavior-control systems are more susceptible than others to phylogenetic change and therefore that they show greater variation across species and in the course of development…. this article [if correct] ..implies that phylogenetic construction is rare and that natural selection is generally conservative with respect to cognitive mechanisms. (p724, Psychological Review vol 110(4), 2003)

You don’t need to be an antiDarwinist to hold evolutionary psychology arguments with skepticism. No-one counters the obvious claim that the brain has structure, and this is not what the evo-psychs do – where they are distinctive is in their interest in how increasingly specific cognitive mechanisms might be wired in. But Darwinism doesn’t dictate that selection can occur unrestricted, but within biological confines, and many psychologists and philosophers feel that e-p can make claims it can’t cash under the defense that it is coherent with Darwinian theory in the abstract (i.e. it fits a model), without first establishing that it fits all the biological requirements.

That said, there is plenty of moral psych research and some of it – e.g. social contract stuff of Cosmides – seems pretty good to me. But I think the point still stands – that this might unfold our moral prejudices, but doesn’t really get us anywhere with a moral framework. In fact, those who are interested in it see it as a problem to be overcome in morality (the yuck factor in acts that we objectively agree do not meet the conditions of being immoral), rather than any kind of foundation. Check out http://www.philosophersmag.com/bw/games/taboo.htm for a fun look at this.

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novakant 09.21.04 at 3:04 pm

“We are trying to explain morality as such here. (…) What you are doing is taking your particular moral theories and holding that any account of morality must justify them.”

I didn’t elaborate on any specific moral theories, but if you are talking moral principles/values there are some requirements that have to be met:

1.) They cannot be restricted to just one group but instead have to be universally applicable. If you disagree with that, then you have to claim that racists, anti-semites, genocidal dictators and whathaveyou are capable of having a coherent moral value system.

2.) There has to be an element of free will and individual choice in our moral actions – if they are hardwired, controlled by instinct or even determined by the overarching culture/authority alone, they do not qualify as moral. Kant may have overplayed this card a bit, but he hit a crucial point. If you deny this, then your idea of morality is stuck at preconventional and conventional level in the Kohlberg scheme.

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abb1 09.21.04 at 9:57 pm

If you disagree with that, then you have to claim that racists, anti-semites, genocidal dictators and whathaveyou are capable of having a coherent moral value system.

And why not? Moral proposition: “individuals of my tribe (however defined) are much more precious than other individuals” is very common. First 1000 US casualties in Iraq is a big event, while Iraqi casualties aren’t even counted. It’s called patriotism, and it’s a laudable moral value. How far is it from racism and anti-semitism?

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Dubious 09.22.04 at 12:46 am

To get back to the original point of the thread…

Again, all these posts illustrate precisely what conservatives are aiming at. In political discourse for the general public, no one talks metaethics. Moral nihilism, moral skepticism, emotivism, objectivism, etc. are not things people in the non-academic world are much concerned about. Worse, if you bring them up, people will begin to doubt your deep heartfelt commitment to your moral principles.

You could rightly say that ‘no serious thinker’ would think that intellectually entertaining metaethical discussions indicates anything at all about how deep our commitments to our principles run. But people don’t see it that way. Someone who is willing to ask these questions is dangerously freethinking in most people’s minds, I think.

“If they need an explanation as to why murder is wrong, they’re either out-of-touch ivory tower types or somehow trying to subvert the notion that murder is wrong.”

Arguably, the right is damaged by not having the strong representation in the Academy to derive strong intellectual underpinnings for its viewpoints.

Undeniable, the left is damaged by the fact that many leftist intellectuals are as politically tone-deaf as religious fanatics. Living in isolated ideological communes (e.g. Anthro or Sociology depts), they spend most of their time quibbling over small points like whether the transubstantiation… err, over whether female circumcision should be tolerated (to avoid cultural imperialism) or stamped out (to promote feminism).

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Martin Bento 09.22.04 at 7:29 am

Novakant,

“I didn’t elaborate on any specific moral theories, but if you are talking moral principles/values there are some requirements that have to be met”

Call them theories, principles, or requirements, you are positing the morality must be universal or it is not morality. Not all individuals or cultures that claim to have moral standards share this criterion. Therefore, you are taking a standard that is specific to a subset of humanity and claiming it must apply to all, and claiming further that entire societies, arguably the majority of human societies historically, have no moral standards whatsoever, regardless of what they believe (other than what they believe about universality) and how it affects their behavior. A theory of morality that explains only universal morality fails to explain the moral logic of the majority of the human race.

“1.) They cannot be restricted to just one group but instead have to be universally applicable. If you disagree with that, then you have to claim that racists, anti-semites, genocidal dictators and whathaveyou are capable of having a coherent moral value system.”

I do so claim. You may differ with the premises of such value systems, but they can be as coherent in their own terms as other moral value systems.

“2.) There has to be an element of free will and individual choice in our moral actions – if they are hardwired, controlled by instinct or even determined by the overarching culture/authority alone, they do not qualify as moral. “

Free will is a huge issue with implications well beyond morality. However, suffice it to say, that it is not clear that free will is compatible with materialism. The basic premise of physical determinism on which science was founded excludes the possibility of free will (although quantum physics has problematized this somewhat). If morality requires free will, then morality would seem to have no foundation for those who accept the scientific worldview. If you want to insist on free will, you can either reject the scientific worldview, or show how it can be made consistent with free will. The only path I know to the latter would be the work of Roger Penrose, who suggests that quantum indeterminacy has effects on human decision-making. Whether “quantum indeterminacy” is really the same as, or can be a cause of, what we mean by “free will” is a whole other and quite difficult question. However, few other scientists seem to think that Penrose is right in this, so that whole line of inquiry may be a blind alley, leaving the dilemma unresolved.

Regardless of whether free will exists however, and regardless therefore of whether morality has an ontological foundation beyond that of other human beliefs that may have no referent external to human mind, people do perceive that they have moral standards, and this perception does seem to be one of the determinants of people’s behavior. Therefore, morality can be examined as an aspect of human behavior regardless of whether the perceived moral choices are “real” in the sense of being determined by the free will of the individual, just as one can examine people’s beliefs in God without requiring that God exist. This is how evolutionary psychology examines them and why it is descriptive, not proscriptive.

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Martin Bento 09.22.04 at 8:58 am

Alex,

“There are many examples of behaviors that many would consider immoral or at least not explicitly legitimized by recourse to morality that have debatable survival value – masturbation, anal sex, oral sex, excessive use of alcohol, gluttony, drug use, homosexuality.”

I think gluttony is easily understood as an adaptation to an unreliable food supply that is maladaptive with a reliable one. Other than that this list seems to come down to non-reproductive sex and mind-altering substances. I agree that non-reproductive sex is hard to explain on the basis of selfish genery, but I’m with the group selectionists, and population control mechanisms pose no difficulty there. As for mind alteration, it seems to exist in most cultures (perhaps the Islamic are an exception – I’m not sure if they do drugs in Saudi Arabia or have in the period of Islamic rule, other than mild mind alterants like caffeine and nicotine). Perhaps it fills a poorly understood need related to human intelligence. In most cultures, though, it seems to be contained by religion, which would seem to make it fairly neutral for survival value.

In any case, morality poses a dilemma for Darwinism that other behaviors of negligible or even moderately negative survival value do not. That is because morality frequently requires behaviors directly and strongly contrary to individual self-interest, at least obvious self-interest. I know of no other factor in human behavior present so strongly across cultures that does this to anything like the same degree.

I don’t offhand see the relevance of your quote about face recognition. Could you clarify?

“But Darwinism doesn’t dictate that selection can occur unrestricted, but within biological confines, and many psychologists and philosophers feel that e-p can make claims it can’t cash under the defense that it is coherent with Darwinian theory in the abstract (i.e. it fits a model), without first establishing that it fits all the biological requirements. “

Are you saying that evolutionary psychology requires the existence of biological mechanisms that are not required by other accounts of morality (at least by other materialist accounts; obviously, it requires more than supernatural accounts)? Why would this be so? Or are you saying the EP has not given a sufficiently convincing account of how the attributes it posits would be selected for under selfish genery?

“this might unfold our moral prejudices, but doesn’t really get us anywhere with a moral framework “

If I understand your distinction, this is another way of saying it is descriptive of morality as an aspect of human psychology, but doesn’t justify or undermine particular moral theories, save in terms of their survival value and perhaps their consistency with inborn human tendencies.

“the yuck factor in acts that we objectively agree do not meet the conditions of being immoral “

I don’t know who the “we” is in that sentence, but I don’t think there is any consensus among humanity on the “objective” conditions of what is moral. I also don’t think emotion can be taken out of it because its demands are too strong. Few people can be logically argued into laying down their lives, and morality is often capable of this level of motivation. The Yuck factor is the test you linked seems primarily a case of overgeneralization. It is not hard to see why in general sex with dead animals or siblings would be taboo, and the fact that a test can posit scenarios where such are not harmful is not to me very significant. Moral reactions have to be very general because they so frequently are applied to situations with high uncertainty. For example, the test tells us a brother and sister had sex and this was not harmful to themselves or others (or it fancies it said that, though I think leaping from “guilt-free pleasure” to “not harmful” requires a number of unspoken assumptions). Were we to encounter such a situation in life, how would we know if was not harmful, if we believe such situations generally are harmful? It is something that can be specified in a test, but not known in real life, and our moral instincts are for the purpose of dealing with life, not of taking tests.

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Dubious 09.22.04 at 5:51 pm

Martin Bento —

Check out Daniel Dennett’s ‘Freedom Evolves’ for a fairly subtle attempt (I think a sucessful one, if not one that will ever make it to popular consciousness) to make physical determinism consistent with philosohpical freedom from an evolutionary psychological perspective.

That said, it seems to me that EP has offered a fairly plausible theory of morality in that:

1)Kin-Based and Reciprocal Altruism have suvival value, even without invoking group-evolutional methods. Also, reciprocal vengeance has value, to deter aggression.

2) All agents want to have a reputation for kin-based and reciprocity (both for help and harm). The best liar is one who believes his own lies and the best way to seem good is to be good. That’s why we believe our moral feelings instead of just making rational calculations as to whether a given act will be publicly witnessed and therefore impact our reputation. (Mostly)

3)Our moral feelings (obligation, shame, guilt, vengeance, compassion for the weak) are goads to get us to act out those two theories. In particular, they get us to act out those theories when it might seem (in our short-run myopic estimation) that we’d be better off by not fulfilling our obligations, by not making amends to those who we’ve injured, by not striking back against those who’ve injured us (because they might hurt us again) or by ignoring the weak (since we’d be overlooking their severe need and the the fact that they’d be really in our debt if we just gave them a little help.)

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Martin Bento 09.22.04 at 8:08 pm

dubious, thanks. I’ve heard of Dennett’s work, but haven’t read it. The rest of what you’re saying is familiar to me.

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